Highways and Byways in Sussex/Chapter 35
PEVENSEY AND HURSTMONCEUX
A well-behaved castle—Rail and romance—Britons, Romans, Saxons and Normans at Pevensey—William the Conqueror—A series of sieges—The first English letter—Andrew Borde, the jester, again—Pevensey gibes—A red brick castle—Hurstmonceux church—The tomb of the Dacres.—Two Hurstmonceux clerics—The de Fiennes and the de Monceux—A spacious home—The ghost—The unfortunate Lord Dacre—Horace Walpole at Hurstmonceux—The trug industry.
Pevensey, which is now divided from the channel by marshy fields with nothing to break the flatness but Martello towers (thirteen may be counted from the walls), was, like Bramber Castle in the west, now also an inland stronghold, once washed and surrounded by the sea. The sea probably covered all the ground as far inland as Hailsham—Pevensey, Horseye, Rickney
Pevensey Castle behaves as a castle should: it rises from the plain, the only considerable eminence for miles; it has noble grey walls of the true romantic hue and thickness; it can be seen from the sea, over which it once kept guard; it has a history rich in assailants and defenders. There is indeed nothing in its disfavour except the proximity of the railway, which has been allowed to pass nearer the ruin than dramatic fitness would dictate. Let it, however, be remembered that the railway through the St. Pancras Priory at Lewes led to the discovery of the coffins of William de Warenne and Gundrada, and also that, in Mr. Kipling's phrase, romance, so far from being at enmity with the iron horse, "brought up the 9.15."
There is now no doubt but that Pevensey was the Anderida of the Romans, a city on the borders of the great forest of Anderida that covered the Weald of Sussex—Andreas Weald as it was called by the Saxons. But before the Romans a British stronghold existed here. This, after the Romans left, was attacked by the Saxons, who slew every Briton that they found therein. The Saxons in their turn being discomfited, the Normans built a new castle within the old walls, with Robert de Moreton, half brother of the Conqueror, for its lord. Thus the castle as it now stands is in its outer walls Roman, in its inner, Norman.
Unlike certain other Sussex fortresses, Pevensey has seen work. Of its Roman career we know nothing, except that the inhabitants seem to have dropped a large number of coins, many of which have been dug up. The Saxons, as we have seen, massacred the Britons at Anderida very thoroughly. Later, in 1042, Swane, son of Earl Godwin, swooped on Pevensey's port in the Danish manner and carried off a number of ships. In 1049 Earl Godwin, and another son, Harold, made a second foray, carried off more ships, and fired the town. On September 28, 1066, Pevensey saw a more momentous landing, destined to be fatal to this marauding Harold; for on that day William, Duke of Normandy, soon to become William the Conqueror, alighted from his vessel, accompanied by several hundred Frenchmen in black chain armour. A representation of the landing is one of the designs in the Bayeux tapestry. The embroiderers take no count of William's fall as he stepped ashore, on ground now grazed upon by cattle, an accident deemed unlucky until his ready wit explained, as he rose with sanded fingers, "See, I have seized the land with my hands."
Pevensey's later history included sieges by William Rufus in 1088, when Odo, Bishop of Bayeux, supporter of Robert, was the defender; by Stephen in 1144, the fortress being held by Maude, who gave in eventually to famine; by Simon de Montfort and the Barons in 1265; and by the supporters of Richard of York in 1399, when Lady Pelham defended it for the Rose of Lancaster. A little later Edmund, Duke of York, was imprisoned in it, and was so satisfied with his gaoler that he bequeathed him £20. Queen Joan of Navarre, wife of Henry IV., was also a prisoner here for nine years. In the year before the Armada, Pevensey Castle was ordered to be either rebuilt as a fortress or razed to the ground; but fortunately neither instruction was carried out.
The present owner of Pevensey Castle is the Duke of Devonshire, who by virtue of the possession is entitled to call himself Dominus Aquilæ, or Lord of the Eagle.
Pevensey has another and gentler claim to notice. Many essayists have said pleasant and ingenious things about the art of letter-writing; but none of them mentions the part played by Pevensey in the English development of that agreeable accomplishment. Yet the earliest specimen of English letter-writing that exists was penned in Pevensey Castle. The writer was Joan Crownall, Lady Pelham, wife of Sir John Pelham, who, as I have said, defended the castle, in her Lord's absence, against the Yorkists, and this is the letter, penned (I write in 1903) five hundred and four years ago. (It has no postscript.)
My dear Lord,—I recommend me to your high Lordship, with heart and body and all my poor might. And with all this I thank you as my dear Lord, dearest and best beloved of all earthly lords. I say for me, and thank you, my dear Lord, with all this that I said before of [for] your comfortable letter that you sent me from Pontefract, that came to me on Mary Magdalen's day: for by my troth I was never so glad as when I heard by your letter that ye were strong enough with the grace of God for to keep you from the malice of your enemies. And, dear Lord, if it like to your high Lordship that as soon as ye might that I might hear of your gracious speed, which God Almighty continue and increase. And, my dear Lord, if it like you to know my fare, I am here laid by in manner of a siege with the county of Sussex, Surrey, and a great parcel of Kent, so that I may not [go] out nor no victuals get me, but with much hard. Wherefore, my dear, if it like you by the advice of your wise counsel for to set remedy of the salvation of your Castle and withstand the malice of the Shires aforesaid. And also that ye be fully informed of the great malice-workers in these shires which have so despitefully wrought to you, and to your Castle, to your men and to your tenants; for this country have they wasted for a great while.
"Farewell, my dear Lord! the Holy Trinity keep you from your enemies, and soon send me good tidings of you. Written at Pevensey, in the Castle, on St. Jacob's day last past.
"By your own poor
"To my true Lord."
In the town of Pevensey once lived Andrew Borde (who entered this world at Cuckfield): a thorn in the side of municipal dignity. The Dogberryish dictum "I am still but a man, although Mayor of Pevensey," remains a local joke, and tradition has kept alive the prowess of the Pevensey jury which brought a verdict of manslaughter against one who was charged with stealing breeches; both jokes of Andrew's. Borde's house, whither, it is said, Edward VI. once came on a visit to the jester, still stands. The oak room in which Andrew welcomed the youthful king is shown at a cost of threepence per head, and you may buy pictorial postcards and German wooden toys in the wit's front parlour.
Before leaving Pevensey I must say a word of Westham, the village which adjoins it. Westham and Pevensey are practically one, the castle intervening. Westham has a vicar whose interest in his office might well be imitated by some of the other vicars of the county. His noble church, one of the finest in Sussex, with a tower of superb strength and dignity, is kept open, and just within is a table on which are a number of copies of a little penny history of Westham which he has prepared, and for the payment of which he is so eccentric as to trust to the stranger's honesty.
The tower, which the vicar tells us is six hundred years old, he asks us to admire for its "utter carelessness and scorn of smoothness and finish, or any of the tricks of modern buildings." Westham church was one of the first that the Conqueror built, and remains of the original Norman structure are still serviceable. The vicar suggests that it may very possibly have stood a siege. In the jamb of the south door of the Norman wall is a sundial, without which, one might say, no church is completely perfect. In the tower dwell unmolested a colony of owls, six of whom once attended a "reading-in" service and, seated side by side on a beam, listened with unwavering attention to the Thirty-Nine Articles. They were absent on my visit, but a small starling, swift and elusive as a spirit, flitted hither and thither quite happily.
In the churchyard is the grave of one Ales Cressel (oddest of names), and among the epitaphs is this upon a Mr. Henty:—
Learn from this mistic sage to live or die.
Well did he love at evening's social hour
The Sacred Volume's treasure to apply.
The remembrance of his excellent character alone reconciles his afflicted widow to her irreparable loss.
In the neighbourhood of Westham is a large rambling building known as Priesthaus, which, once a monastery, is now a farm. Many curious relics of its earlier state have lately been unearthed.
In Pevensey church, which has none of the interest of Westham, a little collection of curiosities relating to Pevensey—a constable's staff, old title deeds, seals, and so forth—is kept, in a glass case.
If Pevensey is all that a castle ought to be, in shape, colour, position and past, Hurstmonceux is the reverse; for it lies low, it has no swelling contours, it is of red brick instead of grey stone, and never a fight has it seen. But any disappointment we may feel is the fault not of Hurstmonceux but of those who named it castle. Were it called Hurstmonceux House, or Place, or Manor, or Grange, all would be well. It is this use of the word castle (which in Sussex has a connotation excluding red brick) that has done Hurstmonceux an injustice, for it is a very imposing and satisfactory ruin, quite as interesting architecturally as Pevensey, or, indeed, any of the ruins that we have seen.Hurstmonceux Castle stands on the very edge of Pevensey Level, the only considerable structure between Pevensey and the main land proper. In the intervening miles there are fields and fields, through which the Old Haven runs, plaintive plovers above them bemoaning their lot, and brown cows tugging at the rich grass. On the first hillock to the right of the castle as one fronts the south, rising like an island from this sea of pasturage, is Hurstmonceux church, whose shingled spire shoots into the sky, a beacon to travellers in the Level. It is a pretty church with an exterior of severe simplicity. Between the chancel and the chantry is the large tomb covering the remains of Thomas Fiennes, second Lord
In the churchyard is the grave of Julius Hare, once vicar of Hurstmonceux, and the author, with his brother Augustus, of Guesses at Truth. Carlyle's John Sterling was Julius Hare's first curate here.
Hurstmonceux Castle was once the largest and handsomest of all the commoners' houses in the county. Sir Roger de Fiennes, a descendant of the John de Fiennes who married Maude, last of the de Monceux, in the reign of Edward II., built it in 1440. Though the Manor house of the de Monceux, on the site of the present castle, lacked the imposing qualities of Roger de Fiennes' stronghold, it was hospitable, spacious, and luxurious. Edward the First spent a night there in 1302. One of the de Monceux was on the side of de Montfort in the Battle of Lewes, and the first of them to settle in England married Edith, daughter of William de Warenne and Gundrada, of Lewes Castle.
How thorough and conscientious were the workmen employed by Roger de Fiennes, and how sound were their bricks and mortar, may be learned by the study of Hurstmonceux Castle to-day. In many parts the walls are absolutely uninjured except by tourists. The floors, however, have long since returned to nature, who has put forth her energies without stint to clothe the old apartments with greenery. Ivy of astonishing vigour grows here, populous with jackdaws, and trees and shrubs spring from the least likely spots.
The castle in its old completeness was, practically, a little town. From east to west its walls measured 206-1/2 feet, from north to south, 214-1/4; within them on the ground floor were larders, laundries, a brewhouse, a bakehouse, cellars, a dairy, offices, a guard room, pantries, a distillery, a confectionery room, a chapel, and, beneath, a dungeon. Between these were four open courts. Upstairs, round three sides of the Green Court, were the Bird Gallery, the Armour Gallery, and the Green Gallery, and lords' apartments and ladies' apartments "capable of quartering an army," to quote a writer on the subject. On each side of the entrance, gained by a drawbridge, was a tower—the Watch Tower and the Signal Tower.
In the reign of Elizabeth a survey of Hurstmonceux was taken, which tells us that in the park were two hundred deer, "four fair ponds" stocked with carp and tench, a "fair warren of conies," a heronry of 150 nests, and much game. The de Fiennes, or Dacres as they became, had also a private fishery in Pevensey Bay, seen from the Watch Tower as a strip of blue ribbon.
In addition Hurstmonceux had a ghost, who inhabited the Drummers' Hall, a room between the towers over the porter's lodge, and sent forth a mysterious tattoo. Sometimes he left his hall, this devilish musician, and strode along the battlements drumming and drumming, a terrible figure nine feet high. Most people were frightened, but there were those who said that the drummer was nothing more nor less than a gardener in league with the Pevensey smugglers, whose notes, rattled out on the parchment, rolled over the marsh and gave them the needful signal.
Hurstmonceux once had a very real tragedy. The third Lord Dacre, one of the young noblemen who took part in the welcoming of Ann of Cleves when she landed in England preparatory to her becoming the wife of Henry VIII., was so foolish one night in 1541 as to accompany some of his roystering companions to the adjacent park of Sir Nicholas Pelham, near Hellingly, intent on a deer-stealing jest. There three gamekeepers rose up, and a bloody battle ensued in which one John Busbrig bit the dust. Pelham was furious and demanded justice, and Lord Dacre, though he had taken no part in the fray, was held responsible. Three of his friends were hanged at Tyburn, and, in spite of all the influence that was brought to bear, he also was executed. The next Dacre of importance married the Lady Ann Fitzroy, a natural daughter of Charles II., and was made Earl of Sussex. Financial losses compelling him to sell Hurstmonceux, a lawyer named George Naylor bought it in 1708, leaving it, on his death, to the Right Rev. Francis Hare, Bishop of Chichester. It remained in the family as a residence until, in 1777, an architect pronounced it unsafe, and the interior was converted into materials for the new Hurstmonceux Place in the park to the north-west. Since then nature has had her way with it.
Horace Walpole's visit, as described in one of his letters, gives us an idea of Hurstmonceux in the middle of the eighteenth century, a little before it became derelict:—"The chapel is small, and mean; the Virgin and seven long lean saints, ill done, remain in the windows. There have been four more, but they seem to have been removed for light; and we actually found St. Catherine, and another gentlewoman with a church in her hand, exiled into the buttery. There remain two odd cavities, with very small wooden screens on each side the altar, which seem to have been confessionals. The outside is a mixture of grey brick and stone, that has a very venerable appearance. The draw-bridges are romantic to a degree; and there is a dungeon, that gives one a delightful idea of living in the days of soccage and under such goodly tenures. They showed us a dismal chamber which they called Drummer's-hall, and suppose that Mr. Addison's comedy is descended from it. In the windows of the gallery over the cloisters, which leads all round to the apartments, is the device of the Fienneses, a wolf holding a baton with a scroll, Le roy le veut—an unlucky motto, as I shall tell you presently, to the last peer of that line. The estate is two thousand a year, and so compact as to have but seventeen houses upon it. We walked up a brave old avenue to the church, with ships sailing on our left hand the whole way."
Hurstmonceux is famous not only for its castle, but for its "trugs," the wooden baskets that gardeners carry, which are associated with Hurstmonceux as crooks once were with Pyecombe, and the shepherds' vast green umbrellas, on cane frames, with Lewes.