The History of Sussex after 1066

The History of Sussex after 1066

Medieval County

Frontier Zone

More than most English counties, Sussex was emphatically a French possession for much of the Middle Ages. It lay across the most direct if not always the quickest route to Normandy; in peace, wine and wool crossed the county, adding significantly to its wealth. In war, more common as the Dukes of Normandy used their English king­ship to press their rather doubtful claims to the French throne, Sussex found itself in the front line, convenient both for intended invasions and retaliatory expeditions by licensed French pirates. The variations in fortunes thus produced saw changes in the county’s position relative to the rest of England over long periods; more immediately, there was often a considerable contrast between wealth and poverty in different parts of the area.

Medieval Authorities
Medieval Authorities

Social relationships in medieval Sussex were based on military needs as much as economics, at least until the later fourteenth century. William I had introduced knight service, a repeated drain on local resources. At its height the ‘feudal’ system meant that Sussex could muster over 300 fully equipped mounted men, 84 of whom were the responsibility of the Earls of Arundel and another 6o of the de Warennes; the bishop of Chichester had to find four. These were supported by a ‘levy’ of foot soldiers; repeatedly in the fourteenth century, Sussex was faced with royal demands for five hundred or a thousand troops. The disruption of daily life may well be imagined; it dragged men away from work and posed increasing demands for their upkeep on those who remained. In addition, during the ‘Hundred Years War’ which began in 1338 it meant there was a constant coming and going across the county by a not particu­larly well disciplined soldiery. The maintenance of armies on this scale and the continued uncertainty of medieval political life had other effects too; although it escaped the large-scale violence which affected much of Northern England during the Wars of the Roses Sussex had an ample share of earlier troubles. Pevensey in particular had a strategic importance in the protracted family rows among the Angevin kings, Henry II, Richard and John. The latter’s favourite hunting box was Knepp Castle near West Grinstead; so fond of it was he that he eventually seized it from William de Braose, an action hardly guaranteed to increase baronial support; when the French invaded England in 1216 to support the barons against John, it was Sussex which bore the brunt. William de Casingham fled to the denser Weald with a thousand men, emerging to harry the French until the Earl Marshal could muster enough support to drive the invaders out in 1217. For the next century or so, the county was relatively free of French harassment, but the situation worsened considerably after 1360 when a French fleet burnt Winchelsea and followed this up with a regular series of raids on the coast. The older castles were patched up and re-defended but the raids continued, increasing in severity; it took almost twenty years before the authorities finally awoke to the extent of the problem. The peak year for French activity was 1377 when, like the Vikings before them, they used the Isle of Wight as a base to harry the whole south coast. They took Rye and then attacked Winchelsea, but found it heavily defended by the Abbot of Battle. Leaving it, they marched to Hastings, to find it deserted and on fire; in retribution for this ‘scorched earth policy’ they burnt Rye to the ground. Another group had landed at Rottingdean and marched inland towards Lewes; on the way they met fierce resistance from an armed band led by another warlike monk, Prior John of St Pancras. The French won but it was a Pyrrhic victory and their victorious momentum was lost; they contented themselves with sailing up the Ouse, burning settlements on the way and anchoring within sight of the town before they withdrew. These depredations and the lack of a firm response by corrupt local magnates were to have a violent sequel to which we shall return.

The French menace produced a more immediate response which had a remarkable effect on the Sussex landscape, although it seems in retrospect like bolting the stable door after the horse had fled. Typically, it was an attempt to defend access to London rather than the Sussex coastline. In the later 1370s and early 138os, two new castles rose above the surrounding countryside, both defending the upper reaches of navigable rivers. Bishop Rede of Chichester rebuilt his manor house at Amberley in a new, more sophisticated style. It was matched in the East by Sir Edward Dalyngrydge’s creation at Bodiam, ‘crenellated’ in 1385, a great square surrounded by a wide moat on the upper reaches of the Rother. The French came again, but co, ncerned themselves with piracy rather than inva­sion, burning Rye and Winchelsea in 1448. The long-term effect was to damage severely the profitability of the county’s coastal trade, to raise the levels of taxation and to cause a lengthy period of economic decline.

Paradoxically, the wars that helped seal Sussex’s decline as a maritime commercial county gave its eastern parts a dignity on whose memory they have traded,ever since. Hastings had showed an interest in the Yarmouth fisheries, with the four main Kentish ports, long before the Conquest; what the latter did eventually was to weld them together in a loose federation for supplying ship rather than knight service in return for limited privileges. Hastings, like Dover, was to provide 20 ships out of a total of 55 when the king demanded. In many ways, this was symbolic rather than actual; by the fourteenth century, the town could only supply three of its quota, the rest coming from Winchelsea (ten), Rye (five) and some surrounding manors. In no way could they hold back the French when the test came, and pomp and dignity increased as real ability diminished.’

Religious Life

The French connection was not confined to war alone. The great abbeys established as a thank-offering by the victorious Normans were complemented over the next four hundred years by a number of smaller foundations, dictated by the tenets of fashion and indi­vidual piety. Most of the 34 religious houses, and 40 other founda­tions in the county depended on one founder, such as Sir John de Bohun of Midhurst who founded the Augustinian nunnery at Easebourne, but almost all enjoyed, in varying degree, support from quite minor benefactors such as this gift to Lewes Priory, c.1230.

I Jordan de Blossevilla give in free alms to God and St Pancras and the monks.. . for the welfare of my soul and of my ancestors and successors a portion of my land in Bevenden lying by my well on the south side contain­ing 4 perches in length and 2 in breadth to hold in free alms with a free way of going in and out with the easement of drawing water in any well.

The smaller houses, particularly nunneries, never did very well in Sussex; theirs was a story of brave foundations, continued poverty and deprivation. By the fifteenth century they seem to have become dumping grounds for unwanted, unmarriageable or troublesome genteel ladies of little fortune. Rusper, founded for twelve nuns and a prioress in the twelfth century, was down to two by the sixteenth century, both of whom were very aged. A number of the male houses were little better; the Benedictine house of Sele had a non-resident prior in the 146os who was given to selling off the moveable goods to keep up his life style. One group of houses in Sussex with particular problems was that of the ‘aliens’, foundations of great French houses whose loyalty was suspect during the French wars; even great foundations, such as Lewes Priory, came under suspicion, having to be relieved of their dues and obedience to the mother house at Cluny.

Undoubtedly, it was the great monasteries which set the style, with an importance far beyond their immediate locale; the priory church of St Pancras in Lewes was far larger than Chichester Cathedral, and its monks major landlords. Probably the grandest, in terms of prestige and style, was Battle. It is the one about which most detailed information has survived, with the great collection of Chronicle, account books and charters. With estates scattered across the country and freedom from episcopal and royal jurisdic­tion, its mitred abbot was one of the great barons of England. His word was law within the leuga, an area of i miles radius from the abbey gates; despite the monastic contrast of personal poverty and corporate wealth, the monks had great influence on the economic life of their new town and Sussex estates. Appointment to such positions came as a mark of royal regard, and the quality of abbots varied considerably. Most were reasonably conscientious in com­bining the religious life with extensive secular responsibilities; few rose to quite the heights which the abbey’s chronicler noted in Odo, who ruled from 1175 to ioo:

And now he began to be more devout than ever in his prayers, more ardent in divine contemplations, more frequent in his vigils, more energetic in exhortations and in works worthy of imitation and more frequent in preach­ing; thus becoming a pattern in word and deed of a holy life to all. Rich in the bowels of compassion, he relieved everyone who sought his assistance. His hospitality knew no respect of persons; the abbey-gates stood open for all corners who needed either refreshment or lodging. . .. In all divine offices in the abbey, in reading and in meditation, he associated with the brethren in the cloister.’

From the extent of the praise it is clear that Odo’s virtues were unusual in one of his station. He preached in Latin, French and ‘often for the benefit of the unlearned common people, in the mother tongue’. Indeed, his only problem seems to have been chronic constipation. The abbey he lorded was essentially a pre­serve for the well-endowed; thirty or so monks surrounded by a staff of several hundred servants, controlling the life of a substantial area. Although their main purpose in life was the Opus Dei, the nine hours or more a day spent in the choir of the great church, the abbey was the centre of a complex industrial and social organisation. ‘Poor’ in person, the monks enjoyed nevertheless a standard of living far above the Sussex norm, a situation made clear by the accounts of the late fourteenth-century cellarer, Brother Thomas Ellam, who bought the bulk provisions the monks needed:

WINE. From which he accounts for 2 pipes of wine bought at Canterbury from Preston, I pipe at London, i tun at Canterbury by J. Boteler, 3 tuns at Sandwicum, i other tun at Canterbury and for the carriage of the same, £41 12s.2d. For payments to the convent of wine for various feasts of the year. £4 9s.2d. for honey bought. 15s. for oil bought, 205. for the brothers’ gifts, 14s. for wine for those being bled in Advent and Lent, 8s.4d. And for 4 treets, 9.4d….

FISH. And for salt fish, Stockkfishe, salmon, White and red herrings bought at London and elsewhere this year and for the carriage of the same, £47 12S. For fresh fish bought at Winchelsey, Hastings ,R ye and elsewhere this year, £i 2s.3d.

The list continues: saffron, figs, veal, sucking pig, and so on. But this was by no means all consumed by the brethren in an orgy of gluttony; most of the larger monastic records in Sussex would have shown a similar pattern, since there was a constant coming and going of important visitors and benefactors with extensive retinues. The monks of Battle usually ate the poorest meat from their own estates; the best was sold to pay the recurrent costs of the abbey buildings and staff, and to run the hospital and almonry maintained for the local poor. The religious houses had a considerable impor­tance in Sussex life for four centuries or so. Apart from the greater urban houses, they spread out into the more rural areas. When the Cistercians, ‘White Monks’, came from Burgundy in the twelfth century they sought ‘wildernesses’ for their life of vigorous contem­plation. Most houses were in the distant and wild north, Yorkshire in particular; the only local equivalent was Robertsbridge in the high Weald. After some initial trouble with flooding from the Rother they moved to higher ground, building a large abbey which has now almost entirely vanished, and running an extensive sheep farming practice around it. Alongside them, in other parts of the Weald, came Augustinians, other Benedictines and the Premons­tratensians whose house at Bayham is one of the most complete to have remained in Sussex. All offered amended versions of the same basic life enjoined in the Rule of St Benedict. Inevitably as they settled and built, their life was more integrated into than separate from that of local communities, not always to the improvement of either, as the Visitors of Bayham found in 1472 when the Canons’ life style had led several to abscond and the buildings lay ruinous. We have precious little information about the internal life of most of these establishments.; it was only the scandalous that was reported.

The wealth and pride of the monastic communities provoked an eventual reaction, and lay favour shifted in the thirteenth century to supporting the new orders of wandering preachers, the Friars. The principal bodies, Franciscan and Dominican, established houses in Winchelsea, Chichester, Lewes and Arundel, to be followed by lesser orders, such as the Friars of the Sack in Rye.’ Although they eschewed the large houses and endowments of the monks, they frequently attracted considerable wealth because of lay support for their fiery preaching and their concentration on the towns. But even they were affected in the fourteenth century by the repeated crises of Sussex life, the French, the sea and the Black Death from whose effects no Sussex religious house ever fully, recovered. Together, most of the bodies lost ground in the fifteenth century, and were often forced to ‘appropriate’ neighbouring parish churches in order to swell their incomes from the tithes due from the laity; this frequently became a source of bitter dispute locally, and lay patron­age shifted away to the parish churches in the fifteenth century. Although there are few Sussex equivalents to the great wool churches elsewhere, the wealthier endowed chantries in a number of churches for saying masses for the dead, or funded the numerous leper hospitals and almshouses around the towns. In a society where poverty was regarded as the will of God, its relief could only bring grace.

By comparison with the religious orders, the secular church went much closer into the life of ordinary people. Although only a few churches were listed in Domesday Book for Sussex, there must have been many more and the growth of towns and Wealden colonisation saw the establishment of a fixed parish system by the early thir­teenth century. The peak of this pattern of medieval order was the diocesan authority, the bishop himself. Although most of the medieval bishops of Chichester were conscientious enough men as diocesan administrators, they were usually barons, royal servants and judges rather than benign fathers in God.’ Richard de Wych, appointed bishop in 1244, stood far above the run of them. Initially important for his courageous preservation of papal and episcopal authority against royal depredation, he was best remembered for his generosity to the poor, simplicity of life, devotion to parochial cares and his miracles. In the tradition of Wilfrid, he seems to have taught the men of Lewes and Bramber how to fish (they must have been very forgetful), or at least blessed their nets.’ His death, while preaching a crusade in 1253, robbed the diocese of its best-loved leader, a welcome change from some of his more avaricious fellows on the bench, and gave it its greatest religious and, ultimately, financial asset. His canonisation in 1262 gave the cathedral the second most important shrine in the south-east after Becket’s at Canterbury. Although its ultimate destruction has left no trace of the shrine’s location or size in the cathedral, it is recorded as being amply covered in gold and jewels. Little information has survived about the scale of the pilgrimages, usually at their greatest on the Saint’s Day, 3 April, but it seems to have been in the usual boister­ous medieval tradition, both sacred and profane. So lively did it get on occasions that Bishop Story had to order the pilgrims to carry crosses and banners in 1478 instead of the coloured staves with which they were prone to hit each other at the height of their religious fervour.

The bishops may have enjoyed considerable temporal authority but their role in Chichester and the diocese itself was restrained considerably by the complex overlap of local jurisdictions which medieval society developed. In the city itself, the cathedral was the province of an autonomous dean and chapter; further afield, the extensive deanery of South Mailing cut a swathe through Sussex to Kent, and the diocese of the archbishop, whose ‘peculiar’ it was and whose palace at Mayfield dominated the north-eastern Weald. Bat-tie stood outside the authority of both. Depending on the degree of enthusiasm shown by the bishop and his ‘eye’, the archdeacon, the level of spirituality in Sussex fluctuated. Laxity among the parish clergy was a continual problem, not least their habits of taking wives or, after the legislation for priestly celibacy, ‘concubines’. Given the pressures of external demands, the size of the diocese, and the problems of travelling to over 300 parishes, most bishops and their officers had to content themselves with regular exhortations and punishing the worst, or least skilful, clerical offenders.

One great monument towards which most bishops did contribute was the cathedral. When the early, possibly wooden, convent of St Peter in Chichester was replaced in I075, by a college of secular priests a new church became essential, if only to reinforce the image of episcopal authority. It was a far from smooth process, and the resulting agglomeration of styles and patchwork efforts was by no means the largest church in the county, although probably the most interesting. Bishop Ralph de Luffa began a complete rebuilding in 1091, but it was badly damaged by fire in 1114. After Bishop Seffrid consecrated the completed building in 1184, it was severely dam­aged by fire in 1187 and had to be substantially reconstructed, using the existing framework. Even then, it was not free from disaster, and the central and the south-west towers collapsed in a storm of 1210 and had to be rebuilt. Thereafter it was continually in need of repair or subject to minor alteration until the Reformation, given a Lady Chapel for the cult of the Virgin in the later thirteenth century and, most obviously, a spire in the fifteenth century, making it one of the best landscape features of any medieval building, far less uniformly oppressive than Salisbury.

If Chichester Cathedral represents the peak of secular church activity it must be seen against the whole range of minor church building which accompanied the extension of the parish system. Although the county possesses few equivalents of the great churches built by wealthy communities elsewhere in England, it has a wealth of small-scale buildings in a range of styles imported in the latest continental fashion and modified by local needs and customs. From the small and poor downland churches like Coombes to the grander Wealden settlements, there is an almost uniform simplicity of styling, the product as much of local pride and parochialism as of poverty in the small communities, often with limited building mater­ials. The parishes they served varied considerably, from the single streets of Chichester to the 9000 or more acres of Battle. Of the priests we know little, except where their transgressions brought them to episcopal notice. In common with the rest of English society the richer livings were usually held by absentee grander servants of the king or even inmates of the Vatican. Whilst these alien preben­daries, rectors and abbeys took the main pickings, the ‘great tithes’ on corn and so on, their vicars drawn from the local people usually had to make do with the remainder. With the establishment of parish boundaries and other rights, these were increasingly closely defined; one of the most common medieval records for Sussex as elsewhere is that recording a tithe dispute either between different clergy or priest and laity. It is difficult to say how many of these men were as fortunate as the vicar of Henfield, who in 1209 was to receive all oblations and legacies, a tithe of any new land to be cleared and ‘tithe of calves, lambs, wool, pigs, chicken, geese, ducks, eggs, honey and wax, mills, fisheries, venison, hemp and flax, gar­dens, garlick, onions, leeks, and all pot-herbs’.’ In practice, many clergy found it as difficult to collect the full tithes as the Inland Revenue and Excise do their latter-day exactions; increasingly the payments were commuted for cash rather than kind. The aliens and absentees who pushed their claims too far fanned the flames of popular revolt in Sussex in the later fourteenth and fifteenth cen­turies and bore the brunt of the explosions that followed. For most people the church provided the main consolations in a short and hard life: devotions, ritual and, occasionally, the feasts of Scot ales, where the parson paid for the drink, and on great occasions, such as the Feast of St Pancras in Lewes, festivities and public ceremony. To some it gave help in sickness and consolation in poverty. But it was as much a legal body as a spiritual one, although occasionally this could work for the individual’s unexpected benefit as in the laws relating to sanctuary or ‘abjuring the realm’. One case in 1278 was singularly melodramatic:

Philip son of Adam le Lechur was hanged at Petworth for theft, but by the breaking of the rope escaped alive, and flying to the refuge of the church abjured the realm. The king at the request of Eleanor de Percy pardoned him and cancelled his abjuration.

If the people of Sussex did not support the church in the middle ages with overmuch piety, nor did they reject it openly. Heresy in the shape of Lollardy in the fifteenth century had only a few adher­ents in the county, but they were rather spectacular. Thomas Bazeley, a clerk, was the only man in Sussex to die for his beliefs, at the stake in 1432, but the most singular convert was Bishop Reginald Peacock of Chichester. He was arraigned for heresy in 1457, after publishing his The Repressor of Overmuch Blaming of the Clergy, ‘A secular doctor of divinity, that had laboured many years to translate Holy Scripture into English, passing the bounds of divinity and of Christian belief’.

On being offered the choice of recantation or the stake he chose the former and, deprived of his see, lived out the rest of his short days as a prisoner in Thorney Abbey. Few followed him, for most people the church remained the symbol of external authority, its beliefs and teachings intermingled with the deeply rooted supersti­tions and essential paganism of most small rural communities.

Rural Life

It was these communities that saw the greatest pattern of change during the middle ages although, with a couple of notable excep­tions, this was a very long process indeed but with some sudden shifts of direction. The well-established agricultural divisions of the county were reinforced by medieval practices, but perhaps the greatest contribution to Sussex life was the extension of settlement much deeper into the Weald, the piecemeal annual clearings going much farther than before. By the end of the twelfth century the modern distribution of settlements was firmly established. Wheat and cattle existed side by side in the Weald with a wide variety of local wood-based industries. Through the ports of Rye, Winchelsea and Shoreham the men of the Weald exported an increasing amount of timber, both as ‘billets’ offuel and, in large oaks, for building; one major ancillary of this was the ship-building industry which flourished in most of the county’s ports until the later fourteenth century. Much of the lesser wood was converted on the spot into the staple medieval fuel, charcoal. Conditions for a Sussex ‘miner’, or factor carbonis, can have been little different from that of later centuries, a nomadic life lived in the woods, shelter in bad weather being provided by the simple turf-covered pole shelters that were still in use forty years ago. The combination of oak and stock breeding saw the growth of another major Sussex industry, tanning, very well developed in the Uckfield region, with the specialist ‘whittawares’ or leather-dressers kept very busy.’1 Much of Sussex’s early medieval wealth was built on the close relationship between farming life and industry; although many villages had specialists in each there must have been many with dual occupations, men able to shift from one to the other as the season or demand dictated.

Although the Wealden pattern suggests a density of population and activity far greater than used to be thought, it was the great coastal and scarpland estates that had the most highly organised agriculture. As one of the great landowners, Battle Abbey operated in both areas and its estates are particularly well-documented, as Mrs Brent and Dr Brandon have shown in their studies of Alciston and Barnhorne, near Bexhill.12 The former manor spread over several parishes, with a particular emphasis on sheep farming backed up by a large wheat crop. Half of the latter was sent each year direct to the abbey at Battle, the rest consumed on the manor. Normally, a flock of almost 3000 sheep was kept, producing a better grade of wool than the usual run of scraggy downiand animals. Alciston itself acted as the gathering place for surrounding parishes, and it was there that the wool merchants went to do their trading until the mid-fourteenth century. To run the manor, several grades of men were used: the famuli or regular servants, the customary workers and hired labourers. Each of the famuli, the skilled elite of this larger manor, had a specific job, be it swineherd, shepherd or goose keeper.

Barnhorne was not quite so impressive, set as it was on the shifting, sea-threatened, marshland east of Pevensey. It specialised in wheat and stock production, with a sophisticated system of co­operation, based on no regular method but on an annual assessment of the needs of particular fields and crops. Like Alciston and most other Sussex parishes it seems to have had a fairly prosperous time until the mid-fourteenth century; the early over-large tax demands of the Norman overlords had been replaced by a much more bal­anced local appreciation of the revenue possibilities. It was the outside authorities who asked too much. Most of the rest of Sussex seems to have enjoyed the prosperity which peaked in the late thirteenth century. The rebuilding of the older Saxon churches which illustrates this was accompanied by a significant shift in the lifestyle of the better-off villages, particularly in the sheep-rich Downland areas. As far as can be gathered from the limited archaeological research so far done, there was a move from the older timber cottages to new stone-walled housing. This was com­mon to much of England but the local feature was the use of flints as a building material rather than the, freestone carved out of quarries elsewhere. Flint walls, often up to three feet thick, were usually built straight on the ground without foundations, with a central hearth, the fire either laid on the earth floor or, if better off, a large stone slab. Out in the Weald, it is probable that wood rather than stone was still used, not so much because of local backwardness as of the easy availability of building materials. The smaller houses were usually rectangular, up to fifteen feet by twelve if one-roomed, or thirty feet long if with two rooms. One sign of the increasing prosperity of some farmers was the appearance in Sussex of the ‘long-house’, with a byre at one end and two-roomed living quarters at the other. Those even better off had a separate house and barns. Much of this picture has been surmised from the pioneering excava­tion of Old Hangleton by Mr Holden 13 surprisingly, given the common image of medieval squalor, there was none of the rubbish which is usually so rich a ground for archaeologists. Possibly, the medieval Sussex peasant was much more fastidious than we have been taught to think.

The agriculture that made this growing wealth possible was highly organised, although with considerable variations within Sus­sex: all men worked not just for themselves, but for a lord. Occa­sionally, we have a picture which survives at some depth, such as this description of the work the smith owed his lord, the Archbishop of Canterbury, on the manor of Tangmere in 1285:

John Marscal holds f a virgate and owes yearly, omitting Christmas and Whitsun, 100 works. And he shall thresh i measure of corn of which 4 make a bushel for one work, and thresh two measures of barley or pease retch, or beans or i quarter of oats for one work. He shall break clods or hoe from daylight until nones for i work. He shall ditch 32 feet in length and I spit deep for i work and as much he shall make of them hedge for I work. He shall ditch 16 feet in length 4 feet in width and 2 spits in depth for i work He shall mow with other tenants the meadow of Ersanyre and shall have his bundle of hay. He shall make hay with the others in that meadow and the lord shall give them 12d. He shall mow two meadows in Wodemed for 7 days and on Westmede for 2 or 3 days until it is reped, and what is mown in 2 days there he shall make with his companions. . . and the lord shall give the mowers of the two meadows 4s. for making the hay. He shall enclose in the field 32 feet length of fencing which he shall cut and gather in the park for work. He shall put i row of dung on i furlong for 2 works. He shall spread a row for I work. He shall carry a cartload of hay from the park for i work, and 2 cartloads of hay from Westmede for i work. He shall plough a strip [Sellion] in winter and another strip in spring without harrowing and without counting a work. He shall do carrying service on alternate Satur­days at Louyngton or elsewhere within the mannor, without counting it a work, and he shall carry to Midhurst, Arundel (or) Emmesworth, that is to the bridge at those places, without counting it a work. He shall make half a seam of malt for one work and the lord shall provide firewood. And if in carrying he is delayed out for the night it will count two works. He shall make i quarter of flour and when he carries the flour to the house he shall have his food. He shall provide 2 men at the harvest boonwork at the lords food and if he has a plough he shall plough i acre as a boon work. He cannot marry himself or marry his sons or daughters without leave, nor sell for himself a foal he has foaled, if male. And after his death the lord shall have his best ox or cow, and if there be neither he shall have 5s. And his widow shall pay relief and shall remain in the said tenement undisturbed, doing the services.

In addition, as smith, John Marscal had to repair the lord’s ploughs, and shoe the lord’s horses; in return he got more land and a cow. The Archbishop held other considerable estates in the county, of which the largest was the Manor of South Malling, a solid block of land stretching from the Ouse outside Lewes to the Kent border. Divided into borghs, ‘within’ and ‘without the wood’, it was described in the same details as Tangmere although pasture and wood crafts were more important. In the ‘custumal’ of 1285 the tenants were divided into ‘free’, ‘virgaters’ (unfreemen owing ser­vices as detailed as those of John Marscal) and ‘cottars’, the landless bulk. But this neatly organised hierarchy of the document is misleading; the listing was made because the archbishops were unsure of their rights after years of maladministration when many of the services had ceased or been exchanged for cash payments. In Wadhurst, ‘within the wood’, this had reached such a pitch that ten of the largest farmers were listed as unfree men, leasing their land from others; there was also a substantial number of women farmers, such as Agnes at Wyk. It would seem that the ordered feudal society, insofar as it ever existed, was already broken up by the late thirteenth century and that the small Wealden peasant, who will recur frequently later, was already a common phenomenon. As far as can be gauged, Wadhurst had a population at the time of about 1000. This cannot have been untypical – the late medieval Weald was far from being the empty desert so often described.

Perhaps few manors detailed their work as much as Tangmere; many were probably worked from oral instructions, but the com­plexity of daily organisation in a society often unpredictable and expanding becomes clear. Almost as this detailed organisation reached its peak in the fourteenth century it was, as we shall see, to break irreversibly.

Old Towns and New

John Marscal went weekly to a local market; few medieval peasants were as bound to their immediate localities as we were once taught. The Saxon burhs and larger villages were augmented by a consider­able growth in Sussex towns, a pattern matched across much of Europe. These were anomalies in the rural landscape, with customs and life styles often quite distinct from their argrarian surroundings. About daily life in the first established, Lewes, surprisingly little has remained; it never really achieved the independence many other similar towns acquired, remaining essentially a manorial borough of its lords, the de Warerines, for most of the middle ages. Even this status was the cause of repeated problems, since the Prior of St Pancras enjoyed separate jurisdictions and there were repeated conflicts between the lord’s men and those of the Prior. In 1278 at least one of these ended in death when Guideard, the Prior’s sergeant, killed Robert Wodecock and Laurence Cook during a brawl in Roger Tympan’s tavern. He found sanctuary in the Priory church. Lewes was run for its lord by the Reeve, later called the bailiff, whose principal job was to collect the market tolls and other dues which made it so valuable. Perhaps inevitably, with such wealth and diversity an oligarchy of local tradesman emerged, organised into a merchant guild. Unfortunately, we know little of their ‘customs and dignities’, and the extent of their authority cleared and ‘tithe of calves, lambs, wool, pigs, chicken, geese, ducks, eggs, honey and wax, mills, fisheries, venison, hemp and flax, gar­dens, garlick, onions, leeks, and all pot-herbs’.’ In practice, many clergy found it as difficult to collect the full tithes as the Inland Revenue and Excise do their latter-day exactions; increasingly the payments were commuted for cash rather than kind. The aliens and absentees who pushed their claims too far fanned the flames of popular revolt in Sussex in the later fourteenth and fifteenth cen­turies and bore the brunt of the explosions that followed. For most people the church provided the main consolations in a short and hard life: devotions, ritual and, occasionally, the feasts of Scot ales, where the parson paid for the drink, and on great occasions, such as the Feast of St Pancras in Lewes, festivities and public ceremony. To some it gave help in sickness and consolation in poverty. But it was as much a legal body as a spiritual one, although occasionally this could work for the individual’s unexpected benefit as in the laws relating to sanctuary or ‘abjuring the realm’. One case in 1278 was singularly melodramatic:

Philip son of Adam le Lechur was hanged at Petworth for theft, but by the breaking of the rope escaped alive, and flying to the refuge of the church abjured the realm. The king at the request of Eleanor de Percy pardoned him and cancelled his abjuration.

If the people of Sussex did not support the church in the middle ages with overmuch piety, nor did they reject it openly. Heresy in the shape of Lollardy in the fifteenth century had only a few adher­ents in the county, but they were rather spectacular. Thomas Bazeley, a clerk, was the only man in Sussex to die for his beliefs, at the stake in 1432, but the most singular convert was Bishop Reginald Peacock of Chichester. He was arraigned for heresy in 1457, after publishing his The Repressor of Overmuch Blaming of the Clergy, ‘A secular doctor of divinity, that had laboured many years to translate Holy Scripture into English, passing the bounds of divinity and of Christian belief’.

On being offered the choice of recantation or the stake he chose the former and, deprived of his see, lived out the rest of his short days as a prisoner in Thorney Abbey. Few followed him, for most met, a fact finally recognised by Bishop Story’s magnificent market cross of 1501 . To augment this, and the trade in the shops, a fair was granted to Bishop Ralph by Henry I. Usually held in October, it lasted for eight days and met outside the North Gate near the sloe tree which gave it its name of Sloe Fair; discipline and disputes were enforced by a ‘pie-powder’ (dusty feet) court which sorted out the inevitable problems. Later in the thirteenth century a Michaelmas Fair was held in the eastern suburbs, a source of perpetual dis­agreement about jurisdiction and tolls.

Chichester’s wealth was also built on the normal Sussex pattern of exporting wool and importing wine. For some time it stood as the seventh ‘port’ in the kingdom, despite the fact that its quays were some distance away; its merchants had exclusive rights over trade in much of western Sussex for most of the later middle ages. The affluence made them exceptionally important and they were not slow to demand the ‘communal’ rights held by other important medieval centres, many of whom gained privileges similar to those of London. For some time there was a conflict of jurisdiction be­tween the bishop’s reeves and the interests of the Gild Merchant. The earlier charters after 1135 gave rights to the latter but it was not until the 1220S that the authority of the episcopal servants was finally replaced by elected bailiffs, soon to become the mayors. The Gild Merchant was a close, self-selecting body with its own hall, effectively the centre of urban government. Not that it had all its own way. The election of the mayor was usually a popular occasion, and an attempt by the leading citizens to exclude the craftsmen and servants from the ceremonies in 1408 met with a riot which forced the dignitaries to step down. The Gild Merchant was remodelled in the fifteenth century as the religious Gild of St George, but the power of the principal citizens continued to increase. Henry VI gave them a court leet in 1451, which concerned itself largely with the minor social offences common to any medieval town; poor-quality weaving and leaving dead animals lying about the streets seem to have occurred fairly commonly. Their wealth was assured by the profits from tolls on the Wednesday and Saturday markets, acquired from the Earl of Cornwall in 1316. With their clerk and common seal, they were a proud body; only one area, the Pallant, escaped their jurisdiction, until 1532 when the Dean and chapter relinquished it. Yet, for all its self-importance late-medieval Chichester was only a quarter the size of Salisbury in terms of its taxpayers, 869 of them in 1377•15

Below these small regional centres came the multitude of larger market villages – Petworth, Horsham, Haiisham and so on – for which ‘town’ is perhaps too grand a description. But Sussex saw a series of other medieval townscapes, the deliberately ‘new’ town; there were eleven of these, with East Grinstead as a possible twelfth. Towns, as we have seen, gave wealth to their rulers, and founding new ones became a quite fashionable activity if not always a successful one. Newbridge, for instance, is now only a farm near Pulborough, and very little is known of its foundation. The two earliest, Arundel and Battle, grew around the focal point of the new lords, the castle and abbey respectively. Of the two, Battle is still the better preserved, the triangular market place outside the abbey gates leading into a single high street, with the regular burgage crofts (or gardens) running out at narrow right angles from the face. Each burgess paid 7d. a year and some service for his croft, men like Lambert the shoemaker and Orderic the swineherd. There were 115 such burgages, and two guild halls for the merchants and craftsmen, a third catered for the rustici, or out-of-town traders. At no time did the abbey relinquish to these groups any of its tight control over economic life. High on its waterless ridge, Battle grew with the fortunes of its abbey, but never achieved the sort of wealth that allowed Chichester to assert its independence.

Of the other ‘new towns’, apart from Hastings, Midhurst, Peven­sey, Rye, New Shoreham, Wardour and Westham, the most inter­esting for the historian is New Winchelsea. This original small port and fishing village had been down on the marshes adjoining the Rother, not far from Rye, and given to Fécamp Abbey by Cnut. With the outbreak of hostilities, it had been too strategically placed for alien ownership, and the king had reclaimed it as a royal demesne. Increasingly severe storms from the 1240S had swept away large parts of the town, drowning it finally in 1287. Fartoo valuable to be let go, it was resurrected by Edward I who acquired in 1280 the manor of Iham in Icklesham, a plateau overlooking the old site. On it he laid out a simple grid of streets with a central site for the new church of St Thomas, surrounded by 611 house plots. Although for a while the new venture flourished, far outstripping its neighbour, Rye, it was never the success its royal founder had hoped. Plagues and continued French raids in the fourteenth century halted its growth. The church of St Thomas was never completed and the town site remained only partially developed within its half-built walls. As such, it remains a gem for the landscape-conscious his­torian. For contemporaries, the charm must have been less impres­sive than the sense of half-realised ambitions.


It was not only towns that failed in later medieval Sussex. The agricultural and urban prosperity of the county, together with that of the rest of England, received a severe blow in the later 13405 when the Black Death finally reached England from the continent. A virulent form of the endemic bubonic plagues of medieval Europe, it swept across the country from the south-west and down from London. Very little is known in detail about its immediate effect in the terrible year of 1348/9 in Sussex. The Abbot and over half the monks of Battle perished, eight of the thirteen canons of Mitchelham, most of the heads of religious houses, and up to half of the rest of the county’s population died within a few months, although the effects varied from community to community. Although it struck after the spring corn had been sown, the immedi­ate effect on agriculture was catastrophic. In the manor of Alciston, the bailiff of Battle Abbey had to raise wages by up to 75 percent to get the year’s work done by the survivors. Although they dropped again later, the long-term effects were considerable. Labour was increasingly scarce and individuals were able to bargain a better position in many cases than the complex previous agreements we have seen.

Lost Villages & New Towns
Lost Villages & New Towns

Marginal land had to be given up either to waste or to sheep and cattle, since it was no longer profitable to plough it. The assault on the remaining Wealden woodland was probably halted. New land-working agreements frequently had to be negotiated, and enclosure into small fields for peasant cultivation may have replaced open land and the strip system of some villages on the coastal plain. There particularly, a number of communities which had only been par­tially viable now began to disintegrate. In Sussex there are known to be some 43 sites of deserted medieval villages. Not all can be traced to the Black Death, but it must have been a significant factor. In the high downiand north-west of Chichester, the four neighbouring villages of Up Marden, North Marden, East Marden and West Marden effectively lost the first two communities, whose small thirteenth-century churches now stand magnificently isolated. Simi­larly, only the church of Coombes in the Adur valley remains. Almost all the lost villages were in the coastal, downiand or scarp land settlements; only two, in Isfield Parish and Buxted, are known in the deep Weald. Isfield itself seems to have shifted from its old site, up near the parish church, to a new site almost a quarter of a mile south-eastwards; the moated manor near the church was aban­doned and replaced by a new separate dwelling. But we shall probably never be able to trace this process of desertion in any detail in most of the Sussex cases. Only Hangleton, now buried beneath Hove, has been adequately excavated and the archaeologi­cal work related to documentary evidence. The settlement was already declining by 1340, with sheep flocks one-third of those the village had boasted forty years earlier. In the words of the religious of Shulbrede, ‘the last wonderful pestilence’ must have carried many men away. Hangleton and many other villages survived only as a single house or two into the next century. Occasionally, as in the case of Heighton, in Fine Park, only a few mounds remain to illustrate that once men lived and worked there.

To the disorder caused by pestilence, other pressures were added in the late fourteenth century. The ravages of the sea continued: Broomhill, Bracklesham, Aldrington and others joined Old Shoreham and Old Winchelsea beneath beds of shingle. Repeated French raids also continued. The pressures of acts of God and war produced their own troubles; agricultural poverty found itself pressed with increasingly heavy taxation and baronial exactions from a monarchy and feudal lords anxious to recoup their losses and being none too scrupulous about their methods. In 1381, the depres­sed peasantry exploded in revolt, appealing with singular naivety to the king for help. Although it was the men of Kent and the other home counties who took leading parts Sussex did not escape. Mur­der and crowd violence there was, although we have little real information about it. Harsh repression firmly put it down, outlaws taking as usual to a scattered and precarious existence in the Weald. Rather more is known about the similar outbreak in the fifteenth century, Jack Cade’s rebellion of 1450. Again this began in Kent, and spread to Sussex through that village of perpetual peasant troubles, Brede. In this case there was widespread support and sympathy from the overtaxed gentry and clergy. The mayor and citizens of Chichester, the prior of Lewes and many others joined in the public outburst against royal exactions, although after Cade was murdered at Heathfield it was not they who suffered when the repression came.

These outbursts were exceptional, directly attributable to increasing distress, but they were extreme symptoms of the ready violence of much of medieval society. The power-struggles which went on across much of the period were reflected right through society, and the surviving court rolls for Sussex often illuminate activities of considerable violence. The dividing line between acceptable and anti-social behaviour was often blurred. The most notable example of this occurred in the county in 1264, when the troops of Simon de Montfort defeated Henry III at the Battle of Lewes. The reasons for the conflict, the struggle of royal versus baronial liberties, were of wider importance than Sussex issues but it left a real mark on the county’s experience. Dc Warenne at Lewes was a royalist, as were the lords of Arundel, Pevensey and Hastings; as usual the French connection gave Sussex a strategic importance, as a bridgehead against the forces of de Montfort. He marched south to destroy the royal army rather than waste his time in taking castles; the king came westwards from Tonbridge and Battle, doing considerable damage en route. They met at Offham Hill, now the boundary of Lewes old racecourse, on 14 May 1264. De Montfort’s men had to march up the northern scarp, but they still seem to have taken the royal forces, camped down in the priory grounds, by surprise. Rapidly organised, 3000 cavalry charged up the hill to engage the rebels, and a great number of them went over the cliff into the Chalk Pits. De Montfort’s troops were able to rally and drive back the king’s perspiring infantry, labouring up the downs in the wake of the cavalry. The king was finally besieged in the priory, the King of the Romans in a windmill, and de Warenne in the castle. Across the river and through the streets of Cliffe men fought in close combat before the royalists scattered. In the history of English parliaments it was a decisive encounter, although in terms of Sussex where commoners rather than knights or lords died it may well have been one of the familiar disasters around which ordinary life had to continue. Lewes managed to thrive notwithstanding.

Medieval society was already in transition by the fourteenth century. Elsewhere in England, during the Wars of the Roses, it saw a reversion to murder, violence and a demand for a new type of lordship. Readers of the Paston Letters will know how far East Anglian life was disrupted; in the north it was worse. Sussex escaped most of this; if there were switches in allegiance, as there must have been, they were subsidiary to the conflicts elsewhere. Local violence continued in the uncertainty caused by still undefined areas of jurisdiction. To take an example, in Setyscombe (Sedlescombe) in 1415,

Item that Richard Curteys of Battle. . . entered the liberty of this lordship and made an assult on Richard Knyght against the peace by night; and with a strong hand, with force and arms, to wit, with swords, bows and arrows, they unjustly took him outside the aforesaid lordship and carried him off to Battle, within the liberty and town of the abbot of Battle, against the peace. 

Why, is not clear, nor what eventually happened. But the disrup­tion of plague, of Frenchmen and English squabbling was helping a new move towards prosperity and stability. In the Weald, small farmers were showing their new-found freedoms and minor pros­perities with a new type of house-building. Perhaps the best symbol of the paradoxes of late medieval Sussex is the great castle of Herstmonceux. Its builder, Sir Roger Fiennes, fought alongside Henry V at Agincourt and became Treasurer of the Household to Henry VI. To complement the system of defence in depth against the French provided by the towns and Amberley and Bodiam, he began his new castle in 1441, with a licence ‘to enclose, crenellate, and finish with towers and battlements’. With its wide moat and narrow approaches, it was indeed a castle, but in spirit it was some distance from Amberley and Bodiam. Surrounded by its great park and built in brick, it was a new venture, half-way towards an elegant country house, the home of a new breed of magnate, more gentle­man perhaps than knight. Around it, the society of a recovering Sussex was undergoing considerable transformation.