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.FIND OUT MORE ABOUT ROMAN BRITAIN
The Norman Landing
Pevensey’s history changed dramatically when, before dawn on 28 September 1066 – three days after King Harold’s victory at Stamford Bridge – William, Duke of Normandy, sailed his invading fleet into the Bay of Pevensey. After landing, he immediately built a temporary fortification, almost certainly within the walls of the Roman fort, to shelter his troops. He cut a ditch across the peninsula to isolate the ruins from the mainland and repaired the walls to create a castle.
The next day William marched his army away along the coast to Hastings, and waited for Harold to arrive from the north – in the meantime pillaging and burning the surrounding countryside. His subsequent victory over King Harold at the Battle of Hastings and coronation as King of England heralded a new era in English history.FIND OUT MORE ABOUT THE NORMAN CONQUEST
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.
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The Development of the Castle
During King Stephen’s reign (1135–54) the Laigle family lost possession of Pevensey, and the castle was granted to Gilbert de Clare, 1st Earl of Pembroke. When Gilbert rebelled in 1147 Stephen blockaded the castle until its inhabitants were starved into submission. The Crown then directly repossessed it.
Records in Exchequer accounts of repairs made to palisades in the 1180s suggest that at this date Pevensey's defences, aside from the Roman walls, were still largely of earth and timber. The first major stone buildings may date from the 1190s, when regular and substantial payments were made towards unspecified works by Richard I (r.1189–99). He may have built the keep and the gatehouse, although the ruins of the former could belong to a ‘Tower of Pevensey’ described in 1129–30.
The castle Richard developed may have been deliberately destroyed during the turbulent reign of his successor, John (r.1199–1216). By 1216 he was desperately fighting off an invasion led by the French king’s son, Prince Louis, and lacking the orders to garrison Pevensey, he ordered if to be made indefensible. It certainly played no part in the events of Louis’s invasion.
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.
Ruin and Repair
The castle was handed back to Peter of Savoy after the king’s victory at the Battle of Evesham in 1265. At his death in 1268 it passed to Henry III’s queen, Eleanor of Provence, and then descended as Crown property for about 100 years.
Royal accounts from the 1270s onwards show that the buildings were continually on the verge of ruin despite regular and extensive repair. Limited use was doubtless one cause of their rapid decay, but unscrupulous officials played their part too. In 1306 the constable Roger de Levelande was accused of breaking up and selling the wooden bridge over the moat, and some ‘warders’ of burning the timber from a disused barn. The cost of repairs was estimated at more than £1000.
Archaeological excavation has also shown that the keep was partially demolished and rebuilt in about 1325.
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.
During the 15th century the castle became a state prison. Among those held there were James I, King of Scotland, and Joan of Navarre, the second wife of Henry IV, who was accused by her stepson Henry V of plotting his death by witchcraft. But under the Tudors the castle fell out of use altogether, and a survey of 1573 records that the buildings were totally ruined. The threat of the Spanish Armada (1588) led to the construction of a gun emplacement armed with two cannons, one of which survives on site.
After centuries of decay, in 1925 the castle’s then owner, the Duke of Devonshire, gave the site to the State and it was repaired as a historic monument.
The events of the Second World War gave a strange twist to Pevensey Castle’s history. After the fall of France in 1940, Pevensey once more became a potential landing place for an invasion. A command and observation post was set up, the perimeter defences were refortified, pillboxes for machine-gun posts were built, and a blockhouse (for anti-tank weapons) was constructed in the mouth of the Roman West Gate. The inner bailey towers were refitted as barracks for the garrison, which included the Home Guard and British, Canadian and US Army Air Corps units.
The Ministry of Works supervised these alterations to ensure the new work blended with the old (and so was camouflaged). After 1945 most of the wartime installations were deliberately left in place, as evidence of this important episode in the castle’s history.
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1. M Fulford and S Rippon, Pevensey Castle, Sussex: Excavations in the Roman Fort and Medieval Keep, 1993–95 (Salisbury, 2011), 97.
2. Ibid, 60.
3. Bodleian Library, University of Oxford, MS Canon Misc 378, fol 153v.
4. M Swanton (ed and trans), The Anglo-Saxon Chronicles (London, 1996), 15.
5. Ibid, 199.
7. Ibid, 3–4.
8. A Chapman, ‘The gatehouse of Pevensey Castle’, Sussex Archaeological Collections, 145 (2007), 114.
9. Pipe Roll 31 Henry I; Salzmann, op cit, 2.
10. Salzmann, op cit, 9–17.
11. Ibid, 16–17.
13. Fulford and Rippon, op cit, 128.
14. Salzmann, op cit, 22.
15. S Walker, ‘Letters to the Dukes of Lancaster in 1381 and 1399’, English Historical Review, 106 (1991), 75–9.
16. The National Archives (TNA), DL 44/224: survey of the state of Pevensey Castle with estimates of the cost of making sea walls in Pevensey Marsh, Sussex.