Renewed debate over battle of Hastings location

Research that suggests the battle of Hastings took place on the site of what is now a mini roundabout on the A2100 is “no more than informed guesswork”

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That is according to Medieval historian Dr Marc Morris. Querying an investigation conducted by Channel 4’s Time Team, in a programme aired on 1 December, Morris told historyextra: “All this rests on is an aerial survey, plus a very large dollop of speculation.”

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Historians have debated the precise location of the 1066 clash, in which King Harold was killed. Here, we explore the claims made by both Time Team and Dr Morris:

Time Team: “The main focus of the fighting should be turned 90 degrees east of its traditional location”

“In the summer of 2013, Time Team, in partnership with English Heritage, and Dr Glenn Foard, undertook a pilot programme of excavation on the official battlefield of Hastings.

“Three sample trenches were cut along the full length of the battlefield in order to remove modern contamination identified by a previous metal detecting survey. Although Medieval artefacts were recovered no archaeology related to the events of 1066 was found.

Time Team also undertook a metal detecting survey on nearby Cadlbec Hill in order to investigate John Grehan’s claims that the fighting really took place here. Unfortunately no battlefield archaeology was recovered at this site either.

“Prof Stewart Ainsworth from the University of Chester subsequently undertook a detailed landscape survey of the area with the aid of aerial LiDAR [Light Detection and Ranging – high resolution 3D data captured using special sensors, from the air or the ground].

“Analysis of the data appeared to rule out Caldbec Hill as a candidate for the battlefield as it was too big to cover with an effective shield wall, although its commanding height supported the idea that it was the rallying point for the Anglo-Saxon army.

“The data was equally unsympathetic for the Battle Abbey fields, which form the core of the registered Hastings battlefield. The ground at the southern base of Senlac hill appeared to be wet and boggy, a claim that was supported by a limited program of environmental work, and would have been unsuitable for the exploits of William’s cavalry.

“Further study of the data highlighted the strategic importance of the modern A2100, an ancient routeway, which forms a natural bottleneck as it enters the village of Battle; today the site of a mini-roundabout. Previously this area had only been considered in relation to Harold’s left flank.

Time Team were intrigued by these results, and hypothesised that the main focus of the fighting should be turned 90 degrees east of its traditional location. This was the best place for Harold to anchor his shield wall, and the land most suitable for the deployment of William’s Cavalry.

“This position is just outside English Heritage’s registered battlefield but confirms the strategic importance of Senlac ridge and is still located within the village of Battle. This site also tallies with the location of the high altar at Battle Abbey, where, historical sources claim, Harold’s banner stood during the fighting.

Time Team’s interpretation of the landscape survey does not challenge the location of the High Altar of Battle Abbey, stated in numerous historical sources as the spot where Harold’s banner once stood, but rather, our modern perception of the wider Hastings battlefield and where the forces first clashed, which has been severely influenced by the lay-out of the village of Battle”.

Marc Morris: “There’s compelling historical evidence in favour of the abbey site”

“This research doesn’t amount to much.

“The programme claimed, sensationally, to have found a new location for the Battle of Hastings – the now famous mini-roundabout.

“But, as I point out in my blog, this is no more than informed guesswork – all it rests on is an aerial survey, plus a very large dollop of speculation.

“Moreover, in order to sustain this idea, the programme downplayed the claim that Battle Abbey was built on the spot where King Harold fell, dismissing it as ‘legend’. They discussed the Chronicle of Battle Abbey, only to reject it as unreliable.

“But there are at least half a dozen other earlier sources – sources pointed out to them during the production process – that say exactly the same thing.

“The author of the 11th-century Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, a man who had lived at William the Conqueror’s court, says that William built the abbey ‘on the very spot where God granted him the Conquest of England’.

“The ludicrous thing is that the ‘new’ battlefield proposed in the programme is just 200 yards from the site of Battle Abbey – a fairly meaningless distance when you imagine two large armies confronting each other.

“In other words, the programme tacitly accepted that the Battle of Hastings was fought in Battle. But in search of something new to say, they’ve ignored the compelling historical evidence in favour of the abbey site, and offered only speculation in its place.”

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