Australes Saxones & the Norman Yoke
A.D. 477. This year came Ella to Britain, with his three sons, Clymen and Wienking, and Cissa, in three ships; landing at a place that is called Clymenshore. There they slew many of the Welsh; and some in flight they drove into the wood that is called Andred Sley.1
The well-known statement in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle is seen traditionally as the beginning of modern Sussex, the land of the South Saxons, or ‘Australes Saxones.’ Yet the earliest known usage of ‘South Saxons’ does not appear until a royal charter of 689 names them and their king, Northeim, although the term may well have been in common use for some time before that.’ The monastic chronicler in later Wessex who wrote up the entry classifying the invasion seems to have got his dates wrong; recent scholars have suggested he might have been a quarter of a century too late. The exact chronology is, however, less important than the recording of a definite Saxon tradition, the inauguration of a new political unit.
Although, as we have seen, Saxon infiltration into the Sussex area took a more peaceable form in the fourth and fifth centuries, Ella’s invasion may, not have been the first. What made it worth recording several centuries later was that Ella was successful; for the next fifteen years or so he established his authority in the south by force of arms, firmly ‘pacifying’ recalcitrant Britons. The Chronicle describes his besieging ‘the city of Andred’ in 490 and slaughtering all the defenders. What happened around these few listed events sadly is far from clear; we do not know how many battles Ella and his offspring lost. Apart from those who died in conflict many of the Britons must have fled into the Weald, or further west, but the idea of a mass exodus is probably rather overstretched. Many probably stayed, either as neighbours or immediate subjects to their new lords. What neither the historian nor archaeologist can reconstruct is the time taken for the two cultures to mingle, with intermarriage and innovations in the languages. It seems apparent that this was a very long process in the Sussex area; some scholars have argued that the Germanic groups stayed much more distinct for far longer than their counterparts elsewhere in the new England. They came in small units, sometimes settling on deserted Romano-British sites, elsewhere using new ground. The situation is complicated by the fact that most of the settlers replaced the existing place names with their own. That the names have survived with little alteration to the present day suggests both a greater stability in continuity than before and a stronger cultural impact than the Romans had had on the local native population. It also masks the fact that Anglo-Saxon ‘villages’ probably moved about in roughly the same area from generation to generation. Coming as they did in organised groups around strong personal leaders, the Saxons tended to name their settlements with a combination of local place features and, more importantly, a worthy’s name. They seem to have moved firstly to the coastal places of the west, and then inland along the river valleys – natural enough for groups who rowed across the North Sea and the Channel in open shallow-draught boats. Certainly, the limited penetration of the Weald in the early centuries of Saxon occupation was along the tributaries of the greater streams, on the banks of the eastern and western Rothers and the Brede, in the hinterland behind Hastings.
What the Saxon invasion did primarily was to reorganise most of Sussex as a distinct political unit, firmly independent for the first time since the RegnL But it seems to have corresponded, at least in the early years,, more with the older political boundaries than with the administrative frontier of modern Sussex. With the land round Selsey and Chichester as an administrative base, the authority of the early kings of Sussex spread westwards into Hampshire and only partially east of the Ouse. Between the Cuckmere valley and the kingdom of Kent settled a group whose identity remained fairly coherent until the days of the Norman conquest but of whose political influence we know but little; these Haestingas seem to have come within the South Saxon ambit but served also as a buffer in the continued kingly wars of the early centuries. It was to take some time before a distinct and overall Sussex people could be forged by the strength of the rulers.
The importance of this latter factor is one of the prime reasons why Ella featured in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle. He not only subdued the local Britons but appears to have stamped his authority fairly firmly upon his neighbouring kings. In his History of the English Church and People, the eighth-century monk and historian, Bede, named Ella as the first ‘High-King (Bretwaida), of all the provinces south of the Humber’.’ In a society where power depended on military prowess, Ella was no mean figure, imposing on the Midlands from a Sussex base. But it was to be a short-lived glory; with his death the Bretwalda-ship passed elsewhere, and Sussex reverted from being prime among Saxon kingdoms to a minor position, on the periphery of the long-drawn-out struggle for national leadership between the rulers of Northumbria, Mercia and Wessex. Over the next few centuries it shifted from one to the other of the latter two until, with the establishment in the tenth and eleventh centuries of an ‘English’ monarchy, it served only as a minor shire, more quoted in tax returns than in high politics before the advent of the Normans. But the early experience of monarchy had its advantages, at least from the viewpoint of those trying to impose a more central control; the ‘ealdermen’, or earls, eventual successors to the ‘kings’, were expected to collect quite considerable taxes at the behest of their overlords. There were compensations; more so than Kent, Sussex was brought into the embrace of the ‘law givers’, kings attempting to codify the wide variety of regional customary differences to give an element of stability to Saxon society. It was me, king of Wessex, who first mentioned the kingdom of the ‘South Saxons’ in a charter of 687, and Offa, who succeeded as king of Mercia in 757, whose charters defined the rights of thegns , minor nobility, in eighth-century Sussex. For all the turbulence of the sadly mis-called ‘Dark Ages’, the drive towards stability and authority was never far distant. Eventually it allowed the emergence of institutions not too distant from our own political and legal understanding of the term.
A New Religion
The most significant of these new features, at least to the monastic chroniclers, was the introduction of Christianity, the overwhelming unifying force of Western Europe, although the number of local problems its followers produced might have made its success seem rather remote. There is still a perverse pride in the modern county that it was the last area in England to be converted from paganism. Little is known about the religious beliefs of the earlier natives, and the sparse information that survives about the Saxon traditions comes from the hardly objective pens of monastic writers. With their emphasis on a world of forest spirits and magical dominations, they seem to have differed little from the experiences and practices of mainland Northern Europe. Despite Augustine’s mission to Kent in 597, the Christian message had-not penetrated the Weald, turning northward instead to the realms of more important kings. It was another seventy years before it arrived in Sussex, then more by accident than design, at least in human terms; Bede recounted that a Scottish monk, Dicul, had set up a small monastery with five or six brothers at Bosham in the 66os but none of the natives were willing to follow their way of life or listen to their teaching.
It was on to this scene of uncompromising paganism that the erratic bishop Wilfrid of Ripon came. Arguably the most turbulent priest in the Anglo-Saxon experience, Wilfrid spent a great deal of his mature life entering into and returning from exiles imposed by English kings with whom he had quarrelled. It was one such return that he arrived in Sussex by accident in 666. Cast ashore with his retinue in a storm, he found himself surrounded by a ‘huge army of pagans’ bent on plunder and murder. It is best to let Wilfrid’s eighth-century biographer, Eddius Stephanus, tell the story thereafter.
The chief priest of their idolatrous worship also took up his stand in front of the pagans, on a high mound, and like l3alaam, attempted to curse the people of God, and to bind their hands by means of his magical arts. Thereupon one of the companioiis of our bishop took a stone which had been blessed by all the people of God and hurled it from his sling after the manner of David. It pierced the wizard’s forehead and penetrated to his brain as he stood cursing; death took him unawares as it did Goliath, and his lifeless body fell backwards on to the sand. The pagans then got ready for battle, but in vain against the people of God. So St Wilfrid the bishop and his clergy on bended knees lifted their hands again to heaven and gained the help of the Lord . . . who straightway bade the tide return before its usual hour, and while the pagans, on the coming of their king were preparing for a fourth battle, the sea came back and covered all the shore, so that the ship was floated and made its way into the deep
Wilfrid came back again in 681, driven out from the rest of England by Ecgfrith of Northumbria. Only Sussex, not yet exposed to his political style, offered a refuge and he spent the next five years there, converting the natives and negotiating his return. There the conventional piety of the monastic writers added a secular point to Wilfrid’s preachings. Bede tells the story that, so backward were the heathen South Saxons that although a maritime race, they did not know how to fish and were given to mass suicides from convenient cliffs when the corn harvest failed after a terrible drought. On the day Wilfrid converted the king Aethilwalh, it began to rain; Wilfrid followed this up by teaching the people how to use nets. By this good turn the bishop won the hearts of all, and the people began to listen more readily, to his teaching, hoping to obtain heavenly blessings through the ministry of one to whom they already owed these material benefits; Eddius Stephanus then pointed out that those ungrateful enough not to convert willingly did so at the king’s command. How true the tale of this lemming population might be is beyond verification; certainly a great deal of the monastic retelling of it could be put down to the strong regional bias of Northumbrian biographers against the strange races of the deep south. But the point of central authority effecting a conversion is important, both in terms of the role of local kings in a noble society and in raising the question of how deep the conversion went. Scattered later evidence suggested that Wealden superstitions died hard; indeed, it may have been as potent a force in determining local beliefs as organised Christianity at least until this present century. Formally, however, Sussex had come into the mainstream English religious experience.
That experience was to prove singularly rich in its diversity and in its legacy of Sussex church architecture. It began with the creation of a new bishopric of Selsey for Wilfrid and the founding of a monastery there, endowed with landed income for its monks Most early Saxon churches had a monastic core; the loosely knit followers of St Benedict used their ‘minster’ churches as bases for evangelising the surrounding areas, preaching and celebrating mass in the open at first. The rigours of the English winter soon drove them indoors, and the next few centuries saw the minsters linked up with a series of local ‘parish’ churches. The parish boundaries were often indistinct until after the Norman conquest, but there may have been 150 of these by io66. Although the smaller Saxon churches were usually wooden and have not survived it was not long before more ambitious priests and their patrons turned to stone buildings. Of the latter Sussex has an especially fine collection, using a mixture of freestone, inset flint and brick and tile work removed from derelict Roman buildings. Regrettably, the cathedral at Selsey no longer exists, but the church at Bosham serves as a reminder of the continued importance of the trading creeks in the area throughout Saxon times. Sussex’s most remarkable Saxon church, Sompting, illustrates well the process of extension and adaptation which went on over several centuries, and particularly as South Saxon society reached it speak before Norman infiltration.
Unfortunately, we have little continuous idea of the quality or quantity of church-life; the bishops and local abbots occur in any records only as witnesses to charters and other documents. After Wilfrid’s eventual return north, although Christianity stayed in Sussex it seems to have formed one of the less distinguished and lively dioceses of the English church, closely tied to the features and experience of the county generally but not emerging to direct secular life. With the movement towards churchyard burial in the early eighth century, one of the last great sources of information about early Saxons, the pagan cemetery, was lost to archaeologists; the overlay of later burials has destroyed much of the evidence of early Christian Sussex. The minster at Beddingham seems to have lasted from 750 to 88o, but we know little or nothing of it, save its Abbot Plegheard named in a charter of 825. We can assume that the Norse invasions of the later ninth and tenth centuries had some influence on the more vulnerable coastal churches, but there was nothing like the disruption which drove many northern bishoprics southwards for over a century. Nor do we know to what extent the ‘Reformation’ instituted by St Dunstan in the tenth century touched the county at all. The church in Sussex lasted over four centuries with a minimum of influence upon surviving historical records, although the scale of its eleventh-century church towers at Sompting, South-ease and other places, illustrate that authority if not the people supported it. Even that may represent some revival after its Viking sufferings; in 955 king Eadred had bequeathed 400 pounds to relieve the people of the south, the money to be distributed by the Archbishop of Canterbury and his clergy. At the least, the clergy provided the kings, ealdermen and thegns of Sussex with a literate group available for the limited use of their services Saxon society required: drawing up charters, promulgating laws and formulating tax demands. In religion as in so much else the daily life of the South Saxons was conducted over several centuries by word of mouth and the group memory rather than by letter and record. When William the Conqueror came to ‘reform’ the local church, that transformation may have been based as much on political as doctrinal and ritual considerations. We can only assume that Sussex did not diverge too far from the rest of the southern English religious experience, after its rather late entry into the fold.
South Saxon Farmers
Just as difficult, in many ways, is the attempt to reconstruct the Saxon impact on the daily life of rural Sussex. Certainly, for all their passion for fighting the South Saxons were men of the land. Their eye for a likely spot and its potential undoubtedly influenced their early settlements alongside or away from the earlier British sites. Since so many of their coastal farms have now disappeared beneath a raft of asphalt and concrete, we have tended to forget the minor variations in the landscape which so influenced the earlier farmers; even in the ‘rural’ Weald modern urban man finds it hard to distinguish the overlay of later centuries from Saxon patterns. Yet they put this knowledge to good advantage, both officially and in more mundane matters. Among the 87 hides (or taxable units) of land granted to Wilfrid for his monastery at Selsey was the following:
… the lands belonging to Pagham, firstly from the West of Withering, by that harbour to the place which is called Honar Stream, and thus it leads to the long village. Thence northwards to Mina’s land, so eastward to the stream and over it at the place called Ufa’s ford, thence to the place called Lagness, thence to Laxley, and so to the place called Baisham, thence to the bridge at Ellridge, and thus northwards besides the marshy places, over this to the stream called (Aldingbourne Rife) and thence east to Waermund’s enclosure, thence to Wador’s barrow from that place to the fishpond, and from there to (Ryebank Rife), and so the line runs to the sea. . .
The description continues, but the essential point emerges of the close relationship of man to locality on which the Saxon economy and social order was based. Again, as with the earlier settlers, the multiple diversions of the Sussex landscape forced the invaders to develop regional differences within their kingdom. The rich coastal plain continued to provide the base for great estates, ruled by their thegns, some of whom had their possessions ratified by charters like the one just quoted, whose boundaries can often still be traced. The Downs were more deserted, but more important was the Saxon impact on the Weald. Along the north scarp of the Downs runs a series of parishes with land evenly distributed from the foot, and across the different soils to their northern boundaries. In the West Sussex examples, at least, the villages themselves were placed firmly on the Greensand belt. The parishes were more or less equal in area, around 4000 acres; their layout says a great deal for the Saxon ability to recognise and exploit soil features and for their respect for mutual rights of neighbouring communities. However these communities were organised, agricultural practices depended very much on common agreement and a shared policy. At the same time, there was the paradox of a growing lordly authority among the stronger thegns who could impose their will on the rival groups.
Apart from the movement over the Downs, the Germanic set-tiers moved inland along the rivers; the attack on the Weald already had the Romano-British experience to build on and, given the distribution of the rivers, can be seen as a pincer movement rather than a direct push northwards. The military analogy is important; although the ‘campaign’ lasted several centuries, it was organised by determined groups following a general strategy with disciplined organisation and strong leadership Often, the new Wealden areas were frontier points ofthe strong coastal estates, in the east particu¬larly, the estates round Bexhill had ‘inland’ and ‘outland’ portions. It was the latter which represented new clearings. There seems to have been a generally similar scheme of attack if similarities to the Kentish experience are anything to go by The arable coastal estates used the forest land as extensive swine pastures, with large herds roaming under the eye of swine-herds, whose camps occasionally provided the base of modern hamlets. In the northern Weald, some of these men seem to have come from large Kentish estates round Tonbridge rather than from the Sussex coast; there must have been several centuries of discussion before Wealden boundaries were finally sorted out. The historian’s problem is that there is insufficient archaeological or documentary evidence to establish the chrono¬logy of this process.
Where the swine eroded the lighter heath and woodland, the farmer followed. This was a long struggle indeed, small fields being literally carved out of the landscape by fire, hacking and sheer brute force. As boundaries between them, wide ‘hedges’ of natural wood¬land were often left, the ‘shaws’. The South Saxons whose numbers we shall never know with any accuracy, built up a complex Wealden farming system, backed by a communication network that can only have been an extension of the lesser economic roads of the Romano-Britons. The distribution of their later stone parish churches may give some indication of their more profitable achievements; they are most numerous and closest in the area north and west of Arundel, with a scatter round Worth and rather more diffuse in the area of the Haestingas, whose forest ridge was less well served by an island river system. There are few north of Bramber and Hailsham. Overall, we can see groups moving out from Selsey—Chichester, along the Ouse valley from Lewes and out from Hastings, in search of the more fertile areas, creating at least a parish, village and hamlet pattern that later men could build on.
How these settlements and farms were run is another matter indeed, one more for speculation than evidence. With the exception of parts of the coastal plain, the late Saxon ‘open field’ pattern, with two or three large units divided into strips scattered according to a complex local hierarchy, was practically unknown in Sussex. Communal organisation must still have been necessary, however, for the system of clearing and farming to occur at all. There was, throughout the Saxon period, a tension between the activities of smaller groups, the ‘free men’ of Saxon warrior society, the need for communal organisation and a tendency towards domination by a chain of increasingly powerful lords, the thegns, ealdermen and earls, the equivalent of modern dukes. Political uncertainty, after the Norse invasions which began in the ninth century, forced a need for protection for which services were given in exchange. It was a pattern common throughout Europe, but with substantial regional variations. Inevitably, the growing scale of war organisation demanded more services and more taxation; in return for protection and a common system of laws, most freemen gave up some of those freedoms. It is unclear how far this happened locally, although the family of Godwine, Earl of Wessex, had come to dominate Sussex by the eleventh century. There was no local version of the Rectitudines Singularum Personarum (Rights of Individuals), the eleventh-century code of legal and rural practices drawn up as a guide for the country as a whole. It represents the peak of Anglo-Saxon rural organisation, a carefully differentiated but far from rigid series of social groups, well developed before the Norman ‘feudal’ additions to it. At its peak, in each shire were the bishops and ealdermen, with a supporting group of local gentry, the thegns. Beneath them came the cearis (churls) the heads of substantial rural households, many of whom were free. Below them was a larger group, sometimes called geburs (origin of the modern ‘boor’) or freeman cottagers owing more services to their thegns than they had freedoms. The base of the social pyramid was a substantial slave group. When Wilfrid received his 87 hides of land at Selsey, part of the package was 250 male and female slaves, whom he converted-and set free. Some historians have estimated a slave population in eighth-century Sussex of almost twenty thousand. Although a slave could earn ‘manumission’, freedom orgebur status, or be granted it, the slaves remained a substantial if decreasing population of South Saxon society. How each thegn organised his estates must have varied considerably, but a typical gebur should have had, according to the Rectitudines, seven acres, two oxen, one cow, six sheep and his tools provided by the lord. For this he paid ten pence a year at Michaelmas and performed a number of other duties on the lord’s land and paid tithes to the church. Both his economic independence and his essential servitude were thus, at the same time, guaranteed.
With such a carefully structured order, village life and farming in good times could be free from drought and civil disturbance, be secure and highly profitable, particularly for the thegn. In the case of malicious damage, where compensation could be got under the carefully defined Saxon laws, it was the local thegn who usually benefited; we shall never know how much of this was passed on. Around the work of pasturing, clearing and ploughing, much of farming seems to have been little different from that of Romano-British society, although the contrast in lordly life styles is at least obvious to the historian. The coastal plain in Sussex produced a wheat and barley surplus, the Wealden farmers probably grew sufficient for their own needs, whilst concentrating on stock raising. Frequently, some seasonal movement of stock between the forest and coastal marshes seems to have taken place. Food produced by agriculture and pasture could still be augmented by hunting and collecting the berries and fruits of the Weald. One ‘natural’ product may have been particularly important, the honey of wild bees used in the Anglo-Saxon ceremonial drink, mead. For common use, home-brewed ale probably sufficed. The autumn sowing produced wheat and rye, the spring barley and oats. Some of these crops, at least that part due to the thegns, were collected in central granaries, the barley enclosures, or berwicks. Most of the lesser English people probably lived in sunken timber huts little different from their Romano-British and Germanic predecessors. The thegns lived in increasing grandeur but in wooden halls rather than masonry villas; although tapestried and heated by a central fire they must have been both dirty and draughty. Sussex’s archaeological evidence for these is unfortunately sparse. Each central village was probably reasonably self-sufficient in terms of weaving for its own clothing, although the wool may have come from downland farms specialising in sheep. Likewise, the evidence for Anglo-Saxon pottery is much less adequate than that for British and Roman settlement.
Towns and Government
The network of great estates – Bexhill, Ticehurst, Climping and so on – produced a surplus, and, together with their wider economic and social needs, trade was catered for by a network of market centres. This network was far more complete than the Romans had needed, emphasising the local focus of much of Saxon life. By the tenth century, few South Saxons can have been more than twenty miles from a market place, but these were rarely ‘towns’ in any later sense, or even comparable with their Roman predecessors; Saxon society remained essentially rural, except in its very greatest centres. But the basis of a later network was laid, particularly after the Norse attacks began. To cover the valleys and principal settlement areas a series of burhs, specially constructed fortified settlements, was in hand by the early tenth century. Chichester, Burpham (covering the Arun valley but replaced by Arundel after the Conquest), Lewes and Hastings were backed up by the ports at Bosham and Pevensey and the episcopal centre at Selsey. How their defences were organised and their life run remains a mystery – in fact the only significant mention of the burhs is to be found in the Burghal Hidage, a tenth-century taxation list.’ Lewes alone seems to have grown to any great importance in the pre-Conquest years.
By the reign of Edward the Confessor, its population may have reached 2000. By the io6os, it supported a cattle market and a mint, and may have been the shire’s legal centre; across the river from the main town, a growing suburban hamlet formed the nucleus of the modern Cliffe. Undoubtedly the river was navigable; the separation of Sussex from much else of mainstream English experience should not hide the richness of Saxon trade with other parts of Europe and even further afield. At some stage in the late tenth century, Lewes had supported two mints, as had Chichester. The permission to make coinage was an important mark of a town’s regional importance and of the acceptability of its trade status among local people; conversely, failure to maintain that rightful respect brought hard retribution. The eleventh-century punishment for causing inflation by reducing,–the value of coins (usually by using base metals or clipping off pieces of silver) was the loss of the right hand and castration. It is an interesting speculation whether the reintroduction of such draconian legislation might reduce more recent economic problems.
Around the towns, but more particularly the small rural communities in Sussex, the Saxon monarchs built a careful legal and local government structure, reinforcing the social hierarchies but carefully giving each man rights and dues according to his place. The peak of this system was the separate but often closely coordinated authority wielded by bishop and ealderman over the total shire. Below them came the jurisdiction of the thegns, apparently already organised by the early eleventh century in the districts that, as Norman lordships, were to form the later rapes. These were in turn, composed of groups of hundreds. Essentially these latter groups of parishes provided a nucleus and recruitment to the fyrd, the local militia responsible for the defence of the kingdom. This careful combination of royal with local authority could prove a two-edged weapon, reinforcing local bonds on the one hand, but offering opportunities for the disenchanted to cause trouble on the other. In variety of forms, it caused tension until the later nineteenth century. The early hundreds often lacked the formality-of later attempts at local government: frequently they met in the open, at a convenient central spot, perhaps marked by a tree, as at Easebourne. Dill, the ‘boarded meeting place’, was one of the few Sussex hundreds that seems to have had any accommodation specially provided; what effect the winter conditions had on the conducting of business can only be imagined. Only later did hundreds normally keep written records. Under the ‘hundred man’, the chief official, the hundred court was supposed to meet every four weeks, chiefly to bring thieves to justice and round up stray cattle; more serious problems went to the ealdermen. Groups of ten men, the tithings, provided witnesses and a pale forebear of the modern jury. In most cases, decisions would be based on local custom, disputes often being referred to the oldest men present, those with the longest memories. Royal attempts, such as me’s in the seventh century or Edgar’s in the tenth, to promulgate codes could only meet with success where local practices were not too obviously threatened.
The growth of central authority and regional stability in later Saxon Sussex can be overestimated, and the last two centuries before the Conquest saw much of that order threatened repeatedly. Apart from conflict between different royal factions for the control of England generally, there were increasing external pressures for change. In many ways, Sussex escaped the wholesale rearrangements of life and customs which the Norse invasions were to have on the northern shires.
The Germanic culture of the South Saxons remained much more intact than that of the rest of the country. But the oft repeated Saxon prayer, ‘From the fury of the Norseman, Good Lord deliver us’, must have been echoed along the Channel coast many times, where the wealthy minsters and settled farms stood open to repeated pillage. The earliest recorded raid took place in 895, when a Danish force on its way to lay siege to Exeter was heavily beaten in an attack on Chichester, losing a great part of its numbers. Eadulf, a Saxon noble, was appointed to organise the defence of Sussex but died from the plague before much could be done. The development of the burhs, however, by their unknown instigator suggests a considerable awareness of a repeated problem, although the next recorded raid did not take place until 994. In that year, the Norwegian Olaf and Swegan the Dane vented their fury on the shire, having been driven back from an attempt on London. The most serious attacks occurred in the decade after 998 when the Norsemen set up winter quarters in what was to become their favourite location, the Isle of Wight, and ‘lived off the land’ by repeatedly plundering the south coast. It says a great deal for Saxon resilience that the Sussex settlements do not seem to have reverted to wholesale waste, and the pressure was greatly lifted in 1017 when Cnut was elected king of England and the country passed under a Scandinavian aegis for the next half century or so.
The re-establishment of political order of a kind masked a growing tension in which Sussex inevitably moved to the forefront. The Danish monarchs ruled with the consent of the powerful regional earls, and the family of Godwine of Wessex established hegemony over the south coast as far eastwards as Kent. Regarding themselves as kingmakers, Godwine and his sons strove repeatedly to maintain an ‘English’ identity, free both of too much Danish interruption and of the new factor in political life, the influence of the Duchy of Normandy. It was a struggle which came to a head in the reign of Edward the Confessor, which began in 1042. Edward was pro-Norman, his court filled with barons and clergy whose French possessions were swelled by grants of English land. Edward gave the abbot of Fécamp, a great Benedictine monastery, land in Sussex in Hastings, Rye, Winchelsea and Steyning; to his chaplain Osborn, later William I’s bishop of Exeter, he gave the harbour and other dues at Bosham. Prize English possessions were passing into ‘foreign’ hands and the disgruntled Saxon nobility found voices for their jealousy in the Godwines. From 1049 until 1065 there was a repeated conflict between these turbulent nobles, their king and the ambitious Norman infiltrators. Godwine and his second son, Harold, had kept the peace off the Sussex coast by using Bosham and Pevensey in the later 1040s to drive pirates from the seas. In 1049, the eldest Godwine son, Swega, slew his cousin Beorn in a family squabble at Bosham; the upshot was the banishment of the entire family in 1051. They returned from Europe in force in 1052, receiving a tumultuous welcome in the Sussex ports, and Edward was forced to reinstate them. But the rivalry smouldered on and came to a head as the king advanced in years, without an obvious successor. Given the elective nature of the late Saxon monarchy the interests and support of the Godwines would be essential to any claimant, and it was here that the well-known story of the Conquest was to have its impact on Sussex.
In 1064, Harold sailed from Bosham; a storm cast him up in Normandy where he was apparently tricked into giving his oath on saints’ bones to pledge support for Duke William as the next king of England. The Confessor’s death in January io66 sparked off a crisis. As premier earl, Harold was able to secure his own election to the throne, but was forced to defend it almost immediately against Scandinavian and Norman claimants. Duke William, essentially a warrior of the European mainland, found himself in a quandary: he must either renounce the claim or mount a once-for-all amphibious operation which would stretch his resources to the absolute limits. As justification for claiming strong Norman support he could advance the wickedness of Harold, the ‘backwardness’ of the English church, the increasing separation of Scandinavian—English politics from the mainlines of central and southern European development and, perhaps most immediately attractive to his baronial supporters, the promise of considerable territorial gains if the gamble came off. It was a matter of individual rather than mass persuasion, and it worked. With this support and Papal backing, he went ahead. The summer was spent in building almost 700 ships and assembling the army, of at least i i ,000 men, although the exact numbers are beyond recall. The English do not seem to have taken this too seriously; the frrd, or coastal militia, was disbanded and the fleet paid off at the most crucial time in late summer, only to be hastily recalled when Harold Hardrada, the Norwegian king, invaded the north.
William set sail late on 27 September io66, landing near Pevensey the following morning with little apparent opposition. Not that he was welcomed, by any means, but English military attentions were turned elsewhere. William’s choice of Sussex as his base can hardly have been random; the pattern of Norman landholding and trade in the shire was already well-established and the comparative ease of establishing a military foothold well-known. After devastating some local villages, perhaps as much to gain additional supplies as for any military purpose, the Norman forces had to prepare for battle with a formidable Saxon army. Despite the inevitable toll of the fight at Stamford Bridge and the long march southwards, Harold’s troops still represented one of the finest forces in Europe. They came together near the hamlet of Senlac, on the most convenient road from Pevensey to London. Harold and his men rendezvoused at Caldbec Hill on 13 October: it was probably a tactical mistake to choose such a southerly site when the North Downs must have been easier to defend. The land over which the question was to be decided was heathy, with scrub alternating with marsh in the valley. William was forced by the lie of the land to come at the Saxon strongpoint from the south. The armies varied in style; whilst the Saxon thegns rode horses, they invariably fought on foot, with axes, and the defensive position forced relative immobility on their troops, with the central professional nucleus, the housecaris, surrounding the king. The Normans, by comparison, were led by armoured and fairly mobile knights, backed by a barrage of archers and organised groups of -spear and swordsmen.
The battle took place on a Saturday, 14 October: because the armies were so evenly matched and the ground so difficult it lasted eight hours, a great time in a world where a decision was usually reached in just over two hours. The Bayeux tapestry gives a magnificent cartoon report of the action, but it needs to be seen as a piece of victorious Norman propaganda; it is to be doubted that the English spent the previous night in carousing whilst the Normans engaged in earnest prayer. Well might they have done, since not merely England but probably William’s future authority back in Normandy depended on the outcome. After several hours of futile combat, in which the Norman minstrel Taillefer perished in a glorious suicide ride and the knights were unable to smash the fyrd’s defensive rings, the battle turned, the Saxon ranks broke line under their own enthusiasm rather than the Norman ruse always reported, and Harold was eventually mortally wounded by the repeated rain of arrows which, lacking sufficient archers, the English were unable to return. With the slaughter of the king, the English turned and ran, pursued and hunted down by the knights. After a last stand further north, Europe’s finest army was destroyed; although they had lost many men, the Norman nucleus survived.
The victory did not, however, mean the immediate defeat of England; that was to be a rather longer process. Sussex bore a considerable brunt of the next stage of the Conquest and was the first area to be systematically ‘Normanised’. After regrouping, William headed for Kent and London with his main army but seems to have sent detachments out into Sussex to subdue the countryside and act as a rearguard. The details of this action are rather scant, but Domesday Book (see below) showed a distinct drop in recorded values along a line of country which suggests that the Normans moved quickly to subdue Lewes and then marched westwards to join up with secondary Norman forces landing in the Selsey area to take Chichester before moving towards the Saxon treasury at Winchester. Both the armies of this pincer movement probably travelled quickly, without extensive commissary, relying on what they could pick up as they laid the land waste. Plumpton, Keymar, Hurstpierpoint, Steyning and Arundel were all on the line of march; harsh policy at first would lessen resistance later.
With his hold on the south complete within a year, William had both to confirm it as a long-term fact and reward his followers. Since Sussex offered the most direct line of communication with Normandy, it received special attention. The areas of the five Saxon burhs were reorganised into Norman landships, the rapes, and given to the more powerful and trusty lay barons. Robert of Eu received Hastings, Robert of Mortain Pevensey, William de Warenne Lewes, William of Braose Bramber and, the most important, Roger of Montgomery, got Arundel, which included Chichester as well. Each covered his river valley with a new castle, wooden at first but soon replaced with a substantial stone structure. Undoubtedly, ‘voluntary’ Saxon labour was used to expedite these tasks. Robert of Mortain was lucky, in that he had the substantial Roman site at Pevensey on which to build. Probably the most spectacular of the new castles was that built by William de Warenne at Lewes, towering on its two mounds above the surrounding town and the wide flood plains of the Ouse. Visibly, the Normans had come to stay.
Their military hold complete, they turned to exploit their newfound lands. In Sussex, as we have seen, they inherited a complex manorial system of dues and services which only need slight modification and a rather harsher lordly hand to yield good returns. How far those Saxons who disagreed were able to, flee into wilder parts of the Weald may be doubted; there seems to have been none of the resistance in wild areas which the Normans met when Hereward fled to the Isle of Ely and Yorkshiremen fought back. Norman consolidation was systematic. Aethelric II, the Saxon bishop of Selsey, was deposed and the centre of the diocese moved to Chichester in 1070, with a Norman enthroned in his place. The Anglo-Saxon earldoms were allowed to expire; in place of the influence of the Godwines, Roger, of Montgomery was made Earl of Sussex in 1070. Order can be overestimated; the next twenty or so years saw repeated squabbles among the Normans, in which, after William’s death in 1087, Sussex played a vital part. Rufus seized the kingdom in io88, separating it from his brother Robert, who remained as Duke of Normandy. To achieve this, he had to secure the support of Kent and Sussex against the risk of a retaliatory strike by Robert. William of Warenne supported Rufus, Robert of Mortain held Pevensey against him and Roger of Montgomery (now also Earl of Shrewsbury), played a waiting game at Arundel. The combined forces of Rufus and Warenne starved Pevensey into submission.
How far the local English were affected is beyond discovery. As far as most Sussex people were concerned, it was probably a struggle which only affected them if they got in the way of one of the opposing forces. For the bulk of them, ordinary life went on as before io66 except that the collection of rents and other lordly dues was now much harder. The epitome of this process was William’s great taxation record, the Domesday Book of ro86. Despite its many inadequacies, it gives us some picture of Sussex life as the Normans strengthened their hold. Many of the villages which had been on the line of march were still depressed; Hurstpierpóint was worth a third of what it had paid in the days of the Confessor. But many other manors had recovered, although not entirely. One problem was that the Normans were taking far more out in payments than their predecessors. A number of manors, such as Patching, complained repeatedly that they could not cope with such demands; there is little evidence that they got any cuts. Lewes and Chichester had continued to grow in dignity, no doubt helped by their lords who could see the tax potential. The balance of farming, pasture, fishing and minor industry was still largely as before; only one iron works, near modern East Grinstead, was mentioned. Despite major omissions, such as Hastings, most places that could be taxed were there, 337 of them.12 Details varied, but the entry for Hooe, near Battle, gives some idea of how the Normans saw their acquisitions.
The Count of Eu holds in demesne a manor which is called Hou. Earl Godwine held it, and in the time of King Edward, as now, it was assessed for 12 hides. There is land for 44 ploughs. On the demesne are 2 ploughs and 44 villeins with 12 borders have 28 ploughs. There is a chapel and i mill yielding 7 shillings and 71 acres of meadow, and 30 saltpans yielding 33 shillings. Wood land yielding ‘0 swine from the pannage. From the pasturage 7 swine.
Of the villein lands of this manor Reinbert holds half a hide, Robert 24 virgates, Osbert 2 virgates, Aelred 2 virgates, Girald 2 virgates, Withert 44 virgates, Wevela 2 virgates and Robert 2 virgates.
Between all they have on demesne 34 ploughs, and 12 villeins and 3 borders with 7 ploughs.
The whole manor at the time of King Edward was worth 25 pounds and afterwards 6 pounds. The count’s demesne is worth 14 pounds, that of his knights 7 pounds and 7 shillings.
Despite the scattered details, this was not a description of topography or social structure, but a collection of legal and fiscal rights. The hold tightened as Saxon thegns and clergy gave way to Normans. Across the landscape the castles emerged, new French styles of architecture began to affect the parish churches, the great abbey of St Martin de Bello (Battle) started to rise on the site of Harold’s defeat at Senlac, and a new cathedral grew in Chichester. For the South Saxons, the Norman yoke was firmly on.