A History of Sussex

A History of Sussex


The Framework

The historian writing about the distant past treads through a strange land: it is a world with few, if any, documents, where scholars argue fiercely over very small amounts of surviving material, to produce widely different views of a whole society. This is particularly appar­ent in trying to understand the story of prehistoric Sussex, to give form and pattern to over six thousand years of human development. What is clear is that there was a slow growth in complexity and organisation, an experience eventually dominated by the concen­tration of power and the use of violence. Many of the surrounding details will remain permanently obscured, but we can identify salient features of the process that brought Sussex into ‘history’, the time when accounts of the past can be built from written sources as well as the evidence of eye and spade.

The one uniting feature is the Sussex landscape; although its outline has remained more or less constant, its detailed features have changed noticeably. With the end of the last Ice Age around 8000 B.C. the final breach of the land link with Europe had been made, and the threefold division of present-day Sussex was more or less complete. Inland, dense forest on a heavy clay soil combined with the lighter sandy uplands to form the Weald, to borrow the Anglo-Saxon word for woodland, coined for the area almost 9000 years later. Of all the areas of Sussex, this is the one which has caused archaeologists and historians the greatest problems. The longest-lasting myth of all has been its ‘impenetrability’, and schol­arly attention has always focussed on the coastal plain and the river valleys. Yet in recent years our understanding of the complex relationship between Sussex man and his woodland has become slightly clearer. Nowhere in the area has the struggle of man with his environment been so long-drawn-out and so intense, the results the effect of a centuries-long, piecemeal and very individual battle. Man dominated the Weald by hacking, tearing and burning; it is hardly surprising that, from a distance, it still looks as if the woodland won.Sussex The Physical Framework

The Physical FrameworkAlthough the difficulty of passing through the area has long been exaggerated, the forest served often as a frontier for the dwellers in coastal Sussex, a sort of ‘no-man’s land’, with inhabitants poorer, tougher and perhaps more obtuse than their southerly counterparts. Apart from hunting forays and occasional winter camps, the Weald only served early man when he sought iron or grazing land there. A landscape dominated by trees, wolves and wild boars only gave way slowly to settlement; many struggling Wealden hamlets still have the slightly ragged appearance of poorly organised frontier towns.

By comparison with this wilderness the Downs have always appeared bleaker, except in the wooded parts of western Sussex. At the beginning of human impact on the landscape, they were the most hospitable part of the countryside, apparently lightly wooded along most of their course. Until later Roman times at least, the water table in Sussex appears. to have been much higher than it is now. The Weald and coastal stretches would have been much wetter, with the Downs tolerably dry by comparison and able to support woodland, some later agriculture, and, most important, to offer dry movement between settlements adequately furnished with water supplies for their smallish populations. Eventually the water table was to fall, and man move downhill, south and northwards; it is arguable that overgrazing in the second millennium B.C. stripped the Downs of much of their capacity to support human life. At one crucial stage of human development in Sussex their modest height was to prove vital in the growth of tribal dominance and the con­struction of hill-forts to which we shall refer later.

The third area of Sussex, the coastal plain to the west of modern Brighton and the drained marshland of the Pevensey Levels and Rye, is that which has changed most obviously. ‘Longshore drift’, the process by which the steady eastward flow of the channel cur­rents carries silt, has reshaped its limits as much, if not more than, the steady growth of settlements. In prehistory the lands round Selsey extended much further southwards, at least as far as the Ower sandbanks; by contrast the sites of present-day Rye and Winchelsea were on the sea’s edge. The erosion of the west and silting of the east have been constant processes in forcing men to adapt their ambitions, and only since the late nineteenth century have they been able to slow down the process noticeably; Peace haven is still inclining steadily towards destruction. Crossing the three zones were three river valleys, flowing much more slowly than they do now. All appear to have changed their outlets, the Ouse most obviously. The early valleys and plains were little more than huge stretches of swamp adequate for wild life but not for humans, their value for man being the relative ease of navigation on shallow-draft vessels.

Early Man

It was into this scenario that early man came, but he left few traces. Until the years just preceding the Roman invasions, we have no knowledge of individuals; historical personalities are an inevitable product of a literate society. Even the sophistication of much current archaeological practice can only give very approximate time scales to the process of early settlement. The precision which the historian seeks for later periods has little place in prehistory where the boundaries of accurate dating can be centuries apart. How small populations moved about we can only conjecture, but it is increasingly apparent that, with so much space and the slowness of a world that moved at walking pace, the idea of successive waves of invasion is meaningless until we come to the hierarchic and militant tribalism of later Bronze Age and Iron Age cultures. Earlier men lived in small groups, presumably meeting others largely for the limited trading that is involved in marriage, particularly with the development of the strongest of early taboos, that against incest. It took 1500-2000 years for practices developed in Mesopotamia, the cradle of European civilisation, to become apparent in Sussex; the explanation is rather more complicated than the long-established pride in local obtuseness represented in the modern unofficial county motto, ‘We wunt be druv’. Marriage then, as now, brought changing fashions, and a steady assimilation of new ideas. The historian who telescopes the experience of several thousand years into a few thousand words can only hint at the significance of changing ideas in the daily lives of a few hundred generations.

Palaeolithic and Mesolithic Sussex

The earliest men in Sussex for whom any substantial evidence survives are those who moved in around 6000 B.C., the Mesolithic (Middle Stone Age) people. They were gatherers of berries and hunters, marked by their use of small flint implements (microliths), presumably fixed to wooden or bone handles to form primitive spears and axes. Collections of these have been found at High Rocks near Frant, Belle Tout on the north side of the Downs near Eastbourne, and Horsham.’ The latter group has given its name to a ‘culture’ mixed between Danish and French influences; how it came about, if the interpretation is correct, is beyond explanation, save that small groups of hunting nomads, which the Mesolithic peoples essentially were, must have met somewhere on their long sweeps across Europe in search of game. The Sussex sites tend to confirm that these people sought the smaller, more easily caught game of the sandy northlands which were easier for hunting than the thicker forest lands. The concentration of finds of microliths was seen by earlier archaeologists as evidence of winter camps in the area; the remains of hazelwood ashes at High Rocks have been used to confirm this assumption. In this theory, the winter stopover was used to produce foods for the next season’s hunting and the remains found so far would represent the inevitable surplus of overproduc­tion. A recent report has questioned this view, suggesting instead that the nomad groups developed at some point a series of ritual inter-group assemblies, for the purpose of marriage exchanges and for other, yet to be explained, communal practices such as religious observations. Bearing in mind the known habits of ‘Stone Age’ groups still surviving in some jungle areas and the Australian Aborigines, it is an attractive view but one which lacks the addi­tional evidence to corroborate it. What is certain is that, for these groups of forest dwellers, life must have been very hard in a rather bleak environment, as the landscape adjusted very slowly to the changes in climate, plant and animal life that followed the last Ice Age.

At some point after 4000 B.C., a new culture emerged in Britain to absorb the forest groups and turn them, and the Sussex land­scape, in a new direction. Mesopotamia had seen the domestication of some animals and the beginnings of agriculture, literally scratch­ing a living from the land. It has long been held that Neolithic (New Stone Age) man moved from the forest areas on to the lighter, more manageable soils of the Downs. This view must remain substan­tially true but radiocarbon analysis has led to some revision; on the sandy heathlands of the northern Weald some Neolithic groups may have begun to farm. Hunting continued, but it was steadily replaced as a prime means of obtaining food by pasture and arable farming. Given the haphazard and simple nature of these early skills, the balance of activities must have varied quite markedly from year to year until farming was sufficiently developed to ensure some stabil­ity. As with other frontier areas, settlements seem to have been shifted when the soil of the small fields was scratched out; but the centuries succeeding the first Neolithic men saw a concentration of activity into smaller areas of movement and the inauguration of major changes in the Downland scene.

The basis of the new agriculture was the pasturing of sheep and oxen, accompanied by a limited amount of corn growing, usually wheat or barley, and an extension of the industries that even small settled groups were able to develop. The skins worn by hunters gave way to woven cloth, the new grains were stored in pottery contain­ers, and shelter became more regular. We have no real indication of how earlier people had protected themselves from the worst of the weather, but it does not require much imagination to expect the building of rough shelters from fallen branches, with limited dura­bility. With the Neolithic movement on to the Downs, and the clearing of some forest spaces, these settlements took on the form of camps. Permanence can be overemphasized; even the stone, wattle and daub housing of farmers as late as the Tudor period would often only last a generation before it needed to be totally rebuilt. These hutments would serve for an extended family group for the few years it stayed in one area. The early Neolithic people had few material possessions that would survive, the hardest, flints and pottery, giving some indication of movement across the landscape.

Only when ploughed fields became more common was there long settlement on fixed sites, and such evidence as remains shows movement of hutments around the farmstead areas. It is a pattern that marks the simple beginnings of the internal migrations that still characterise modern towns as the process of ‘urban renewal’ takes place.

The extent of this early movement into Sussex is not clear. It is apparent that the small groups of Neolithic folk colonised the uplands while Mesolithic life continued virtually unchanged in the Weald; with such small groups and such a large landscape it must have taken many generations of contact, trade and intermarriage before the cultures merged. Gradually, however, Neolithic man’s impact deepened, and he made more than mere surface scratches on the landscape. Despite the ravages of succeeding centuries and modern deep ploughing techniques, there is today an abundant wealth of Neolithic remains. The more sophisticated of these, the great camps, date from the end of Neolithic culture, but there are many whose use and reuse has made specific dating to any one period well-nigh impossible. It was Neolithic man whose movement from settlement to settlement opened the Downiand ridgeways whose banked sides are still a delight to the walker.

Particularly important among Neolithic remains, and difficult to interpret, are the flint mines such as those at Blackpatch, near Patching, or those at Church Hill, near Findon. The former show evidence of at least five hundred years of Neolithic use, dug to reach a rich seam of flints about eleven feet underground, with radiating galleries. It was in the organisation necessary for works of this type that Neolithic man replaced the Mesolithic aborigine who had only worked on flints picked up on the surface. The carved deer tools found at Church Hill might suggest shallow working tools, but cast-off antlers cannot have been uncommon in Neolithic condi­tions. Whether these mines mark the development of industrial specialisation among the farming groups is doubtful. They may have been used only when flints were needed; like Tudor coalmining they can be seen as an extension of the extractive industry of agriculture, with farmers turning miners when the need arose, moving temporarily from their farmsteads up to the mining area rather than building settlements around the shafts. Eventually, however, as in farming, a tradable surplus would be produced, and it is the scatter of worked flints together with the pottery traded at such events as annual wife-barterings that has enable archaeologists to grasp the patterns of settlement and movement within the region. This pot­tery, the so-called ‘Neolithic B’, consisted of simple bowls, some­times decorated, as in the shards found at Whitehawk, with zig-zag indentations pressed into the wet clay with thongs. It was hand-moulded, for the potter’s wheel had yet to come. Only a few fragments have so far been found, scattered around the hill-sites of the county. Where the pottery has turned up on the Weald, archaeologists argued that it represented groups passing through, on hunting or trading expeditions, rather than settling. It is now felt that Neolithic man did make some attempts at farming away from the hills, but a great deal more evidence must be discovered before its extent can be gauged.

The best-known remains of the more settled later Neolithic people are the long barrows, where the important dead were inter­red. This, in itself, is significant because it suggests that with settle­ment came some degree of hierarchy, the extended families of the earlier groups gradually emerging as tribes. The religious beliefs and rituals which bound these groups together will remain forever shrouded by the lack of evidence, but there developed a noticeable contrast between the way in which the Neolithic folk treated their ordinary dead, either by exposing them to the elements until they rotted or by casually dumping them in redundant rubbish pits or flint workings, and the style in which some of their more important people were buried. Succeeding generations, unfortunately, have

treated these tombs rather badly, but they may have served as family vaults for generations. Three barrows survived in West Sussex, nine or so in the more crowded eastern Downs. The Hunter’s Burgh Barrow above Wilmington, 180 feet long and 70 feet wide, is well preserved externally but little archaeological work has been done on the interior of this or any other barrow in the country.

Prehistoric Aristocracy

The peak of an increasingly organised society came with the great causewayed camps, not to be confused with the hill-forts that later replaced or superseded them. There were four of these in the county – Combe Hill, near Eastbourne, Barkhale near Bignor, the Trundle at Singleton and Whitehawk in Brighton. The latter was by far the largest, although its original extent is now much submerged by the buildings stretching up to the racecourse. About i i I acres in extent, it was surrounded by a series of defensive ditches, possibly five in number. Entrance was by the causeways which have given the camp their name; each ditch seems to have been protected by a fence of timber palisades at the top, although these were much simpler than the massive ramparts of the later hill-forts. The camp suggests some growth in stability, enough at least to allow the extensive organisa­tion their construction required, and some inter-tribal uncertainty if they are viewed as military defences. They may, however, have served another purpose: the protection of large herds of stock against natural predators, wolf packs and the like. The remains excavated at Whitehawk in the 19305 prove a ready correction to any ideas of considerable ‘civilisation’. Mixed in piles of squalid domestic rubbish, ashes, pottery and animal remains were bits of bodies suggesting that the inhabitants had been cannibals. It may be that eating the dead children whose partial remains were found was part of the religious ritual of the Whitehawk dwellers. Elsewhere in the camp were carefully buried individuals, with one female skele­ton decorated with chalk pendants and fossilised sea-urchins. Other bodies had just been flung into pits and ditches. It is these remains that have allowed archaeologists to have some idea of the physical appearance of Neolithic folk, particularly since we have only hazy notions of the Mesolithic people in the area. All seem to have been fairly young, and life expectancy may not have been much more than thirty years; they seem to have been small, around five feet tall or less, with long narrow heads. At least one archaeologist, E. C. Curwen, has claimed that, like people of similar build still in Europe, they were dark-haired. He also believed that the great ditch rings were designed less to keep enemies out than to provide regular quarries for the chalk and flint which would have been used in some of the better huts within the walls. In Whitehawk, as in the other camps, the cattle were coralled in the centre and the men lived in the kraals around them, using the remaining space for subsistence agriculture.

This was a hard-won battle; in order to provide pasture for the domestic animals, land had to be cleared by hacking and burning. Even the thinner soil of the Downs held a scrub of oak, hawthorn and other trees which had to be removed before settled life could triumph. As this process was extended, the agricultural base was established which was to survive with only minor alterations into the Roman period. While the advent of corn growing began the shift in farming predominance, it must have been a slow process. Primitive picks and hoes were used to dib the surface, but some archaeologists have suggested that even this was frequently unnecessary; herds and flocks would loosen the top soil adequately, manuring it at the same time, to allow a broadcast scatter of the few seeds. This method lasted in Sussex until the Bronze Age introduced the ard, a simple plough drawn by two oxen. When this came, the field pat­terns of prehistoric settlers changed noticeably, extending outwards from the settlements. These small square fields were cross ploughed, the farmers working across the fields and making two sets of furrows at right angles to loosen the top soil which the ploughs barely scratched.

The development of agriculture meant a consciousness of land, of rights and boundaries. The latter appeared on the small square fields as large banks of earth, or lynchets, as soil displaced by ploughing slipped downhill to form bulky terraces. From 1000 B.C. or so, the pace of change speeded up considerably. Yet for the farmers it must still have seemed rather slow; after all, ploughs and oxen implied a spread of wealth, a steady shift from subsistence farming to the accumulation of a surplus and more tangible prop­erty. Lacking as we do adequate details of individual farms, we can only generalise. By the time the Iron Age reached its peak in the last century B.C., there had been major changes. The barley-dominated agriculture of c.2000-1000 B.C. had begun to lose ground to wheat, now perhaps forty-five per cent of the total. Hulled barley had replaced older types, allowing an autumn as well as a spring sowing each year, lessening the risks of uncertain years and allowing a surplus to be stored. After early ploughing, the corn was sown in March, in furrows a foot apart, and the flocks which had trodden and manured the fields in winter were moved to summer grazing higher on the Downs. After harvesting, usually before it was quite ripe, by a variety of hooks or sickles, the corn would be dried and, if not kept for seed, parched artificially to loosen the husk before threshing. This seems to have been done both in ovens and on stoves over pre-heated flint nodules. It was then stored in pits dug in the chalk, often up to six feet deep. Seed corn was stored in above­ground granaries.

There was also a considerable increase in the stocks of oxen and, more particularly, sheep. While arable probably came to rank equally with pasture, the farm economy at its height was a complex balance of the two, with hunting relegated to a sporting role or to overcome a crisis. The skinny sheep were much better suited to the conditions of Downland farming than cattle: they had a far greater tolerance of lower water conditions and an obvious value in the growing use of textiles. After the harvest, they would feed on the stubble, be kept on straw during the winter months and then turned on to fallow or Downland in the spring and summer. Without their rich manure, the thin soil of the hills could never have supported agriculture. The signs of considerable penning facilities and of greater grain storage in the centuries just before the Romans indi­cate equally the stability of farming, a growing communal sophisti­cation and the threats of aggression apparently inevitably linked with such a process.

Neolithic and Bronze Age Sussex

These patterns developed over a couple of thousand years, inno­vation usually being identified with new groups moving into Sussex. What forced many of the trans-European migrations may never be clearly established, except that a probable growth of population and the aggression this implied pushed younger groups of settlers westwards, to enter Sussex by the river valleys and follow the tracks on the Downs to emptier spots. One of these groups, the so-called ‘Beaker Folk’, named after their distinctive pottery, came around 2400-2000 B.C. They were far from uniform in culture, the ‘beakers’ having very distinct regional shapes; in the south they were usually long-necked. The Beaker Folk could work copper and later iron, and operated as traders and nomad stock breeders. The core of their influence was further westwards in the strong Wessex culture which rebuilt Stonehenge, but some groups moved into Sussex. It was there that they left a rich store of their principal monuments, the round ‘bell-barrows’ in which their more important dead were buried simply, sometimes with trinkets and other possessions. The most famous of these in Sussex, at Hove, was destroyed in 1856, but its contents were retrieved – a stone axe hammer, a bronze dagger, a whetstone and a beautiful cup, carved out of a single piece of red amber. So uniform is the cup that it may well have been turned on a single lathe. Quite substantial clusters of bell-barrows survived at Devil’s Hump near Stoughton, and elsewhere, but many have been ploughed out.

The later Bronze Age settlers, coming from Holland, extended the area of settlement in Sussex, leaving two communities which have been well explored. At Plumpton Plain, on the edge of the Weald, four enclosures linked by trackways each contained a circu­lar hut about twenty feet across. But the lack of other remains suggest it was only in temporary use.3 More important, but settled at the’ same time, about 1000 B.C., was the farmstead on Itford Hill, overlooking the Ouse valley; even this was only occupied for one generation or so. It contained ten circular huts, used for both sleeping and storage, dependent on a larger one, presumably the home of the head of the group. Nearby were numerous lynchet fields, on the site of earlier fields. The community had its own cemeteries, containing the cremated remains of seventeen people. Flint remains indicated a special function for part of the settlement, and,a carved phallus found near a hut suggested the use of fertility symbols. The size of these two finds raises a question that has preoccupied archaeologists throughout the period from the early Bronze Age until the Roman departure: did the prehistoric dwellers in Sussex settle in isolated farmsteads or in small villages? It is tempting to see a steady growth in the size of communities with the passing of time but a great deal more local research is necessary before a satisfactory conclusion can be reached.

. Metal working enabled ploughs to be used, and the profits could be exchanged for more sophisticated goods imported by traders. By about 700 B.C. some of these traded goods were weapons in iron, stemming from Hallstatt in Germany, brought in to adorn an emerg­ing rural aristocracy that was increasingly interested in warfare. They had need; Sussex was under pressure from new and repeated waves of settlers, the much more militant Celts. Apart from iron weapons, the Celts’ symbol was the hill-fort, the epitome of war-lording. In its most sophisticated form it represents the advent of ‘civilisation’, the culture of the town and its influence. Some hill-forts appeared on the site of other settlements, others were fresh starts. Scattered widely at first, from about 700 B.C. onwards, they diminished in number as hierarchies emerged and the stronger tribal groups established control of their own regions. At the Celtic peak, around 150 B.C. , Sussex had become the centre of a highly organised tribal aristocracy. In its final stages, the territory was dominated by a string of forts, one to each block of land between the rivers – the Trundle, Devils Dyke and the Caburn.4 From the geographical distribution, it is not unreasonable to suppose that the Celtic leaders had carved up the area with a view to economic as well as military dominance. Each had an area of influence about twenty miles in radius, the travelling distance common to market towns ever since. Whether these new warlords were natives or ‘invaders’ is unclear; it was a long-drawn-out process of assimilation as well as conquest. Strength was certainly implied by a scale of the new forts, with their large earth ramparts; how voluntary the labour involved in this was may be doubted. The Trundle extended the area of the old causewayed camp, but the most interesting in terms of excavation so far completed was Caburn. An undefended farm community of c. 500 B.C., it seems to have been fortified later against groups in West Sussex expanding their influence. It was perma­nently occupied with at least 140 grain storage pits, themselves a sign of increasing troubles. Even in its earliest days in the sixth century B.C., it had been a focus for regional tribes, identified by their pottery, the Kimmeridge—Caburn beaded rim bowls common to Sussex sites but linked also with Dorset. It was at this time that Sussex’s ties with the rest of Wessex appeared to be weakening considerably. By the second century B.C. , the indications were even more regional, and Caburn and Cissbury showed a distinctly local style of pottery.

The increasing uncertainties of the later centuries saw a growth in fortifications; Caburn’s first defences date from about 150 B.C. The Trundle was likewise strengthened, with much narrower en­trance passages. With this new wave of building in Sussex, the defences were much more than mere palisades, and became series of ditches, the displaced soil forming ramparts. The labour involved, with only simple digging tools, must have been immense, testifying to the importance of the hill-forts in local life. Given their spacing and such remains as have been excavated elsewhere in Britain, it seems reasonable to suppose that they were almost mar­ket towns, foci for farmsteads and, undoubtedly, for taxation and service to the local chief. From them the Iron Age farmsteads radiated outwards, perhaps as close as a mile from each other, stretching now out into the Weald as well as along the Downs and on to the coastal plain.

Iron Age Sussex

It is at this point that Sussex enters ‘history’ proper, the coming of recorded documents and the slow spread of a literate culture, with a more sophisticated economic structure. From around 75 B.C., the movements of groups can be measured less by using pottery remains than by identifying coins, implying both literacy, the grouping of central cultures in regions and a form of cash exchange when surplus goods were marketed. Tribal pressures on the Continent and the steady Roman push northwards into Gaul with each summer offen­sive had the effect of driving some of the more unruly groups overseas in search of fresh territory, a process particularly strong where the more militant chiefs were unwilling to exist under a Roman aegis. In this sense Sussex was probably ‘invaded’ for the first time, although details of battle and conquest have been hard to come by. These Celts, the Gallo-Belgic tribes, grafted their over-lordship on to the existing social system rather than replaced it; at any time, even during the later Roman occupation, Neolithic aborigines and Iron Age town dwellers lived side by side within the Sussex area. The best known of these new leaders, Commius of the Atrebates, fled to Britain around 52 B.C. With him, and after him, came new chieftains. Warrior barbarians they might have been, but they brought inevitably some of the features of civilisation as it spread outwards from Rome. The Atrebates established themselves in a broad region centring on Hampshire and Wiltshire, of which Sussex was the eastern fringe; the northern part of this was lost to another group, the Catuvellauni, in about 25 B.C.5

After the initial ‘conquest’ and the inevitable regrouping of hierarchies, Sussex settled down with a new pattern. The influence of the Atrebates seems to have extended eastwards to the Ouse and out partially into the Weald; beyond those parts the north-eastern and Kentish tribes remained more militant and defensive, with the strongly fortified Caburn as a virtual frontier town. The new aristoc­racy had one very significant effect on western Sussex; they aban­doned the hill-forts for more sophisticated urban settlements on the coastal plain. The chief of these appears to have been in the Selsey – Chichester area and has probably succumbed to coastal erosion. They also seem to have spread further into the Weald, not only farming but also seeking the iron deposits needed for their weapons and tools. The remains of these new industrial sites suggest a grow­ing job specialisation in pre-Roman Sussex, matched by the growing distinction given to tribal leaders who acquired para-Roman life styles as they imposed a relative stability on their new subject areas. The most widely practised industry apart from agriculture remained textiles followed by leather work; one impact this new group had was to establish salt-workings on the coast around Selsey, suggest­ing wealth which could be traded and whose surplus would buy an improved life style for the leaders. They brought cremation and more organised cemeteries to replace the previous haphazard aboriginal practices but may have been little touched by the power­ful Druidic cults of the last decades of the Iron Age. We have little remaining evidence about the social practices of the Atrebates, save through the rather biased eyes of some Roman writers. These people seem to have had a complex social structure, dominated by the warlike aristocracy, with a strong base of slave labour. Accord­ing to Tacitus, the mass of the south-eastern British people were little different from their Gaulish relatives: war-mad but cowardly in battle, fond of self-decoration with woad and addicted to polyan­dry, with one wife between ten or twelve husbands. Alas, we shall never be able to check the validity of the latter statement.

Roman Peace

If Tacitus were a fair guide, one would have expected considerable resistance to the Roman invasion when it came in A. D. 43; Caesar’s earlier punitive expeditions had by-passed the area completely. Instead, with the possible exception of the war-like tribes east of the Ouse, the Roman coming passed off peaceably enough in Sussex. The answer is not hard to find: it served the interests of the domi­nant group in the western part of the county to have their authority strengthened by a greater power in their long struggles against other tribes to the east and west. Cogidubnus, the ‘king’, had other reasons as well; he appears, as did many young aristocrats, to have had an education in Rome. When the legions came they were welcome in Sussex, Cogidubnus became a client king, his new kingdom, the land of the Regni, lasting only the period of his lifetime until it was absorbed into the province of Britannia on his death. Although the Caburn had been refortified before the Roman conquest, Sussex seems to have escaped fighting, the legions using it as a spring-board for the offensives against the western tribes. As a result, there is little evidence of a Roman military presence until the troubled years of the third century A.D. It is arguable just how far romanisation went; at many points it may have been little more than the addition of another cultural level on the native base.

Iron Age and Roman Centres
Iron Age and Roman Centres

Best known, and perhaps best representative, of this process were the great villas, particularly Fishbourne and Bignor. These and their lesser imitators were clustered in the Chichester area, with the exception of one near Eastbourne. As far as can be established, they were the nuclei of great landed estates, the perquisites of the Romano-British aristocracy, grafting notions of Roman culture on an extension of the existing farming structure. There is some indica­tion that the Roman practice of rectangular fields, centuriation , was imposed on parts of the coastal plain. Elsewhere and on the Weald, as the new farmers moved off the Downs, the square lynchet fields gave way to more distinctly rectangular ones; these were the pro­duct of the use by wealthier farmers and communities of heavier ploughs with mold-boards which eliminated the need for cross-ploughing. The growing prosperity of their dependants found its way in dues and taxes not only into Roman military and civil coffers but into the purses of landlords who celebrated the stability of the first two centuries A.D. with a dazzling exhibition of conspicuous consumption. Fishbourne, the epitome of this wealth, appears to have been rebuilt to suit Cogidubnus’s new dignity as imperial legate, replacing a wooden legion supply depot with elegant masonry about A.D. 75,6 Attached to the residential suites of a great landowner were the magnificent reception and audience rooms such a public official needed. Wall paintings and mosaics indicate that foreign craftsmen had worked there. Subsequent owners added great bath suites, but the building was destroyed by fire in the later third century and thereafter deserted. Eastwards, and longer-lasting, was Bignor, perhaps more typical as a villa. Even so, these must have been exceptions, almost alien to the natives. Yet they were important; as we shall see throughout the story of Sussex, emulation of the grand was important in landed society, and lesser farmers built modest variations on the palatial themes, even to the extent that by the third century many of the native farmers seem to have abandoned their round hutments in favour of rectangular buildings. For the peasantry and slaves, the old styles must have sufficed.

The villas and their distribution have posed a number of histori­cal problems. Controversy has raged whether the native Britons lived under Roman rule or in isolated farmsteads or quasi-villages;


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currently expert opinion favours the latter view, and there is some limited evidence to suggest a steady colonisation of the Weald by farming and industrial communities which based their clearances on a village type of organisation. To maintain this system, itself basi­cally an extension of existing Iron Age patterns, the Romans con­structed a sophisticated main road network across the area, linking west and east and the coast with Londinium ; the surviving stretches of the great Stane Street show the importance of this system. But these roads did not pass through empty territory; upon them depended a whole network of local economic roads and tracks, often submerged now beneath metalled roads or lost in later cultiva­tion. They linked the estate centres, the villas, with their tributaries and with the burgeoning iron industry of the upper Weald, from the site of present-day Crawley over towards Hastings.

If the Romans gave a new meaning and organisation to farm life in the teritory of the Regni, they also provided another focus apart from the villas. The core of the Roman administrative and taxation system was the towns, whether or not these served as garrisons. At some stage close to the Roman influx the people of Cogidubnus moved from their site near Selsey to a new market centre, Noviomagus Regnum, ‘the new field of the Regni’, or modern Chichester. The earliest town was wooden, but was replaced by the ambitious government and merchants with masonry structures from the second century onwards. It was their principal trading centre, serving the great villa estates, although there seems to have been a modest industrial settlement in the Hassocks area north of the Downs. Noviomagus housed a pottery industry, well-built homes and workshops for the craftsmen, coupled with simpler hovels for the poorer labourers, for as in the countryside there was a continued and increasing contrast between the wealthier members of the new civilisation and the people with older ways. Within its walls, a simple grid system determined the town’s layout; along these roads the more prosperous merchants built urban villas with central heating (hypocausts), and baths. For the lesser, there were public baths and even, although for a short while, an amphitheatre.

The security of this period can be overemphasised, and the plateau of the Roman peace was only a century or so in full extent. Internal strife and growing external pressures increasingly affected the empire, and Sussex, with its extended coastline, proved very vulnerable to the raids made by Germanic pirate groups. The third century saw a steady increase in the number of coin hoards, almost always a sign of civil unrest. From the 270s onwards, life in the wealthy Roman settlements began to lose its attraction. Some of the farmsteads were abandoned as the natives grouped together for protection in larger settlements; even the old hill-forts were occa­sionally refurbished. Marginal Downland was allowed to revert to scrub as people moved in search of security. For a while, and with energetic military governors, the rot was stopped. Coastal defences, a long chain of forts, were backed up by mercenary garrisons imported from Germany and by a fleet of ships, the Classis Britan­nicus. To this end, the defences of Chichester were strengthened with platforms for Ballistae, the catapult guns used against besieging forces. At the eastern and of this area, the major Roman military harbour of Anderida , modern Pevensey, was redeveloped about 370 and a massive masonry fort was built which still forms the founda­tions of the castle. This gave some security, and the fourth century saw some signs of returning prosperity in new buildings in Noviomagus and extensions at Bignoi. But it was short-lived. The Romans had problems nearer home and the formal withdrawal of the legions in 410 left the way open for a new wave of settlers, a different addition to the hybrid cultures already existing in the Sussex region. The Romano-British leaders left in control had to organise themselves. As far as can be seen from very sparse evi­dence, they concentrated on their strong centres at Noviomagus, Hassocks and Anderida. Between these, Germanic groups of set­tlers were already appearing, burying their dead in a new way. The scene was now set for the next major cultural shift.