The Traditional Battlefield

The traditional Norman attack

We think that the Battle of Hastings was fought near Sedlescombe. If so, it was not fought at the traditional location around Battle Abbey. Here we investigate how the traditional narrative might be mistaken, review how poorly the traditional battlefield fits the contemporary account battlefield clues, and look at why else Battle Abbey might have been built where it is.

It sounds impertinent to question the traditional narrative, which is supported by hundreds of books, thousands of articles and just about every medieval history scholar and military expert that has ever lived. But the traditional narrative is not what it seems.

Figure 42: Proposed shield wall troop dispositions at Battle, with the Abbey labelled x

There are hundreds of books about the Battle of Hastings (961 listed on Amazon). All bar three are variants of the traditional battle narrative. A H Burne analysed those that had been published up to 1950, lamenting: “There is a disparity of views. How are we to judge between such eminent authorities? When the doctors disagree, who shall decide?”. They differ, among other things, about troop numbers, the engagement, the military tactics, the fortifications, and the shield wall disposition (the best known of which are depicted on Figure 42). Burne took on the role of Battlefield Surgeon General, proposing yet another variant of the traditional battlefield. It has not stopped his successors suggesting more.

None of the traditional battlefield theories are based on archaeological evidence, for the simple reason that there isn’t any. Instead, they are based on battlefield clues in a dozen or so contemporary accounts. The disparities are caused by the perceived trustworthiness of the accounts and ambiguities in the clues. Each expert puts different weights on different accounts, qualifies out different clues, and/or applies different interpretations or different weights to the remaining clues.

In reality, then, there is no such thing as a traditional battle narrative. Rather, there are hundreds of hypotheses linked only in that they think the battlefield is at Battle Abbey. None of them matches more than a handful of the battlefield clues. In effect, every expert is saying that all the other theories are probably wrong but that their theory is less unlikely. We are not contradicting these experts more than they contradict each other.

The core supposition that the battlefield is at Battle Abbey is based solely on seven relatively early contemporary accounts which say or imply that Battle Abbey was built on the battlefield. The most important part of this section is how they might have been misinterpreted.

Battle Hill as a battlefield

Figure 43: Battlefield troop deployments by Colonel Lemmon

Back on our school trip to Battle Abbey in 1966 we were shown Colonel Charles H. Lemmon’s battlefield diagram (Figure 43, note that north is skewed). Like every historian that has written about the traditional battlefield, Lemmon places the English shield wall on a spur that crosses the main Hastings Ridge at roughly 60°. Even as eight-year-olds, we could see it has two major flaws: 1) The western flank of the shield wall is not on rising ground; and 2) There is a 50m gap between the shield wall flanks and the streams, allowing the Normans to ride around the open ends of the line to attack Harold directly. With this shield wall disposition, William would have been idiotic to spend the entire day attacking the middle of the shield wall on the steepest part of the slope, as tradition suggests.

Figure 44: Popular shield walls: Lemmon, pink; Morillo, green; Oman, cyan

William had a huge cavalry, Harold had none. Variants of Lemmon’s narrow shield wall disposition try to make it harder for the Norman cavalry to outflank the line by reducing the gap between the shield wall and the stream heads. Oman does this by bending the flanks back on themselves with what soldiers refer to as ‘refused’ ends. Morillo achieves something similar with a dogleg shield wall, bending around the southern slope below the Abbey. They all have a similar problem. If the shield wall is entirely on rising ground, there is a gap between the shield wall flanks and the streams, through which the Norman cavalry could ride to attack Harold directly. If the shield wall abuts or crosses the flanking streams, the flanks would be on level ground and therefore the most likely points of attack. Both scenarios contradict key contemporary account battlefield clues.

Most of the traditional battlefield theories recognise this problem, describing some sort of natural fortification that prevents the Normans flanking the shield wall. Allen Brown and McLynn reckon that the flanks were protected by ‘close forest/woodland’, implying that it was impenetrable. Freeman proposes ravines. Fuller proposes “ravines that were covered in brushwood”. Oman, Lemmon and Lace suggest marshland. It is all fantasy.

Helen Read, a world-renowned expert on medieval woodland, confirmed to us that there is no such thing as impenetrable mature deciduous woodland in temperate latitudes. Quite the opposite, wide tree canopies make open understories. The slope is too steep for water to accumulate other than in small clay pools. There might have been some thicket lining the streams, but it is not there now, and if it was there in the 11th century the Normans could have quickly cut a path through with their swords.

Figure 45: Flank attack on narrow shield walls

Faced with any variant of a narrow shield wall, like the five shown on Figure 45, the Norman cavalry would have crossed the flanking streams to loop behind the English shield wall – as shown by the black lines - where they could attack Harold directly. Freeman and Fuller suggest this would not have been possible because these streams were impassable ‘ravines’. They are wrong.

Figure 46: Streams flanking the traditional battlefield, northeast to the left and west to the right

Today the flanking streams are shoulder width rivulets - Figure 46 shows us standing astride - in barely perceptible shallow sided valleys. Dr David Robinson, a world-renowned expert on medieval landscapes, told us: “away from the immediate coast, rates of erosion are very slow and the physical form and depth of the valleys are unlikely to have changed since the 11th century.”  In other words, they would have been no more daunting than they are today, and they would not daunt a hedgehog today.

Figure 47: Shield wall dispositions and Norman loop

H B George and others are known to have surveyed the land around Battle. Presumably, they concluded that there are no nearby natural features that could prevent a narrow shield wall being outflanked, because they propose much longer English shield walls that defend the entire cross ridge. It would not have done much good. For one thing, their shield walls are even more susceptible to oblique order attacks. For another, the Norman cavalry could still have looped around behind the English line, most straightforwardly by following the route shown in black on Figure 47, to attack a virtually undefended Harold from behind and above.

Failing this, the Norman cavalry could have looped behind the English line by following the English army’s route. After all, the English army can only have got to Battle from Sedlescombe, Whatlington or Netherfield. The Normans just needed to back up to Beauport Park to pick up the Rochester Roman road, which would take them to any of these three places via easily accessible ridgeways. Netherfield would have been by far the longest at 14 miles, but even that would have taken coursers no more than 90 minutes without breaking into a canter.

Some experts that surveyed the battlefield realised that there was no natural protection for the English flanks. They excuse William’s failure to outflank, envelope or oblique order attack by saying it was uncommon in 1066. James, for example, says: Flank attacks were but little practised in 1066, and Harold did not think of one as possible”, Burne that: “Enveloping or flanking moves were seldom attempted”. This is true when the adversaries have similar mixes of infantry and cavalry because both sides are similarly mobile, but it is patently not true when infantry comes up against cavalry. Forming hollow squares or circles to prevent getting flanked by cavalry had been standard military practice since Roman times. Just two weeks previously, Harald Hardrada looped his shield wall to prevent getting flanked by the English cavalry at Stamford Bridge. In our opinion, medieval military commanders were obsessed by protecting their flanks and devising ways to outflank the enemy. William and Harold would be no exception.

It is not only that the Normans did not outflank or loop the English line, but the contemporary accounts do not mention they tried. We interpret this to mean that wherever the battle was fought it was not possible to outflank or loop behind an open English line, which is not the case with any of the troop deployments that have been proposed for Battle.

Indeed, Baudri of Bourgueil reckons that the Normans had already outflanked the shield wall before the battle started. He says: “Backing up the enemy line, at a distance, were horsemen, waiting to intercept anyone trying to flee”. If Norman horsemen were on the far side of an open shield wall, like those shown on Figure 45, they would have ridden up to Harold from behind and lopped off is head as soon as the battle started.

Even if William had some unknown excuse for not flanking or oblique order attacking the English line, it should still have been trivial for him to break the traditional shield wall. While William’s elite troops occupied Harold’s elite huscarls in the centre, his Frankish and Breton troops should have breezed through one of the English flanks. They would be fighting on level ground, against English peasants armed only with billhooks, hatchets, hoes and other agricultural tools. Wace says that the English had made a ditch across the battlefield that protected one side of the shield wall. This does not fit the traditional battlefield because a fosse across the battlefield would protect the entire shield wall. Perhaps he meant that it went across part of the battlefield. Even so, the English only had an hour to prepare fortifications. It is difficult to believe that they could dig a trench that would hold back the Normans for long. Even if it did, the other flank should have been easy pickings. Yet the Normans failed to make a break for six hours, and then only by a ruse. It just seems implausible.

This is all immensely frustrating, as if the world’s greatest intellects have been arguing for 200 years about whether locks, chains or bars will best keep burglars out of their bank when the rear wall has not yet been erected.

An alternative Battle Hill engagement scenario

There is a more fundamental issue. How could the English have ended up defending such a miserable position as Battle Hill? According to the traditional narrative, they were caught trying a surprise attack. This is absurd. William knew it was Harold’s trademark tactic and had prepared for it. William and Harold had been swapping messages and scouting each other’s camps the previous day, according to Carmen and Wace, so Harold knew he was prepared and knew that the Norman cavalry gave them a huge advantage on open ground. He would never have attacked the Norman camp short-handed. Everyone that has an alternative battlefield theory uses this argument as one reason they think that the battle was not fought at Battle.

Figure 48: Possible pincer attack

Many years ago, we came up with an alternative engagement scenario (Figure 48) that better explains how the battle might have been fought on the slope south of Battle Abbey (x). At the time we thought that the English were camped at their traditional location on Caldbec Hill (C). We had already decided that the Normans were camped at Winchelsea (W), but they could have used the same tactic wherever they had camped on the Hastings Peninsula.

We postulated that William looped some of his cavalry north via Sedlescombe and Whatlington to attack the English camp from the north. We thought that the English saw them coming and tried to escape south, only to run into the Norman infantry coming up the Hastings Ridge from the southeast. This neatly explains why Harold did not escape north – because the Norman cavalry was blocking that route - and it gives a plausible explanation for why the English left Caldbec Hill to fight on the defensively inferior Battle Hill.

Figure 49 Enclosed shield wall on Battle Hill

If Harold had been trapped on Battle Hill with the Norman cavalry to the northwest and the Norman infantry to the southeast, we wondered what he would have done. The slope to the north was steep, but the slope to the south was shallow and the slopes to the northwest and east were virtually level. We think that Harold would have enclosed the summit in a looped shield wall, like Figure 49, and we list 12 clues below that the English did enclose their shield wall.

A well-fortified enclosed shield wall might have survived intact for six hours, but the English had hardly any time to prepare. The only possibility we could come up with was some sort of natural fortification, like a redirected stream or landslip. Neither is likely on a ridge crest, but the latter is less unlikely. We postulated that a landslip between the stream heads (red line) partially protected the northwest approach. Perhaps the English had time to dig a 200m fosse to partially protect the eastern approach (magenta line). In this scenario, it is feasible that William might have chosen to attack on the traditional battlefield to the south.

Figure 50: Tapestry Panel 50

We scoured the contemporary accounts for an interpretation that might support this theory. There is substantial evidence that the English employed an enclosed shield wall, but it would apply anywhere. We could find no indication that William used a pincer attack or that he tried to attack on a shallow ridgeway approach. Indeed, the contemporary accounts say the exact opposite: that the Normans attacked together in three divisions up a steep uncultivated slope. Also, Tapestry Panel 50 (Figure 50) shows the English scout shielding his eyes. It might be just a figurative representation of a lookout. Otherwise, it means he is looking south or east from the English camp in the morning whereas the Normans would have been coming first from the north.

Then we saw the Time Team Battle of Hastings TV special, with its evidence that the English probably did not camp on Caldbec Hill. We had to abandon this alternative engagement scenario. That left us back at square one, with no plausible explanation for why the battle might have been fought on Battle Hill and, assuming it was, how it could fit any plausible military tactics of the day.

Traditional battlefield and the battlefield clues

Misgivings, forbear. We need to match the traditional battle scenario with the contemporary account battlefield descriptions. The traditional English shield wall is straight, albeit perhaps with refused flanks, so it will obviously not match any of the 11 contemporary account descriptions of the shield wall being in a horse-shoe, wedge shape or enclosed loop. The others are listed below:

  1. Orderic says that the English army: took post at a place which was anciently called Senlac”. Senlac was Old English for ‘sandy loch’ or ‘sandy lake’.
  2. ASC-D (Whitelock translation) says that King Harold: “assembled a large army and came against him at the hoary apple tree”, or (Ingram translation) gathered a large force and came to meet him at the estuary of Appledore”.
  3. Chronicon says that the engagement was: “nine miles from Heastinga, where they had fortified a castle”. We assume Roman miles and think that HeastingaHæstinga port
  4. CBA says that the monks of Marmoutier: “studied the battlefield and decided that it seemed hardly suitable for so outstanding a building. They therefore chose a fit place for settling, a site located not far off, but somewhat lower down, towards the western slope of the ridge. There, lest they seem to be doing nothing, they built themselves some little huts. This place, still called Herste, has a low wall as a mark of this.” We interpret this to mean that the battlefield was at or near a place named Herste.
  5. CKE says that the English were: “roused with indignation as the Normans strived to gain the higher ground, drove them down into the valley beneath, where hurling their javelins and rolling down stones on them as they stood below, destroying them to a man". We interpret this to mean that the shield wall was within javelin throwing range of the valleys at the sides of the battlefield; no more than 70m away and no more than 18m higher.
  6. Tapestry Panel 54 depicts the battlefield hill, small, low, rugged, flat topped, steeper on the left, with the English standing back-to-back,.
  7. Wace, Carmen, Jumièges and Orderic, in one way or another, say that the battle started at the third hour of the day. Given the time needed to don armour, assemble and receive a pep talk and commands, the battlefield cannot have been much more than a one-hour march from the Norman battle camp.
  8. Anglo-Saxon Chronicle says that: “William came against them by surprise, before his army was drawn up in battle array"
  9. John of Worcester says that: “the English were drawn up in a narrow place”.
  10. Carmen says: “Suddenly a company of English emerged from the forest and the column rushed from wooded cover. Nearby was a wooded hill, neighbouring the valley. Its terrain was rugged and uncultivated. The English, as is their custom, advancing crowded together, seized this place for the service of Mars”.
  11. Poitiers says: “... the English were camped on higher ground, on a hill close to the forest through which they had come".
  12. Wace says that: “The Normans appeared, advancing over the ridge of a rising ground; and the first division of their troops moved onwards along the hill and across a valley”.
  13. Orderic says that the English: “... formed a solid column of infantry, and thus stood firm in the position they had taken".
  14. Wace says that the English built up a barricade before them: “... with their shields and ash and other wood, that had been well joined and wattled together".
  15. Carmen says: “In summo montis vexillum vertice fixit", which is usually translated “At the highest point of the summit he planted his banner".
  16. Poitiers says the Normans: “... began slowly to climb the steep slope"
  17. Carmen say that the Duke: “boldly approached the steep slope"
  18. Wace say that Harold notes: “how the Normans divided into three companies, in order to attack at three places”. Carmen says: “The French cavalry attacked to the left, the Bretons to the right, the duke with the Norman cavalry fights the middle”. Wace says that William chooses to: “fight in the middle throng, where the battle shall be hottest". Poitiers says: “From this position he could command his army with voice and hand gestures”, which we interpret to mean that all three companies were visible throughout the battle from the middle.
  19. Wace says that: “In the plain was a fosse which the Normans had now behind them, having passed it in the fight without regarding it. But the English charged and drove the Normans before them, till they made them fall back upon this fosse. Many were seen falling therein”.
  20. Wace says that: “In the plain was a fosse”. He confirms this later in his description of the feigned retreat: “following the Normans, as they go rejoicing in the success of their scheme, the English scattered themselves over the plain”.
  21. Poitiers says that even late in the day after having suffered heavy casualties the English position was still “very difficult to surround".
  22. Carmen says that: “The Duke sighted the King far off on the steeps of the hill”. This implies that William could see Harold over the shield wall, which is only possible if the slope behind the English line is greater than the slope in front of it.
  23. Wace says: “The youths and common herd of the camp, whose business was not to join in the battle, but to take care of the harness and stores, moved off towards a rising ground. The priests and the clerks also ascended a hill, there to offer up prayers to God, and watch the event of the battle.” It means the battlefield was overlooked.
  24. Pseudo-Ingulf says of Harold’s demise: “At last, towards twilight, he fell, on a small hill where he had collected his forces”.
  25. Wace says: "The English fell back upon a rising ground, and the Normans followed them across the valley, attacking them on foot and horseback." It means that the English were not defending the top of the hill and that there was a valley between the main battlefield and the rising ground to which they fell back.
  26. CBA describes the Malfosse: “Just where the fighting was going on, and stretching for a considerable distance, an immense ditch yawned. It may have been a natural cleft in the earth or it may have been hollowed out by storms.” The fighting was not at the battlefield but during the pursuit of those fleeing. Poitiers describes the same feature as a “labyrinth of ditches”, which implies iron ore mining to us.
  27. WP says that the English flee when they realise their position is hopeless: So they turned to escape as quickly as possible by flight, some on horses they had seized, some on foot, some on roads, others through untrodden wastes”.
  28. WP says that as the English flee: “Many left their corpses in deep woods, many who had collapsed on the routes blocked the way for those who came after. The Normans, though strangers to the district, pursued them relentlessly, slashing their guilty backs”.
  29. WP says that in their flight: “However confidence returned to the fugitives when they found a good chance to renew battle, thanks to a broken rampart and labyrinth of ditches”. It sounds like open cast iron ore mines.
  30. A wood 250m northwest of the battlefield is named Killingan Wood, which derives from an Old English root meaning killing place.

Then there are the six ambiguous clues.

  1. Carmen says: “In summo montis vexillum vertice fixit ", which is usually translated “At the highest point of the summit of the hill he planted his banner". By tradition, it means that the battlefield hill was high, steep and with a conical summit. But it is a tautology. We interpret ‘summo’ to mean hill crest: “He planted his banner at the highest point of the crest of the hill". We interpret this to mean that the battlefield was on a spur whose crest sloped down toward the advancing Normans.
  2. CKE says that the English were: “rolling down stones on them as they stood below, destroyed them to a man”. This is usually interpreted to mean the battlefield hill was high and steep. We think Malmesbury was trying to say that the English rolled their stones when the Normans were tightly bunched within perhaps 30m of the shield wall. The stones were fatal because the Normans were too packed to move sideways to get out the way. If so, the battlefield was not necessarily high and only steep at the shield wall.
  3. Poitiers says that the Normans: “... began slowly to climb the steep slope". Carmen says the Duke: “boldly approached the steep slope".
  4. This is usually interpreted to mean that the battlefield hill was long and steep. We think they are trying to say that the hill was steep enough that the Normans could only climb it slowly. It might be because the slope below the battlefield was wet and slippery while the Normans were barefoot or wearing slick soled shoes rather than that it was particularly steep.
  5. Poitiers says that: “... the English were camped on higher ground, on a hill close to the forest through which they had come". This is usually interpreted to mean that the Normans attacked the English in their hilly camp. Alternatively, it might be trying to say that the English occupied a hill close to their camp, where they were attacked.
  6. ASC says that: “William came against them by surprise, before his army was drawn up in battle array ". This is usually interpreted to mean the English were victims of a surprise attack. We suspect it is trying to say that William attacked unwarily.

Wace and Carmen say that the battlefield was overlooked from rising ground. The south slope below Battle Abbey was overlooked from Telham Hill. A tick. Wace says that the English first see the Normans appear over rising ground, then cross a valley. The English could have first seen the Normans appear over Telham Hill then cross the stream now dammed at New Pond. Another tick. There is a plain below the centre and western flank of the shield wall. A tick. Battle Hill could be described as a ‘small hill’, not in terms of area but in terms of elevation. A tentative tick.

Carmen, Poitiers and Malmesbury are usually interpreted to be saying that the battlefield hill is high, steep and conical with a distinct summit. We dispute the interpretations but, taken in their traditional context, Battle Hill gets half a tick. It does have a distinct summit, it is fairly high by Hastings Peninsula standards and it is a tad conical near the top. On the other hand, Battle Hill is only steep sloped to the north. The slope is shallow on the traditional battlefield to the south and southeast, and virtually level on the Hastings ridge crest northwest, and on the cross ridge east and west.

On the negative side, Battle Hill was not untilled or covered in Lowland Greensand scrub. A fosse across the battlefield would protect the entire shield wall, not one side of it. Battle Hill is not adjacent to an ‘immense ditch’ that could have been CBA’s Malfosse and Wace’s valley. It is not near to iron works that could have been WP’s ‘labyrinth of ditches’. It has nowhere that could be described as a narrow place. It is as far from a wood (roughly 1km) as anywhere on the Hastings Peninsula. It has no nearby lake that sounds like Senlac. It was not near anywhere named Herste at the time of the battle. It would not have been difficult to surround. It is not steep enough for rolled stones to be dangerous on any slope the Normans might have used to attack. The nearest valley is ten times the world record javelin throw away, and that is not from where the Normans would have attacked. There is no reason the fighting should be more intense in the middle than the flanks; indeed, the reverse is more likely. There is no reason the English would deploy as an infantry column. The Normans would not have passed a fosse parallel to the battlefield into which they were later driven. It is only seven Roman miles from where the Normans traditionally camped, and eleven from where we think they camped. And it does not fit any of the clues that suggest the shield wall was enclosed.

In summary, the traditional battlefield does fit a couple of the most general battlefield descriptions and partially fits a few others. It fails to fit more than half the primary source descriptions, including all the most peculiar or specific. Indeed, the more specific the description, the worse the correlation with Battle Hill. In our opinion, Battle Hill is exactly what we would expect of a random hill in the roughly the right area for the battlefield.

Traditional Malfosse

Ditches are another source of interminable confusion about the Battle of Hastings. WP, CBA, Wace and others report that many Normans died at one or more ditches during the battle. They are discussed on in the main Seldescombe Battlefield blog. In summary, three ditches participated in separate events on the day of battle: a lateral ditch beside the battlefield into which the Normans were shield charged during the battle, an immense ditch adjacent to the battlefield through which the English retreated, and a labyrinth of ditches through which the English fled. Historians generally note there is a lot of confusion in the sources then conflate them into one incident at one ditch and refer to it as the Malfosse, the name used in CBA.

C T Chevalier suggests that the Malfosse survived as a similar sounding place named Maufosse. Elizabeth van Houts and other experts agree. A 13th century Charter records the transfer of Maufosse to Battle Abbey. It was 1500m north of Battle Abbey on the edge of Duniford Wood, drained by Oakwood Gill. Chevalier therefore proposed that the Malfosse was at Oakwood Gill, which he describes as ‘a deep ravine’, with steep banks, brambles, undergrowth, and a stream.

Although Chevalier’s description of Oakwood Gill is fairly accurate otherwise, he has an odd interpretation of a ravine. The drop is never more than 5m and the banks never steeper than 45 degrees. It is not steep enough for horses to gallop over an edge and not deep enough to be fatal anyway, especially with brambles on the banks and a muddy base to cushion a fall.

We are sceptical that the Normans were going fast enough to fall into a ditch. The Norman horses had already been carrying armoured riders for nine hours. It is difficult to believe they could get up more than a trot, and none of the contemporary accounts say they did. Searle’s CBA translation and Forester’s Orderic translation both say that the Norman horses galloped into the ditch, but the original Latin texts say no such thing: one says they moved with great force, the other that they rushed. We can only imagine that Searle and Forester reasoned that there are no ditches close to Battle that are steep enough for a horse to fall to their death unless it was galloping.

Even if this were not so, Oakwood Gill does not fit CBA’s geographic description of the Malfosse: “Just where the fighting was going on, and stretching for a considerable distance, an immense ditch yawned. It may have been a natural cleft in the earth or it may have been hollowed out by storms.” It goes on to say that the ditch sides are precipitous. CBA is clearly trying to say that the Malfosse was not a fluvial valley, but Oakwood Gill is exactly that, and it is over 1km from where the fighting was going on.

We are not convinced by Chevalier’s association between Malfosse and Maufosse either. Maufosse, after all, is French for 'grumpy’. All the land in this area was given to quasi-French speaking Normans after the Conquest. It makes more sense to us that the area was named Maufosse after a bad harvest or hunting accident rather than corrupted from Malfosse. We suspect that Chevalier was grasping at straws because he could not find anywhere nearer to the traditional battlefield that could have been the Malfosse.

Oakwood Gill does not match the contemporary account descriptions of the Malfosse, and it is too far from Battle to have been involved in the aftermath of a battle at the traditional battlefield. Moreover, we have no doubt that the contemporary accounts are describing three different ditches that were involved in three different phases of the conflict. There are no ditches that match any of the descriptions within fleeing distance of Battle. Quite the reverse of the tradition, we think the Malfosse and other fatal ditches are evidence that the battle did not happen at Battle Abbey rather than that it did.

Evidence that Battle Abbey is on the battlefield

The takeaway point from above is the only evidence that the battle was fought at Battle is the seven relatively early contemporary accounts – listed below - that are interpreted to be saying that Battle Abbey was built on the battlefield. They were the only evidence offered by Roy Porter’s 2014 paper ‘On the Very Spot: In Defence of Battle’. He represents English Heritage. His paper was endorsed by Battlefields Trust, Royal Armouries, the Sussex County Archaeologist and several celebrity TV historians, so they presumably did not have any extra evidence to add.

  • Anglo-Saxon Chronicle E. Its obituary for William written c1100 (Garmonsway translation) says: “On the very spot where God granted him the conquest of England he caused a great abbey to be built".
  • Brevis Relatio written by a monk at Battle Abbey c1115 (Dawson) says : So Harold, leaving London with all his army, came to a place which is now called Battle”. Later it says: “Now the battle was fought on fourteenth October on the ground where William, then Duke of Normandy, but afterwards King of the English, ordered an abbey to be built, in memory of the battle and for the pardon of all the sins of those who were slain there.”
  • Chronicles of the Kings of England written by William of Malmesbury  c1125 (Giles) says  of the monastery that: “... the principal church is to be seen on the very spot where, as they report, Harold was found among the thickest heaps of the slain."
  • The Ecclesiastical History of England and Normandy written by Orderic Vitalis c1125 (Forester) says that: “William founded at Senlac, where the decisive battle took place, the Abbey of the Holy Trinity". 
  • Historia Anglorum written by Henry of Huntingdon c1129 (Forester) says : “The battle was fought in the month of October, on the feast of St. Calixtus. King William afterwards founded a noble abbey on the spot, which obtained the fitting name of Battle Abbey.”
  • Roman de Rou written by Wace c1160 (Taylor) says that Harold, “erected his standard and fixed his gonfanon right where the abbey of the battle now stands. There he said he would defend himself". Much later it says: “Where the battle had been, he built an abbey and put an Abbot therein".
  • The Chronicle of Battle Abbey written by monks of Battle Abbey c1170 (Lower) says: “... Harold, the usurper of the realm, speedily collected an army, and fearlessly, but rashly, hurried to the place which is now called Battle, ...". During the battle: “Upon the hill where the Abbey now stands, the English supported their King in compact body". Before the battle William made an oath: “I make a vow on this very battlefield I shall found a monastery for the salvation of all, especially those that fall". The monks of Marmoutier, who were appointed as prime contractors for the construction, wanted to build the Abbey elsewhere. William would have none of it, commanding them to: “lay the foundations of the temple on the very place where he had achieved victory over his enemy". The monks comply: “they wisely erected the high altar on the precise spot where the ensign of King Harold, which they call the Standard, was observed to fall."

Seven corroborating accounts, if they are independent and trustworthy, is an awful lot by medieval standards. Five were written in England, two in Normandy, at six different monasteries, which hints that they are independent. We are sceptical, not least because they are spread over 80 years, most of them were written beyond living memory of the battle, and most of them are less specific than they sound, or less trustworthy.

The earliest ‘Abbey on the battlefield’ reference is in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle’s obituary for William, probably written before the end of the 11th century. It is also the most important. As Roy Porter says: “This evidence, written by an Englishman in English and emphatic in its identification of the abbey site being on the battlefield of Hastings, is crucial …”. He could have added that it is the only account written within comfortable living memory of the battle when battle participants could contradict faulty details. That they did not implies it is accurate, but it is not as emphatic as Porter makes out.

What the ASC actually says is: “On ðam ilcan steode þe God him geuðe þæt he moste Engleland gegan, he arerde mære mynster, munecas þær gesætte.” We suspect the translation of ‘ðam ilcan steode’ to ‘the very spot’ has some tradition bias. It literally means ‘the same stead’ and is usually translated elsewhere as ‘the same place’. Based on Thorpe’s translation, we think the passage should read; “On the same place that God granted he should subdue England, he reared a noble monastery”. It is a major difference. A ‘place’ is less specific than a ‘spot’, so the place where JFK died was Dallas, the place where William Rufus died was the New Forest. In general, the more remote and less inhabited, the vaguer the size of a place. For most of us, the place where Apollo 11 landed was the Sea of Tranquillity which is 500 miles wide. The Hastings Peninsula, like everywhere south of the Andredsweald, was very remote and sparsely populated in Saxon times. “On the same place that God granted he should subdue England” could mean anywhere within five miles of the battlefield.

Even if the ASC did mean: “On the very spot where God granted him the conquest of England”, it does not necessarily mean at Battle. The conquest of England was not granted until London decided not to resist, weeks after the battle and nowhere near Battle. If the ASC meant the battlefield, why did it not say: “He caused a great abbey to be built on the battlefield”?

Perhaps it was meant spiritually. The ASC was, after all, written by a medieval monk who would have believed to his bones that God decided the battle’s outcome in advance, that God guided each side accordingly, and that God granted victory to the protagonist that was most pious or that promised most to promote God’s will. In this light, if the words mean anywhere specific, they mean where William prayed before the battle. But the one and only place in the region he could not have taken Mass was the battlefield, although he could have taken Mass at Battle if the battlefield was elsewhere.

This is not to imply that the ASC is unequivocally saying that the Abbey was not built the battlefield, but nor is it emphatically or clearly saying that it is. If that is what it is trying to say, it is needlessly and uncharacteristically vague and ambiguous. We think it is trying to say that the William built his Abbey in what we might refer to today as the ‘battle theatre’, the area encompassed by its associated events. Perhaps it is clumsy because, as far as we know, this is the only major event in the entire ASC that did not happen close to a well-known settlement.

The second ‘Abbey on the Battlefield’ reference appears in Brevis Relatio, written at Battle Abbey in the early 1110s. It explains that Harold chose to defend the place where the Abbey was later built, which is another way of saying that the Abbey is on the battlefield. According to Elizabeth van Houts, its main source was Ralph, Abbot of Battle Abbey until his death in 1124 at the age of 84. But he only came to England in 1107, so what was his source? His information could have come from an otherwise unknown first-hand account. It could have come from now lost private Abbey records or a lost contemporary account. It could be elaborating on a misunderstanding of William’s obituary in the ASC. Or he might have invented it, for reasons we will return to momentarily.

The next three ‘Abbey on the Battlefield’ references are in chronicles that were written in the 1120s, although parts may have been collated long before. One of them, CKE does specifically say that the Abbey was built on the spot where Harold’s body was found, which means that it is on the battlefield. This is similar to Brevis Relatio, perhaps embellished from it or perhaps derived from the same source. Either way, Malmesbury declares his report as hearsay originating from the monks of Battle Abbey, making it sound like he does not trust them. Vidler reckons it shows that Malmesbury thinks the story is “a mere invention of the monks”.

The sixth ‘Abbey on the Battlefield’ reference appears in Roman de Rou, written in the 1160s. It is another that specifically says the Abbey is on the battlefield, this time unqualified. Author Wace says that Roman de Rou was partly based on first-hand accounts recorded by his father. But they could not have reported that the Abbey was built on the battlefield because it was not started until long after they left. Instead, this part of Wace’s account sounds like it was based on Brevis Relatio or a mutual source.

CBA, the latest and most detailed account, was written by the monks of Battle Abbey in the 1170s. It is predominantly based on earlier accounts, with a few unique local details that might have come from private Abbey records or that might have been invented. It alone gives a reason for the Abbey’s location, explaining that William vowed to build a magnificent abbey on the battlefield if God granted him victory.

Professor Eleanor Searle, a renowned historian who made the definitive CBA translation, was sceptical. She notes that the only other record of William’s vows did not appear until 1155, ninety years after the battle, and then only in a forged charter. The CBA context is wrong too. William’s words place him on the battlefield but the narrative places him at the Norman battle camp, putting on his armour. It does look as if the vows were invented, then clumsily inserted into a genuine invasion narrative. We will return to their motivation momentarily. Her alternative theory, which sounds right to us, is that William built the Abbey as a penance to comply with the Pope’s ‘penitential ordnances’ of 1070, which instructed the Norman invaders to build and/or endow a church (or abbey) if they could so afford.

Professor Searle reckons that the alleged vows and forged charter were created to fend off subjugation attempts. The protection is a little convoluted. CBA says that, if victorious, William promised to give the monastery and battlefield to God. In effect, this implies that God granted the Normans victory because he was so pleased with William’s promise. With victory came Norman power and wealth. Thus, future Norman kings would be reluctant to interfere with the Abbey for fear God would rescind their power and wealth, while the Church would be reluctant to interfere because they could not be seen to be thieving from God.

The reason why Battle Abbey had to fend off serial subjugation attempts, starting with the Abbey of Marmoutier before it was even finished, was its wealth and uniquely generous privileges. These were bestowed verbally by William himself, but never made permanent in a Charter. Once the Conqueror died, the Abbey’s independence was in danger. William Rufus turned out to be a staunch supporter of the Abbey’s independence. His successor, Henry, less so, especially when he decided to reform the English church. As Professor Searle says, the monks of Battle Abbey, likely prompted by Abbot Ralph, needed to publicise something unique about the Abbey to maintain their independence. Associating it with the Norman victory and divine intervention stood as good a chance as anything.

Which brings us to the crux of the ‘Abbey on the battlefield’ problem. When an organisation of apparently unimpeachable moral standing chooses to fabricate and promote a sustained untruth upon which they are the main authority, in pre-Internet days they could get away with it indefinitely. It is how despots remained in power. It is how institutionalised child sex abuse by Catholic priests was covered up for centuries.

The monks of Battle Abbey had form. They are known to have forged charters and known to have doctored genuine invasion accounts to protect their independence. If they knew that the Abbey was near to the battlefield but not on it, they had a powerful incentive to invent the ‘Abbey was the battlefield’ myth and to fabricate evidence to support it. We think this is exactly what they did in Brevis Relatio and the Chronicle of Battle Abbey. None of the early Conquest accounts mention the Abbey. None of the other authors ever visited Battle. It is perfectly logical that they would defer to the local expertise of their brethren at Battle Abbey, basing their Battle of Hastings chronicle entries on Brevis Relatio and/or on responses to questions asked of the monks of Battle Abbey. It sounds like this is what William of Malmesbury did for his chronicle and he says that he did not trust the information they gave him.

Why then did no one contradict ‘Abbey on the battlefield’ references if they were inaccurate? No one would contradict the ASC statement because it is ambiguous. One battle participant, Robert de Beaumont, lived long enough (just about) to read Brevis Relatio. As William’s cousin, he was almost certainly at the dedication for Battle Abbey, so he would have known whether the Abbey was on the battlefield. He was also a renowned intellect who might well have been able to read. But he lived in the English Midlands. There is no obvious reason he would ever have heard of Brevis Relatio, let alone read it. The monks of Marmoutier who oversaw the initial Abbey construction would also have known whether it was built on the battlefield, but in the unlikely event that any survived long enough to read Brevis Relatio, there is no reason to believe they did. We suspect it was only copied or précised to chroniclers who asked for information about the battle.

Professor Searle was too wily to contradict the orthodoxy, but we think she worked this all out long before us. She said: That the abbey was founded by the Conqueror, and on the scene of the battle, there need be no doubt”. It is hardly a ringing endorsement. She could just as easily have said: “That the abbey was founded by the Conqueror and built on the battlefield there need be no doubt”. The only evidence she provides is some of the ‘Abbey on the battlefield’ references listed above, and they do indeed say that the Abbey is ‘on the scene of the battle’, if that meant the battle theatre rather than the battlefield. It looks like weasel words to us, only acknowledging that the battlefield was within the vicinity of the Abbey.

In summary, there is no proof that the ‘Abbey on the battlefield’ references are inaccurate, but nor are they as unequivocal, as independent or as trustworthy as usually assumed. In our opinion, three of them are not unequivocal, trying to say that Battle Abbey was built in the vicinity of the battlefield rather than on the battlefield. Two of the others are not trustworthy, having been written by monks at Battle Abbey, who had a vested interest and a track record of fabricating evidence that the Abbey was built on the battlefield. The other two are not independent. The author of one reports it as hearsay originating from monks of Battle Abbey, suggesting that he did not believe them. The other was written nearly 100 years after the battle, and was therefore almost certainly based on some of these others.

English Heritage’s argument

Historians are in an invidious position. They know the evidence supporting the traditional narrative is weak, but in the absence of tangible evidence to the contrary, they can no more accept that the battle was not fought at Battle Abbey than a biologist can accept that Darwin and Wallace were wrong about evolution. It would destroy their careers. Their position is embodied in the 2014 paper ‘On the very spot: In defence of Battle’ by English Heritage’s Roy Porter. With one exception, the only evidence it provides are the ‘Abbey on the battlefield’ contemporary account statements listed above. We have explained why we think they are ambiguous or unreliable.

The exception is English Heritage’s argument that: “Building the abbey on the side of a hill presented the monks with practical difficulties they could have avoided had they chosen to build elsewhere. It is difficult to see why they would have chosen to build the abbey in such an awkward spot without a compelling reason”. Their implication, without saying so, is that one compelling reason that Battle Abbey might have been built on the side of Battle Hill is that William instructed the monks of Marmoutier to build the Abbey where Harold died and that was where he died. We are sceptical. 

For a start, the original Abbey was not on anything normally recognised as a side slope. If it is not on the summit of Battle Hill, it is precious close. Indeed, as General James pointed out a hundred years ago, it looks like the original ridgeway ran straight between the Powdermill Lane roundabout and Abbey Green, through the original Abbey. In other words, the Abbey was built on the ridgeway, which was re-routed around it. It is an obvious choice. The ridgeway would have been clear of vegetation and relatively level. Even if the original Abbey was on a side slope, in our opinion, it would not have presented any significant practical difficulties for the Normans, who were, after all, master stone masons. They might even have enjoyed the challenge.

Also, note that ‘difficulties’ are different from ‘impossibilities’. At the end of the day construction ‘difficulties’ are just a matter of cost and time, both of which had been indemnified by William. The construction was not that difficult anyway. When the original Abbey fell in the 13th century, its replacement could have been built anywhere, but they chose to build it further down the hill where the slope was greater.

Why Battle Abbey is where it is

Time to step back, to think about William’s motivation for building his abbey. English Heritage say that: “there is a widespread consensus among historians that William the Conqueror founded Battle Abbey as a penance for the blood shed at the battle and to commemorate his great victory”. Certainly, William had built penance abbeys previously. Certainly, the Pope did impose church/abbey building penances on the Normans as redemption for the blood they had spilled. There are other possibilities. William’s alleged vow in the CBA was for his abbey to give salvation to those that fell in battle and to repay God for giving him victory. Brevis Relatio says that it was built as a memorial of the battle and to pardon the sins of those who were slain there.

William’s motivation for building his abbey could have been any or all of these, but none of them bound his abbey to the battlefield. No one ever fought at Karnak, or at Titus Arch or at Trafalgar Square. Æthelstan’s Muchelney Abbey was penance for the Battle of Brunanburh which happened hundreds of miles away. de Luci’s Lesnes Abbey was penance for killing Thomas Becket which happened fifty miles away.

The Pope’s penitence instructions to the invaders were to: “do penance for one day in each week for the remainder of his life, or to let him redeem his sin by perpetual alms, either by building or by endowing a church”. His objective was to raise money and to promote Christianity. A remote hill with no local inhabitants would have been low on his list of preferences for the location of the King’s money-no-object abbey. Indeed, we find it hard to believe that the Pope would approve of a monastery on a battlefield: Many would interpret it to be a glorification of violence. 

Professor Searle presumably discounted all these traditional reasons too because she thought that William put his abbey on the battlefield to curry favour with his barons; an act of insolence to humiliate the English and to quell rebellions. It seems unlikely. The Abbey was not completed until 1094, by which time the worst of the danger was over. Battle Hill was so remote that Anglo-Saxon renegades are unlikely have given two hoots what it was used for. And, anyway, the local population, just 370 families on the entire Hastings Peninsula, were mostly Jutes. If William wanted to humiliate and/or quell anyone important, he would have built his abbey at Tamworth or Winchester (and, indeed, perhaps for this very reason, he did build a castle at Tamworth and a cathedral at Winchester). 

The only rational explanation we can envisage for William wanting to build his abbey on the battlefield is if he believed that close proximity to the place of violence might help sanctify his personal sins and/or those of his fellow invaders and/or give the Norman dead a better chance of salvation. As far as we know these notions have no religious merit, but if this was what he believed, the Abbey should be on the Norman side of the battlefield or at the Norman graveyard. Located where it is, it would be more likely to sanctify and/or salve the English than the Normans. 

In our opinion, the entire argument is inside out. We think that William would have wanted his abbey anywhere except the battlefield and absolutely anywhere other than where Harold died. Putting it elsewhere would rob English insurgents of a focus. It would prevent the English using the abbey to venerate Harold as a martyr. It would prevent the monks being haunted by the souls of unburied English warriors - a huge fear at the time. It would prevent scavenging on the abbey grounds. It would let William hide the evidence of his sins. It would be clear that he was not glorifying violence. It would let him use the land for his own purposes. It would let him choose a location for his abbey where it might help the defence of his new realm. 

Turning the argument around, it is perfectly plausible that the Abbey was built on Battle Hill despite the battle having happened elsewhere. In addition to all the reasons just mentioned, perhaps the battlefield land belonged to another religious order. If so, William would not have wanted to rile the Pope by sequestering land from the Church when the whole idea was to earn the Pope’s absolution. Or perhaps the monks of Marmoutier decided to build it elsewhere. CBA says that they thought the battlefield was inappropriate for an important abbey. It goes on to say that William instructed them to build his abbey on the battlefield anyway, but perhaps this last bit was invented whereas the need to build elsewhere was not.

Assuming the battle happened elsewhere, why might William have chosen to build his abbey on the summit of Battle Hill where the building materials had to be hauled uphill and where there was no running water? CBA says that sources of stone and water were found nearby. It sounds unlikely. There are no quarries there now. William must have had some other motivation.

It is possible that William instructed the monks of Marmoutier to build his abbey on a hill because he wanted it to be prominent. Battle Hill is not as prominent as Caldbec Hill or Blackhorse Hill, but perhaps William preferred it because it was closer to the battlefield, or more reminiscent of the battlefield, or perhaps he just liked it. Or perhaps the monks of Marmoutier preferred it because it was treeless on the summit and therefore had better foundations and less need of site clearance.

Professor Searle says that William probably wanted to position his Abbey on the Hastings Ridge for defensive purposes. She notes that it played an important defensive role when Sussex was invaded by the French several centuries later. But assuming its location was not tied to the battlefield, he could have chosen anywhere on the ridge. Blackhorse Hill and Caldbec Hill were both 40m higher and had better defensive possibilities.

Figure 51: Battle Abbey lines of sight

We think the overwhelming reason for the Abbey’s exact position was line of sight (Figure 51). It was the only place on the Hastings Ridge that had a seaward treeless arc. This made it the only place on the Hastings Peninsula that had an uninterrupted view of Winchelse and pefenes ea, the two most likely incursion points for a future invasion (black dotted lines). It was also the only place on the Hastings Ridge with a view of the Sedlescombe crossing point and our proposed battlefield at Hurst Lane (white dotted line). The view was along a Brede tributary through a tiny gap between Petley Wood and Bodeherste (now Great) Wood. Perhaps this extraordinary coincidence alone was enough to persuade William it was the right place for his Abbey.

In addition, it was in Harold’s former land which became William’s upon accession. As far as we can see, placing the Abbey at Battle would have been convenient, politically easy and strategically sensible.

None of this is to absolutely refute the possibility that the Abbey is on the battlefield, and thus that the battle happened at the traditional location. Only physical evidence elsewhere can do that. Rather, it is to say that the evidence that the battle happened at the traditional location is flimsy and probably contrived. The battle could have happened on pretty much any hill within, say, five miles of Battle. And, given the lack of archaeology and poor match with the contemporary account descriptions, it is extremely unlikely to have happened at the traditional location.