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October, 2021

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Nearly everyone will have heard of Pevensey, where William the Conqueror landed in 1066 to claim the crown of England.

Pevensey was once an important “settlement”: , on the edge of the coast and guarded by an impressive Roman Fort and Medieval castle. By the C17th, changes in sea level, silting up of the waterways as well as flood protection schemes and land reclamation, left “Pevensey”: a mile from the sea. Its importance dwindled and now it is little more than the one main street. It is still surrounded by low lying marsh land, known as the Pevensey Levels.

Towards the end of the Roman occupation of Britain, the south and east coasts of England were under increasing attack by Barbarian tribes. A Roman fort was built on a promontory surrounded on three sides by marsh and water, to protect against invasion.

After the withdrawal of Roman Troops, the area was settled by bands of Saxons from about AD 471. Pevensey gradually became a prosperous town as an established fishing port as well as a producer of salt. The OS map marks the site of many salt works.

William of Normandy and his fleet of ships landed at Pevensey Bay in 1066, and established a temporary castle in the old fort. Following William’s victory, the area was an important link between Normandy and England and the land was given to his staunch followers.

In 1070, work began on constructing a permanent castle in the remains of the Roman Fort. A town gradually grew up outside the walls. The Domesday survey records 110 households putting it in the largest 20% of settlements. It is recorded as having a small mint, market and a mill. The mint continued to operate until 1154.

The south coast has always been important to provide ships in case of invasion. From Saxon times the larger settlements have been tasked with providing ships for the king in return for certain privileges. The five main ports of Hastings, New Romney, Hythe, Dover and Sandwich became known as the Cinque Ports.

In 1204, following King John’s disastrous loss of Normandy, additional ‘corporate’ members joined these main ports forming the Confederation of Cinque Ports. A charter was granted to Pevensey in 1207 confirming the town’s membership as a Limb of Hastings. The town was obliged to provide one ship with 321 men and one boy for 15 day’s service. Any additional duties were at the crown’s expense. In return, the town was given freedom from taxes and tolls. As part of this agreement, Pevensey fishermen supplied fish for the English Army at the 1415 siege of Harfleur

From the end of the C13th, sea access was becoming increasingly difficult as the harbour was beginning to silt up, making loading and unloading goods difficult. By the end of the C17th, the harbour was completely cut off from the sea. The Customs House closed in 1705. The population began to move away.

The coast line retreated and the town is now over a mile from the coast, surrounded by an area of flat marshy land drained by ditches and land ditches.

This proved to be very fertile agricultural land and Pevensey had a thriving livestock market on the field outside the castle from the mid C19th until the mid 1950s. Markets were held twice a week from June to November, and were famed for the sale of Sussex shorthorn cattle fattened on the marshes.

Pevensey continued to declined in importance. The court house closed in 1886 when the borough was dissolved, and is now a

Pevensey Castle played a key role in the second World War and the castle was regarrisoned when the area was identified as a potential landing place for an invasion of Britain by Hitler.

It is now a sleepy settlement with a mix of weatherboard and stone cottages. The shops moved to the newer settlement of Pevensey Bay, on a shingle bank above the shore. Now all that remains is the Roman Fort and Castle, church, the old court house, two pubs and a cafe. The Old Mint House is thought to have been built on the site of the mint. The building is C14th although the interior was considerably altered in the C16th.

There is a short heritage trail taking in the main sites, including St Mary’s Church in Westham. It is a place that repays exploring.


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