Battle Abbey - Sarah Woodbury

Battle Abbey

Aren’t ‘Battle’ and ‘Abbey’ a bit contradictory?

Not to Normans! And not to the Norman church either, in that the idea of a religious war was not very far down the road (the first Crusade was 1096). The battle in question, however, had already taken place, because William the Conqueror built Battle Abbey on the site of the Battle of Hastings, at which he defeated/killed Harold, the Saxon King of England and took his throne.

Dan: So he built the abbey in honor of the battle?

From its shape and size, that’s pretty much the case, though ostensibly the reason for building the abbey was out of guilt or to atone for the number of people he killed in conquering England. According to the Chronicle of Battle Abbey, William made a speech along those lines after that battle: I make a vow on this very battlefield I shall found a monastery for the salvation of all, and especially for those who fall here, to the honour of God and his saints, where servants of God may be supported: a fitting monastery, with a worthy liberty. Let it be an atonement: a haven for all as free as the one I conquer for myself.

And it was huge, even for the time. Today, you can still see the guest quarters, the east range with its huge dormitory and three-story latrine block. And this is where I have to point out that clean water and drainage were central to the planning of any monastery, even in 1071. Where possible, clean running water was channeled first to the kitchen and washing places and then to the latrines to flush the main drains. Still visible are the chapter house, cloister, and novice’s quarters. Unfortunately, the church itself was destroyed during the Reformation.
According to English Heritage, however, the impetus for founding the abbey actually lies in the penances the bishops of Normandy imposed on William and those who fought with him. “A document known as the penitential ordinances thought to date to 1067, sets out the requirements for penance according to the amount of violence perpetrated by each individual, whether at the Battle of Hastings or during the period of conquest that followed.”

And even by medieval standards, William’s conquest was particularly bloody. Everyone knows the date 1066, but what is less commonly talked about is that it took until 1071 or 72 for William to actually feel secure on his throne, which meant that he spent those 5 years putting down one rebellion after another. Over that time period, his methods grew more and more ruthless, such that, by the end of that period, there were very few Saxon nobility left.
Also according to English heritage, it is important to remember that William’s conquest had an explicit religious dimension. Norman authors stress that Harold, the Saxon king he defeated, was a perjurer – according to them, he had broken an oath, sworn on sacred relics in 1064, to support William’s claim to succeed Edward the Confessor, and then usurped the English throne. Because of this, William gained church support for his invasion of England.
Even with the official purpose of the founding to atone for William’s sins, one of the abbey’s monks, who was old enough to remember the battle, wrote that William also intended the abbey to stand as a ‘memory of his victory’.
Given the grand scale of it, that sounds just like William.

Next week we’ll be talking about one of the most magnificent Norman Abbeys in England, Revaulx.


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