Uncovering England’s History at Battle Abbey East Sussex
Uncover England’s history at every step at Battle Abbey East Sussex alongside the Battlefield where Battle of Hastings took place in 1066. Battle Abbey was a significant establishment back in the day, and one of the most important sites visited in England today. It stands as a profound reminder of the events of 1066, one of the best preserved and beautiful Benedictine ruins in England with some exceptional architectural features which makes it a destination worth taking.
I welcome you to read along.
In this complete guide to the best of Battle Abbey, I share the experiences of my recent visit. I shall take you through the importance of the abbey, and all the central areas of the site to ensure that you do not miss anything when you visit. Included also is all the information you need on how to get to Battle Abbey, what it costs to visit this remarkable place where the defining moment in English history happened along with helpful information about the town of Battle East Sussex. All in all, this is a guide to the best of Battle Abbey East Sussex, England.
WHERE IS BATTLE?
It is worth noting that the Battle of Hastings did not take place in the Sussex coastal town of Hastings, but rather 13 km (8 miles) north-west of Hastings, on Senlac Hill, what is now known as Battle Abbey. The town of Battle grew alongside the Battle Abbey over the years. Today, Battle is a bustling modern colourful town with preserved history.
The picturesque and tranquil town of Battle is located in the north of the Sussex coast, in the county of East Sussex. Situated within the district council of Rother, Battle is located about 77 km (48 miles) southeast of London .
The town of Battle is conveniently reached by train and road. Regular train services run from London Charing Cross station to Battle Railway Station. The journey time is a little over an hour. By road, the A2100 is the one you need.
IS BATTLE ABBEY WORTH VISITING?
What happened at Battle Abbey was a defining moment in English history which resulted in the construction of Battle Abbey. While most of the abbey is in ruins consequent to the Reformation by Henry VIII, the remnants of the abbey along with the battle remain, and this makes a trip to Battle worth taking.
Each year on the anniversary of the Battle of Hastings, there is an enactment of the events at Battle Abbey. This is usually on October 14. More on this below, under practical information.
WHAT IS BATTLE ABBEY FAMOUS FOR?
Battle Abbey is a partially ruined Benedictine abbey in Battle, East Sussex. The Battle Abbey is famous because it marks the battlefield where the Battle of Hastings was fought on October 14, 1066. Battle Abbey itself was founded as a monument to those who died in the Battle of Hastings and as a penance for the bloodshed of the conquest. The Abbey is also significant because King Harold is said to have been killed at the very site where the high altar was built. There is a memorial plaque erected to identify the exact spot. The death of the Anglo-Saxon king meant the end of the 600 year rule of the Anglo-Saxons over England.
Battle Abbey was a symbol of power and authority of the Norman conquerors, in particular, William I who felt England was rightfully his. The establishment of Battle Abbey led to the town of Battle to grow around it. The abbey gateway stands as the principal feature of Battle High Street today.
THE HISTORY OF BATTLE ABBEY EAST SUSSEX
Senlac Hill is the location of Battle Abbey, or the Abbey of Trinity, the Virgin and St Martin of Tours. The Benedictine Abbey of Battle was founded by King William in 1071.
The 12th century Chronicle of Battle Abbey records that William made a speech just before the Battle of Hastings took place. He promised to build a monastery. However, the historians believe that the true reason for establishing the abbey of St Martin in Battle on the very site of the Battle of Hastings was because of the penances the bishops of Normandy imposed on William. Even by medieval standards, the Battle of Hastings is said to be exceptionally bloody. Establishing the abbey was a way for William to atone for the terrible sins.
1 | How long did it take to build Battle Abbey
The building of the abbey took some twenty-four years, between 1070 and 1094. This makes Battle Abbey (ruins) to be 928 years old. The abbey was dedicated in 1094 by William II and the Archbishop of Canterbury. Battle Abbey was one of the richest religious houses in England.
The abbey was built on top of a narrow ridge which was considered unsuitable by the monks. William insisted that the high altar of the abbey must be placed there to mark the place where King Harold was killed.
The formidable abbey Great Gatehouse was built much later, circa 1338, as protection from further invasion.
2 | Life at Battle Abbey and what happened following the Suppression
Until the Dissolution of the Monasteries in 1538, the abbey played a significant role in the spiritual, and economic life of the community in the area. The monks lived according to the Rule of St Benedict and gathered in the church eight times a day for daily mass.
However, with suppression in force, the abbot and the last remaining eighteen monks of Battle surrendered to the officials. King Henry handed the seized abbey and the surrounding land to his friend, Sir Anthony Browne. The abbey and cloisters were demolished and the abbot’s lodging was converted to a country house.
3 | Battle Abbey today…
The Battle Abbey ruins today are cared for by English Heritage and are one of the most popular visitor attractions in South East England. The town of Battle was built up around the abbey and the abbey Gatehouse is a prominent feature of the town.
Although most of the abbey buildings were destroyed during the Reformation, some survived. The Abbot’s house which was built around the 13th century is now a school. The Battle Abbey School is an independent school offering nursery to senior school education.
THE BEST OF BATTLE ABBEY EAST SUSSEX | WHAT TO SEE AND EXPERIENCE ON YOUR VISIT
As you walk through the impressive massive wooden Abbey Great Gatehouse that was built in 1338, you will be immediately greeted by the happy and courteous staff of English Heritage. If you are an English Heritage member, entry is free and easy, otherwise there is an entry fee. Ensure you collect a map, detailing the battlefield walks.
As you go beyond the reception, and into the outer court, you will find a station for audio guides. Audio guides are free, and it is very helpful to have one at this attraction.
English Heritage also offers free tours. I recommend that you join one. On the day I visited, there were two. One was scheduled for 11:00 a.m. and the other for 1:00 p.m. I joined both tours as it covered different aspects of the battle. The tours were in-depth with plenty of opportunities to ask questions.
Would you like to become a member of English Heritage trust?
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Becoming a member is easy and convenient. Read the complete guide to the benefits of being an English Heritage member.
Below is my guide to the best of Battle Abbey, the route that I took on my visit.
1 | Head to the rooftop of the Abbey Great Gatehouse tower
To get a view of the vast landscape surrounding the abbey, head to the top of the 14th century Abbey Great Gatehouse. The stone spiral staircase is not too arduous but it is steep in some places, with quite a few steps to climb. There is a rope along the way for support if needed.
Along the way, stop at each floor, for the Gatehouse exhibition and the Discovery Room. Each floor of the Great Gatehouse tower is dedicated to exhibitions and intriguing displays of ancient artefacts. Many of the artefacts were excavated from the grounds of the Abbey and the Battlefield. The displays and the stories give an insight into the medieval life of the monks who lived and worked at the Abbey.
I found the Abbey Sword to be an interesting exhibit. It is a replica of a 15th century sword. The original is displayed at the National Museum of Scotland which was found at the Abbey.
When you reach the viewing platform at the top, the 360 degree vista makes it all seem worthwhile. You’ll enjoy a stunning panoramic view across Battle high street, the 1066 battlefield, and the countryside beyond.
2 | The Visitor Centre
As you exit the Great Gatehouse, just a few steps on your right is the visitor centre. The visitor centre has a brilliant exhibition on the 1066 Battle of Hastings. It goes into great detail on the key events prior to the bloody conflict and how the invasion unfolds. There are interactive displays and a film that tells the whole story of October 14, 1066. It’s worth spending some time here.
Nearby there is an adventure play park. The rustic children’s playground is crafted to fit in with the medieval surroundings of the abbey.
If you are not joining the free tours offered by English Heritage, begin your tour along the dedicated footpath on your right from the playground. This encompasses the easy route of the Battlefield Walk. It takes you through the undercrofts, the dormitory range, crypt, site of the abbey church and high altar, cloister, precinct wall, dairy and icehouse along with the walled garden.
I opted to complete the long Battlefield walk at the end but the choice is yours.
3 | The easy Battlefield Walk
The easy battlefield walk is the route of the centre of the Saxon lines. It overlooks the southern hillside where the Normans were approaching from and it seems unbelievable that such a bloody battle took place in what is today, a place of such calm and serenity. This area became part of the abbey’s great park until the suppression in 1538. Thereafter, it was generally used for grazing.
4 | Dormitory range, rib vaulted rooms and the dormitory rooftop at Battle Abbey
Follow on this eastern route and you will reach the beautiful vaulted undercrofts situated on your left.
The room beneath the first floor dormitory is a beautiful rib-vaulted room dating from the 13th century. It is suspected that this was used as a day room for the novices. However, given the long life of the abbey, the use of this room may have changed. There is a hooded fireplace at the southern end of the room which suggests that the room may have been used as a warming house where the communal fire was kept during winter.
The architectural quality of the remarkable vaulted rooms gives an idea of the quality of all abbey buildings before they were ruined.
The beautifully crafted stone pillars and vaulted arches are certainly one not to miss. Light coming through the open windows and in some, you’ll find ivy creeping through as well. It is very atmospheric here.
Walk up a few steps to the second floor and then to the roof of the dormitory. The dormitory rooftop gives an overview of how Battle Abbey would have been originally laid out. From here, you would see the crypt, the layout of the abbey, the Refectory, view of St Mary’s Church and where King Harold fell.
5 | The crypt and the site of the high altar at Battle Abbey East Sussex
The layout of the crypt is notable. The original 13th century stone stands steadfast and is highly noticeable.
The layout of the abbey church is clearly visible and it gives a sense of how massive it would have been. The location of the high altar is accentuated by a plaque to highlight the place where King Harold died.
6 | The Chapter House
The chapter house was a focal point for the monks of the abbey. They gathered here each morning to read a chapter of the Rule of St Benedict. They discussed business matters, confessed their faults and were assigned penance.
Although little remains of it, excavations confirm that the chapter house remained largely unchanged after its completion in 1100.
7 | Abbot’s House
The Battle Abbey complex comprised several buildings and outhouses. One of the few buildings that survived the Suppression of 1538 was the Abbot’s House.
The Abbot’s House is now Abbot’s Hall. It is part of Battle Abbey School and was founded in 1912. The Great Hall of the school can be viewed in August through a guided tour by the English Heritage staff.
8 | The dairy and the icehouse at Battle Abbey
Stroll along to the conical thatched roof building — a rare sight of somewhat Gothic style and looks like something out of a fairy tale book. This is the dairy and the icehouse, passionately restored in 1991. They sit above a medieval undercroft and were built between 1810 and 1820.
The icehouse is a little weird — a brick-lined darkroom which has been dug underground. In winter months, ice would have been collected from the nearby ponds and stored here for use in the summer.
The dairy and the icehouse were quite unusual to see.
9 | Walled Garden at Battle Abbey
Nearby is the peaceful walled garden, accessed through a gate. It is home to a selection of fruit trees of historic varieties such as apples, pears, cherry and mulberry along with the abbey’s Victorian style beehives.
The Duchess of Cleveland lived at the Battle Abbey from 1858 when the Abbey was converted into a country house estate. The walled garden was her favourite part of the estate for the tranquility she enjoyed here.
The walled garden has been lovingly restored by English Heritage. There are 16 apple varieties, some having originated in Sussex in 1629. The nine varieties of pears are, some originated in 1665.
10 | Do the Wall Walk at Battle Abbey
Walk along the perimeter of the Abbey’s wall. It offers great views of St Mary’s Church and Upper Lake, Battle, East Sussex.
11 | The long and complete Battlefield Walk at Battle Abbey East Sussex
Finally, take a walk through the meandering woodland to the meadow where William the Conqueror, his troops and cavalry came to face the Anglo-Saxon army of King Harold.
Just over 950 years ago, these two great armies met on October 14, 1066 to fight it out, to win control of England. The battle lasted a day and the French defeated the English by nightfall.
The route is marked along the way with storyboards. You could also swipe the audio guide at each station and listen to the narrative detailing how the battle unfolded.
There are wooden sculptures that are ideally positioned along the trail. These carvings showcase how the foot soldiers, cavaliers and archers would have been armed during the Battle of Hastings 1066.
This particular long and complete Battlefield walk takes about 50 minutes to an hour to complete. I highly recommend that you go on this discovery.
However, if you wish to take a shorter route, you could take the accessibility route which takes about 15 — 20 minutes to complete.
Georgina: I especially loved this part of my experience visiting the Battle Abbey. Strolling through the battleground, with birds chirping, bees buzzing amidst the sweetness of the wildflowers in the autumnal sun were moments to reflect on the enormity of what actually took place here, nearly a millennium ago.
Practical information when visiting the Battle Abbey East Sussex
1 | How long does it take to visit Battle Abbey East Sussex?
For a good, rewarding visit, it will take at least three to four hours to complete the visit to Battle Abbey. If you add the time to explore the town of Battle, the Almonry in Battle High Street and the Church of St Mary, you may need almost a full day. A day spent in Battle is worth while. However, Battle Abbey and Battle can easily fit into half a day, if that is all the time you have.
2 | Battle Abbey East Sussex visiting information
Address: Battle Abbey, Butter Cross, High Street, Battle TN33 0AE
Tel: 0370 333 1181
Opening hours: 10:00 — 17:00
NB: As from the week commencing October 31, Battle Abbey is open only on weekends. Winter opening times also vary. Please always check their official website before your journey.
3 | How much does it cost to visit Battle Abbey East Sussex?
As at October 2022:
Adults from £12.90;
Child (5 – 17 years old) from £7.70;
Students/ Over 65’s from £11.60;
Family (2 adults + up to 3 children) from £33.50;
Family ( 1 adult + up to 3 children) from £20.60;
Overseas Visitor Pass — 9 or 16 days unlimited > find out more
ADD TO YOUR BATTLE ABBEY EAST SUSSEX ITINERARY
1 | Discover the town of Battle, East Sussex
Before you leave the town of Battle, be sure to take a stroll up Battle High Street. The colourful cafes, delis, independent shops, the half-timbered houses — all speak the tales of the town’s rich medieval past.
2 | Explore the Sussex Countryside
Sussex in South East England is blessed with some of the best quintessential British landscape. Rolling hills, vibrant green countryside, jaw-dropping coastlines and pretty villages.
The landscape offers a wealth of pathways and cycle tracks to explore. Explore the Country Trail, Heritage Trail and the Battle Sculpture Trail. Learn more about the cycle tracks from the official East Sussex County Council.
Take up one of the Battle Walks. The 1066 Country Walk marks the path taken by William the Conqueror and his army after landing in Pevensey. The route spans almost 50 km (31 miles). It begins at Pevensey Castle, passes Herstmonceux Castle, 1066 Battle Abbey and Battlefield, Winchelsea, ending in Rye. This is a relatively easy, low level route through the countryside.
3 | Explore Bodiam, East Sussex
Explore the pretty little village tucked in the natural landscape of East Sussex and famous for Bodiam Castle, reputed as the most beautiful castle in England. Bodiam is easily accessed by car with a 20 minute drive from Battle.
4 | Keep exploring …
Plan a day or two in Battle, and you could visit Hastings, Rye, and Bodiam Castle. These are all within a 30-minute drive from Battle. Hastings and Rye are also reachable by train and make a pleasant day trip in itself.
5 | Inspiration to explore further afield
If you plan to visit other destinations in England, below are some of our popular articles to inspire your journey. You may want to take a look at one of England’s best serene havens – the Isle of Wight. Peruse all other destinations in England and Scotland.
Wandering around the Abbey grounds was pleasurable and I thoroughly enjoyed my visit. While there is a lot to take in on this visit, my top three highlights were the tower, the beautiful stone pillars in the vaulted rooms of the dormitory range along with the battlefield walk. This atmospheric ruins makes a great day trip.
My sincere wish is that you have found this guide to the Best of Battle Abbey East Sussex to be helpful in planning your travel. If so, I would love to hear from you along with your experiences in Battle.
Have a splendid time exploring Battle Abbey and the beautiful town of Battle.
**All photos by Georgina
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