Battle Abbey Roll

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The Battle Abbey Roll is a commemorative list, lost since at least the 16th century, of the companions of William the Conqueror, which had been erected or affixed as a memorial within Battle Abbey, Hastings, founded ex-voto by Duke William on the spot of the slaying of King Harold in the Battle of Hastings in 1066.

Traditional sources[edit]

It is known to modern historians only from supposed 16th century copies of it published by Leland, Holinshed and Duchesne, all imperfect and corrupt. Holinshed's is much the fullest, but of its 629 names several are duplicates. The versions of Leland and Duchesne, though much shorter, each contain many names found in neither of the other lists.

Several names on the role are disputed; Camden, as did Dugdale after him, held them to have been interpolated at various times by the monks, "not without their own advantage." Later writers went further, Sir Egerton Brydges denounced the roll as "a disgusting forgery," and E.A. Freeman dismissed it as "a transparent fiction."[1]

Duchess of Cleveland's work[edit]

A three-volume work by Wilhelmina, Duchess of Cleveland (1819–1901), published in 1889, entitled The Battle Abbey Roll with some Account of the Norman Lineages attempts to vindicate the existence of an original roll and consists of short histories and discussions concerning the origins of several hundred English families of Norman origin, based on names supposedly contained in the legendary Battle Abbey Roll.


Cleveland, Duchess of, The Battle Abbey Roll with some Account of the Norman Lineages, 3 volumes, London, 1889:

Auchinleck Manuscript Roll[edit]

There exists a copy of the Battle Abbey Roll which predates Leland's supposed copy by two centuries, which was not apparently known to the Victorian antiquarians. It forms one section (folios 105v-107r) of the mid-14th-century manuscript known as the Auchinleck manuscript,[2] one of the greatest treasures of the National Library of Scotland. Produced in London in the 1330s, it acquired its name from its first known owner Alexander Boswell, Lord Auchinleck, who discovered the manuscript in 1740 and donated it to the precursor of the National Library in 1744. A comparison of the list of family names in the Auchinleck version of the Battle Abbey Roll with other extant lists appears as yet unperformed.


It is probable that the character of the roll has been quite misunderstood. It was not apparently a list of individuals, but only of family surnames, and seems to have been intended to show merely which families had "come over with the Conqueror," and to have been compiled in about the 14th century.[1] Although 1066 was more than a century before the widespread use of heraldry, it may have been an early precursor of the rolls of arms, common in the 13th and 14th centuries, for example the Roll of Caerlaverock made by English heralds in 1300 to record the knights present during King Edward I's siege of Caerlaverock Castle, Scotland. The compiler of the Battle Abbey Roll appears to have been influenced by the French sound of names, and to have included many families of later settlement, such as that of Grandson, which did not in fact come to England from Savoy until two centuries after the Conquest. The roll itself appears to have been unheard-of before and after the 16th century, but other lists were current as early as the 15th century, as the Duchess of Cleveland noted[1] citing in the introduction to her work[3] the 1426 Chronicle of John Brompton, Abbot of Jervaulx in Yorkshire, in which he announced his intention of giving a catalogue of those who came over with the Conqueror as contained in a "piece of old French verse".

Modern lists[edit]

In 1866 a proposed list of the Conqueror's followers, compiled from Domesday and other authentic records, was set up in the church of Dives-sur-Mer in Normandy by Léopold Delisle, and is reproduced in the Duchess's work. Its contents are sufficient to show that the Battle Roll is of dubious evidential value.[1] The fact remains that only 15 of the combatants at Hastings in 1066 can be named with certainty, as given in GEC's Complete Peerage,[4] which select group is known as the Proven Companions of William the Conqueror. Up to 20 further names have been proposed by others, most notably D.C.Douglas in 1943[5] but these are arrived at by circumstantial evidence alone.




  1. ^ a b c d  One or more of the preceding sentences incorporates text from a publication now in the public domainChisholm, Hugh, ed. (1911). "Battle Abbey Roll". Encyclopædia Britannica. 3 (11th ed.). Cambridge University Press. p. 534. 
  2. ^ Auchinleck Manuscript, National Library of Scotland Advocates' MS 19.2.1.
  3. ^ Cleveland, Intro., vol. I, p. viii
  4. ^ Cokayne's Complete Peerage, revised edition, vol. 12, postscript to Appendix L, pp.47-48: "Companions of the Conqueror"
  5. ^ Douglas, David C., Companions of the Conqueror, Jnl of History, vol.28, 1943, pp. 129–147; Douglas, D.C. & Greenaway, G.W. English Historical Documents 1042-1189, London, 1959, states the number of proven companions to be less than 35, but does not list them: "Express evidence vouching the presence of particular persons at Hastings can be found in the case of less than 35 persons" (p.227, footnote 2)