Did William the Conqueror ever go to Hastings?

The battle of Hastings on 14 October 1066, in which William, Duke of Normandy (later known as William the Conqueror) defeated the Anglo-Saxon king Harold II, is one of the most famous dates in history. But while it is generally known that the clash was fought some six miles to the north west of the modern town of Hastings, historian Trevor Rowley goes further by suggesting that William never went to Hastings at all - but instead prepared for battle at Pevensey after landing his forces there in late September

William the Conqueror and his escorts on horseback, detail from the Bayeux Tapestry. (Photo by DeAgostini/Getty Images)

Here, writing for History Extra, Rowley explains how William and his troops never actually went to what we now know as Hastings…

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The Hastings battle site, which sits in the Sussex Weald in south-east England, didn’t have a place-name in 1066, although it later became known as Senlac. In around 1070 William the Conqueror founded a Benedictine abbey on the site where King Harold fell – the abbey (and later the town itself) became known as Battle from the late 11th century. It is assumed that the name ‘Hastings’ became attached to the conflict because it was the closest large town to the event and that William had been camped there until just before hostilities began on 14 October 1066. Contemporary chroniclers all tell a similar story about how William and his troops landed at Pevensey on 28 September, where they built a castle and soon after made their way to Hastings, where it is implied there was a better harbour for the Norman ships. This version of events is confirmed by the Bayeux Tapestry, which names Pevensey as the landing site and Hastings is identified as the place where another castle is being constructed.

William the Conqueror (1027–87), king of England from 1066 when he defeated Harold II at the battle of Hastings. (Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

On the face of it the logic seems quite sound – little is known about Hastings before 1066, but in a document of the early 10th century known as the Burghal Hidage, Haestingacaestre is recorded as being a defended town. This provides a list of more than 30 places, largely in the old Kingdom of Wessex, which King Alfred fortified in response to Viking incursions. The site of the burh at Hastings is not known, but some historians believe it to have been on the cliff-top above the present town in the vicinity of the castle. The uncertainty about its location is compounded by the extent of coastal erosion where the elements have eaten into the cliffs, cutting away parts of the castle and removing all traces of any harbour that might have lain below.

William the Conqueror arrives in Bayeux, detail from the Bayeux Tapestry. I would argue that William the Conqueror never went to Hastings, or at least to the site of modern Hastings, says Trevor Rowley. (Photo by DeAgostini/Getty Images)
William the Conqueror arrives in Bayeux, detail from the Bayeux Tapestry. I would argue that William the Conqueror never went to Hastings, or at least to the site of modern Hastings, says Trevor Rowley. (Photo by DeAgostini/Getty Images)

In 1995, Pamela Combes and Malcolm Lyne published an article in the Sussex Archaeological Collection (vol. 133), suggesting that the Saxon burh was not at Hastings at all and that it was at Pevensey, which is located 11 miles directly to the west of Hastings. After all Pevensey had, and still has, a fine stone and brick fortress that would have provided the Normans with a secure base. Pevensey Roman fort was built in the third century AD and is the largest surviving fort of its date in Britain, with formidable walls and towers. During the Middle Ages it faced several sieges, but was never successfully stormed. So although the idea that Haestingacaestre was Pevensey received scant attention at the time of publication, the article’s implications are significant for the story of the conquest – it would mean that William and his troops never actually went to what we now know as Hastings.

Fig 9: a naked male figure appears immediately beneath one of the Bayeux Tapestry's enduring mysteries – a scene in which an unidentified priest is shown harassing a woman named Ælfgyfa. (© Bayeux Museum)

Indeed, the conventional story is, topographically, distinctly odd. Saxon Hastings seems to have been little more than a small fishing hamlet, which did not even merit an entry in the Domesday Book. There is no evidence that Hastings was a late-Saxon port, and pre-Norman archaeological finds in the form of coins and pottery from the town are virtually non-existent. Furthermore, Hastings in 1066 was not served by a network of roads, Roman or otherwise, that would have been a pre-requisite for a flourishing harbour and port. More generally it seems to have made little tactical sense to have moved from the safety of Pevensey fort and bay, with all its secure inlets, until such time the army needed to move on. The coastline in 1066 was very different from that of today – there was a large stretch of water occupying the Pevensey Levels, which William would have needed to circumnavigate. The route he would have had to take to Hastings was approximately 15.5 miles long, with no well-defined roads or tracks. Why would he have taken the risk of moving to a harbour which, on the face of it, had a smaller capacity than the one he was already occupying?

Saxon Hastings seems to have been little more than a small fishing hamlet, which did not even merit an entry in the Domesday Book

In the late Saxon period the place-name Hastings covered a region, which included Pevensey and the later town of Hastings. The area had been occupied by the ‘Hastingas’, a group of Saxons who were isolated from the rest of Sussex by the Weald. The Wealden Forest, which formed a communications barrier to the north of modern Hastings, had a relatively small population living in hamlets and isolated farms. Hence the Norman chroniclers and the Bayeux Tapestry might have been referring to the area, not the town of Hastings.

Edward The Confessor, Anglo-Saxon king of England, 1070s. Edward (c1003-1066), king from 1042, on his throne. After Edward's death, the throne was disputed between Harold Godwinson and William of Normandy, prompting the Norman Conquest of England. From the Bayeux Tapestry. The tapestry, which tells the story of the events leading to the Battle of Hastings in 1066, was probably commissioned by Odo, Bishop of Bayeux, William's half-brother. (Photo by Ann Ronan Pictures/Print Collector/Getty Images)

It can also be argued that the name ‘Pevensey’ in the records was used for the bay and not the fort, which admittedly had its own Roman name, Anderitum. What if the chroniclers were not familiar with the Roman name and called the fort Haestingacaestre after the region in which it lay? The use of the place-name suffix caestre is invariably associated with Romano-British sites – there is no evidence of Roman occupation at Hastings whatsoever. Many of the Alfredian burhs were located within former Roman fortifications at places such as Winchester, Chichester and Portchester, and it seems a much safer bet to put your fortified town at Pevensey rather than at Hastings. In the Burghal Hidage both Porchester and Haestingacaestre are estimated to be roughly the same size. It is therefore no coincidence that Pochester fort (9 acres) and Pevensey fort (9.1 acres) are in reality also the same size. There is nothing remotely similar in size or in character to Pevensey at or nearer to Hastings, meaning the Saxon burh of Haestingacaestre was in all probability at Pevensey.

Although I am conscious that there are several counter arguments, I suggest that William landed his army somewhere in Pevensey Bay on 28 September and moved his forces to Pevensey Roman fort (Haestingacaestre) the next day or soon after. The castle he is seen erecting on the Bayeux Tapestry was built within the fort, probably on the site subsequently occupied by the late 12th-century castle. William and his troops remained at Pevensey, raiding and looting in the surrounding area, until 12 or 13 October when Harold’s army was known to be approaching from the north-east. The two forces collided at a venue in the Weald, which neither side would have chosen, given the option, as militarily it was not wholly advantageous to either army.

I would argue that William the Conqueror never went to Hastings, or at least to the site of modern Hastings.

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Trevor Rowley is emeritus fellow of Kellogg College, Oxford and author of An Archaeological Study of the Bayeux Tapestry(Pen and Sword, 2016); Norman England(Shire Publications, 2010) and The Man Behind the Bayeux Tapestry (The History Press, 2013). He will be appearing at the English Heritage re-enactment event at Battle on 13–14 October. To find out more, click here.