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The ghosts of Normandy past, in Sussex England

Our postcard shows the gatehouse of Battle Abbey, built with an impressive wall, to protect one of the richest Abbeys in England from marauding English and raiding French.  Ironic considering its very existence is due to a promise made to a Pope by a Norman duke, in 1066.

Battle Abbey gatehouse
Match! Battle Abbey gatehouse

Exploring the Abbey museum of ancient artefacts and watching a fascinating free film about the battle made us realise how little we had known about the battle of Hastings. Every English child learns the basics but it is definitely a story worth revisiting.

No sign of battles here

As we walked towards the ancient battle field sounds of fighting continued to ring in our ears; axe on armour, sword through bone, the thud of arrows.  Above it all commands yelled across the field and the screams of the dying.

But today the battlefield near Hastings looks fresh, green and peaceful. Nearly 1000 years have cleared away all evidence of the 6000 soldiers who died here.  So little ‘proof’ of the battle has been found by modern archaeologists that other fields and meadows are frequently proclaimed the ‘real’ location.

But something tangible suggests the doubters are wrong. For our Conqueror, mere Duke of Normandy on the other side of the channel, insisted an Abbey was built on the exact spot were King Harold Godwinson of England was felled with an arrow.  Quite a lot of Battle Abbey remains today. 

Senlac fields
Senlac fields

A bit of bickering background

The battle was all Edward the Confessor’s fault.  He died without properly naming an heir to the English throne.

Harold Godwinson’s claim was based on a conversation with Edward who apparently asked him to ‘look after’ England before dying on 5 January 1066.

Godwinson swiftly had himself crowned King on 6 January, to save any complex discussions with others who thought they may also have a bit of a claim.  Like the distinctly fearsome William II Duke of Normandy, Edwards cousin.

Edward the Confessor has a chat with Harold Godwinson
Edward the Confessor has a chat with Harold Godwinson

Furious friends and relations

William took the news of Godwinson’s elevation badly.  He proclaimed loudly that the throne was promised to him and, spinning a few yarns about Godwinson’s less than respectful behaviour, sneakily secured the support of the Pope for his claim. This, more than his own protestations, ensured the loyalty and armies of many nobles.  700 ships were built as he planned invasion.

Meanwhile Godwinson’s brother Tostig was cooking up rebellion.  By September he had King Hardrada of Norway on side and sailing to England to claim the crown.

1066 starts well for the English

Hardrada and his Viking army landed and with Tostig battled their way across the north of England.  At first they crushed local armies but when Godwinson and his army of thousands marched north they were both killed at Stamford Bridge on 25 September.

Then news from the south had the jubilant army on an urgent march south.  On 28 September William II Duke of Normandy landed at Pevensy with ten thousand soldiers and a grim determination to claim the English throne.

While Godwinson’s men, now numbering maybe seven thousand, marched down the country along muddy English highways, William’s men rested and prepared.

The Normans sail to England arriving at Pevensey
The Normans sail to England arriving at Pevensey

A brave and terrible defeat on Senlac fields

On 14 October the two armies met on Senlac field. For hours the English were a many legged monster, a mass of fighting men all held together behind their famous ‘shield wall’.

This wall of shields and men was packed so tight that if a soldier was killed they remained upright while their living brothers fought next to them.  Confident from their success at Stamford Bridge, for hours the wall made the English invincible.

English shield wall
English shield wall

But a tragically a group of apparently retreating Normans enticed a group of English soldiers to break away and charge after them.  William, from the advantage of his horse (Godwinson was on foot), saw the breach and had his men encircle the few hundred English soldiers now separated from the wall.

Then every single one of the surrounded English were killed.  This was the beginning of the end for Harold Godwinson’s England.  By late afternoon Godwinson, many English nobles and thousands of their troops were dead and England was an outpost of Normandy.

Harold with an arrow in his eye
Harold with an arrow in his eye, then cut apart with axes.

Promise to a Pope

Amid the gore of battle William is said to have knelt and given thanks to god for his success. As he had agreed beforehand with the Pope he vowed to build a huge Abbey in gratitude.

It would be nice to think he was also honouring the dead but William isn’t generally known to have much of a softer side. The support of the church was a vital part of the takeover of England.

Before the battle Pope Alexander II had given a papal edict to William confirming his support, which in effect bound every church and abbey in England to William the moment he set foot in England.

William was crowned King of England on Christmas Day 1066 in Westminster Abbey.

The Benedictine Abbey dedicated to St Martin on the site of his greatest victory thrived for hundreds of years.

Benedictine monk checking the wine
Benedictine monk checking the wine

Henry VIII and the end of the Abbey

The Abbey was one of many threatened by Henry VIII when he took on the Catholic church and made himself head of the Church of England in 1634.  After a full review of the property by his henchman Dr Layton, he gave the valuable buildings and land to old buddy Sir Anthony Browne in August 1538.

The Abbey was just one of many properties owned by Sir Anthony. Apparently he was shocked at how simple, even scruffy, the Abbey was. Just 18 monks had been living at the Abbey very much of what they could grow themselves from the land.

A sad monk’s curse

The heyday of the Abbey was long past and rumours of riches very out of date.  It’s only remaining treasures, the cloak of the Conqueror and the Battle Abbey Roll, were taken by Sir Anthony to his main home, Cowdray Park.

He then shamelessly destroyed the magnificent Abbey church and cloisters and made the Abbot’s lodge his own, while building a grand house for himself with the old stones.  It was probably this that made a peace loving monk curse him thoroughly one evening as Sir Anthony feasted at the lodge.

The sad (or livid, depending on the source) monk cursed him loudly for taking church property.  He then solemnly prophesied that Sir Anthony’s name would be wiped from the land by fire or water. Then the monks abandoned the remains of their Abbey, but they never really left as we discovered to our surprise.

The gatehouse from within the grounds
The gatehouse from within the grounds

Of course the curse comes true

It took a few years but all the monk’s prophecies came true.  Cowdray Park burned down in 1793 and the last surviving male heir, Viscount Montague, drowned in the Rhine while trying to negotiate the falls at Schaffhausen.  Rumour has it that messengers from Cowdray to alert the heir to the fire met those from Schaffhausen with news of the viscount’s death. The family line of Sir Anthony Browne was gone forever.

The old dormitory
The old dormitory

The Ghosts of Battle Abbey

The monks who never left? Well if you visit you may see them.

The most popular ghost story about the Abbey is that of Harold, staggering around near his memorial stone with an arrow in his eye.  Curiously for such an enduring legend there is not a single personal record of an actual sighting.

What has been recorded in detail are very convincing sightings of more mundane, if equally unsettling, ghostly characters.

Ghostly monks.  Dozens of them.  Grumbling in the Undercroft store rooms, moseying along the Monks Walk (well they would wouldn’t they) popping up behind the ice house and materialising theatrically in the remains of the old Abbey buildings. They are particularly fond of the ruined rectory, a place they would have met every evening after vespers for a drink of weak beer.

The Undercroft
The Undercroft

Meet the monks

Generally they mind their own business but in one instance an electrician working on some cables for a display felt himself observed.  He turned to see a monk crouched down next to him staring intently at the work he was doing.

Sightings go back hundreds of years but one in 1932 even made the papers.

Newspaper article from 1932 on the ghostly haunting Vanessa and John.
Newspaper article from 1932 on the ghostly haunting of Vanessa and John. Link to the original article here, subs required but text only free at the bottom of the page.

Unwelcome visitors in 1932

In 1932 ‘society girl’ Vanessa Vane Pennell and her brother John cheerfully scoffed at the stories of ghostly monks and agreed to camp out for the night in the old crypt, part of the original Abbey buildings.

Just after midnight a strange light appeared to be filtering out of a wall accompanied by the smell of incense.  Vanessa and John watched, trembling with fear, as the light formed the shape of a tall, cadaverous monk who walked noiselessly towards them.

Just three feet away from where they stood it raised a finger appearing to ask for quiet then gestured for them to go away.  Next, to their horror, they heard a chanting voice behind them. A clear solo voice and the words ‘gloria in excelsis’.  They turned briefly to see… nothing.  When they looked back their unearthly visitor had vanished.

The fled and spent the rest of the night in their car. We cannot find a record of anyone else spending the night in the crypt of Battle Abbey.

The old crypt
The old crypt, as spooky as it looks

More ghostly tales

A few years ago the monks were particularly ‘active’.  This coincided with a fire in the Church just the other side of the Abbey wall, and some vandalism at the Abbey that resulted in a flood.  Fire and water. Links to the curse?

Some evidence exists.  In September 2001 a photograph taken in the novice’s room appears, if you squint a bit, to show a ghostly figure of a man hanging from the doorway.  If you can find a copy of ‘Haunted Gardens’ have a look at the pic on page 51.

‘Re-enactors’…

So often are surprised visitors asking about the ‘re-enactors’ only to be told there are none, or reporting apparently solid monks walking and talking who disappear or walk through walls, that it barely raises an eyebrow in the cosy English Heritage shop.

In April 2002 Jill Sutcliffe a teacher on a school trip from Sutton Valence school in Kent was checking that all her charges had left the Undercroft and saw a grey haired monk with a prominent red belt.  Something in his manner suggested he was too busy to chat.  She asked at the shop about the re-enactors and if the children could speak with them only to be told no, she had seen just one of the many Abbey ghosts.

There are dozens of sightings on record and online.  Rosemary Nicolaou, visitor operations administrator at the site once said: “We tend to have sightings of monks, rather than soldiers. If I do hear of any sightings from visitors I will check out the details to see if there can be any rational, or practical explanation, because I am a sceptic, by nature. However, some of them don’t seem to have an easy explanation.”

The Novices's room
The Novices’s room

The explained… and the unexplained…

Other spooky goings on include a limping grey lady and another in a red dress, but these are fairly standard for old country homes.  Heaps of fruit mysteriously appearing in the Undercroft stores are a curious speciality of the Abbey.

Sang lac is French for blood lake but the old story of the Senlac fields bleeding after a storm are apparently because of iron ore rather than any ghostly battle remains.

The sightings of a knight riding across the battlefield cannot so easily be explained, nor the chilling sounds of battle in October…

Battle Abbey gatehouse, December 2014
Battle Abbey gatehouse, December 2014

More on William the Conqueror:

Senlac fields on a winter evening

Senlac fields on a winter evening

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