Battle Abbey stands on the battlefield where the Battle of Hastings was fought in 1066 when invading Normans defeated the Anglo-Saxons. The abbey was founded in 1070, but little of the original Norman building remains and most of what you see today dates from the 14th century.
The most pivotal event in British history occurred on the battlefield in 1066 when William the Conqueror defeated King Harold during the Battle of Hastings, forever changing English society and language and beginning a 300-year-long period when French was the official language in England.
In 1070 Pope Alexander II ordered the Normans to do penance for the lives lost during the Norman Conquest and later that year William the Conqueror founded the abbey, which was consecrated in 1094. The high altar was supposedly built on the spot where King Harold died.
After completion, it was a prominent abbey on the same level as that in Canterbury and it was remodelled in the later 13th century; however, it was mostly destroyed in 1538 during King Henry VIII’s Dissolution of the Monasteries. The abbey was later used as a country house and also as a school. It was sold to the British government in 1976 and is now under the control of English Heritage.
It is important to note that no one is really certain that this was the actual site of the battle and archaeological evidence that would normally be associated with a battlefield (for instance, remains of numerous bodies) has not been found. However, the site is well managed and there are excellent displays with relevant historical information.
What to see at Battle Abbey and Battlefield
The abbey and battlefield are now operated by English Heritage as 1066 Battle of Hastings, Abbey and Battlefield. It is a multi-faced attraction with several different themes, which include the battlefield, the ruins of the abbey, a walled garden and a visitor centre with exhibitions about the Battle of Hastings.
The visitor centre has a small cinema that shows a short film about the battle and the events surrounding it. There is also an exhibition about the battle including several interactive displays.
The battlefield includes several walking trails including a carved wood sculpture trail and a shorter route along the terrace that offers lovely views over the battlefield.
Although the abbey is mostly in ruins, there are several interesting areas to visit including the 13th-century rib-vaulted Novices Common Room.The complex also includes the walled garden, which dates from the time when Wilhelmina Powlett, Duchess of Cleveland lived in on the abbey grounds. The garden provides a fascinating insight into a lesser-known period of the abbey’s history.
There is another exhibition space inside the abbey gatehouse and the upper level of the gatehouse offers lovely views of the town.
Visitors can also see the ice house and dairy that was built between 1810 and 1820. The ice house would store ice harvested from ponds in winter for use during the following summer season. This building was restored in 1991 and it a unique example of an underground ice house from the late Georgian era.
Part of the original abbey is still used as the Battle Abbey School and visitors are generally not allowed into school grounds, although during school holidays visitors are sometimes allowed into the abbot’s hall.
Visiting Battle Abbey and Battlefield
The Battle Abbey and Battlefield complex is in the town centre and a 15-minute walk from Battle railway station.
It is recommended that you make the most of your admission fee and see all the sights including the exhibitions (both in the visitor centre at in the gatehouse) and also visit the abbey, the gatehouse and the ice house and dairy. However, this does mean a lot of walking; although you can save some walking time if you take the shorter walking path along the terrace above the battlefield.
An audio tour is included in the admission price. The audio tour is available in English, Dutch, French, German, Japanese and Spanish and there is also a children’s version of the English audio tour.
It is only open on weekends during the less-busy months but it is open daily from April to October. Although some people say that the admission fee is a tad expensive, it is free to visit if you are an English Heritage member or if you have an English Heritage Overseas Visitor Pass.
There is an on-site cafe, which isn’t cheap but it does have an excellent cheese board. However, the abbey complex is close to the town centre and there are plenty of other places to eat and drink nearby.
Because of the amount of walking involved, it is not the most child-friendly attraction. However, there is a children’s version of the audio tour and the nearby Battle Museum of Local History does have some activities geared towards children.
For the most part, the complex is wheelchair accessible and mobility scooters are available for loan; however, it is not fully accessible and there are steps to enter the abbey buildings (access ramps are available to some areas) and the gravel paths are not always easy for some wheelchair users. Wheelchair users should enter the site via the gatehouse and the site leaflet shows a recommended route for visitors with wheelchairs.
On-site parking is available but it costs £3.50 (£4.50 if you park without also visiting the abbey complex). English Heritage members pay £1 for parking.
It is recommended that you also visit the nearby Battle Museum of Local History for more exhibits about the Battle of Hastings.
Most visitors spend 1–2 hours visiting the abbey and battlefield.