Modern Britain’s origins could be said to come from Sussex, the Norman’s first port of call and conquer in 1066. However, before this turning point in history, the county had already experienced waves of invasions and in the subsequent millennium, Sussex has seen plenty of historic events and anecdotes worthy of note. In this article, we take a look at the most interesting, from the momentous to the cultural via the criminal and the geological.
East Sussex history in geology – before anyone arrived in East Sussex
Long before the Romans and Saxons, geology was doing its stuff and creating a landscape known for its chalk and flint. The Seven Sisters are the result and one of England’s best-loved natural landmarks. The towering white cliffs, carved by rivers cutting their way through the chalk to the sea, are all called brows and points. And today, millions of years after their creation, they are one of England’s Outstanding Areas of Natural Beauty.
Did you know? East Sussex is home to two chalk figures, the Long Man of Wilmington, which stands 72m tall and was probably etched out of the ground in the 16th or 17th century, and Littlington White Horse, whose present form dates back to 1924.
East Sussex history in mosaics – the first regal visitors
East Sussex boasts a strategic location but it comes with a double-edged sword: while it’s easy to see who’s coming to invade, it’s also difficult to stop them from entering. The Romans were one of the first unannounced visitors and they left their mark across most of England.
However, one of their finest legacies lies in East Sussex, in the village of Fishbourne. Started in 75AD, the Roman Palace covers an area larger than Buckingham Palace and contains 50 mosaic floors, regarded as some of the finest in the world.
East Sussex history in Saxons – the shaping of the first kingdom
Shortly after the Romans left England to attend the decline of their empire in Rome, the Saxons sailed to East Sussex in the 5th century and landed at Pevensey. They set up their kingdom in the county and exploited its natural resources while shaping the early part of English history.
Did you know? Many towns and villages in East Sussex have Saxon names. They include Hastings (from Haestingas, followers of the Haesta tribe), Lewes (from hluews, Saxon for hills) and Crowborough (from croh and berg, meaning golden and hill).
East Sussex history in Hastings – the arrival of the Normans
The Normans in nearby Normandy set their sights on the English throne in the 11th century and invaded East Sussex in 1066. William the Conqueror’s triumph over King Harold of England changed everything and East Sussex went from Saxon to Norman almost overnight. The rest is, as they say, history and the French legacy lives on in the county.
East Sussex history in seafaring – the Weald Forest barrier
Legend has it that the Weald Forest formed an impenetrable barrier between East Sussex and the rest of England. While the real story shows that the vast areas of trees were thick and a challenge to pass through, passage across the Weald was by no means impossible.
But travelling by river or sea was considerably easier, and for centuries East Sussex looked to the water as its main means of transportation. And it wasn’t until the arrival of the railways in Victorian England that the maritime nature of the county changed.
Did you know? East and West Sussex have existed as two separate entities since at least the 12th century, but the end to their status as a single ceremonial county didn’t come until 1974.
East Sussex history in castles – our pick of the best
Given its vulnerable seaside position within a stone’s throw of France, East Sussex has needed to defend itself and as a result, the county is home to some magnificent castles. They include:
- Bodiam Castle – built in 1385 as a luxury home for Sir Edward Dallingridge and his wife, the moated castle is one of the best examples of a medieval fortress in southern England. Not much of the original opulence remains, but you get a good idea of what high-end living was like over 600 years ago.
- Lewes Castle – originally a timber and earth structure, the Normans converted the castle into stone and today, the Barbican stands tall over the East Sussex countryside. Climb up the inner staircase for one of the finest views in the county.
- Pevensey Castle – perhaps the oldest fortress in the area, Pevensey dates back to a Roman and Saxon fort before it became the landing place for William the Conqueror and his troops. Today, it lies in ruins but still makes a great family day out.
East Sussex history in religion – the Sussex Martyrs
While its neighbour West Sussex remained loyal to the established church and Catholicism during the Reformation, East Sussex preferred Protestantism and nonconformity. Many strong-willed locals paid a heavy price for their free-spiritedness, particularly the 36 citizens burnt at the stake in Lewes in 1557. A memorial outside the town hall commemorates their martyrdom.
Did you know? The East Sussex motto, “We wun’t be druv” dates back to the county’s nonconformity with established religion.
East Sussex history in contraband – the Rye smugglers
True to its seafaring nature, Sussex has a rich history of smugglers whose den of thievery centred around Rye. Contraband in wool from the thousands of Sussex sheep started in 1300, but it reached its heyday in 1614 when wool exports were declared illegal. Undeterred, smugglers worked under cover of Romney Marsh and it’s estimated that they secreted 20,000 packs of wool into France every year. They soon upgraded to finer goods including tea and it wasn’t until 1831 that the English Navy finally put an end to smuggling in East Sussex.
East Sussex history in its towns – our pick of the best
Brighton – one of England’s favourite holiday spots and home to quintessential attractions such as the pier, the Lands and of course, Brighton Pavilion. But despite the bright modern lights, Brighton dates right back to the 5th century. Thousands of years later, it has city status as Brighton and Hove.
Lewes – East Sussex’s head county town and also one of its prettiest. It too has centuries of history plus a good sprinkling of anecdotes. In the 10th century, it was home to two mints but no more than 2,000 people. And in 1836, Britain’s deadliest avalanche struck the town when a pile-up of snow on a chalk cliff fell and killed eight people.
Rye – another candidate for the prettiest town in East Sussex, Rye has a scenic position overlooking the confluence of three rivers. Until 1247, it was the French who repeatedly attempted to regain it. As a result, the town was refortified with walls and watchtowers of which only Landgate and Ypres Tower survive today.
Camber makes a perfect base to discover Rye and East Sussex – discover places to stay to in Camber
East Sussex history in India – the most eccentric royal visitors
Regency Britain set its sights on Brighton as a summer holiday retreat, which became a particular favourite of the Prince Regent, later King George IV. He commissioned the rebuilding of Brighton Pavilion and in 1823, his architect John Nash converted it into an Indian extravaganza. Every room is a feast for the senses, but the Banqueting Room where guests could enjoy 70 dishes at one sitting and the Saloon, a riot of platinum and silk, take the prizes for the most luxurious.
Did you know? The East Sussex unofficial anthem is Sussex by the Sea, written by William Ward-Higgs in 1907. Sussex County Cricket Club and Brighton & Hove Albion FC have both adopted the anthem as their own. Listen to the Band of the Grenadier Guards playing it.
East Sussex history in opera – the world’s finest
For operatic fans, Glyndebourne needs no introduction, and today, the fine house and grounds in the heart of the East Sussex countryside rank as one of the best centres for opera in the world. Its summer festival, now approaching its 90th anniversary, has hosted the most talented musicians and singers and is an essential part of the UK’s cultural calendar. The picnics on the lawns that take place during the opera intervals are almost as famous.
See East Sussex history for yourself
We’ve tried to bring the county’s past alive in this article, but nothing beats seeing it for yourself. Whether you’re here for a short break or longer, we guarantee that this beautiful county’s history will enchant and fascinate everyone in the family. And we’re got just the right self-catering options to suit – take a look and book yours.