A midnight visit to the ruins at Battle Abbey Battle, East Sussex, United Kingdom
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On October 14, 1066, a Norman duke known as William the Conqueror defeated King Harold at the Battle of Hastings. This decisive victory brought the Saxon period of English history to an end and initiated the Norman rule of England. The Norman Conquest would bring many changes to the island, including a new French style of Romanesque architecture and many new churches and monasteries all over the country. After the Battle of Hastings, William went on to conquer other important strongholds further north, such as London and York. But in 1070, his attention returned to the battlefield where it all began when, pressured by the Pope, he founded a Benedictine abbey to atone for the thousands of deaths on that field. The new foundation was dedicated to St. Martin, but it has been known almost ever since as Battle Abbey.
Battle Abbey was built right on the battlefield, with the church’s altar positioned over the site where King Harold fell. Constructed in the Norman Romanesque style, with a round apse and ambulatory, the church was completed in 1094. It was consecrated by the Archbishop of Canterbury in the presence of the Conqueror’s son, William Rufus. The abbey was colonized by four Benedictine monks from Marmoutier monastery near Tours, France. Construction on the remaining abbey buildings, such as the dormitory and cloister, continued throughout the 12th and 13th centuries. The church was extended to the east in the 13th century. In the 14th century, French raids during the Hundred Years’ War required the abbey to improve its defenses. This included rebuilding the gatehouse to the towering edifice that still stands today, beginning in 1338. Later in the same century, the abbey was struck by the Black Death. More than a dozen monks succumbed to the plague and the monastery’s incomes suffered. Battle Abbey was dissolved on May 27, 1538, and the property was given to Sir Anthony Browne. The new owner promptly destroyed the church, chapter house and cloisters, and renovated the abbot’s house into a country mansion. In later centuries the property fell into decline, but it was restored by the duke and dutchess of Cleveland, who lived here from 1857 to 1901. Battle Abbey School was founded in the abbot’s house after World War I. Both the battlefield and abbey were purchased by the nation in 1972 and the site is now administered by English Heritage.