This month marks the 500th anniversary of the most devastating event in Brighton’s history. One night in June 1514 a fleet of French raiders attacked the village of Brighthelmstone, burning almost every building to the ground.
The precise date of the attack is uncertain, but it is believed to have taken place in the first few days of June. In his book Life in Brighton, Clifford Musgrave, a former director of the Royal Pavilion and Museums, notes that ‘State Papers dated from Calais 5 June 1514… speaks of arrangements for a raid to be carried out in France “in revenge for the burning of Brighthelmstone”‘
The attack was led by a feared foe of the English, a French naval commander known by various forms of ‘Prior John’. An account of the raid was published in Holinshed’s Chronicles, a popular Tudor history book that was used as a reference by Shakespeare and others.
Prior Iehan… great capteine of the French nauie, with his gallies and foists charged with great basilisks and other artillerie, came on the borders of Sussex in the night season, at a poore village there called Brighthelmston, & burnt it, taking such goods as he found. But when the people began to gather, by firing the becons, Prior Iehan sounded his trumpet, to call his men aboord, and by that time it was daie. Then certeine archers that kept the watch folowed Prior Iehan to the sea, and shot so fast, that they beat the gallie men from the shore; and wounded manie in the foist, to the which Prior Iehan was constreined to wade and was shot in the face with an arrow, Prior Iehan capteine of the French galies shot into the eie with an arrow. so that he lost one of his eies, and was like to haue died of the hurt: and therefore he offered his image of wax before our ladie at Bullongne, with the English arrow in the face for a miracle.
— Holinshed’s Chronicles of England, Scotland and Ireland, 1587 (online version available)
According to Holinshed, Prior John and his men succeeded in burning and looting most of the village before English reinforcements arrived. The invaders were attacked by a hail of arrows, and Prior John was struck in the eye. Miraculously, Prior John survived the wound, and as a gesture of thanks, presented a wax image of his face, also depicting the arrow in his eye, to a church in Boulougne.
In spite of this moment of piety, Prior John and his men seem to have had little respect for religious buildings: the Priory of Bartholomew, which has given its name to a street next to Brighton Town Hall, was mostly destroyed by the raiders. St Nicholas’ Church was one of the few buildings to survive the raid, and this may be because it stood at the top of the hill overlooking the old town. If Holinshed’s account is correct (it was first published in 1577, over sixty years after the original attack), the invaders may have been unable to reach it before English reinforcements arrived.
Although the town was almost completely destroyed, it was rebuilt along the lines of the original streets, and the layout of the Lanes still reflects the shape of the town prior to the invasion. This can be seen from one surprising legacy of the attack: the very first map of Brighton.
The map was a coloured drawing by Henry VIII’s cartographer, Anthony Anthony. The original coloured parchment was acquired by the Cotton family of antiquarians, and was part of one of the founding collections of the British Museum in 1753. The drawing is now held by the British Library, and a digital copy of the map can be viewed on their website.
Although we do not hold the original map, the plan is depicted in an 1832 engraving which we hold in our collections. The map shows the streets of West Street, North Street and East Street, which remain today, and what may be the emerging Middle Street. If you have ever wondered why Brighton lacks the obvious South Street, this can be seen at the bottom of the central rectangle with houses on the southern side. This street was worn away by sea erosion, and had entirely disappeared by the early 18th century.
As the first known map of Brighton, this document has an obvious historic importance. But what is also striking about the map is how it uses cartography to tell a story. It depicts the ships of the invading French, annotations describe the course of the attack, and it describes the arrival of men from nearby Lewes who came to help defend the town. Maps, although often attractive, are rarely thought of as storytelling media, so why was it used in this way?
A clue to this lies in the date. Sources differ on the precise date: the British Library catalogue dates it to 1539, although the manuscript bears a date in the top left corner of July 1545. The Society of Antiquaries, who produced the 1832 copy, took July 1545 as the date of the invasion, but most sources agree that the map depicts the events of 1514. This timing changes the character of the document. War broke out between England and France in 1542, and the map was probably used as part of a petition or plan for arming the town against another invasion. But Anthony’s map must have also been a piece of contemporary historical research, relying on local information, and probably incorporating the living testimony of those who had survived the raid. Given that life expectancy in Tudor England was only about 35-40 years, this map was produced at a time when the 1514 invasion was beginning to slip from living memory.
Brighton eventually received protection in the form of the Blockhouse, a stone structure on the cliff top just south of the Lanes. Featuring four cannons from the Tower of London, the Blockhouse stood for over 200 years until it was demolished in 1775. It was replaced by three batteries, which never had cause to be fired other than for tests or ceremonial purposes, but remained in place until the late 1850s. Defence measures were put in place again during the Second World War, when Brighton beach was closed and guns were mounted on the piers, but again the threatened invasion did not arrive from France.
Since the Second World War, Brighton has had no cause to fear an attack from the sea. Today, thousands of French visitors come to the city — all of whom are very much more welcome than Prior John and his men.
Kevin Bacon, Digital Development Officer