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Battle Abbey, Sussex

(50°54′51″N, 0°29′6″E)
Battle Abbey
TQ 748 157
pre-1974 traditional (England and Wales) Sussex
now East Sussex
medieval St Martin
  • Kathryn Morrison

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After the suppression of Battle Abbey in 1538, the church and most of the monastic buildings were demolished. Today, only the Great Gate, abbot's lodgings, guest range and dorter survive above ground level, but the footings of other buildings have been exposed.

The Abbey, situated on sloping land on the site of the battlefield where William of Normandy defeated King Harold in 1066, had a standard Benedictine layout. The church, erectedc.1070-1094, had a short choir terminating in an ambulatory with three radial chapels, followed by a broad crossing tower, single-bay transept arms with apsidal chapels, and an aisled nave of seven bays. It has been suggested (Hare 1985, 20) that this was the first English church to have an ambulatory with radiating chapels. In the late 13thc. the choir was greatly enlarged and some time later the S transept apse was replaced, but otherwise the late 11thc. building seems to have survived more or less intact until 1538.

The cloister was located to the south of the church but, beginning with the chapter-house, the claustral buildings were entirely rebuilt on a larger scale in the 13thc. The 11thc and 12thc. claustral buildings were small, but it is known that Abbot Walter de Luci (1139-71) began to rebuilt the cloister walks 'with pavement and columns of marble, polished and smooth', and had planned a lavatorium before death interrupted his scheme. The abbot's lodgings in the west range were converted into a country house after the Dissolution and are now Battle Abbey School. At right angles to that are the remains of the guest range, which was rebuilt after the Dissolution but demolished in the mid-18thc. The 13thc. dorter, on the E side of the cloister, was unroofedc.1800. Nothing of the infirmary, which possibly lay on E side of the cloister, survives.

The townspeople, who worshipped in the nave, entered the precinct through the Great Gate, located to the NW of the church and rebuilt in the 14thc. The 16thc. 'courthouse' to E of the gatehouse seems to have replaced an earlier almonry.

The only Romanesque carvings to survive in situ are three early capitals which belonged to buildings incorporated within the E and W sides of the Great Gate, and two capitals on the W façade of the abbey church. Loose fragments retrieved during the excavations of the 1930s, 1978-80 and 1999 are stored at Dover Castle (Kent), Fort Brockhurst (Hampshire), Fort Cumberland (Hampshire) and Battle Abbey (see separate site entries). Several published fragments could not be located for Corpus recording (summer 1999).


William is said to have vowed to found a monastery outwith episcopal jurisdiction if his invasion of England succeeded, but it is considered more likely that Battle Abbey was established, on the exact site of the Battle of Hastings, as an act of penancec.1070. The steep site posed problems for the abbey's builders, and had to be terraced. As well as funding the building costs, William heavily endowed the abbey and gave the abbot supreme jurisdiction of land and men within a radius of 1.5 miles (a league) of the high altar, a right which would be challenged on numerous occasions by the Bishops of Chichester. The Domesday Book reveals that the monastery was the 15th wealthiest house in England in 1086. The community initially comprised four monks from Marmoutier on the Loire, but William intended this to rise, first of all to 60, and eventually to 140. Construction of the church must have started quite soon after the Battle of Hastings: in 1076 the second abbot, Abbot Gausbert, was blessed by the Bishop of Chichester in front of the altar of St Martin, and in 1094 the church was consecrated. The Chronicle reveals that the monastic buildings were humble and unostentatious, and that the precinct wall was completed by Abbot Ralph (1107-24). Ralph also enlarged the (outer?) courtyard and surrounded it with new buildings. The cloister was rebuilt under Abbot Walter de Luci (1139-71).

The monastic buildings were rebuilt on a larger scale in the 13thc., beginning with the chapter house c.1200, and continuing with new accommodation for the abbot on the west side of the cloister, a new dormitory range, and a new cellarer's or guest range in the outer courtyard. In the late 13thc., the refectory range and the eastern arm of the church were rebuilt. A license to crenellate in 1338 probably refers to the construction of the gatehouse. Various minor works were carried out in the later Middle Ages.

On 27 May 1538 Battle Abbey surrendered to Thomas Cromwell's visitor, Sir Richard Layton, and was subsequently given by King Henry VIII to Sir Anthony Browne, Master of the Horse, who was responsible for the destruction of the church and cloister. Browne adapted the abbot's lodgings in the west range as his residence, and rebuilt the guest house (dem. mid-18thc.), possibly as a royal residence. Rubble from the demolished church and monastic buildings was dumped to the north of the cellarer's range, to terrace the sloping ground. Browne also retained the kitchen (dem. 1685-88), the dortor and the Great Gate. In addition to Battle, Browne acquired Bayham and Waverley Abbeys in Surrey, Easebourne Priory in Sussex and St Mary Overy Nunnery in Southwark. He inherited Cowdray House in 1542, but the family continued to use Battle as a residence until the 17th c. The buildings seem to have decayed, and several were demolished, in the late 17th and 18th centuries, but the abbot's lodgings continued to be maintained until 1931, when they were gutted by fire.

The first serious excavations to take place on the site were directed by Sir Harold Brakspear between 1929 and 1934. Brakspear established the plan of the central monastic site by trial-trenching and wall-following. Further excavations on the site of the chapter house and rere-dorter were carried out by J N Hare in 1978-80, following the acquisition of the site by the Department of the Environment in 1976. Both excavations uncovered reused fragments of Romanesque carvings. More material was retrieved from trial pits during spring 1999.

The group of sculpture discovered by Sir Harold Brakspear in the 1930s has been numbered CS700-746 and included the following carved fragments:

(i) A cushion capital: Number not known. Present whereabouts unknown.

(ii) A chevron moulding: Number not known. Possibly one of the two chevron voussoirs stored at Fort Brockhurst and Dover Castle (qv).

(iii) The upper half of a double scallop capital with central 'descending dove' motif, in sandstone (CS710): This capital is currently on display in the Abbey museum, where the stone is identified as Caen (see above, VI.vii).

(iv) and (v) Two double capitals in Sussex marble (waterleaf CS702; unknown design CS701: Probably the two double capitals, both carved with waterleaf, currently displayed in the Abbey museum (see above, VI.i and VI.vi).

(vi) A broken base in Purbeck marble (CS706 and 707), with fluted leaf-spurs: Currently in the Abbey museum (see above, VI.v).

(vii) A voussoir, design unknown (CS718): Present location unknown.

A second group of Romanesque fragments was recovered by John Hare in the course of his excavations on the site of the dormitory, chapter-house and rere-dorter in 1978-80. This included several 'Early Romanesque' fragments, including two chevron voussoirs (possibly those stored at Fort Brockhurst and Dover Castle, although a third chevron voussoir was found by Brakspear in the 1930s) and a cushion capital (present whereabouts unknown). The group also included several fragments dated to the second half of the 12thc., which were catalogued in the excavation report as follows:

(i) CS261 E36 Cluster pier capital: Purbeck marble,c.1170. A damaged capital, which would have been supported by a cluster of five shafts and may have come from the lavatorium planned, but not executed, by Walter de Luci. The capital is carved with thick leaves culminating in small volutes. Present whereabouts unknown.

(ii)CS426 E36 Capital fragment. Purbeck marble,c.1170. Possibly a fragment of the above. Present whereabouts unknown.

(iii) CS589 C14: Shaft with knop. Purbeck marble,c.1170. Currently displayed in Abbey museum (see above, VI.iv).

(iv) CS643 C14 : Shaft fragment. Purbeck marble,c.1170. Currently displayed in Abbey museum (see above, VI.iii).

(v) CS104 E42: Capital. Sussex marble,c.1170. From a group of three or four capitals with a fluted design. Currently displayed in Abbey museum (see above, VI.ii).

(vi) CS594 D21: Capital. Sussex marble,c.1170. Probably one of a pair carved with waterleaf. Currently displayed in Abbey museum (see above, VI.ix).

(vii) CS600 C14: Coupled shaft. Purbeck marble,c.1170. Not carved. Present whereabouts not known.

(viii) CS 598 C14: Quatrefoil shaft.c.1179. Currently displayed in Abbey museum (see above, VI.vii).

(ix) CS500 D30: Capital. Sandstone,c.1160-80. Fragmentary. Carved with thick leaves with voluted tips or 'knobs'. Possibly from a wall arcade. Present whereabouts unknown.

(x) CS1 E42: Volute fragment from a large capital. Sandstone. Present whereabouts unknown.

(xi) CS471 C14: Volute fragment. Sandstone, c.1160-80. Present whereabouts unknown.

In addition to these two main groups, some early 13thc. fragments were excavated by English Heritage in 1999. One of these may have come from the base of the font (see entry for Fort Cumberland).


Exterior Features


Loose Sculpture


The different forms of their arches imply that windows III.2.i and III.2.ii do not belong to the same building campaign, and it is probable that they did not even belong to the same building. The architectural forms and sculptural designs of all three windows accord with a date in the late 11thc., c.1095, by which time the Abbey Church (con. 1094) would have been nearing completion and attention could be given to the ancillary buildings of the monastery. The loss of the Abbey Church, which had an ambulatory and radiating chapels, has created a major lacuna in the study of Early Romanesque sculpture in Sussex, and small window capitals of auxiliary buildings can hardly give the flavour of what has been lost.

The two cushion capitals found by Brakspear and Hare probably belonged to the first building campaign and could have come from either the church or claustral buildings. Neither capital has been located or seen. The double scallop capital indicates that some work was undertaken at the abbey in the mid 12thc., but its function will probably never be known (see VI.viii). It may be contemporary with the two chevron voussoirs.

Architectural elements in Purbeck and Sussex marble, recovered in Brakespear's and Hare's excavations, are thought to have come from the cloister and have been datedc.1170 (Hare 1985, 23). This is a conservative date, as the cloister could have been started earlier in the abbacy of Walter de Luci (1139-71), who was planning a lavatorium at the time of his death. A more realistic date might bec.1160. The fragments demonstrate that the cloister arcade rested on pairs of columns, which would have been placed at right angles to the walks. The capitals are all of Sussex marble and include three different designs: waterleaf, fluting and plain pointed leaves. One surviving double base has fluted spurs and is hollowed to support a column with a diameter of 0.125m. Two sections of columns of that diameter survive, and both are decorated. One is carved with a spiral motif and has a knop; the other is carved with a looping motif and may also have had a knop. Sections of a double column and a quatrefoil column may also have come from the cloister ensemble.

For other loose fragments from Battle Abbey see the following entries for English Heritage sites: Fort Brockhurst (Hants), Fort Cumberland (Hants) and Dover Castle (Kent).

Victoria County History: Sussex. 2, 1907, 52.
Victoria County History: Sussex. 9 (Rape and Honour of Hastings), 1937.
M.A. Lower (ed.) The Chronicle of Battle Abbey, from 1066 to 1176. London., 1851.
Sir H. Brakspear, papers; 1933 and 1937.
J.G. Coad, Battle Abbey and the Battle of Hastings. HBMC/English Heritage Official Handbook, 1984.
I. Nairn and N. Pevsner, The Buildings of England: Sussex. Harmondsworth 1965, 404.
Rev. E. Turner, Rev. 'Battel (sic) Abbey', Sussex Archaeological Collections 17. 1865, 1-56.
E. Searle, The Chronicle of Battle Abbey. Oxford, 1980
J. N. Hare et al., Battle Abbey. The Eastern Range and the Excavations of 1978-80 (Historic Buildings and Monuments Commission for England, Archaeological Report No.2). nd (c.1980)