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The history of Battle

PUBLISHED: 09:02 07 September 2017

Battle Abbey, with the ruins to the left and Battle Abbey School to the right

Battle Abbey, with the ruins to the left and Battle Abbey School to the right

English Heritage Trust

The East Sussex town is inextricably connected with the most famous date in English history. So what’s new for Clive Agran to discover when he’s given a tour by the locals?

Although occasionally I get a bit cross when rabbits sneak under the gate into my vegetable patch and devastate what had previously promised to be a decent crop of peas, my friends and family would, I hope, describe me as a rather peaceable bloke. It’s for this reason that I feel rather uncomfortable and not a little ridiculous telling my wife: “I’m going into Battle.”

This pretty little East Sussex town is, and will be for ever, associated with the most famous date in English history. So famous is it that knowing it doesn’t impress anybody, least of all the man I’m meeting in front of Battle Abbey. A graduate in history from Oxford University and chairman of Battle and District Historical Society, George Kiloh knows more dates than the late Cilla Black arranged and has kindly offered to show me around.

We begin our leisurely stroll on Battle Green, a triangular area by Battle Abbey which is no longer green nor the venue, as it was for 350 years, of the weekly cattle market. It is, however, the site of the annual Guy Fawkes bonfire which, together with the associated firework display, is taken very seriously around these parts. Battel Bonfire Boyes claims to be the oldest of all the Sussex bonfire societies.

Continuing the explosive theme, George explains that much of the surrounding area was given over to the production of gunpowder. The first manufacturing outlet was built in 1676 and the buildings that were converted to create what is now the Powder Mills Hotel were originally used for making gunpowder during the Napoleonic Wars. In 1722 Daniel Defoe described Battle as being “remarkable for little now, but for making the finest gunpowder, and the best perhaps in Europe”.

There were several mishaps and in 1798 more than 15 tonnes of gunpowder, left too long in an oven, exploded. However, production continued until 1874 when the Duke of Cleveland, concerned about the number of deaths and serious injuries, refused to renew the lease of the principal production unit. However, the gunpowder was not quite finished with yet and one last explosion occurred when the buildings were being demolished. Fortunately no one was killed when a spark from a hammer blow ignited the remaining residue.

There were, however, two civilian fatalities in Battle during World War II when three bombs fell on the town on 2 February 1943. The first bounced at the back of the George Hotel and blew up in a field behind. Another went straight through the abbey gateway narrowly missing a Canadian soldier on guard there. Fortunately it failed to detonate, which is just as well because explosives were stored in the gatehouse and had the bomb gone off, the historic abbey and a fair chunk of the town would have been flattened. The third bomb demolished Tickner’s newsagents and badly damaged the adjoining house killing Tom and Gladys Giles.

All the other buildings in the High Street were unscathed and their timber frames have survived for centuries even though many of the facades have been altered. Perhaps understandably, George is particularly fond of the George Hotel. “Public meetings were held here as were council meetings. The King of Prussia lunched here and it used to be right at the heart of things.”

He then points out the rather less historical but certainly more amusing fact that what was formerly the Congregational church is now a betting shop. Up the hill from William Hill we come to the junction with Mount Street, which is where the market was originally held before it moved in the late 16th century to Battle Green.

We cross over the High Street and enter Battle Museum, which is free. The guys that are traditionally burnt on bonfires don’t as a rule enjoy much in the way of life expectancy. Anything over three weeks could be regarded as something of a bonus but there is a guy at the back of the museum that is over 100 years old and almost certainly the oldest surviving member of the species.

Nearby is an album cover that once upon a time contained one of the 150 million long-playing records made by Frank Chacksfield and his orchestra. Born and bred in Battle, Chacksfield was a very famous name in the ’40s, ’50s and ’60s when his easy-listening music was hugely popular. His two most famous records – Limelight and Ebb Tide – remained in the hit parade on both sides of the Atlantic for most of 1953 with the latter becoming the first light orchestral recording to reach number one in the USA; a feat even the hugely successful rock band Keane, who are from around these parts, couldn’t match.

Among the hundreds of other interesting exhibits is an axe-head that was found in 1951 in Marley Lane, which is very close to the famous battlefield. Although identified as coming from a type of woodman’s axe that was popular at the time, no one knows for certain whether or not it was wielded at the Battle of Hastings. George thinks the apparent absence of artefacts from the Battle of Hastings is at least in part due to the acidity of the soil.

After a quick whiz around St Mary’s Church, where no one has been buried since 1862 when the graveyard was closed because of overcrowding and other unfortunate problems, George hands me over to English Heritage who look after Battle Abbey and the adjacent battlefield.

James Witcombe, the site supervisor, accompanies me for a gentle walk around the latter. He answers the question that has troubled me (and surely every other patriotic Englishman and woman) since first learning about the Battle of Hastings: how on earth did we lose?

Apparently King Harold and his brave men had to march all the way from York where they had been knocking lumps out of some nasty Vikings. They were thus rather weary even before the first arrow was loosed. On top of that, the French employed underhand tactics by appearing to run away before turning around and breaking through the English lines.

Although the sloping green fields are now peacefully populated with munching sheep, imagining the two armies clashing here is made easier thanks to life-sized wooden figures depicting some of the protagonists. Re-enactments are held every October on the anniversary of the battle. Last year was the 950th anniversary and the battle was bigger than ever. Supporters lined the ‘touchlines’ wearing the appropriate colours – red for the Saxons and yellow and green for the Normans – cheering and booing in more or less equal measure. Less equal was the split between the fans with the Saxons predictably enjoying significant numerical superiority. It didn’t help, however, as they lost yet again.

In 1070, Pope Alexander II ordered the Normans to do penance for killing so many during their conquest of England. In response, William vowed to build an abbey on the site of the Battle of Hastings with the high altar on the spot where King Harold fell. The associated church, St Martin of Battle, was completed in 1094, seven years after William had died. Remodelled and extended, by the 14th century it evolved into a full-blown abbey only to be virtually destroyed during King Henry VIII’s Dissolution of the Monasteries in 1538. Henry gave it to his friend, Sir Anthony Browne, who demolished most of it but turned the abbot’s quarters into a country house which he then occupied.

Over the next 400 or so years, various families lived there until the house, abbey ruins and estate were sold to the government in 1976.

Last year the engraved stone that was placed on the spot where King Harold was thought to have fallen, in other words the altar, was moved about 20ft to where experts now believe is more likely to be the right place.

Built in 1338, the Gate House now displays some of the artefacts that have been discovered on the site. Sadly there isn’t one bow and arrow. By way of consolation, I’m shown a secret passage that was only discovered very recently when a stationery cupboard was shifted.

Finally, we climb up onto the roof. Disappointingly, as English Heritage were hoping for 66, it’s 68 steps all the way to the top from where we can see the South Downs. “On a really clear day you can see the English Channel as well,” claims James.

All being well, I’ll be 127 on October 14, 2066 but whether, with an already dodgy hip, I’ll feel fit enough to join what should be the mother of all anniversaries let alone climb 68 steps in the hope of catching a glimpse of the English Channel, must be open to some considerable doubt. 


More…

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