Following the Norman invasion of England, the victorious French were ordered to be respectful of those lives they had taken and to undertake some form of public penance. William the Conqueror captured this mood and decided that an abbey should be constructed on the great battle site, carefully placing the high altar on the spot where King Harold had fallen. In 1070 the Benedictine monastery was founded with a community of monks from the Loire in France, and building work commenced. No expense was spared, and soon huge quantities of the best Caen stone were being shipped to Britain to build the abbey church. By the turn of the century the 225ft (68m) long church, with a typically French apsidal east end containing radiating chapels (chevet), had been completed and the monks' temporary living quarters had been replaced by stone buildings.
Battle Abbey was almost completely transformed during the 13th century when a programme of rebuilding, enlargements and extensions was undertaken after Battle Abbey was granted independence from the Crown. The addition of a vast gatehouse in the 1330s signified the important role of defence played by Battle Abbey throughout the Hundred Years War but this was a financial drain and, just 20 years later another serious blow was suffered by the Sussex monastery. Many of the community were struck down by the Black Death and their depleted numbers never recovered, yet they struggled to maintain their self-sufficiency until the dissolution in 1538. At this time Battle Abbey was reported to be in a fairly neglected state, despite having one of the highest incomes of any Benedictine house.
The Crown granted the estate to Sir Anthony Brown, and he wasted no time in demolishing the magnificent abbey church, using the materials to convert part of the domestic range into a grand mansion for himself. He also rebuilt the medieval guest range to provide an additional residence. Some time in the 18th century more monastic buildings were demolished, although the mansion was improved, and later extended. Since the end of the First World War the mansion has housed the Battle Abbey School, and is not open to the general public, but it is possible to see traces of the lovely claustral vaulting on the front wall of the building, looking across the cloister.
Virtually no evidence of the church exists today. A stone marks the spot at the high altar where King Harold was remembered, and the crypts beneath the original chapels of the chevet have been excavated. Undoubtedly the most impressive remains of the original monastery are the vaulted undercrofts of the east range. Here are two chambers, one with a high ceiling known as the novices room, and a larger room used by the monks for their recreational activities. Slender columns, lancet windows, and some finely carved corbels are a few reminders of the standards of skill employed in the building of Battle Abbey.
1066 is probably one of the most-remembered dates in our history, and to stand on the very ground where that momentous battle took place is a stirring experience. Then to learn that this beautiful abbey was created as a result of all that bloodshed gives an even greater significance to the Norman invasion and how they changed the face of British history.