Today, Battle Abbey in East Sussex serves as a monument to a bloody and pivotal event in British history: the Battle of Hastings. Tradition has it that this structure was founded on the very ground where Harold and
William fought for the crown of England, the high altar marking the spot where Harold’s banner fell. With the abbey commissioned by William himself, its presence would seem to put the location of the fighting beyond doubt, unlike many other battlefields. Recently, however, this assumption has been called into question. Two new theories argue that the clash of arms took place elsewhere.
In his book, The Battle of Hastings 1066: The Uncomfortable Truth, military historian John Grehan states that Caldbec Hill, a mile north of the abbey, is a far more suitable candidate for the battlefield. This was the rallying point for Harold’s army and its steeper slopes appear to make it strategically superior to the abbey site on Senlac Hill. Grehan argues that the difficult terrain forced the monks to look elsewhere for a suitable building plot for their abbey.
Grehan is not alone in voicing doubts about the evidence. Local historian Nick Austin agrees that the traditional battlefield site is wrong. He does not think that the fighting took place in the village of Battle at all, but two miles to the south at Crowhurst. What is more, he thinks he has the artefacts to prove it. If either of these new theories proved correct, it would prompt a radical reassessment of the events of 1066 and might help explain Harold’s defeat. It was an intriguing possibility, but if Time Team was going to move the debate on then archaeological evidence was needed.
We knew from previous experience that searching for relics of Medieval battles is a notoriously difficult task. Looting and stripping of the dead in the aftermath of fighting was a common occurrence.
ABOVE This plan shows the traditional location of the Battle of Hastings, as well as the two longstanding alternative sites, Crowhurst and Caldbec Hill. The black dot marks the spot beneath a modern roundabout that the Time Team have identified as another likely candidate.
BELOW Two of the candidate sites for the Battle of Hastings: Caldbec Hill (RIGHT) and Crowhurst (BELOW).
Unsurprisingly, not a single artefact certainly linked to the 1066 battle has ever been found. To make matters worse the village of Battle that subsequently grew up around the abbey would have obliterated any traces of the fighting, which limited surveying opportunities to the remaining, undeveloped, open areas.
Despite these obstacles the opportunity to search for evidence of the most famous, and one of the most influential, battles in our history was too good to pass up. Luckily
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| Issue 286
| Issue 286
www.archaeology.co.uk | current archaeology
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