Herstmonceux is famous for its castle, which was built by Sir Roger Fiennes who was a veteran of Agincourt and Treasurer of Henry VI. The castle which is one of the earliest brick built castles was built by Flemish workmen who were brought over by Sir Roger in 1441 and built using Flanders bricks. The castle is about 200ft square with towers, a gatehouse and moat.
In 1540 Anne of Cleves visited the castle to be entertained by Lord Thomas Fiennes, Roger’s son who had inherited it from his father. Lord Thomas was accused of murder in 1541 after an illegal deerhunt on the land of Sir Nicholas Pelham at nearby Hellingly. The hunting party ended with a fight in which Lord Pelham’s gamekeeper John Busbrig was killed. The hunting party was found guilty of murder, and Lord Thomas and three others were hung. It was the first time in English history that a man of noble birth was executed for the death of a commoner. The reason that Lord Thomas who was 23 at the time was killed is more than likely to have been due to greedy peers, who were after the lands owned by the Fiennes.
The castle became a ruin and was demolished in 1777, when much of its material was used to build Herstmonceux Place.
Herstmonceux castle is said to have a phantom drummer from the battle of Agincourt however the more likely explanation is that the drummer was a smuggler from the 1700’s who was trying to scare the local populace away. This explanation of a smuggling involvement is a similar to the legend of the Brede giant. The area was a centre of smuggling , due to its proximity to the coast, and the relatively deserted inland villages.
In the churchyard are a number of Harmer Terracotta plaque decorated gravestones from the Harmer family of nearby Heathfield dating from the late 1700’s to the mid 1800’s.
The village has been made famous for its Sussex Trugs, which are a type of basket made from chestnut and willow. They were brought to public attention by Thomas Smith of Herstmonceux who displayed his trugs at the Great Exhibition of 1851. The name trug comes from the Anglo Saxon “trog” a wooden boat shaped vessel. These trugs were also built at Hailsham prior to the Exhibition, but are now only produced at Herstmonceux and nearby Horam .
In 1910 the castle was purchased by Colonel Claude Lowther who partially restored it. In 1936 Sir Paul Latham completed the restoration of the castle .
In 1946 the Castle became the home of the Royal Greenwich Observatory, from where they observed the night sky until the early 1970’s when the Sir Isaac Newton 98 inch reflector telescope was moved to the Canary islands. The Isaac Newton telescope is now found on the top of one of the peaks, where the air is cleaner and provides significantly better viewing times, as there are few nights where clouds obscure the view. The Royal Greenwich observatory was moved to Cambridge in 1988.