Sussex has a rich and varied history that spans the ages, and the centuries. Our county’s name itself comes from the Old English for South Saxons, and the first recorded mention of the county (a kingdom at the time) was in 477 AD when King Aelle landed with just three small ships – each one containing one of his sons – and decided that Sussex was the area for him. He jumped ashore and took it, declaring it the Kingdom of Sussex.
by Lisamarie Lamb
Most people today consider the story of Aelle to be a bit of a myth and, although it’s a nice story, it does seem to have an element of hyperbole about it. What isn’t disputed, however, is that Saxons definitely did settle in Sussex in the fifth century. Their tools and settlements have been discovered here over the years, and many can be seen in museums and historical attractions across the county today.
But before Aelle and his sons, before the Viking ships, before Sussex was even a word familiar to the surrounding areas, the area itself was most certainly inhabited. With its rich and fertile land, its prominent position on the coast, and its enviable mining, which self-respecting group of invaders or settlers would go anywhere else? In fact, the famous ‘Boxgrove Man’ (one of a species called homo heidelbergensis) dates from between 478,000 and 524,000 years ago, making these early humans the first people to make Sussex their home. Later, in around 8,000 BC, when the landmasses of Britain and Europe were still connected, hunters crossed from Europe and settled in Sussex. Tools, knives, arrow heads and more have been found across the South Downs, indicating that Mesolithic Age people were also keen to stay in the area.
Flint mining was a big draw for many in the Neolithic Age (between 4,300 and 3,400 BC) and Sussex had a lot of it, which is why the area soon became a hub of Neolithic industry. For those ancient beings, Sussex was the place to go to if they wanted tools or weapons. Early industry began here.
The Bronze Age (1,400 to 1,100 BC) and the Iron Age (1,000 to 75 BC) didn’t put an end to this industrious part of Britain; the Sussex settlers simply used new materials to stay on top of British industry, and it seems that the area around Beachy Head was the hub of it all with large Iron and Bronze Age villages being found there along with pottery and tools.
What did end the growing businesses emerging in Sussex at the time was the arrival of the Romans. When they invaded in 55BC, they occupied the South East of Britain, including Sussex, and everything changed. Did it change for the better? Well, the Romans were dedicated to enhancing the areas they invaded, and that meant that the road networks for one were made much easier to use. Now Sussex was linked easily to London, and more trade could begin.
Coins were also introduced to the area, so bartering for goods became a thing of the past and money started to become more and more important. It was at this time that the magnificent Roman villas were built, and a good example of this can be seen at Fishbourne Roman Palace.
The advancements, money, and roads – despite their defensives, such as Pevensey Castle – did nothing to prevent the natives from deciding enough was enough and taking their land back, driving the Romans from the country.
Peace reined (as much as it ever did in ancient times), until the Normans, led by one William the Conqueror, decided that the Romans had had a good idea when it came to invading Britain, and an even better idea when they had decided to settle in Sussex. On 14th October 1066, William and his invading army defeated King Harold’s forces on a spot of land just outside of Hastings. Not only was Harold killed (legend says by an arrow to the eye), but so was most of his army, leaving Sussex unprotected with many of the menfolk dead on the battlefield. It was thereafter easy for the Normans to take over, and their influence soon spread across Britain. Battle Abbey was built on the place where the (in)famous battle took place, and it is said that the high altar marks the spot where Harold fell.
The Hundred Years’ War took its toll on Sussex. The Hundred Years’ War (1337 to 1453) was actually a series of battles started by the Plantagenets, who ruled England at the time. Their main enemies were the House of Valois who ruled France, with each side keen to take the other’s land and thereby increase their own power dramatically. But the main reason behind this ongoing war was to determine who would succeed to the French throne. Due to its unique position on the coast, and its large number of defences (thanks to the Romans and the Normans), Sussex became the base for the kings of England (five generations of them in the end) to launch their attacks on France. But the area sustained heavy damage and losses, with many of the major towns (including Hastings, Rye and Winchelsea which, when they were rebuilt, became part of the Cinque Ports) being all but destroyed. It was also the place where the invading French forces chose to land, for exactly the same reasons – if they could make it to Sussex, they would be able to take the entire country.
The House of Valois did not manage to invade England, but they did claim possession of the French throne, giving them the victory.
Although the county was affected when Henry VIII split from the Roman Catholic Church (there were many important cathedrals in Sussex, including Chichester), it wasn’t until the Civil War (1642 to 1651) that the real problems occurred. Both Arundel and Chichester were laid siege to at that time, with heavy losses and much fighting. But it could also be said that Sussex is to thank for the end of the Civil War – it was from Shoreham that King Charles II escaped to France.
During World War II, Sussex was once more of huge importance. It was heavily bombed, true, but the perseverance and bravery of its residents did not go unnoticed. Without the use of Sussex’s airfields, the Battle of Britain could not have gone ahead, at least not in the way it did, and for this the rest of the country was grateful.
The last new town to be created in Sussex was Crawley, in 1946, as an indication that the war was over and the rebuilding could begin. In 1974 the county was split into East and West.
Places to Visit
Since there is so much history linked to the beautiful county of Sussex, it’s not surprising that there are numerous sites to visit that will give you more information and let you see first-hand just how incredible the things that happened here were.
Fishbourne Roman Palace
To get a glimpse of what Roman life was like in Sussex, visit Fishbourne Roman Palace near Chichester. This opulent palace is the largest Roman villa left in Britain, and it would once have been a luxurious place to live. When you visit, you can see the gardens (the earliest found anywhere in the country), and the incredibly intricate mosaics. There are also a number of special events throughout the year.
Weald & Downland Open Air Museum
The Weald & Downland Open Air Museum offers a chance to find out more about 600 years of Sussex life. There are 50 different exhibit buildings to explore, each one with a perfectly recreated interior including a Tudor kitchen and a Victorian blacksmiths. It is also possible to see many artefacts that have been found in the area.
With almost 1,000 years of history to tell its tales about, Arundel Castle is a fascinating day out. It was built in the 11th century by Roger de Montgomery (Earl of Arundel). Today you can visit the castle, including the keep (131 steps up) and grounds.
Most famously known as the landing place of William the Conqueror, Pevensey Castle’s history stretches back over 1,600 years. It was built by the Romans to protect the kingdom from the invading forces, but even this impressive fortress couldn’t stop the might of the Normans.
Here you can feel the history surrounding you as you stand in this most famous of all battlefields. This is where the history of England changed – where the Normans invaded and won, changing the story forever. When visiting Battle Abbey you can enjoy a wonderful exhibition and audio tour as you enjoy the ruins of this once magnificent building.