Standing on the rocky cliffs to the west of the town at the height of 400 feet above the sea level, the castle must formerly have commanded the adjacent country, and was well placed as a defence to the town.
The walls now are nowhere entire, but the ruins show that they were eight feet thick. The gateway was on the north side, inland, but only its site is now found. Not far from it to the westward are the remains of a small tower, enclosing a circular flight of stairs; and near it, farther to the westward, are the ruins of another tower and a sally-port The south or sea side of the castle does not appear to have had any defence; probably it was thought inaccessible; or, as the cliff has been considerably removed on that side, the ruins of the castle may have gone with it. On the western side are the remains of a high wall with lofty towers, one square, the other circular; part of the interior of the latter is constructed of herring-bone work. The square tower, which is south, has openings deeply splayed from within, with the remains of a sally-port. The eastern side had, however, the strongest defences; for it had a towered gallery, a portcullis, and semi-circular tower, and a moat sixty feet deep and a hundred feet wide. The north has besides a gate, a sally-port, and two towers, one round with a circular flight of stairs in it, the other square. Mr. Timbs says, in his "Abbeys and Castles": "This gate had always been supposed to be the site of the original gate; but on proceeding with the excavations on the north side, a gateway was discovered about eight or nine feet in width, and nineteen in depth. This is considered to have been the keepgate, and there is still remaining the grooves for the portcullis, and the hooks on which the hinges of the gates were hung."
When the interior of the castle was excavated in 1824, the chapel was discovered, with the chapter house and other offices. and several stone coffins with skeletons.
"These ruins are interesting as marking the site of a chapel in which Thomas a Becket, somewhere about 1157, and William of Wykeham, about 1363, once conducted the services of the Church of Rome, and which once echoed to the voice of Anselm, Archbishop of Canterbury." - Mr. Gent: Proceedings of the British Archaeological Society, 1867.
Hastings made some slight resistance to the invader, judging from that wonderful piece of woman's work, the Bayeux tapestry - work by which the patient fingers of Matilda and her ladies recorded her husband's conquest - for we see a burning house close to the castle hill; but the town soon opened its gates and received the invader. The lines of William's camp were to be seen about twenty years ago on the field near the consent.
The tapestry tells us that William ordered a castle to be dug at Hastings, and underneath the words is the picture of a castle on the summit of a hill, as it now stands.
The table on which William is said to have dined after the battle of Hastings is preserved in the Subscription Gardens of St. Leonard's.
The neighbourhood of Hastings has great beauty: Fairlight Glen is a most romantic spot.
Fairlight Down may be recognised by its well-known windmill; and when the summit is reached, a most beautiful panoramic view is obtained from it. We gaze on broad cornfields, red and gold in the light of the sun; on grove and meadow and vale; on the village church embosomed in trees; on the old decayed towns of Rye and Winchelsea, and on sixty-six ancient churches and five ruined castles; while the sea view extends from the South Foreland to Beachy Head. To the east, like a white cloud in the distance, are the chalk cliffs of Dover.
At the head of Fairlight Glen we find the Dropping Well. A tiny stream of water falls over a ledge of rock into a black hollow beneath, that is over-shadowed by the rich and abundant foliage round it. The glen is perfectly lovely with its trees, its carpet of sward fringed with flowers, its succession of verdant terraces, the wood above it, and its dells; indeed, it may compare favourably for picturesque beauty with any other spot in England.
Descending the ravine, we come to Covehurst Bay, which lies enclosed by two rocky headlands, and is skirted by a low wall of cliff.
The eastern boundary consists of a great bed or floor of sand-rock, which, from the fissures in it, has some resemblance to a pavement. Re-ascending up the east side of the glen, we reach the Lovers' Seat, which is placed just below the edge of the cliff, and is rather dangerous to get at from above. One has a lovely view from it; and there is, of course, a love tale connected with it. A pair of lovers met here often in secret. The gentleman was in the navy, a Lieutenant Lamb, who had the command of a revenue cutter stationed off Hastings. The lady was a Miss Boys, who was very rich, and whose parents objected to her union with a man who had little more than his pay. She, the heroine of the tale, used to come here and signal her presence to her watchful lover by waving her handkerchief. It is said that she brought the materials and put up the seat with her own bands. As soon as her signal was seen, her lover rowed ashore and ascended the steep cliff to gain her side. Ultimately the lovers eloped, and were married in Hollington Church - the church in a wood.
Hollington village is very pretty, surrounded by woods, that hide the church; so that coming suddenly upon it, it gives us a surprise. It is a plain rustic edifice, dating from the fourteenth century; but the east end was rebuilt in 1861. The heptagonal font is built into the wall; the campanile is of timber, with a low pyramidal top in the old Sussex fashion.
Of course there is a legend attached to this romantic church It is that when a church was begun on a neighbouring headland or cliff, the Fiend every night undid the work of the builders during the day. The stones mysteriously disappeared, and the people began to despair of ever having a church, when one Sunday morning they heard the bell summoning them to matins sound from the thickest grove near them. Hastening to see what it could they came upon the church that angel hands had built with the materials pulled down by the Evil One. There is a sort of sanctity in this spot, and in the solemn sheltered churchyard, as if heaven indeed were near us here.
Between St. Leonard's and Hastings is a very picturesque house called Bohemia - it is said because it was once the haunt of gipsies. It stands on a hill that is well wooded and cut in terraces, one of which is filled with roses and lovely flowers. But the singularity of the place is a garden sunk in the earth to protect its produce from the seabreezes. The banks round it are walled ; fruit trees are planted in the ground above, and then trained over the bricked banks, with their heads downwards. The fruit they produce in this unnatural position is excellent. A very broad pathway separates these banks from the garden-wall. Within this wall is a delightful kitchen and fruit garden. Leaving this spot, we turn to the left, and find ourselves in a path winding through a wood, the ground beneath the trees being in May a perfect mass or bed of bluebells. It winds by three large fishponds; over the last an old oak spreads its branches. Beyond, the fields lead to Hastings. From the terraces the view of Hastings Castle and of the sea is lovely.
William the Norman did not linger long at Hastings. The thane who had witnessed his landing reached York only on October 8th, for the roads were bad, and the fiery haste of the horseman could not overcome the natural difficulties in his path. He found Harold the king feasting to celebrate his victory over the Norwegian king and his own brother - a victory too dearly won, for at Stamford Bridge he had lost some of the best and bravest of his warriors.
Harold, on receiving the thane's news, started from the table, ordered his troops to be marshalled, and at once, with too great haste, marched to the south; for ere he reached London numbers of men-at-arms fell out of the ranks exhausted, and unable to keep up with the main body. Thus his troops diminished. The great earls, Morcar and Edwin, stood fatally aloof from him; and his mother, Githa, weeping for the death of her slain son, Tostig, besought Harold not to meet William in the field. For Harold, when he took the English crown, was guilty of perjury. He had sworn solemnly to William that he would not be king of England; and though the oath had been extorted from him, he had, nevertheless, taken it, and his family dreaded the retribution of a broken vow. His young brother Gurth - the best and gentlest of his family - enforced their mother's entreaties. He represented to Harold that his tired and diminished forces were quite unequal to cope with the Norman chivalry; and he besought the king to let him (Gurth) lead the English against the invaders, for Harold could not hope for victory with the stain of perjury on his soul.
But Harold, elated perhaps by his late victory, persisted in staking the crown of England on the issue of a single battle.
Before leaving London, he visited the Abbey of the Holy Rood at Waltham, and offered prayers before a crucifix of which many marvellous tales were told. The monks whispered that as the king knelt in the gloom of the choir, the holy image had bowed its head - an omen, they strangely enough considered it, of danger. Impressed with this foreboding, the abbot sent two of his monks, Osgood and Ailric, to follow their benefactor to the field.
Harold, however, strengthened his army by Londoners and the men of Kent and Sussex, and again marched southward, till he reached Senlac (now Battle), where he halted his army and planted the royal standard of England on the very spot, it is said, where the high altar of Battle Abbey was afterwards placed.
Negotiations were opened on October 13th between the Normans and the English William sent a monk named Maigrot to the English camp to make three proposals to Harold. One was to resign the crown in compliance with his oath; the second to refer their claims to the decision of the Pope - who had actually blessed William's standard; the third was to decide their quarrel by single combat. Harold declined all these. William, a little fearful, perhaps, of the issue of a battle with the victor of Stamford Bridge, sent the monk a second time to propose to Harold the division of the kingdom; Harold keeping the north as far as the Humber, William the south Again Harold refused, and the battle was decided.
Neither host slumbered on that momentous battle-eve; but they differed greatly in their mode of spending it. The Saxons, who were a very immoral people, passed the night in drunken revelry round their watch-fires; the Normans in confession and prayer, the chanting of psalms and solemn litanies.
At last the grey dawn broke over the sea, and the fatal 14th of October had come. The English were strongly posted within lines of trenches and palisades, and were marshalled by Harold according to their national mode of fighting - shield to shield - thus presenting a wall of steel to cavalry, as their descendants did at Waterloo, eight hundred years afterwards, with the bayonet The gallant men of Kent claimed their privilege of leading the vanguard.
The brave burgesses of London formed the royal bodyguard, and gathered round the standard. In their midst stood the king of England, with his gallant young brothers, Gurth and Leofric. A Norman minstrel named Taillefer began the fight. Spurring his horse to the front, he sang with a loud voice the song of Roland at Roncevalles; and as he sang he threw his sword into the air with one hand and caught it with the other. The Normans joined in the chorus or burden of his song, or shouted, "Dieu aide." Taillefer struck the first blow; he ran one Englishman through, and felled another; then he was himself mortally wounded by a third. The Normans attacked along the line with their archers, but their arrows fell harmless from the English shields. Then they charged with the cavalry, but could not break the row of serried shields, and the English received them with battle-axes, with which they broke their lances and mail, and wounded the soldiers. The palisades appeared invincible, and the Normans retired in disorder. Once more Harold's brothers begged him to leave the field. "Thou canst not deny," they said, "that thou didst swear on the relics of the saints. Why risk the ordeal of battle? Go for reinforcements to London, and leave us to command today."
But Harold was deaf to their entreaties. Meantime, the Normans again advanced in three divisions: the first, composed of the volunteers of Boulogne and Amiens, under the command of Fitzosborne and Montgomery; the second was commanded by Alan Fergunt of Brittany and Aimeric de Thouars; the third, above which floated the banner blessed by the Pope, by William in person. It consisted wholly of Normans, led by his bravest knights.
The duke again sent forward his archers, and supported them by a charge of cavalry. Some of these horsemen broke through the English line, but were all driven back into a deep trench artfully covered over with bushes and grass, where very many perished. There was a general panic. A cry rose that the duke was killed, and a flight commenced. William threw himself before the fugitives, and taking off his helmet, cried, "Here I am! Look at me! I am still alive; and I will conquer by God's help."
The attack on the English was renewed, for the valiant Bishop of Bayeux had rallied another portion of the army. From nine in the morning till three in the afternoon the fight continued evenly balanced, or rather in favour of the English.
William then ordered his archers to direct their arrows up in the air, so that the points should fall like hail on those invincible squares. This manoeuvre succeeded so far as wounding many of the English in the face, but still they stood firm; and the duke then resorted to stratagem. He ordered a thousand horse to advance, and then turn and fly. The English, deceived, at once left their position, and pursued. But speedily the pretended fugitives turned; were joined by a fresh body of Normans, and attacked the English, who fought bravely and desperately, but in vain. They made no attempt to retreat, but fell with their foes in hundreds on the spot. Three times the sham flight was tried, and each time lured the English out of their lines; but still the main body gathered round their standard, and stood firm, closing in round Harold, who had fought gallantly all the day.
But at this moment an arrow, shot at random, entered his left eye and pierced his brain. The English then despaired, but still they defended their standard, which the Normans made the most desperate efforts to take. Ten Norman knights were slain in the attempt. Then William made his way to the spot, and himself killed Harold's brother, Gurth. Leofric was already dead. The banner was seized, and the Norman Gonfanon erected in its place. It was now six o'clock, and the sun was setting; the battle had lasted nine hours. A desperate attempt to rally was still made by the men of Kent and Essex, and numbers of Normans fell. But it was vain, and the army of Harold, broken and dispirited, dispersed through the woods in the rear of their position. They were pursued by the Normans, but they made a stand where ever possible, and so many of the pursuers fell, that they thought it best to give up the pursuit.
Thus ended one of the decisive battles of the world. "A battle most memorable of all others, and howsoever miserably lost, yet most nobly fought on the part of England," says Daniel. William had, however, only conquered the South of England; he had still to win the rest of the island; and he had lost the fourth part of his army.
It is said that he supped that night on the field heaped with slain, but the sight touched him, and he vowed to build an abbey on the spot, where prayers should be offered for both the Norman and the English dead.
We must add that the first tournament ever held in England was held at Hastings Castle, the queen of love and beauty being Adela, daughter of the Conqueror. It was from Hastings also that King John issued his proclamation claiming the heritage of the sea.