After the Norman Conquest in 1066, the county of Sussex was divided into five areas of land known as rapes. These were Hastings, Lewes, Arundel, Bramber and Pevensey. The newly crowned king William the Conqueror appointed a loyal baron to these rapes and ordered a castle to be built in each to defend the South East coast.
Each castle has fared differently over the last 950 years; some have stood the test of time and others have crumbled to ruins, but they all hold fascinating stories of Sussex’s medieval history.
Along with a brief history of each castle are related items from our collections.
When William the Conqueror (then known as William, Duke of Normandy) landed in Pevensey on 28 September 1066, a temporary fortification was built to house his troops for the night before travelling to Hastings for the final battle of the Norman Conquest. After the Battle of Hastings, William the Conqueror’s half-brother Robert, Count of Mortain was given the Rape of Pevensey. The castle’s defences were strengthened over the following years but during the Rebellion of 1088, the castle was besieged by William II’s troops. It was held against the king in support for Robert Curthose for six weeks. In 1381, during the Peasants’ Revolt, the castle was broken into and court rolls were destroyed after its owner John of Gaunt refused to garrison it because he proclaimed that he was wealthy enough to rebuild the the castle if it was destroyed. In 1399, the castle was besieged again, defended by Sir John Pelham. After the siege failed, Henry IV rewarded the castle to Pelham for his loyalty. It fell into disrepair during the 16th century and was not used again until the Second World War when further fortifications were added to prevent invasion after the Fall of France. It is now managed by English Heritage and is open to the public.
During the Battle of Hastings, William the Conqueror had a prefabricated wooden fort built in Hastings to provide protection for his troops. The construction of this fortification was depicted in the Bayeux Tapestry and soon after the Norman victory, the Rape of Hastings was allocated to Robert, Count of Eu. The castle was rebuilt in c1070 and a church was built close by at the end of the 11th century. It fell to ruins over the following centuries, largely due to erosion of the cliffs that the castle was built on. Little is left of the castle today but the ruins of its curtain walls and the foundation of the nearby church still remain.
In our collections are coloured aquitints each featuring Hastings Castle ruins.
William de Warenne was gifted the Rape of Lewes by William the Conqueror and Lewes Castle was built in c1069. During the Second Barons’ War, Lewes Castle overlooked the field on which the Battle of Lewes took place on 14 May 1264, where Henry III was forced to sign the Mise of Lewes after being defeated by rebel baron Simon de Monfort’s forces. The castle was owned by descendants of de Warenne until 1347 when John de Warenne died without an heir. It then went into the possession of the Earls of Arundel and, like many of Sussex’s castles, Lewes was broken into in 1381 during the Peasants’ Revolt. The castle is now managed by Sussex Archaeological Society and is open to the public.
William de Braose was appointed Lord of Bramber by William the Conqueror and the castle was built in c1070 along with nearby St Nicholas Church. The estate was owned by the de Braose family until the early 13th century when the lands were confiscated from William’s great-grandson (also called William de Braose) by King John as punishment for rebellion. It was later returned to the de Braose family and it stayed in their possession until it passed to the Mowbray family in the 14th century. The castle suffered greatly during the 16th century when it was left to fall to the ruins we see today and was occupied by Parliamentarian forces during the Civil War. The site is now managed by English Heritage, though little remains except for one large wall of the gatehouse and parts of the curtain walls.
William the Conqueror rewarded Roger de Montgomery for his governance of Normandy during the 1066 Invasion with the earldom of Arundel and the castle was founded soon after on Christmas day 1087. On his death, the estate went into the ownership of the crown and on Henry I’s death, it was passed to his wife Adeliza of Louvain, and then her second husband William d’Aubigny. In 1139, Empress Matilda stayed at Arundel Castle during the Anarchy (a civil war between Matilda and King Stephen), in 1380 the future Henry IV and his first wife Mary Bohun were married at the castle and it was besieged for 18 days during the Civil War. In 1846, Arundel Castle hosted a royal visit from Queen Victoria and Prince Albert. It is now the residence of the Duke of Norfolk and is open to the public during the summer.
More castles were built across the county in the following centuries.
Originally a manor house, Bodiam Castle was built in 1385 by Sir Edward Dalyngrigge to defend the coast against French invasion during the Hundred Years War. It remained in the Dalyngrigge family’s possession until it passed to the Lewknor family possessions through marriage. The castle’s owner during the Civil War, John Tufton, was a Royalist supporter. He was defeated in 1643 and sold Bodiam Castle the following year for £6000 to Nathaniel Powell, a Parliamentarian. After this, the castle was left to become ruins and it was not until 1829 when bought by John Fuller that any attempts were made to revert the disrepair caused over the previous 200 years. Lord Curzon, owner of Bodiam Castle from 1917 to 1925, carried out further restoration. When he died, he donated the estate to the National Trust and it has since been open to the public.
Fortifications in Camber originally consisted of an artillery tower as ordered by Henry VIII in 1512 to prepare for rapidly growing Anglo-French tensions. In 1539, these fortifications were greatly expanded at a cost of £5,660 to create the current Camber Castle although, not too long after, it was no longer suitable for military use. It is now managed by English Heritage and accessible to the public by guided tours.
Herstmonceux Castle was built in 1441 on the site of an older manor house. Sir Roger Fiennes transformed the manor into a grand castle and it was passed through the generations until 1541 when it was confiscated by the crown after Sir Thomas Fiennes was tried for poaching Henry VIII’s deer, but it was later restored to the Fiennes family. Considerable restoration work was carried out during the early 20th century to transform the castle to the grand estates visible today. Although the grounds are open to the public, the castle itself is owned by Queens University, Canada and now houses a university study centre.
Tasha Brown, Museum Futures Trainee