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South East Pevensey and its Castle, East Sussex

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 .

Two thousand years ago, Pevensey was on the coast overlooking a large inlet of the sea. 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.

C13th Plan Pevensey.jpg

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.

Pevernsey 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.



Pevensey Court House dates from around 1541.


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.


St Nicholas Church dates from the C13th, when Pevensey was granted its Royal Charter.

St Nicholas Church .jpg

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


There is also a 5 mile Pevensey Castle walk which takes in Pevensey, Westham and also a walk across the marshes.
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Pevensey Castle - a castle within a Roman fort

Some history

Towards the end of the Roman occupation of Britain, the south and east coasts of England were under increasing attack by Barbarian tribes, including the Jutes and Saxons. The Roman fort of Anderitum (or Anderida) at Pevensey was built around AD 290AD and was one of eleven forts the Romans built to protect against invasion. These were built on sheltered harbours lying close to the open sea between Essex and the Isle of Wight, they were collectively known as the Saxon Shore Forts.

The fort originally stood on a promontory surrounded on three sides by marsh and water.

Pevesey coast line .jpg

Screenshot 2021-11-27 at 17.17.12.png


It overlooked the shore with anchorage for ships. and was surrounded by a massive outer wall and ditch. The tall outer wall offered a vantage point overlooking the marshes and sea. The main landward entrance of the fort was protected by a gatehouse.

Buildings inside the fort were timber-framed wattle and daub structures which have left little trace. Unlike many other forts, there was no civilian settlement outside the walls, possibly because it was built at the end of a peninsula with little room for additional buildings.

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. It was a an important settlement on a strategic location with a natural anchorage at one of the narrowest points of the English Channel.

William of Normandy and his fleet of ships landed at Pevensey Bay on 28th September 1066, highlighting the vulnerability of the coastline to invasion.


His army sheltered for the night in temporary quarters quickly erected within the old Roman fort, before leaving for Hastings the following day. Following William's victory at Hastings, the area had great strategic importance as an essential link between England and Normandy. Pevensey being gifted to his trusted half-brother Robert, Count of Mortain, who began constructing a permanent castle inside the Roman fort.

The walls of the Roman fort were repaired and strengthened and a ditch was dug across the neck of the promontory for additional protection. The inside of the Roman fort became the outer bailey with an inner bailey with a defensive wall and keep in the south east corner. The early buildings were constructed from wood and were only replaced by stone by the end of the C12th.


A town gradually grew up outside the castle on the land to the east. By 1086 there was a small mint, market and a mill.

The castle remained an important defensive site and was held by leading noblemen as well as Queens of England It remained strategically important throughout the Middle Ages.

It experienced four major sieges, including one of the longest in English history by Simon de Montford the younger in 1264-5, but has never taken.

During the C15th the castle was used as a state prison and James I of Scotland was held prisoner there.

By the late C16th, the castle was no longer is use and was described as a total ruin, with much of the stone removed as building stone. A gun emplacement was built at the time of threat of the Spanish Armada. By the C17th, the sea had retreated and it was no longer a viable port. It played no part in coastal defences in response to the threat of invasion by Napoleon in the early C19th.

During much of the C19th it was used as a space for fairs and bazaars and as a tourist attraction. The general condition of the fabric continued to deteriorate and it was placed in the ownership of the State in 1925, who began a conservation programme.

After the fall of France in 1940, Pevensey once again became a potential landing place for an invasion of Britain by Hitler. Pevernsey Castle played a key role in local anti invasion measures. The 4th Battalion Duke of Cornwall’s Light Infantry were garrisoned here. The north tower became their headquarters with commanding officer, signal exchange and two carrier pigeons.

The towers of the inner bailey were converted into troop accommodation by lining the walls with bricks and laying wooden floors. New perimeter defences were constructed. Machine-gun posts were built into the walls, disguised to look like part of the original structure, and an anti-tank blockhouse was built in the entrance of the Roman west gate. The main and postern gates of the inner bailey were blocked by concrete and brick walls, and anti-tank cubes were installed along the areas where the Roman curtain wall had collapsed. The new defensive measures were designed to prevent a surprise attack by a German invasion force overwhelming the castle. The castle was made "100% tank-proof" and an enemy would not be able to approach within 2,000 yards. Anti-aircraft guns and ,light machine guns were used against enemy aircraft, and Pevensey and Eastbourne suffered heavy bombing raids.

After the war, the blockhouse and obstructions were removed, but it was agreed to leave the machine gun posts in place as a monument to their role in the castle’s continuing place in history.


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Pevesey Castle cont - the Roman Fort

Unlike other Roman Forts, Pevensey is round rather than square, taking its shape from the promontory it was built on. The walls still stand to almost their original height and are intact apart from part of the south wall, which would have adjoined sea or marsh, and a short stretch on the north west side along the B2191, marked by a clump of trees. This is thought to have collapsed from siege damage in 1264.


Along with their projecting bastions, they are among the best preserved Roman shore fort walls.


Wooden piles were driven into the ground with a layer of flint and chalk with an oak lattice frame embedded in it. These formed a s firm foundation on the wet marshy land for the stone wall. These were built from shaped greensandstone blocks with Wealden sandstone forming decorative bands and layers of tiles.



It was surrounded by a ditch that can still be seen near the west gateway.


The main entrance to the fort was through the west gate on the landward side. The guardroom towers protecting the gateway have been demolished.


The east gate is a simple arch, indicating security on the seaward side of the fort wasn’t a major concern.



The Roman ground surface was lower than the present level as can be seen at part of an excavated section of wall.The area


The inside of the fort is a large area of rough grass which would have been filled with timber frame buildings and barracks for the soldiers.





The remains of the later castle are in the east corner.

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Pevensey Castle cont - the outside of the Castle



The area inside the Roman Fort formed the outer bailey of the castle, which occupied a small area in the south east corner. Although the outer bailey is now an area of rough grass, there were substantial buildings within the walls, including bar, pigeon house and stables.


The keep and the postern gate were the first stone structures, built in the C12th and early C13th. The walls of the inner bailey were built in the mid C13th.


These were protected by towers and a moat, contained by a dam at the southern end. Beyond is a dry ditch. Narrow arrow slits gave good coverage of the curtain wall. The towers originally had a doorway giving access to the moat.The towers have sloping bases which made therm more resistant to undermining and damage during a siege.




The Gatehouse was reached by stone causeway and drawbridge pit. It originally had two flanking towers, although little is left of the south tower.



A murder hole can be seen over the gatehouse passage and defenders could fire arrows or drop heavy stones on attackers.


A spiral staircase leads down from the remains of the south tower into a secure basement which could have been used for storage or as a dungeon.

In the floor of the north tower is a metal grille, the only access to the oubliette below. The remains of a spiral staircase gave access to the upper floors of the gatehouse.





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Pevesey Castle cont - inside the castle

The curtain walls of the inner bailey survive to nearly their full height. Originally there would have been domestic buildings around the walls, although no trace survive. They were probably timber frame with clay daubed walls and thatched roofs.


There was a second smaller postern gate on the south wall.


The keep dominated the east side of the inner bailey, and was built against and incorporated part of the Roman wall. Only the base with the remains of two D shaped towers remains. Like most Norman keeps, the entrance was situated on the first floor; the ground floor lacks any openings and it appears to have been constructed as a solid mass of masonry filled with clay. Its original height is unknown but it may have stood as high as 80’ giving superb views across the surrounding countryside. By the C16th it was recorded as fallen into ruin and many of the stones had been robbed out for building stone.



The pile of stones by the keep are trebuchet balls that were found by archaeologists excavating the moat. (The trebuchet was a large and very effective siege engine used to throw projectiles.)


At the back of the keep is a 1940s gun emplacement and pill box.


There are D-shaped towers around the curtain wall at places the wall changes direction. These are all a similar design with basement, ground floor and first floor.

The North tower was the most impressive of the towers.


Steps lead down into the basement which was probably used for storage. The roof collapsed in 1317 and has been replaced by a modern roof. The remains of the vaulted ceiling and corbels can still be seen. The windows were set high above the floor a to keep them above the level of the moat.


Half way down the stairs is a short passage leading to a doorway overlooking the moat.


A modern wooden staircase gives access to the top of the tower with views across the surrounding countryside. The ground floor of the now has a small exhibition with information about the castle and its history.


The east tower is similar although less remains.


It is set up as the war room during the Second World War, with Colonel Harrowing’s desk and telephone. He was responsible for overseeing changes to the castle, organising the response to a possible invasion and training troops. The walls were lined with brick to improve insulation and damp.


The cannon in the inner bailey is one of the oldest English cast iron guns which were first cast in 1543. It is believed to be one of the two guns used to defend Pevensey during the attempted invasion of the Spanish Armada. The wooden gun carriage is a replica.


A supply of fresh water was essential and the well is also in the inner bailey. It is 50’ deep and would have had a windlass to lift the water.


The stone foundations of a small chapel are visible in the inner bailey. It had a rectangular nave, north aisle and small chancel apse. There is the remains of a font in the nave. It would have been used by the constable, officials and garrison as well as the local community, until St Nicholas Church was built.


The castle is in the care of English Heritage. There is free admission into the Roman fort but there is a charge to enter the castle. There is a free audio tour which is worth listening to.

There is pay and display car park near the eastern gate of the castle. There are also toilets here as there are none in the castle. The nearest post code is BN24 5LE and the grid refefrence is
TQ 646048.


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Pevensey Courthouse and Gaol Museum

Pevesey has had a Court House and Gaol since Tudor Times and the Court Room also served as the Town Hall. It was last used in 1886, when the borough was dissolved. It is now a very good small museum.

It is a lovely flint building dating from 1541. The entrance porch, prison cells and exercise yard were added around 1830 when the building was in urgent need of upgrading.


The court house is on the first floor and reached by an external stair. It still has the magistrates bench and the prisoner’s dock. The Royal Coat of Arms are from the reign of William and Mary and were originally in St Nicholas Church.




There is a lot of information about the history of Pevensey and the Norman invasion and the siege of Pevensey by Simon de Montfort the younger in 1264-5. This has been described as the longest recorded siege in English medieval history. There is in formation about the Royal Charter granted to the town by King John in 1207, which confirmed Pevensey’s membership of the confederation of Cinque ports. There is the Seal of Pevensey dating from 1230 with the image of a sailing boat.

The robing chamber is a small room off the court room and contains the official weights and measures of the town, including the balance scales, as well as a display of corn dollies.



On the ground floor are two prisoner’s cells and the small exercise yard. Apparently there were a further six cells under the building, but they are no longer there. These were last used during WW2 when a captured German airman was put in the cells.



The museum is free, but donations are appreciated! I visited at the end of October and contacted the museum via their website to make sure it would be open. They are dependent on willing volunteers to open up!

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St Nicholas Church, Church Lane, Pevensey

The Parish Church of St Nicholas is a very large church, indicating that Pevensey was a town of importance when it was built. It is almost too big to photograph.




It is dedicated to St Nicholas patron saint of sea farers, reflecting importance of Pevensey as a port at that time. It is constructed of local greensandstone and flint, with solid exterior buttresses.


The church was built in the early C13th, at the time Pevensey was granted its Royal Charter by King John and replaced a smaller church in the inner ward of the castle. It is a good example of Early English architecture. The tower is unusual as it was built against the north wall of the church rather than at the west end, indicating there may have been plans to extend the nave.

The chancel with its three lancet windows, dates from the early C13th and is long compared to the nave, which was added later. The massive roof timbers are the original.

During the C17th a solid wall was built across the chancel arch and the chancel was used for various purposes, including a cowshed and coal-store. According to local tradition it also housed smuggled goods.

There was a major restoration in late C19th by George Gilbert Scott Junior, when the chancel was opened up again. The north chancel chapel was rebuilt and now contains the organ with a small vestry behind it. The south chancel chapel was rebuilt and is now the Lady Chapel. The stained glass is C19th/early C20th. The topmost stage of the tower, which had been demolished about 1800, was rebuilt in 1893 with a shingled spire above it. The bells were recast and rehung.

Further work in 2007-8 has restored and repointed much of the exterior, preventing water ingress. The north and south aisles were reroofed and the church clock reguilded. A new heating system was installed.

Inside it is a large church with arcades separating the nave and the lower side aisles.



The wooden pulpit by the chancel arch is C19th.


The font near the west door is described as C15th, although although some sources suggest it is earlier. The wooden cover is C19th.


At the back of north wall is a monument to John Wheatley (died 1616) lying on his side, with two lions on the floor. He was a wealthy parishioner said to have contributed £40 (a fair sum in those days) towards the cost of repairing a ship to fight the Spanish Armada in 1588.


Access to the bell chamber is by a lovely Victorian cast-iron spiral staircase in the north transept.


The Lady Chapel is at the end of the south aisle.


There is an old stone grave slab in the floor.


The chancel is simply furnished with a patterned tiled floor and has three lancet windows containing C19th glass.




The church is on Church Lane, just behind the High Street. There is some on street parking. Failing that there is a large car park by the entrance to the castle. The church is open from 9am till dusk. The nearest post code is BN24 5LD and the grid reference is TQ647048.

There are information boards in the church about the Norman invasion, and the Royal Charter.

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St Mary’s Church, High Street, Westham

Standing near the west gate of Pevensey Castle and Roman Fort, this is supposedly one of the first Norman Churches in England. It is built of flint with stone dressings.




The nave and south aisle are late C11th, although the tower and north aisle are C14th and the chancel and north porch are C15th. It was restored in the C19th.

St Mary's church westham.jpg

The tower is large and squat and heavily buttressed, probably because it was built on marshy ground.


The small turret on the outside of the north wall contains a spiral staircase reached through a doorway from the north aisle. No-one is sure what its purpose was. It may have held a sanctus bell or provided access to the roof. Another suggestion is that it may have been a leper’s tower.


Small Norman windows can be seen high on the south wall. It has been suggested there may have been a cloister beneath them.


By the west door is a holy water stoup, now behind iron bars. This was originally at hand height but since the church was built, the level of the ground has risen by about two feet.


Inside, it is a large church, with a nave, north aisle, south transept and chancel. The south transept was used as a school room until the mid C19th. It is now a ‘quiet room’. The north aisle is bare with a few tables and chairs used to serve refreshments. The organ is at the end of the north aisle.



High on the south wall are three small Norman windows.


A carved wooden rood screen dating from the C15th separates the chancel from the nave. The top is modern. A small wooden altar is now in front of the screen with choir stalls at right angles to it.


A stone staircase in the chancel arch gave access to the top of the rood screen.


The chancel is simple with a carved altar screen and stained glass east window. On the floor is a stone grave slab dated 1694.



The font at the back of the church is C15th.


This is rather a plain and uninspiring church; its main claim to fame being its age...

It is open 10-4. There is on street parking near the church. The nearest postcode is BN24 5LL and the grid reference is TQ641046.

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