The Three Great Battles of Hastings
By David E P Dennis
Mighty Hastings! Its shorelands and beautiful countryside have such a wonderful history – here is a paradise for researchers and lovers of great stories – a true Game of Thrones!
The Combe Haven River at Sheepwash Bridge on the A259 Bexhill Road, St Leonards on Sea where prisoners were executed by drowning (Infalisation)
PICTURE: David Dennis
The First Great Battle
The first battle in our tale is the dire suppression of the Haestingas Tribe by King Offa of Mercia. This warrior king was the son of the mighty Thingfrith. He was born in 757 CE and it is said that for the first 14 years he was useless – but suddenly he was struck by the pangs of puberty and became an exceptional man. He vied for power and respect with Charlemagne and worked, through guile and the sword, to unify the Saxon tribes of England.
Sussex (South Saxons) was the last tribal area to be converted to Christianity, and within this Kingdom by the sea was a separate area populated by a tribe called the Haestingas. They lived in a landscape protected by Pevensey Marshes – almost an inland sea in those days – and the high cliff-lands, now part of Hastings Country Park. The Haestingas had their own harbour at Bulverhythe – the mouth of the Combe Haven, earlier called the Asten (or Aesten – river of the Haestingas) – and they wanted to be left alone to rule themselves. King Offa, having formed his headquarters at Chelsea in ancient London, and having set up a silver penny Mint operated by a coin-making ‘moneyer’ called Ethelnoth, subdued most of Kent and Sussex. He then decided in 771 CE that the bright and bumptious Haestingas tribe needed to be taught a lesson – made to bend the knee. We can imagine him marching south with a huge army; shields, spears, cloaks, and swords – and especially those wonderful crisscross leggings. Down through the forests of the Weald he came, to arrive on The Ridge above Haestings. The people of Haestings sued for peace – and yet until this day they have never really been defeated. A core of steel remains.
Fourth Century Dacian Battle Helmet – the Normans were descended from the Dacians
PICTURE: National Military Museum
Unique penny with head of Cynethryth, Queen Consort of King Offa –
the only Anglo-Saxon Queen to have her own coinage
PICTURE: Bucharest via Wikimedia Commons
The Second Great Battle
Here we enter the ongoing controversy over the so-called Battle of Hastings (otherwise known as the Battle of Battle, Senlac, Crowhurst, Brede Valley and Never Happened – you name it), as historians fight to win. My history teacher at Hastings Grammar School was the noted historian and curator of Hastings Museum, Mainwaring-Baines. He knew full well that Duke William’s massive fleet would head east from the Roman remains at Pevensey Castle which stood out on the coast like an old grey tooth-stump; a looming coastal marker seen from far out to sea. But he also knew that William was a seasoned campaign commander who would never have tried to cross the Pevensey Marshes, so he wrote:
“As the Norman fleet neared the English shore in the mists of that September morning excitement would grow and when the great grey mass of Pevensey Castle (Anderida) was sighted, someone would be sure to identify it and the name would be passed along from ship to ship. Pevensey (Pefensea or Paevenisel) was the only named place in that area. The armada must have made its way slowly eastwards and landed its army on a broad front near Bulverhythe, no doubt sending out fighting patrols ahead. From all accounts, they met no serious opposition. When the Bayeux Tapestry was being made 20 years later, the question of the landing place must have been raised. Promptly came the one name that any old veteran who had taken part in it would remember – Pevensey – and so it was recorded for all time. No military commander would consider a long march of 26 miles around the huge inlet – now Pevensey marshes.”
Stone Carving of wooden Longboat on the wall of Selby Abbey
PICTURE: Tim Green/Wikimedia Commons
To support the Bulverhythe Theory, we know that in 1930, when air aces Amy Johnson and Sir Alan Cobham asked Hastings Council to build a grass airstrip at Bulverhythe to trade in fruit and meat with France, the digger driver working on the urgent project found a Norman longboat with a wolf’s head prow. He was ordered to re-bury it. It is still there waiting for dating by experts. We also know that Harold had manor farms at Upper Wilting and Whatlington and that the likely location of the Hastings Mint and moneyer team (established by King Athelstan in 928 CE) was near Sedlescombe. In 1810, a large wooden chest containing leather bags with many coins of the bullion reserve was found in a field there by another digger. All these coins were then stolen and now reside in numismatic public and private collections the world over, a large proportion being found in Dublin. Significantly, the coins are marked ‘Haesti’ and ‘Aesten’. The makers or moneyers put their names on these coins, thus immortalising the names of Hastings men – Leofstan, Dunninc, Brid, Wulfric and Colswegen.
These coins are almost all of Edward the Confessor, buried in a panic when Duke William’s ships and troops loomed upon the people of Haestings. The poor peasants were forced at sword-point to build a mound of earth on top of a cliff and erect a wooden castle, which may well have been flat-packed in Normandy. William’s troops then ran riot before the final battle, terrorising and burning, laying to waste many local communities, so that Harold in the North would find his family and property threatened. Normans = 1, Saxons = 0.
Bayeux Tapestry scene showing Norman Bishop Odo striking a Saxon with a wooden club
PICTURE: Public domain /Wikimedia Commons
The Third Great Battle of Hastings
Hastings Borough Council, like landscape ravagers masquerading as kingly conquerors, have decided to build 192 homes over the ancient harbour of Bulverhythe. They are planning to raise the surface level of the natural flood plain of the harbour, which is inside their own Countryside Park boundary, then build a large dam and sluice to protect their three-storey assets (car ports above the flood and then two floors designed in a mawkish way to look like net huts). This edifice will flood the whole of Combe Valley even further and extend the flood risk to Buckholt and Crowhurst. The people of Crowhurst, mighty warriors in their own right, are appalled by this attack on their environment. They already have their homes flooded without such a dam and weir on the Combe Haven River. Things are not good and there is resistance; upset suckling beef herd farmers at your peril. The deep core of the Haestingas is trying to repel the aggressive planning application of its overlords. The honourable descendants of the Haestingas and those who love this tribal area – they are made of steel! The people of Bexhill Road and Bulverhythe and the good people of Crowhurst will not bend the knee! They have no dragons to defend them, only letters of protest and signboards on lamp posts. Will they win? Hwaet! We hope and pray that they will, saving the remarkable wildlife and heritage in our beautiful Countryside Park.
• To read more about our local history go to:
We hope you have enjoyed reading this article. The future of our volunteer led, non-profit publication would be far more secure with the aid of a small donation. You can also support local journalism by becoming a friend of HIP. It only takes a minute and we would be very grateful.