Last Updated on 9th November 2021 by Mike@bitaboutbritain
We bowled up to Pevensey Castle on a blue-sky day in the company of Molly. Molly, I should say, is a small dog of exceptional poise and dignity, but has no relevance whatsoever to our story. She is mentioned merely in a cynical attempt to win the cute dog vote. Sorry, Molly. We have included your picture, though. Pevensey Castle, on the other hand, is a Place of Some Importance; things happened there. In fact, Pevensey is one of those places where you should expect to get a sense of Britain’s history from a long time ago until quite recently. And I’m sure Molly did.
From the car park, however, there was no suggestion that anything particularly momentous had ever occurred. In fact, quite frankly, the general atmosphere was one of benign drowsiness. True, the ice cream van was doing reasonable trade and the pub round the corner was gently bustling, but these things do not trumpet Great Events. The attractive medieval church of St Nicholas gave no hint of anything exceptional and the Castle Cottage Tearoom disguised the true character of the castle by apparently making its ancient walls into a garden feature. But, head toward an archway in the castle wall and you may miss an extremely modest memorial surrounded by indifferent plant pots and girded with a protective chain thingummy. A slightly buckled plaque proclaims the visit of Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II on 28 October 1966, and the landing of William Duke of Normandy on 28 September 1066. Of course, everyone knows that Pevensey is where William the Conqueror landed. There’s no need to bang on about it; it was merely a prelude to one of the most significant game-changing events in history. Leave aside this somewhat understated notice for a moment, however – because the arch you’re about to walk through was the east gate of a Roman fortress built almost eight centuries before our Bill was even a twinkle in his dad, Bob’s, randy little eye.
So, think back. It is the late 3rd century AD. The pub, ice cream van, tearoom, car park, church (and Molly) – aren’t there; they all lie long in the future. The exposed ground you’re standing on has open water lapping round it on three sides; it is a peninsula, jutting out into the sea, which is up to 5 metres higher than it is today. You are in an outpost of the Roman Empire inside a fort called Anderitum, or Anderida. It is one of a chain of nine coastal strongholds, possibly constructed by imperial usurpers, but in any event built as a defence against barbarian pirate raids along the ‘Saxon Shore’, from Brancaster in Norfolk to Portchester in Hampshire. Its 12-foot thick walls feature distinctive D-shaped Roman towers and brick bonding courses and cover a massive 10-acre site. Unlike most Roman forts of the time, it is not rectangular or square, but roughly oval in shape, its plan governed by the contours of the peninsula. The main entrance, in fact, is opposite the gate you have just walked through, constructed at the end of a narrow causeway at the western end of the peninsula, connecting it to the mainland. Anchored in the nearby harbour, where the village is now, you may picture a fleet of neat warships, the Classis Anderiaensis. But what you see inside the fort is anyone’s guess, because little has been found. We could make an educated guess that Anderitum would have had similar buildings to every other Roman fort – barrack blocks, bath house, principia (administrative centre), praetorium (commander’s house) – and so on. But we don’t know. Up to a 1,000 soldiers could have been garrisoned, and maybe fought, here. It is likely to have been a busy kind of place. But, apart from knowing the name of some of the units once based at Anderitum, we have no details. And we don’t know what happened here when Rome abandoned Britain in the early 5th century and the western empire collapsed. That said, we can be fairly sure that a British community made it their home after the soldiers had gone. A bleak, sad, entry in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle for the year 491 reads:
“This year Ella and Cissa besieged Andredscester, and slew all that dwelt therein, so that not a single Briton was there left”.
Elle, or Aelle, is said to have been the first king of the south Saxons – the Sussex. Perhaps the Saxons occupied Pevensey after they had massacred all of its inhabitants. Unfortunately, though it is known from remains found on the site that the Saxons were there at some point, Pevensey’s story for the next several hundred years is a complete blank. However, by the 11th century there was a settlement within the Roman walls, it was an important port and had a saltworks. Like most of the places in this part of the world, its name is Saxon. It possibly means ‘river of a man called Pefe’, but the ‘ey’ might derive from ‘ea’ for ‘river’ or ‘eg’ for ‘island’.
Early morning on 28 September 1066. Picture some 700 single-masted high-prowed longships in Pevensey Bay. It is the invading force of William, Duke of Normandy, come to claim the crown of England. On landing, legend has it, William stumbled on the beach and fell; his followers thought this was a bad omen, but William laughed and, grabbing handfuls of sand, exclaimed, “See, I have seized England with my bare hands.” It must have been quite a sight as the Normans and their allies disembarked, unloading some 2,000 horses and essential supplies – including the wine that the Duke had for breakfast that morning. Among the items that they had transported across the Channel were the components of a fort, which William’s men swiftly assembled inside the old Roman walls. I like to imagine this as an early example of flat-pack; don’t forget that Normans were originally Norse, just like the founders of IKEA. What if they’d mislaid the instructions, or the Allen key? But they must have had all the right bits, because William secured his position at Pevensey and, the following day set off to ravage the countryside and bring King Harold of England to battle. Harold was on his way south, having defeated a Norse invasion at Stamford Bridge, near York, three days before William arrived in the south of England. The two armies met on 14 October near Hastings. And we know what happened there, don’t we?
I wondered whether anyone knows exactly where William landed. It must have been slightly south or south-east of the Roman walls. But Pevensey Castle is a mile or two inland now and the beach where his fleet came ashore is covered with vegetation. Anyway, Pevensey was Britain’s very first Norman castle, those symbols of power and authority that came to dominate the landscape and subjugate the English.
That first castle at Pevensey would have been a timber affair, but it occupied an excellent position. In 1088, the year after William’s death, a row between his sons, the new king William Rufus and Robert Curthose, Duke of Normandy, resulted in supporters of the latter being besieged at Pevensey. The defences were so good that the siege lasted six weeks, until the defenders ran out of food. A second siege took place in 1147; again, the defenders had to be starved into submission.
It seems that the first medieval stone structures, the keep and gatehouse, may have been built on the orders of King Richard I, ‘the Lionheart’ in the late 12th century. Peter of Savoy, who constructed a palace where the famous London hotel now stands, is credited with replacing Pevensey’s timber palisades with the stone inner bailey walls and towers we see today, in the mid 13th century. Then, during the de Montfort rebellion of 1264, Pevensey Castle was besieged for a third time, with the royalist garrison – kept supplied by the French king – holding out for about a year. It was the longest siege in medieval England.
Pevensey drifted in and out of royal ownership and by the late 14th century was owned by the powerful John of Gaunt, Duke of Lancaster and one of the sons of Edward III. In 1399, when Gaunt’s son, Henry Bolingbroke, sought to wrest the English crown from his cousin, Richard II, local forces loyal to the king besieged Pevensey for a fourth, and final time. However, Henry succeeded, becoming Henry IV; poor Richard was done away with and Pevensey’s defenders lived to fight another day.
Thereafter, Pevensey Castle did a spell as a prison. The young King James I of Scotland was held captive there for a time, as was Joan of Navarre, widow of Henry IV and Henry V’s stepmother. Joan is a fascinating figure and her imprisonment is a bizarre episode. She was accused of witchcraft, or more specifically necromancy, and treason. These were really serious charges, with potentially awful consequences. But Joan was never brought to trial. She was treated well, allowed considerable freedom, spent a good part of her incarceration at her own castle at Leeds and was released by her step-son when he knew he was dying. The suggestion is that it was all about money, for Joan was a very wealthy lady. There are two prison cells in the basement of the gatehouse at Pevensey, both of them grim places, even now. One is reached by a staircase, the other is an oubliette, whose only means of access and egress is through a hole in its roof. It would have been unthinkable to keep either Joan or James in such degrading conditions, though.
Pevensey Castle was allowed to decay under the Tudors, though a gun emplacement was constructed in 1587, when Spain threatened to invade – which she attempted to do the following year. One of the guns, a ‘demi-culverin’ (medium cannon, apparently) is still there inside the inner bailey. Mounted on a modern reproduction carriage, it was manufactured nearby, in Sussex – the original centre of England’s iron industry.
All the while, the coast continued to evolve. Once a significant port, Pevensey harbour silted up and, by Tudor times, a large shingle bank had developed south of the castle. By the early 19th century, the shingle was extensive enough to support the construction of maybe as many as 15 Martello Towers in the Pevensey vicinity. Martello Towers were small, robust, defensive forts and artillery platforms erected in scores of vulnerable coastal locations around the British Isles, and elsewhere. In Pevensey’s case, the threat came from Napoleon’s France – and one of the towers is still there, on the beach. Meanwhile, the crumbling castle moved further inland and temporarily slipped out of our island’s story. In 1925, its then owner, the Duke of Devonshire, gave it to the nation and it eventually ended up in the care of English Heritage.
The old place hadn’t finished though. During the Second World War, after France had fallen, Britain was once again threatened by invasion and Pevensey, having been on the frontline since Roman times, was asked to play its part one more time. There were potential landing places right along the English coast and the old Roman-medieval castle found itself being fortified all over again. Perimeter defences were established, a blockhouse was constructed in the Roman West Gate and the towers of the inner bailey were refitted as barracks for troops. British, Canadian and US soldiers were based there. Intriguingly, pillboxes – machine-gun posts – were constructed in the medieval fabric of the castle. They are still there, cleverly camouflaged to blend in with the old stonework. The Martello Tower on the beach was adapted to house range-finding equipment for an adjacent gun battery.
It’s a long journey from Roman fortress, but you can see why Rudyard Kipling, in ‘Puck of Pook’s Hill’ (1906) fancifully referred to Pevensey as ‘England’s Gate’. You can’t beat a good piece of hyperbole. Kipling lived nearby, in Burwash.
Given the proximity of the sea and its essential relationship with Pevensey’s long story, it seemed only right to pop down to the coast while we were there. So we dragged Molly away from sniffing medieval stone catapult balls and drove down the delightfully named Sluice Lane in the direction of the inaccurately – or misleadingly – named Normans Bay. It is a low, relatively bleak, part of the world. I was surprised to learn that it had a railway station. There’s a small cluster of dwellings near the shore, a caravan park, a few isolated houses and a vast shingle beach that seems to go on for ever. The English Channel crashes and sucks maybe a 100 metres from the nearest back garden. And there was the Martello Tower, now a private residence. Nearby, a briskly flapping union flag leaves no future potential invader in any doubt as to where he’s landed. We may not make a big thing of it, the flag says, but we’ve been coping with this kind of thing, one way or another, for at least 1700 years.
You could turn Pevensey into a historical theme park. Feeling grateful that no one has, we drove Molly home. I think they could stick a better memorial up though, don’t you?