Houses of Benedictine monks: Abbey of Battle

Pages 52-56

A History of the County of Sussex: Volume 2. Originally published by Victoria County History, London, 1973.

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When William, duke of Normandy, looked from the high ground of Telham Hill upon the forces of King Harold, he vowed that if God gave him the victory he would found a monastery upon the place of battle. Amongst those who heard this vow was a monk of Marmoutier, William called 'the smith,' who when William had obtained the crown of England urged him to fulfil his promise; the king willingly agreed and entrusted William with the execution of his design. The monk, therefore, brought over from Marmoutier four of his brethren, but as the actual site of the battle seemed to them unsuitable for a great monastery, they began to build on the lower ground to the west. When the Conqueror heard of this he angrily insisted that the foundations should rest upon the very spot where he had achieved his victory, and upon the monks pleading a scarcity of water he replied, 'If God spare my life I will so amply provide for this place that wine shall be more abundant here than water is in any other great abbey.' (fn. 2) The further complaint of lack of building stone was met by the king's undertaking to provide stone from Caen, but a quarry was actually found close to the site of the abbey. The Conqueror at the same time bestowed upon his new foundation all the land within a radius of a league (1½ miles), the valuable estate of Alciston in Sussex, the royal manor of Wye in Kent with its member of Dungemarsh on the coast, Limpsfield in Surrey, Hoo in Essex, Brightwalton in Berkshire, Crowmarsh in Oxfordshire, churches in Reading, Cullompton (Devon), and St. Olave's, Exeter. (fn. 3) For various reasons, however, building progressed slowly, and it was not until 1076 that things were sufficiently advanced for an abbot to be appointed. (fn. 4) Robert Blancard, one of the four monks who had first come over, was elected, but on his way back from Marmoutier he was drowned. Accordingly William 'the smith' was sent to Marmoutier to fetch Gausbert, who came with four of his brethren and was consecrated abbot of St. Martin's of the place of Battle. (fn. 5)

At first Stigand, bishop of Chichester, endeavoured to compel Abbot Gausbert to come to Chichester for consecration, but the king commanded that the consecration should be in the abbey church, and further ordered that the bishop and his attendants should not even have lodging or food within the monastery that day, to show the complete exemption of the abbey from episcopal jurisdiction. (fn. 6) The privileges granted to Battle (fn. 7) were indeed more remarkable than the extent of its endowments: within the Lowey (a circle of 1½ miles radius round the abbey) the abbot was absolute; neither bishop nor royal officer could interfere there, danegeld and other dues were not levied. When the abbot was summoned to attend the king's court he was to have an allowance of food, wine, and wax candles for himself and two monks, and his attendance was further simplified by the grant of a residence in London and in Winchester; but perhaps the most striking privilege was that the abbot when passing through the king's forests might kill and take one or two beasts with his dogs.

The remoteness of the abbey's estates in Exeter and Cullompton necessitated one of the brethren residing there to manage them, and it was soon found advisable to convert St. Olave's into a cell (dedicated in honour of St. Nicholas), (fn. 8) and the same course was followed with the church and estates given them in Brecknock. (fn. 9)

When the Conqueror died he bequeathed to his votive abbey his royal embroidered cloak, a splendid collection of relics, and a portable altar containing relics, probably the identical one on which Harold had sworn his famous oath. (fn. 10) Rufus further added the monastery of Bromham in Wiltshire, and in February, 1095, when at last the abbey church was consecrated in the presence of the king, the primate, and seven bishops, gave nine churches and twelve dependent chapels in Norfolk, Suffolk, and Essex. (fn. 11) Though the abbey had thus a considerable number of churches in its gift its Sussex patronage was surprisingly small, consisting only of Alciston with the chapel of Lullington, until in Henry I's reign Wening, by permission of William son of Wibert, added the church of Westfield with a wist of land and the remarkable accessory of a pit for the ordeal by water. (fn. 12) The church of Icklesham was given by Nicholas Haringod in 1226, (fn. 13) and the chapel of Whatlington by Simon de Echingham. (fn. 14)

The temporalities of Battle were swollen by gifts and still more by purchase, and also by exchange, for Henry I, wishing to found a monastery at Reading, gave the abbot of Battle in exchange for his Reading estate the manors of Funtington and Appledram near Chichester. By 1291 the property of the monks was valued at £528 10s., of which £211 came from Sussex. (fn. 15) In 1535 the gross income of the abbey was £987, the clear value being £880 14s. 7¾d. (fn. 16)

Abbot Gausbert having died in July, 1095, some four months after the consecration of the abbey church, the monks applied to the king for leave to elect a fresh head, who should be taken, in accordance with their foundation charter, from their own number. (fn. 17) William, however, delayed for some time, and at last by the advice of Archbishop Anselm promoted Henry, prior of Christ Church, Canterbury, to the abbacy in June, 1096. He, though a truly religious man, took the unfortunate step of allowing Bishop Ralph to compel him to go to Chichester for consecration. (fn. 18) After the death of Abbot Henry in 1102 the abbey was put under the control of various clerks appointed by the king, the most important being Geoffrey, a monk of St. Carileff, an able business man though unlearned, and Gunter, formerly a monk of Battle but then abbot of Thorney. (fn. 19) At last in 1107 King Henry appointed Ralph, a monk of Caen and prior of Rochester, to the long-vacant abbacy. He proved a ruler as prudent as pious, and under him the buildings of the abbey, its possessions, and its good fame alike grew, while excellent relations were established with his namesake the venerable bishop of Chichester, who expressly proclaimed the exemption of the abbey and parish church of Battle from episcopal control. (fn. 20) At last, in 1124, at the age of eighty-four, this most worthy abbot died, (fn. 21) and was succeeded by Warner, a monk of Canterbury, who proved an able administrator, and duly upheld the privileges of his abbey against Seffrid, bishop of Chichester, even to the extent of refusing hospitality when it was demanded as a right instead of as a favour. (fn. 22) Warner, however, offended King Stephen in some way, and found it prudent to resign his abbacy and retire to the priory of Lewes. In January, 1139, Walter, brother of the great Richard de Lucy, became abbot of Battle. (fn. 23) Thanks to his powerful connexions and his own ability he was able to advance the prosperity of his monastery, recovering much land that had been misappropriated, and obtaining from Henry II the confirmation of the abbey's charters though bitterly opposed by the archbishop of Canterbury and Hilary, bishop of Chichester. (fn. 24) Against the latter haughty prelate's claims he waged a determined and eventually successful battle. (fn. 25) Upon his death in 1171 his brother Richard de Lucy placed the control of the abbey in the hands of Sir Peter de Criel and Hugh de Beche, who managed its affairs with prudence during the four years' vacancy that ensued. (fn. 26)

At last, in 1175, the king decided to fill up the vacant abbeys, and summoned a deputation of the monks of Battle to attend at Woodstock; neither of their nominees, however, proved acceptable, nor was the king willing to give them time to consult their convent; they therefore fixed upon Odo, prior of Canterbury, a man of great piety and learning, who chanced to be at the court for the purpose of examining the charters of Battle as precedents for the renewal of those of his own priory, which had lately been consumed by fire. The king and archbishop accepted this nomination, but Odo himself absolutely refused the honour, appealing to the pope and even offering to resign his priorship sooner than become abbot; but at last, fearing that he might be refusing the call of God, he unwillingly agreed, subject to the consent of his convent. Again the bishop of Chichester tried to interfere, but this time the consecration was performed by the archbishop of Canterbury at South Malling. (fn. 27) Odo soon proved that his reputation alike for sanctity and wisdom was well deserved, and in 1184 he was chosen for the vacant primacy of Canterbury, but was rejected by the king. (fn. 28) During the long and bitter struggle between Archbishop Baldwin and the monks of Canterbury, Odo played a prominent part, acting on the pope's behalf against the primate. (fn. 29) In March 1200 this saintly abbot died, leaving behind him two works, on the Psalms and the Book of Kings, which were still treasured in the library at the dissolution, when Leland noted their existence. Another monk of Canterbury, John of Dover, succeeded Odo. During his rule the abbey was four times visited by King John, who on one occasion gave to it a fragment of the Holy Sepulchre brought from Palestine by King Richard; he also granted a charter giving the monks the custody of the abbey during vacancy, and it was while here in 1213 that he annulled his previous sentences of outlawry against certain ecclesiastics and undertook never again to outlaw clerks. (fn. 30)

When the English prelates made their protest to the king against the extortion of the pope in 1240, Ralph, abbot of Battle, was one of their spokesmen, (fn. 31) but we hear little more of the abbey until 1264, when Henry III, on his way to meet the baronial troops, repaid the monks' hospitality with robbery and plunder; King Henry had visited the abbey in 1225, and his successor, Edward I, was there in 1276 and 1302, and Edward II in 1324. Licence was obtained in 1338 for the erection of an embattled wall round the abbey precincts, (fn. 32) but whatever protection this may have afforded against more tangible enemies it could not keep out the terrible Black Death, which wrought great havoc here in 1350, the abbot falling a victim and the material prosperity of the house being greatly injured. (fn. 33)

Hamo de Offynton, who was elected early in 1364, was a man of considerable character; one of his first acts appears to have been the exercise of one of the most remarkable privileges of his position, for, meeting on his way to London a felon condemned to death by the king's court, he liberated him, establishing from his charters his right to do so, though his action was much disapproved by the king and his nobles. (fn. 34) In 1375 he was appointed visitor of the Benedictine monasteries in the dioceses of Canterbury and Rochester, but was foiled in his attempt to visit the cathedral priory of Canterbury. (fn. 35) Two years later he gained immortal fame by his gallant defence of Winchelsea against the French, (fn. 36) so that upon the occasion of his sudden death while administering the mass in 1382, he is described as 'sub habitu monachico belliger insignis.' (fn. 37) Though the most distinguished, Hamo was not the first abbot to display a military patriotism, as in 1338 we find the abbot of Battle excused from finding men to guard the coast line from his manor of Wye because he had caused all his servants, and others as well, to be arrayed and patrol the coast near Winchelsea. (fn. 38)

The Conqueror is said to have intended to place in his votive abbey at least sixty monks and further to increase their number up to seven score, but how far his intention was carried out is not known. In 1393 there appear to have been twenty-seven brethren, (fn. 39) exclusive of the officials, who were probably about six in number, and in 1404 after the death of Abbot Lydbury, the prior and thirty brethren (exclusive of the representatives of their cells of Exeter and Brecknock) took part in the election. (fn. 40) The numbers, however, seem to have been temporarily reduced not long after this by a devastating attack of plague, for at the Benedictine chapter at Northampton in 1423 the proctor of the abbey of Battle was a monk of Rochester, who explained that he had been appointed by them to visit the houses of the order in Kent and Sussex, because, since the last chapter, at which the abbot of Battle was appointed visitor, very many of the monks at Battle had died, and those that remained were but newly professed and not suitable for the work of visitation. (fn. 41) At the same time the abbot of Reading said that he had visited Battle and found the state of religion there satisfactory. Another visitation was made by Archbishop Warham, when nothing appears to have been found amiss. There were present on this occasion the abbot, prior, cellarer, preceptor (sic), sacrist, and sixteen brethren, one other was lying in the infirmary and another was on a pilgrimage to Rome. (fn. 42) An election was held in 1490 by the prior and thirty brethren, (fn. 43) but at the time of the dissolution there were only seventeen monks and a novice besides the abbot. In accordance with the rules of the order, the abbey was obliged to support at least one of its members as a scholar at the university, and in 1393 we find £10 paid to a scholar studying at Oxford, (fn. 44) while in 1502 several small sums were expended in connexion with the two 'scholars of this monastery,' half a mark being given 'to the warden of Canterbury College in Oxford, to show his goodwill to our brethren studying there.' (fn. 45)

During his visitation of the southern monasteries in October, 1535, Richard Layton came here and declared to Cromwell that the abbot and all but two or three of his monks were guilty of unnatural crimes and traitors, further terming the abbot 'the veriest hayne betle and buserde' and the arrantest churl, adding the sweeping condemnation, 'the black sort of devilish monks, I am sorry to know, are past amendment.' (fn. 46) His master, however, knew what value to attach to his words, and Battle continued its existence as one of the 'great solemn monasteries where (thanks be to God) religion is right well kept and observed,' the abbot remaining undisturbed until 27 May, 1538, when he surrendered the house (fn. 47) on a pension of £100, (fn. 48) which he enjoyed for some years, making his last will in December, 1546. (fn. 49) Sir John Gage reported to Cromwell that the furniture and vestments were very poor, (fn. 50) his associate Layton expressing himself with more vigour in a letter to Wriothesley:—

So beggary a house I never see, nor so filthy stuff. I will not 20s. for all the hangings in this house, as the bearer can tell you. The revestry is the worst and poorest that is. There is one cope of crimson velvet somewhat embroidered, one of green velvet embroidered, and two of blue rusty and soiled. If you wish any of these send me word and you shall have the best, but so many evil I never see, the stuff is like the persons. (fn. 51)

The plate was valued at 400 marks, and although no details are given, it no doubt resembled that fully catalogued in 1420, (fn. 52) of which the most interesting items were the six 'magni ciphi Haraldi de mirra,' presumably once the property of the last Saxon king of England. The Conqueror's cloak is said to have been removed, with that most famous of genealogical frauds, 'the Battle Abbey Roll,' to Cowdray by Sir Anthony Browne, to whom the site of the abbey was granted in August, 1538. (fn. 53)

The last scene in the history of the convent took place in 1557 when Thomas Twisden, alias Bede, did penance and sought rehabilitation because that after the dissolution of the abbey of Battle, where he had made his profession, he left his order without papal licence and assumed the status of a secular clerk, and, assenting to the pernicious schism, received houses and property belonging to the monastery. It was decreed that these goods so received should, after the death of Thomas, be applied to the use of the monastery of Battle or to some other religious use, (fn. 54) but before a year had passed Elizabeth had ascended the throne, and all chance of reviving the abbey of Battle had departed.

Abbots of Battle

Robert Blancard, appointed 1076, drowned same year (fn. 55)

Gausbert, appointed 1076, died 1095 (fn. 56)

Henry, elected 1096, (fn. 57) died 1102 (fn. 58)

Ralph, elected 1107, (fn. 59) died 1124 (fn. 60)

Warner, elected 1125, (fn. 61) resigned 1138 (fn. 62)

Walter de Lucy, elected 1139, (fn. 63) died 1171 (fn. 64)

Odo, elected 1175, (fn. 65) died 1200 (fn. 66)

John de Dubra, elected 1200 (fn. 66)

Richard, elected 1215, (fn. 67) died 1235 (fn. 68)

Ralph de Covintre, elected 1235 (fn. 69)

Reginald, elected 1261, (fn. 70) resigned 1281 (fn. 71)

Henry de Aylesford, elected 1281, (fn. 72) died 1297 (fn. 73)

John de Taneto, elected 1298, (fn. 74) resigned 1308 (fn. 75)

John de Whatlington, elected 1308, (fn. 76) died 1311 (fn. 77)

John de Nortburne, elected 1311, (fn. 78) resigned 1318 (fn. 79)

John de Pevense, elected 1318, (fn. 80) died 1324 (fn. 81)

Alan de Retlyng, elected 1324, (fn. 82) died 1350. (fn. 83)

Robert de Bello, elected 1351, died 1364

Hamo de Offynton, elected 1364, died 1383 (fn. 84)

John Crane, elected 1383 (fn. 85)

John Lydbury, elected 1398, died 1404 (fn. 86)

William Merssh, elected 1405, (fn. 87) died 1417

Thomas de Ludlow, elected 1417, resigned 1435

William Waller, elected 1435, died 1437

Richard Dertmouth, elected 1437, occurs 1462 (fn. 88)

John Newton, elected 1463, (fn. 89) died 1490 (fn. 90)

Richard Tovy, elected 1490, (fn. 91) died 1503

William Westfield, elected 1503, died 1508 (fn. 92)

Lawrence Champion, elected 1508, (fn. 93) died 1529 (fn. 94)

John Hamond, elected 1529, (fn. 95) last abbot

The first seal depicts the abbey church from the north with central tower, chapels, and arcaded walls, the details of the roof and arches of the nave being clearly shown. Under the central arch the abbot seated, lifting up the right hand in benediction, in the left hand pastoral staff. In base an arcade. (fn. 96) Legend destroyed.

The second seal, of the early thirteenth century, also shows the abbey church, with central tower, four side towers, western doorway, and arcaded clerestories. On each of the two highest turrets a flag. (fn. 97) Legend:—


Abbot Odo

A pointed oval counterseal. The abbot on a corbel, in the right hand a pastoral staff, in the left hand a book. (fn. 98)



Abbot Richard

A small pointed oval counterseal. The abbot, full-length, on a corbel, in the right hand a pastoral staff, in the left hand a book. (fn. 99)


. . . . . RA . A . . . . SBI . MARTINI . DE . BELLO

Abbot Reginald

A pointed oval counterseal. The abbot, on a corbel, in the right hand a pastoral staff, in the left hand a book. The background diapered lozengy with a reticulated pattern. (fn. 100)


. . . . . IA : ABB . . . . .

Abbot Walter de Lucy

Pointed oval. The abbot seated on a chair-like throne, in the right hand a pastoral staff, in the left hand a book. (fn. 101)


. . . . ILLV . . . . SBI MAR . . . . . BELLO.


  • 1. Dugdale, Mon. iii, 233–58; Cott. MS. Domit. A, ii—translated by M. A. Lower and published in 1851 as The Chronicle of Battle Abbey—this MS. is imperfect, but goes down to the year 1176. The splendid collection of original deeds relating to the abbey, now in the Phillipps Library at Cheltenham, was catalogued by Thorpe in 1835. Two chartularies are in the P.R.O. and a third in Lincoln's Inn. The Custumal of Battle Abbey, published by the Camden Soc. is of great economic interest.
  • 2. Lower, Chron. of Battle Abbey, 10.
  • 3. Ibid. 35.
  • 4. Ibid. 11.
  • 5. Ibid. 12.
  • 6. Ibid. 30.
  • 7. Ibid. 27, 28.
  • 8. Ibid. 36.
  • 9. Ibid. 38.
  • 10. Ibid. 41.
  • 11. Ibid. 45.
  • 12. Ibid. 59.
  • 13. Suss. Arch. Coll. xxii, 106.
  • 14. Pat. 14 Edw. II, pt. ii, m. 18.
  • 15. Taxatio (Rec. Com.), passim.
  • 16. Valor. Eccl. (Rec. Com.), ii, 438.
  • 17. Lower, Chron. of Battle Abbey, 46.
  • 18. Ibid 48.
  • 19. Ibid. 52–7.
  • 20. Ibid. 63.
  • 21. Ibid. 66.
  • 22. Ibid. 70.
  • 23. Ibid. 72.
  • 24. Ibid. 80–4.
  • 25. Ibid. 86–115.
  • 26. Ibid. 153.
  • 27. Ibid. 162–77.
  • 28. Gervase of Cant. (Rolls Ser.), i, 310.
  • 29. Epist. Cantuar. (Rolls Ser.), passim.
  • 30. Pat. 15 John, m. 11.
  • 31. Matt. Paris, Chron. Majora (Rolls Ser.), iv, 17.
  • 32. Pat. 12 Edw. III, pt. ii, m. 28.
  • 33. Cal. Papal Pet. 202.
  • 34. Chron. Anglie (Rolls Ser.), 54.
  • 35. Hist. MSS. Com. Rep. viii, 339.
  • 36. Chron. Anglie (Rolls Ser.), 167.
  • 37. Higden, Polychron. (Rolls Ser.), ix, 17.
  • 38. Close, 12 Edw. III, pt. iii, m. 33.
  • 39. Mins. Accts. bdle. 1251, No. 1.
  • 40. Chich. Epis. Reg. Reade, fol. 83.
  • 41. Reyner, Hist. Ord. S. Bened. App. 173.
  • 42. Cant. Archiepis. Reg. Warham, fol. 253.
  • 43. Chich. Epis. Reg. Story, fol. 87.
  • 44. Mins. Accts. bdle. 1251, No. 1.
  • 45. Mins. Accts. Hen. VII, No. 861.
  • 46. L. and P. Hen. VIII, ix, 632.
  • 47. Ibid. xiii (1), 1083.
  • 48. Ibid.
  • 49. Suss. Arch. Coll. vi, 65.
  • 50. L. and P. Hen. VIII, xiii (1), 1084.
  • 51. L. and P. Hen. VIII, xiii (1), 1085.
  • 52. Macray, Mun. of Magd. Coll. Oxon. 11–13.
  • 53. L and P. Hen. VIII, xiii (2), 249 (8).
  • 54. Cant. Archiepis. Reg. Pole, fol. 25.
  • 55. Chron. 12.
  • 56. Ibid. 46.
  • 57. Ibid. 47.
  • 58. Ibid. 52.
  • 59. Ibid. 57.
  • 60. Ibid. 66.
  • 61. Ibid. 67.
  • 62. Ibid. 71.
  • 63. Ibid. 72.
  • 64. Ibid. 151.
  • 65. Ibid. 162.
  • 66. Ann. Mon. (Rolls Ser.), ii, 73.
  • 67. Pat. 16 John, m. 7.
  • 68. Ann. Mon. (Rolls Ser.), i, 99.
  • 69. Pat. 20 Hen. III, m. 4.
  • 70. Lower, Chron. 200.
  • 71. Pat. 9 Edw. I, m. 22.
  • 72. Pat. 9, Edw. I, m. 19.
  • 73. Pat. 26 Edw. I, m. 31.
  • 74. Ibid. m. 30.
  • 75. Pat. 1 Edw. II, pt. ii, m. 27.
  • 76. Ibid. m. 24.
  • 77. Pat. 4 Edw. II, pt. ii, m. 17.
  • 78. Ibid. m. 10.
  • 79. Pat. 11 Edw. II, pt. ii, m. 33.
  • 80. Ibid. m. 28.
  • 81. Pat. 17 Edw. II, pt. i, m. 4. Here called 'Roger.'
  • 82. Ibid. pt. ii, m. 25.
  • 83. This and the other dates without references are given on the authority of Lower's list at the end of the Chron.
  • 84. Pat. 6, Ric. II, pt. ii, m. 17.
  • 85. Ibid. m. 7.
  • 86. Pat. 6. Hen. IV. pt. i, m. 18.
  • 87. Ibid. m. 16.
  • 88. Pat. 2 Edw. IV, pt. iii, m. 15.
  • 89. Pat. 3 Edw. IV. pt. i, m. 12.
  • 90. Chich. Epis. Reg. Story, fol. 87.
  • 91. Ibid.
  • 92. Thorpe, Catal. 133.
  • 93. Ibid.
  • 94. L. and P. Hen. VIII. iv, 5934.
  • 95. Ibid.
  • 96. L.F.C. vii, 4.
  • 97. L.F.C. xxvii, 6; cf. Dugdale, Mon. iii, 238.
  • 98. L.F.C. vii, 4.
  • 99. L.F.C. xxvii, 2.
  • 100. L.F.C. xxiii, 16.
  • 101. L.F.C. xxii, 13.