Visitors to Battle Abbey can enjoy the 1066 tale from a new perspective following a £1.8m revamp, which included opening up parts of the site to the public for the very first time.
In November English Heritage embarked on a major re-presentation and conservation of the 1066 battlefield and abbey ahead of the 950th anniversary year of the Battle of Hastings.
The changes included moving a stone memorial marking the spot where – according to tradition – King Harold fell at the battle.
Battle Abbey was founded by the victorious William the Conqueror on the site of the battlefield, as penance for the blood shed that day. Historic sources from the early 12th century state that the abbey’s church was built “on the very spot where according to tradition, among the piled heaps of corpses Harold was found”, with the high altar located “where the body of Harold (slain for the love of his country) was found.”
But new advances in our understanding of the layout of the abbey’s church reveal that the site of this altar was further east than previously thought.
The existing memorial stone, which has been in situ since the early 1980s, has now been moved to this new location, to coincide with the opening of a new exhibition and two previously unseen areas of the Abbey today (Friday, July 15).
The Observer was offered an exclusive tour around the new look site with Roy Porter, senior properties curator for English Heritage, on Monday.
As part of English Heritage’s re-presentation of the site, visitors can, for the first time, climb 66 steps to the top of the Abbey’s Great Gatehouse and stand on its roof, getting a whole new, 360-degree perspective on the surrounding landscape where fierce fighting raged on 14 October 1066.
Access to the roof is via a 14th Century staircase, but remedial work was needed to make the weather-beaten steps usable.
Mr Porter said: “In the medieval building there was only one staircase leading from the ground floor to the roof.
“The top third of this has not been used for some time so it was exposed to the sky.”
And for the first time, visitors can also access – through the original 13th century doorway – the abbey’s huge dormitory where the Benedictine monks once slept.
Mr Porter said: “Previously you could look into the first floor of that building but could not access it, which was a pity because it’s one of the most impressive of the ruins.
“We saw it as an opportunity to go up a level, right at the heart of the abbey site.”
Archeology work uncovered the original mediaeval staircase, which has been protected, before the new staircase was built providing access to the dormitory.
Mr Porter added: “The nice thing is it’s on the location of the original stairs, so it’s taking the route the monks would have taken.”
Meanwhile a new exhibition inside the Great Gatehouse gives a blow-by-blow account of the battle, from the very different preparations of the opposing forces the night before to the final outcome.
While the Norman soldiers chanted and confessed their sins to God, the Saxons prepared by getting roaringly drunk. As well as the sounds of the two armies preparing for battle, the exhibition includes a reproduced Saxon shield wall, with arrows flying overhead, and a replica Norman helmet to try on.
There are further delights lurking around the battlefield for visitors to discover, in the form of 15 beautifully carved oak figures, including a Norman knight on horseback and an axe-wielding Anglo-Saxon warrior.
The intricately carved figures were created by chainsaw artists at Studio Hardie in Lewes – the company featured on Channel 4’s George Clarke’s Amazing Spaces.
Mr Porter said: “Going around the trail by the trees, you will come across various figures created by chainsaw sculptors to give a rustic, robust feel.
“They are wearing the correct armour, carrying the correct shields and swords.
“And there’s a narrative as well. You’re walking through the English soldiers then there will be other soldiers fighting each other. Then you are in the Norman camp.”
The craftsmen from Studio Hardie are also responsible for the new abbey play area, which features a series of wooden installations based on the activities which previously went on at that particular part of the grounds.
The installations include a bull and cart and a dozing monk accompanied by a monkey – based on documentary evidence of one of the abbey monks having a pet primate.
Mr Porter said: “Play areas tend to be big, bright and ugly, so we could not do that.”
He added: “It’s been open a little while and the children love it. It’s also got a learning outcome as it tells them something about what this part of the abbey was in the middle ages.”
Kate Mavor, English Heritage’s chief executive, said: “In 1066, two armies met on this field in East Sussex and the outcome defined England for centuries.
“To understand how Harold lost, why William won, and what that meant for the country, a visit to the battlefield is a must.
“Highlighting the location where Harold fell and opening up these new spaces means that people can discover more about one of the most important battles in our history.”
The newly re-presented 1066 Battle of Hastings, Abbey and Battlefield opens to the public from today (Friday, July 15).
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