Highways and Byways in Sussex/Chapter 37

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Highways and Byways in Sussex by Edward Verrall Lucas
Battle Abbey

CHAPTER XXXVII


BATTLE ABBEY


Le Souvenir Normande—The Battle of Hastings—Normans and Saxons on the eve—Taillefer—The battle cries—The death of Harold—Harold's body: three stories—The field of blood—Building the Abbey—The Abbot's privileges—Royal visitors—A great feast—The suppression of the Abbey—Present-day Battle—An incredible butler—Ashburnham—The last forge—Ninfield—Crowhurst.

The principal excursion from Hastings is of course to Battle, whither a company of discreetly satisfied Normans—Le Souvenir Normande—recently travelled, to view with tactfully chastened enthusiasm the scene of the triumph of 1066; to erect a memorial; and to perplex the old ladies of Battle who provide tea. Except on one day of the week visitors to Battle must content themselves with tea (of which there is no stint) and a view of the gateway, for the rule of showing the Abbey only on Tuesdays is strictly enforced by the American gentleman who now resides on this historic site. But the gateway could hardly be finer.

The battle-field was half a mile south of the Abbey, on Telham hill, where in Harold's day was a hoary apple tree. We have seen William landing at Pevensey on September 28, 1066: thence he marched to Hastings "to steal food," and thence, after a delay of a fortnight (to some extent spent in fortifying Hastings, and also in burning his boats), he marched to Telham hill. That was on October 13. On the same day Harold reached the neighbourhood, with his horde of soldiers and armed rustics, and both armies encamped that night only a mile apart, waiting for the light to begin the fray. The Saxons were confident and riotous; the Normans hopeful and grave. According to Wace, "all night the Saxons might be seen carousing, gambolling, and dancing and singing: bublie they cried, and wassail, and laticome and drinkheil and drink-to-me!"

Battle Abbey, the Gateway.png

Battle Abbey, the Gateway.

At daybreak in the Norman camp Bishop Odo celebrated High Mass, and immediately after was hurried into his armour to join the fight. As the Duke was arming an incident occurred but for which Battle Abbey might never have been built. His suit of mail was offered him wrong side out. The superstitious Normans standing by looked sideways at each other with sinking misgiving. They deemed it a bad omen. But William's face betrayed no fear. "If we win," he said, "and God send we may, I will found an Abbey here for the salvation of the souls of all who fall in the engagement." Before quitting his tent, he was careful that those relics on which Harold had sworn never to oppose his efforts against England's throne should be hung around his neck.

So the two armies were ready—the mounted Normans, with their conical helmets gleaming in the hazy sunlight, with kite-shaped shields, huge spears and swords; the English, all on foot, with heavy axes and clubs. But theirs was a defensive part; the Normans had to begin. It fell to the lot of a wild troubadour named Taillefer to open the fight. He galloped from the Norman lines at full speed, singing a song of heroes; then checked his steed and tossed his lance thrice in the air, thrice catching it by the point. The opposing lines silently wondered. Then he flung it at a luckless Saxon with all the energy of a madman, spitting him as a skewer spits a lark. Taillefer had now only his sword left. This also he threw thrice into the air, and then seizing it with the grip of death he rode straight at the Saxon troops, dealing blows from left to right, and so was lost to view.

Thus the Battle of Hastings began. "On them in God's name," cried William, "and chastise these English for their misdeeds." "Dieu aidé," his men screamed, spurring to the attack. "Out, Out!" barked the English, "Holy Cross! God Almighty!" The carnage was terrific. It seemed for long that the English were prevailing; and they would, in all likelihood, have prevailed in the end had they kept their position. But William feigned a retreat, and the English crossed their vallum in pursuit. The Normans at once turned their horses and pursued and butchered the unprepared enemy singly in the open country. A complete rout followed. The false step was decisive.

Not till night, however, did Harold fall. He upheld his standard to the last, hedged about by a valiant bodyguard who resisted the Normans till every sign of life was battered out of them. The story of the vertically-discharged arrows is a myth. An eye-witness thus described Harold's death: "An armed man," said he, "came in the throng of the battle and struck him on the ventaille of the helmet and beat him to the ground; and as he sought to recover himself a knight beat him down again, striking him on the thick of the thigh down to the bone." So died Harold, on the exact site of the high altar of the Abbey, and so passed away the Saxon kingdom.

That night, William, who was unharmed, though three horses were killed under him, had his tent set up in the midst of the dead, and there he ate and drank. In the morning the Norman corpses were picked out and buried with due rites; the Saxons were left to rot. According to the Carmen William I. had Harold's body wrapped in purple linen and carried to Hastings, where it was buried on the cliff beneath a stone inscribed with the words: "By the order of the Duke, you rest here, King Harold, as the guardian of the shore and the sea." Mr. Lower was convinced of the truth of that story; but William of Malmesbury says that William sent Harold's body to his mother the Countess Gytha, who buried it at Waltham, while a third account shows us Editha of the Swan Neck, Harold's wife, wandering through the blood-stained grass, among the fallen English, until she found the body of her husband, which she craved leave to carry away. William, this version adds, could not deny her.

Fuller writes in the Worthies, concerning the wonders of Sussex:—"Expect not here I should insert what William of Newbury writeth (to be recounted rather amongst the Untruths than Wonders); viz. 'That in this County, not far from Battail-Abby, in the Place where so great a slaughter of the Englishmen was made, after any shower, presently sweateth forth very fresh blood out of the Earth, as if the evidence thereof did plainly declare the voice of Bloud there shed, and crieth still from the Earth unto the Lord.' This is as true, as that in white chalky Countries (about Baldock in Hertfordshire) after rain run rivolets of Milk; Neither being anything else than the Water discoloured, according to the Complexion of the Earth thereabouts."

Mount Street, Battle.png

Mount Street, Battle.

The Conqueror was true to his vow, and the Abbey of St. Martin was quickly begun. At first there was difficulty about the stone, which was brought all the way from Caen quarries, until, according to an old writer, a pious matron dreamed that stone in large quantities was to be found near at hand. Her vision leading to the discovery of a neighbouring quarry, the work proceeded henceforward with exceeding rapidity.

Although the first Abbot was appointed in 1076, William the Conqueror did not live to see the Abbey finished. Sixty monks of the Order of St. Benedict came to Battle from the Abbey of Marmontier in Normandy, to form its nucleus. It was left to William Rufus to preside over the consecration of Battle, which was not until February, 1095, when the ceremony was performed amid much pomp. William presented to the Abbey his father's coronation robe and the sword he had wielded in the battle. Several wealthy manors were attached and the country round was exempted from tax; while the Abbots were made superior to episcopal control, and were endowed with the right to sit in Parliament and a London house to live in during the session. Indeed nothing was left undone that could minister to the pride and power of the new house of God.

The Abbey of St. Martin was quadrangular, standing in the midst of a circle nine miles round. Within this were vineyards, stew ponds and rich land. Just without was a small street of artisans' dwellings, where were manufactured all things requisite for the monks' material well-being. The church was the largest in the country, larger even than Canterbury. It was also a sanctuary, any sentenced criminal who succeeded in sheltering therein receiving absolution from the Abbot. The high altar, as I have said, was erected precisely on the spot where Harold fell: a spot on which one may now stand and think of the past.

Battle Abbey was more than once visited by kings. In 1200 John was there, shaking like a quicksand. He brought a piece of our Lord's sepulchre, which had been wrested from Palestine by Richard the Lion Heart, and laid it with tremulous hands on the altar, hoping that the magnificence of the gift might close Heaven's eyes towards sins of his own. In 1212, he was at Battle Abbey again, and for the last time in 1213, seeking, maybe, to find in these silent cloisters some forgetfulness of the mutterings of hate and scorn that everywhere followed him.

Just before the Battle of Lewes, Henry III. galloped up, attended by a body-guard of overbearing horsemen, and levied large sums of money to assist him in the struggle. After the battle he returned, a weary refugee, but still rapacious.

These visits were not welcome. It was different when Edward II. slept there on the night of August 28th, 1324. Alan de Ketbury, the Abbot, was bent on showing loyalty at all cost, while the neighbouring lords and squires were hardly less eager. The Abbot's contribution to the kitchen included twenty score and four loaves of bread, two swans, two rabbits, three fessantes, and a dozen capons; William de Echingham sent three peacocks, twelve bream, six muttons, and other delicacies; and Robert Acheland four rabbits, six swans, and three herons.

In 1331, Abbot Hamo and his monks kept at bay a body of French marauders, who had landed at Rye, until the country gentlemen could assemble and repulse them utterly.

Then followed two peaceful centuries; but afterwards came disaster, for, in 1558, Thomas Cromwell sent down two commissioners to examine into the state of the Abbey and report thereon to the zealous Defender of the Faith. The Commissioners found nineteen books in the library, and rumours of monkish debauchery without the walls. "So beggary a house," wrote one of the officers, "I never see." Battle Abbey was therefore suppressed and presented to Sir Anthony Browne, upon whom, as we saw in the first chapter, the "Curse of Cowdray" was pronounced by the last departing monk.

To catalogue the present features of Battle Abbey is to vulgarise it. One comes away with confused memories of grey walls embraced by white clematis and red rose; gloomy underground caverns with double rows of arches, where the Brothers might not speak; benignant cedars blessing the turf with extended hands; fragrant limes waving their delicate leaves; an old rose garden with fantastic beds; a long yew walk where the Brothers might meditatively pace—turning, perhaps, an epigram, regretting, perhaps, the world. Nothing now remains of the Refectory, where, of old, forty monks fed like one, except the walls. It once had a noble roof of Irish oak, but that was taken to Cowdray and perished in the fire there, together with the Abbey roll. One of the Abbey's first charms is the appropriateness of its gardens; they too are old. In the cloisters, for instance, there are wonderful box borders.

Battle Abbey, The Refectory.png

Battle Abbey. The Refectory.

Turner painted "Battle Abbey: the spot where Harold fell," with a greyhound pressing hard upon a hare in the foreground, and a Scotch fir Italianated into a golden bough.

The town of Battle has little interest. In the church is a brass to Thomas Alfraye and his wife Elizabeth—Thomas Alfraye "whose soul" according to his epitaph,

In active strength did passe
As nere was found his peere.

One would like to know more of this Samson. The tomb of Sir Anthony Browne is also here; but it is not so imposing as that of his son, the first Viscount Montagu, which we saw at Easebourne. In the churchyard is the grave of Isaac Ingall, the oldest butler on record, who died at the age of one hundred and twenty, after acting as butler at the Abbey for ninety-five years.

From Battle one may reach easily Normanhurst, the seat of the Brasseys, and Ashburnham Park, just to the north of it, a superb undulating domain, with lakes, an imposing mansion, an old church, brake fern, magnificent trees and a herd of deer, all within its confines. Of the church, however, I can say nothing, for I was there on a very hot day, the door was locked, and the key was at the vicarage, ten minutes' distant, at the top of a hill. Churches that are thus controlled must be neglected.

Ashburnham Place once contained some of the finest books in England and is still famous for its relics of Charles I.; but strangers may not see them. The best Sussex iron was smelted at Ashburnham Furnace, north of the park, near Penhurst. Ashburnham Forge was the last to remain at work in the county; its last surviving labourer of the neighbourhood died in 1883. He remembered the extinguishing of the fire in 1813 (or 1811), the casting of fire-backs being the final task. Penhurst, by the way, is one of the most curiously remote villages in east Sussex, with the oddest little church.

I walked to Ashburnham from Ninfield, a clean breezy village on the hill overlooking Pevensey Bay, with a locked church, and iron stocks by the side of the road. It is stated somewhere that at "that corner of Crouch Lane that leads to Lunford Cross, and so to Bexhill and Hastings," was buried a suicide in 1675. At how many cross roads in Sussex and elsewhere does one stand over such graves?

One may return to Hastings by way of Catsfield, which has little interest, and Crowhurst, famous for the remains of a beautiful manor house and a yew tree supposed to be the oldest in Sussex. It is curious that Crowhurst in Surrey is also known for a great yew.