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MARKET TOWNS OF SUSSEX (from SDUK Penny Cyclopedia)

Battle in 1835

BATTLE, or BATTEL, a parish and market-town in the hundred of the same name in the rape of Hastings, county of Sussex. It is fifty-two miles S.E. from London, in a pleasant country, Where the land rises in wooded swells. The name of the place was anciently Epiton, and acquired the present denomination in consequence of the great battle between the English and Normans, in which the former were defeated, and their king (Harold) killed, on the 14th October, 1066. The Conqueror commenced, in the following year, an abbey upon the site where the battle had raged most fiercely, the high altar of its church being upon the precise spot where, according to some authorities, Harold was killed, or where, as others say, his standard was taken. But as the whole neighbourhood does not afford any other spot equally eligible for such a structure, Mr. Gilpin is of opinion that accident did not determine the precise spot, though it might the general situation of the erection. When the abbey church was finished, the Conqueror made an offering of his sword and coronation robe at the high altar, in which was also deposited the famous roll or table of all the Normans of consequence who attended William to England. Copies of this catalogue have been preserved ; but modern antiquarians in general concur in the opinion of Dugdale, that the list was often falsified and altered by the monks to gratify persons who wished to be considered of Norman extraction. The abbey was dedicated by the founder to St. Martin, and filled, in the first instance, with Benedictine monks from that of Marmontier in Normandy. All the land for a league around the house was given to it, besides various churches and manors in different counties, which were enlarged by royal and private donations in subsequent reigns. Its prerogatives and immunities were placed on the same footing with those of Christ Church, Canterbury ; the monks and their tenants were exempt from episcopal and other ecclesiastical jurisdiction; they had the exclusive right of inquest in all murders committed within their lands, the property of all treasure discovered on their estates, the right of free warren, and the church was made a sanctuary in cases of homicide, besides other privileges. The abbot, who was mitred, and a peer in parliament, had also the royal power of pardoning any condemned thief whom he should pass or meet ongoing to execution. In the reign of Edward III the abbot obtained the king’s leave to fortify the abbey. The Conqueror’s intention seems to have been that the foundation should maintain 140 monks, but provision does not appear to have been actually made for more than sixty. At the dissolution of the monastery, in the 26th of Henry VIII, its income was valued at £880, 14 shillings, 7 pence, according to Dugdale, or £987, 0 shillings, 10 pence, according to Speed. A pension of £66, 13 shillings, 4 pence was settled upon the abbot, with smaller sums on sixteen other officers and monks. The site and demesnes of the abbey were given to a person named Gilmer, who pulled down a considerable portion of the buildings in order to dispose of the materials. He afterwards sold the estate to Sir Anthony Browne, who began to convert part of the abbey into a mansion, which was finished by his son, the first Lord Montague. This afterwards fell to decay; and when the property was sold to Sir Thomas Webster, the ancestor of Sir Godfrey Webster, the existing proprietor, the present dwelling was erected on one side of the quadrangle of which the old abbey appears to have consisted.

Battle Abbey stands on a gentle rise, with a fine sweep before it of meadows and woods, confined by wooded hills, which form a valley winding towards Hastings, and there meeting the sea. The ruins show the ancient magnificence of the structure ; their circuit is computed at about a mile, and Gilpin considers that the style proves that the greater part must have been rebuilt in the time of the later Henries, when our architecture began to assume a lighter and more embellished form. The remains occupy three sides of a large quadrangle, the fourth having probably been taken down to admit a view of the country when what is now the middle side was converted into a dwelling. The two wings are in ruins. The side of the quadrangle that faces the town contains the grand entrance, which is a large square building, embattled at the top with a handsome octagon tower at each corner. The front is adorned with a series of arches and neat pilasters ; and this entrance is altogether a very rich and elegant specimen of Gothic architecture. This pile is locally called ‘the Castle,’ and until 1794, when the roof fell in and rendered it unfit for the purpose, it was used as a town-hall by the people of Battle. The side of the quadrangle opposite this entrance consists only of two long, low, parallel walls, which formerly supported a row of chambers, and terminated in two elegant turrets. The remaining side, which forms the existing mansion, has undergone the greatest dilapidations. Here stood the abbey church, though the ground-plan cannot now be traced ; the only vestiges of it are nine elegant arches, which seem to have belonged to the inside of a cloister ; they are now filled up, and appear on the outside of the house. Contiguous to the great church are the ruins of a hall, which appears to have been the refectory in ordinary use by the monks. There is another building of the same kind a little detached from the abbey, and which is of great beauty, although its dimensions, 166 feet by 35, are not in good proportion. It has twelve windows on one side and six on the other, and is strongly buttressed on the outside. This appears of older date than the remaining portions of the abbey : it is now used as a barn ; its original purpose was probably to accommodate the numerous tenants to whom the monks gave entertainments at stated times. The floor of the hall is raised, and there is an ascent to it by a flight of steps. Underneath are crypts of freestone divided by elegant pillars and springing arches, which form a curious vaulted building, now converted into a stable.

The town of Battle owes its origin to the abbey. Under the encouragement of the monks, houses to the number of 150 were gradually erected in the vicinity ; and to the town thus formed, a market, to be held on Sundays, was granted by Henry I. At the commencement of the seventeenth century Anthony Viscount Montague obtained an act of parliament for changing the market-day to Thursday, on which it is still held. The present town consists of one street, running along a valley from north-west to south-east. The church is dedicated to St. Mary, and is a very handsome edifice, consisting of a nave, chancel, two aisles, and a substantial tower. The windows of the north aisle are decorated with numerous figures, portraits, and devices in painted glass. The incumbent is styled ‘Dean of Battle,’ though the living is, in fact, a vicarage in the archdeaconry of Lewes and diocese of Chichester, charged in the king’s book at £24, 13 shillings, 4 pence. The lord of the manor is patron. The number of houses in the parish was 515 in 1831, when the population amounted to 2,999 persons, of whom 1,538 were females. The only manufacture for which the place is remarkable is the excellent gunpowder, well known to sportsmen by the name of Battle powder. It is considered to be surpassed only by that of Dartford : there are several extensive mills in the neighbourhood for the manufacture of it. Besides the weekly market, there is one on the second Tuesday of every month for cattle, at which, as well as at the fairs, on Whit-Monday and 22nd November, considerable business is transacted. The town possesses a charity-school for forty boys. The Burrell MSS. in the British Museum state that the hundred of Battle ‘is a franchise, the inhabitants whereof are exempt from attending assizes and sessions, or serving on juries, and the lord appoints a coroner thereof.’ The petty sessions are holden at Battle.