History of Pevensey Castle
Pevensey Castle’s impressive ruins stand on what was once a peninsula projecting from the Sussex coast. This naturally defensible site, first fortified by the Romans, was most famously the place where the Norman Conquest of England began, when William the Conqueror landed there on 28 September 1066. He built temporary defences at Pevensey, probably within the Roman fort, and later a great medieval castle developed inside its walls.
The Roman fort
We know little about the early history of Anderida, the Roman fort at Pevensey. Tree-ring dating of wooden piles sunk into the wall foundations suggests that it was built in about AD 290.
At that time the coastal defences of Roman Britain seem to have been systematically strengthened, and a number of other forts around the south and east coasts, such as Portchester, Burgh, Richborough and Lympne, were built or reconstructed. These share many architectural features with Pevensey, particularly the D-shaped wall towers which were a new feature of Roman fortifications at this time.
One explanation for this sudden burst of building activity is the usurpation of Roman rule in Britain between AD 286 and 296 by the military commander Carausius and his successor, Allectus. Both were self-proclaimed emperors of Britain and parts of Gaul (France), and had a strong motive to fortify the coast against reconquest by the central Roman government. Coins of this period have been found in the wall foundations.
Anderida is first documented in the late 4th-century Notitia Dignitatum, a list of the civil and military posts in the late Roman Empire. At that time it was one in a chain of nine forts around the south and east coasts under the command of the Comes Litoris Saxonici per Britanniam, or the Count of the Saxon Shore. Whether or not these forts were established as a coherent defensive system is not clear, but some of them may have had naval detachments, which probably worked with ships based at forts along the northern coast of France. The Notitia Dignitatum mentions a fleet, the classis Anderidaensis, which presumably took its name from Anderida.
After the withdrawal of Roman troops from Britain in the early 5th century, Anderida’s walls continued to shelter a community. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle records that in 491 the fort was besieged and its population slaughtered by Saxon raiders. After this, although the fort may still have housed a settlement, it probably fell gradually into ruin.
The Norman castle
When William left England in 1067 to make a triumphal tour of Normandy, he chose to sail from Pevensey. He seems to have made a show while at Pevensey of distributing lands to his victorious followers, before a collected body of defeated Anglo-Saxon nobles. It was probably on this occasion that he gave the castle with its hinterland, known as the ‘Rape’ of Pevensey, to his half-brother Robert, Count of Mortain (d.1095).
Pevensey offered a natural anchorage facing the Normandy coast, and any castle with command of this was of obvious strategic importance. Control of it not only ensured lines of communication with the Continent, but prevented it from being used as the base for another seaborne invasion. It was probably Robert who created the first permanent defences, refortifying the Roman perimeter wall and creating two enclosures (or baileys) within it, divided by a ditch and a timber palisade.
In 1088, the year after William’s death, Pevensey’s new-found strategic importance was demonstrated during the squabbles between his eldest son, Robert Curthose, who succeeded William as Duke of Normandy, and Robert's younger brother William Rufus, who succeeded to the English throne. When an attempt was made to make Duke Robert king of England in William's place, the Count of Mortain and his brother Odo, Bishop of Bayeux, supported Duke Robert and held Pevensey Castle against the king.
There was a real danger that Robert would invade England in the exact footsteps of his father. To prevent this, William Rufus personally supervised a siege of Pevensey by land and sea. The castle’s powerful defences resisted every assault, but after six weeks a shortage of food forced the rebels to seek a truce.
Despite this rebellion the Count of Mortain was allowed to keep Pevensey. But his son subsequently lost it, along with the other family estates in England, as a result of his opposition to William Rufus’s successor and younger brother, Henry I (r.1100–35). Henry granted most of this confiscated property to a Norman lord, Gilbert Laigle.
Nevertheless, the castle seems to have been retained in royal hands for security. In 1101, when Duke Robert again threatened to invade England, Henry I spent the summer at Pevensey in anticipation of an attack.
After 1230 the castle passed to a sequence of royal favourites, including Peter of Savoy, who was granted it in 1246. By 1254 he had probably replaced the inner bailey's timber defences with the present stone walls and towers.
These new defences were soon put to the test during the baronial conflicts of Henry III’s reign (1216–72). On 15 May 1264 an army led by Simon de Montfort inflicted a crushing defeat on the king’s forces at the Battle of Lewes, after which the royalist constable of Pevensey was ordered to surrender the castle.
When he refused to do so, a siege ensued. In September local knights were called upon to help stop the garrison making destructive raids on the surrounding countryside. The besiegers also dug a ditch to cut the castle off from the mainland. But this only provoked an attempt in December to resupply the castle with men and arms by sea. Ultimately the castle held out, and the siege was only finally lifted in July 1265. In the course of the fighting the south wall of the Roman enclosure was taken down.
Pevensey and John of Gaunt
In 1372 John of Gaunt, Duke of Lancaster, took ownership of Pevensey. He refused to garrison the castle against French attacks in 1377, claiming that if it were destroyed he had enough money to rebuild it. Such actions fuelled his unpopularity and in 1381, during the Peasants’ Revolt, a mob burned the castle’s court records and attacked his steward.
In 1394 Gaunt appointed Sir John Pelham (d.1429) as constable of Pevensey. Pelham supported Gaunt's banished son, Henry Bolingbroke, when the latter returned from exile to claim his inheritance in 1399 and to usurp Richard II (r.1377–99).
After Bolingbroke first landed, Pelham held Pevensey on his behalf. On 25 July 1399 Pelham wrote to Bolingbroke reporting that he was under heavy siege by local levies from three counties, and asking him ‘to give remedy to the salvation of your castle’. His gamble in supporting Bolingbroke paid off: when Henry was crowned king as Henry IV, he granted Pelham the castle and honour of Pevensey in reward for his services.