We first visited Battle Abbey on a school trip for the 900th anniversary. Even as seven and eight-year-olds we could tell that the basic events described to us in the traditional narrative did not match the geography and topology of the place. After searching for most of our adult lives, we think we have found the real battlefield some three miles northeast of Battle Abbey near Sedlescombe.
We published the story of our investigation in a series of blogs to coincide with the 950th anniversary of the battle. People complained that they were difficult to read as a narrative and difficult to reference. We therefore combined the blogs into a book, available in printed and Kindle versions from Amazon (ISBN 978-1-5272-4204-3 and ASIN B07TBQMMWT, respectively). You can download the PDF or the EPUB versions of this book by clicking this link.
If you do not have the patience to wade through 210 pages of our blather, below is a brief summary. If you are interested in our interpretation of the evidence, our main battlefield blog is here; our thoughts on the traditional battlefield are here; our review of alternative battlefield theories is here; our place name analysis is here; our war games overview is here.
1. All the action takes place on the Hastings Peninsula (map above), and nearby. In those days it was a real peninsula, triangular in shape, enclosed by the River Brede to the north, the River Ash Bourne to the west and by the sea to the south. The isthmus (IR) at Sprays Wood (now on the B2096) was barely 500m across. Beyond the rivers were two huge marshy inland lagoons: Romney Marsh to the east, Pevensey Levels to the west. These lagoons were retained by long shingle spits which extended east and west from the Hastings Peninsula. The geography of this place was extraordinary, offering a great chance to trap or ambush a counter-attacking army. Presumably this is why William chose it for his invasion.
2. William landed on the north bank of the Brede (1 on the map above), on what is now the Udimore Peninsula. The nearest Saxon garrisons - Lympne and Pevensey - had been emptied to help repel Viking invaders up north. The Normans landed unopposed. William was not to know. A major reason for landing on the north bank of the Brede was the pinch point at Sowdens (So), where the Udimore ridge narrowed to barely 100m across. His plan, if he had faced a garrison counterattack during the landing, would have been to block the ridgeway at Sowdens, buying time to unload the horses, armour and fortifications. With a strong bridgehead, the Normans could punch through or loop behind a garrison sized force on the Udimore ridge.
3. William would not have feared a garrison counterattack or a garrison blockade once he had established his Udimore Peninsula bridgehead, because Saxon garrisons were relatively small. It was no place to be once the English army arrived. Sowdens would become a strangulation point through which the Normans would have had no hope of escape. Getting the horses back on William's longships would have taken days, and Harold could deprive them of anywhere safe to go by blocking the spit breaches at Winchelse and Old Romney, and by lining the south bank of the Brede with pikemen. Getting besieged somewhere as small, barren and escape proof as the eastern end of the Udimore Peninsula would have been William's worst nightmare. He needed to move the Norman army somewhere with more space, more food and better tactical possibilities before the main English army arrived.
4. After just one day, the Normans crossed to the south bank of the Brede. William created a sea camp at Winchelsea (2) for himself and his barons. He knew from messengers that Harold was bringing the English army down the Roman road from Rochester (Margary 13, shown as a black line). He dispersed his cavalry around what was Buckhurst manor (2C), now Great Buckland Farm, where they could guard Sedlescombe bridge (S) without being seen from the other side. His Plan A was to appear weak and toothless at Winchelsea, in order to lure Harold and the English army across the Brede. If Harold had ventured onto the Hastings Peninsula in person, the idea would have been for the Norman cavalry to charge north on the Roman road between Beauport Park and Sedlescombe bridge, cutting off Harold's retreat and trapping him on the riverbank.
5. Harold was too wily. He decided to camp on Great Sanders ridge (G), the last high ground before the Brede, while spies and messengers were dispatched to scout the Norman deployment. Harold, in the belief that the Normans were overwhelmingly footbound, would have thought that the Great Sanders ridge was an ideal place from which to conduct an attack or siege. It had a good view of, and quick access to, both the Brede fords and both the land egress points from the Hastings Peninsula. It was close enough to Sedlescombe bridge to prevent a Norman infantry sortie over the only easy egress point. It was close enough to block the isthmus and the fords if the Normans tried any of the other egress points. If William did manage to get significant numbers across the river, it was close enough to the Rother (4 miles) for a controlled retreat of the entire army.
6. Unfortunately for Harold, William had brought 2,000 or so trained battle horses and their knights. They could prevent a blockade of Sedlescombe bridge, and they could cut off a controlled retreat by cantering to Cripps Corner (CC) and spreading out along the Rother isthmus ridge to the west and the Udimore ridge to the east. Harold and the English army were effectively trapped. Harold could not even risk fleeing in person, because he could not be sure that part of the Norman cavalry was not waiting to ambush him at Cripps Corner or on the way through Lordship Wood. Indeed, William had probably placed his best archers and swiftest mounts at Cripps Corner and Lordship Wood to cover just such an eventuality.
7. William knew that Harold was trapped and that no significant English reinforcements would arrive on the Friday. He therefore brought all his forces to a battle camp along what is now Cottage Lane, where they overlooked the English camp. William spent Friday scouting the English positions, then attacked at dawn on Saturday. Great Sanders ridge was too woody for Harold to monitor the battle or to control his forces. When he saw the Normans decamp, he moved the English army off the ridge, onto a narrow treeless spur (x on the heat relief map) between two streams that drained into the Brede. This spur was protected at the front by a fosse, at the sides by boggy streams and from above by broken ground. William could only attack up a narrow and moderately steep slope from the river. He arranged his forces into three narrow columns, which was the only deployment that would work on such a narrow battlefield. Unlike traditional depictions of the deployments, the English shield wall was an enclosed stadium (i.e. sausage shaped loop), with the Normans only able to attack the fortified narrow front. They stood close to zero chance of breaking through the English lines ... without the feigned retreat and ill-discipline among the English troops.