It is perhaps the most famous date in British history: 1066, the year William II, Duke of Normandy and his forces sailed the Channel to meet the English army at Senlac Hill, north of Hastings. The battle that ensued was hard-fought and bloody. More than 7,000 men were slaughtered including the English King, Harold, and the resulting regime-change made this one of the turning points in our history.
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As penance for the bloodshed – and to commemorate his victory – William founded an abbey on the battle site. Originally dedicated to St Martin, both it and the town that grew up around it became better known by the more-evocative name of Battle.
Visit the fields south of Battle Abbey and you could struggle to imagine the events of that fateful October day; sheep graze the meadows while oaks resound with birdsong. However, if you’re thirsty for knowledge – or, indeed, blood – fear not: English Heritage has put great effort into bringing the battle to life, with some effective results. Enter the abbey through the imposing 14th-century gatehouse, built as security against the French during the Hundred Years War, then collect an audio guide and follow it to the visitor centre. Hear the competing claims of noblemen from both sides, marvel at the size and weight of replica swords and shields, re-enact the battle using interactive exhibits and immerse yourself in the sights and sounds of 14 October 1066 with a film narrated by TV historian David Starkey.
Rejoin the tour to the battlefield itself and stand on the high ridge occupied by the English forces – a position of strength from which they might have succeeded, had they not been outwitted by feigned Norman retreats and overpowered cavalry.
Next stop is the abbey buildings. Most of what you see dates from the 13th century, with little of the original Norman architecture remaining. However, a visit to the novice chamber, with its marble pillars and vaulted ceiling, will give you some idea of the continuing wealth and status of the abbey, even in this later period. Bring your visit to a poignant conclusion with a pilgrimage to the spot where the chapel altar once stood – and where Harold supposedly fell; an event that marked the start of a new historical era.
It is possible to follow the 1066 Country Walk from Battle Abbey to the Norman landing site at Pevensey, but if reliving one of the most dramatic events in British history has left you battle-weary, track back to the visitor centre cafe or head to nearby tea rooms.
A Taste of Battle
High Street, Battle TN33 0AE
Delicious food including Greek specialities, made on-site by its Cypriot owners.
The PowderMills Hotel
Powdermill Lane, Battle TN33 0SP
This 18th-century house is set in 150 acres of grounds complete with woodland and a fishing lake.
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Adults £7.00, children £3.50.
Easter Fun event, with storytelling, egg trail and facepainting, Fri 2-Mon 5 April, 10am-6pm.