History of Sussex

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Prehistoric Sussex

The earliest archaeological finds have shown that Mesolithic peoples had arrived in the area today known as Sussex: primitive flint tools used in fishing and hunting, and evidence of woodland clearing have been found. At the time (8000BC) Britain was still connected to the continent. By 4100BC flint mines were being worked, particularly near today’s Worthing by Neolithic man. Tombs with some pottery and weapons have also been discovered.

From the Bronze Age (about 1400-1100BC) settlements and burial sites have left their mark on the area, particularly along the South Downs. Later, in 7th/6th Century BC the Celts arrived, and their hill-forts at Cissbury, Devils Dyke and other places show their settlements; burial sites have given further evidence of the lives.

Roman invasions of Britain

The first Roman invasion took place between 54-45BC. It left behind Roman coins, villas, and Romano-British temples. Tincomarus and then Cogidumnus ruled the Atrebates tribe who controlled this part of south-east England. The latter later became King (Rex), possibly at the time of the second Roman invasion in AD 100. This invasion was to be the time when many of the larger villas were built - including Fishbourne and Southwick. Finds have included coins and decorated pottery. Remains of the Roman roads include parts of those from Chichester to London; and that from Hastings northwards: the latter carrying the iron ore mined near the town. Other settlements included ports, among them Chichester and Portslade on the River Adur. Hastings may have been another. More hoards of coins have been discovered: a large one at Patching in particular.

Towards the end of the Roman occupation the Saxon attacks began, and forts were built around the south-east coast, under the Count of the Saxon Shore. In the area later to be known as Sussex were Pevensey (Anderida) and Portchester (Portus Adurni) castles.

The Saxons

According to the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle the Saxons landed in 477 in the west of the county under Aelle and his three sons, and began to found the kingdom of the South Saxons. Later (491AD ) they landed at Pevensey and took the castle there. They had driven the British westward. Aelle became the most influential of the contemporary Saxon chiefs, and was, according to Bede, the first Bretwalda, or principal king. After his time the kingdom of Sussex gradually declined, falling entirely under the dominion of Wessex in 823.

As with earlier occupants of the area, now named Sussex, Saxon remains have been discovered. There are numerous cemeteries, and scattered burial places along the south slopes of the Downs, including the cemetery on High Down hill, where weapons, ornaments and vessels of various kinds were found, and the Chanctonbury hoard of coins is among the most noticeable relics.

From 895 Sussex suffered from constant raids by the Danes, till the accession of Canute, after which arose the two great forces of the house of Godwine and of the Normans. Godwine was probably a native of Sussex, and by the end of Edward the Confessor's reign a third part of the county was in the hands of his family.

Land tenure

Norman influence was already strong in Sussex before the Conquest: abbey of Fécamp had interest in the harbours of Hastings, Rye, Winchelsea and Steyning; while the estate of Bosham was held by a Norman chaplain to Edward the Confessor. The county was of great importance to the Normans; Hastings and Pevensey being on the most direct route for Normandy. William ensured that his lines of communication were safe by placing the lands in the hands of men, such as his half-brother, Robert, Count of Mortain, who held Pevensey, and his son-in-law, William de Warenne, who held Lewes. In addition the five (later six, with the addition of Battle) rapes of Sussex were held by these and three other Norman tenants-in-chief.

The holdings - which had been scattered under the Saxons, so that one man's holding might be in more than one rape - were now determined, not by the manors in which they lay, but by the borders of the rape. Another peculiarity of the division of land in Sussex is that, apparently, each hide of land had eight instead of the usual four virgates.

The county boundary was long and somewhat indeterminate on the north, owing to the dense forest of Andredsweald, which was uninhabited till the 11th century. Evidence of this is seen in Domesday Book by the survey of Worth and Lodsworth under Surrey, and also by the fact that as late as 1834 the present parishes of north and south Amersham in Sussex were part of Hampshire.

At the time of the Domesday Survey Sussex contained sixty hundreds, which have been little altered since. A few have been split up into two or three, making seventy-three in all; and the names of some have changed, owing probably to the meeting-place of the hundred court having been altered. These courts were in private hands in Sussex; either of the Church, or of great barons and local lords.


The county court had been held at Lewes and Shoreham until 1086, when it was moved to Chichester. After several changes the act of 1504 arranged for it to be held alternately at Lewes and Chichester. There was no gaol in the county until 1487; that at Guildford being used in common by Surrey and Sussex, which were under one sheriff until 1567.

Private jurisdictions, both ecclesiastical and lay, played a large part in the county. The chief ecclesiastical franchises were those of the Archbishop of Canterbury, of the bishop of Chichester, of the Saxon foundation of Bosham, where Bishop Wilfred had found the only gleam of Christianity in the county (Sussex was the last of the Saxon kingdoms to embrace Christianity), and of the votive abbey of Battle, founded by William the Conqueror. This abbey possessed, besides land in many other counties, the `Lowy of Battle,' a district extending for 3 miles (5 km) round the abbey.

The see of Chichester was co-extensive with the county, and has altered little. It is one of the oldest bishoprics, having been founded by Wilfred at Selsey; the seat was removed to Chichester by William I. Among the lay franchises, the most noticeable are those of the Cinque Ports and of the honor of Pevensey, named the honor of the Eagle from the lords of L'Aigle or Aguila. There were two archdeacons centred on Chichester and at Lewes; whose jurisdiction later became the basis for the division between East and West Sussex, the County Councils from 1888 having been based in those two towns. In 2006 there are three archdeacons: those for Chichester; Horsham; and for Lewes and Hastings.


Sussex, from its position, was constantly the scene of preparations for invasion, and was often concerned in rebellions. Pevensey and Arundel play a great part in rebellions and forfeiture during the troubled times of the early Norman kings. In the barons' wars the county was a good centre for the king's forces; Lewes being in the hands of the king's brother-in-law, John de Warenne, earl of Surrey, Pevensey and Hastings in those of his uncle, Peter of Savoy. The forces of the king and of Simon de Montfort met at Lewes, where a battle took place in 1264.

The corrupt and burdensome administration of the county during the 13th and 14th centuries, combined with the constant passage of troops for the French wars and the devastating plagues of the 14th century, were the causes of such rebellions as the Peasants' Revolt of 1381 and Jack Cade's Rebellion in 1450.

During Elizabeth's reign there was again constant levying of troops for warfare in Flanders and the Low Countries, and preparations for defence against Spain. The sympathies of the county were divided during the English Civil War, Arundel and Chichester being held for the king, Lewes and the Cinque Ports for the parliament. Chichester and Arundel were besieged, and the Roundheads gained a strong hold on the county, in spite of the loyalty of Sir Edward Ford, sheriff of Sussex. A royalist gathering in the west of the county in 1645 caused preparations for resistance at Chichester, of which Algernon Sidney was governor. In the same year the "Clubmen" rose and endeavoured to compel the armies to come to terms.


Little active part in the national history fell to Sussex from that time till the French Revolution, when numbers of volunteers were raised in defence. At the outbreak of war with France in 1793 a camp was formed at Brighton; and at Eastbourne in 1803, when the Martello towers were erected along the south coast; . In the 1860s, possible wars with France prompted more defence building, and forts at Newhaven and the Redoubt at Eastbourne were constructed.

During WWII the entire coast in East Sussex became a virtual fortress, and towns such as Hastings and Eastbourne became armed camps. Large numbers of the civilian population were evacuated to safer towns inland.

Parliamentary history

The parliamentary history of the county began in the 13th century. In 1290, the first year for which a return of knights of the shire is available, Henry Hussey and William de Etchingham were elected.

Until the Redistribution Act of 1832, representation of the people in Parliament had grown in a haphazard way. Over eighty seats were held in England in places which, for one reason or another, no longer had the numbers of voters such a situation demanded. The Act disenfranchised many of them completely, including Bramber, East Grinstead, Seaford, Steyning and Winchelsea in Sussex, which were disfranchised after returning two members each, the first being classed among the worst of the rotten boroughs. Before 1832 two members each had been returned also by Arundel, Chichester, Hastings, Horsham, Lewes, Midhurst, New Shoreham (with the rape of Bramber) and Rye. Arundel, Horsham, Midhurst and Rye were each deprived of a member in 1832, Chichester and Lewes in 1867, and Hastings in 1885. Arundel was disfranchised in 1868, and Chichester, Horsham, Midhurst, New Shoreham and Rye in 1885.


The industries of Sussex were once varied. Among those noted in the Domesday Survey were the herring fisheries, the salt pans of the coast and the wool trade; the South Down sheep being noted for their wool, at home and abroad, as early as the 13th century.

The iron mines of the county, though not mentioned in Domesday, are known to have been worked by the Romans; and the smelting and forging of iron was the great industry of the Weald from the 13th to the 18th century, the first mention of the trade in the county being in 1266. In the 15th century ordnance for the government was made here. Some old banded guns with the name of a Sussex maker on them may be seen at the Tower of London. The first cast-iron cannon made in England came from Buxted in Sussex, and were made by one Ralph Hogge, whose device can be seen on a house in Buxted. The large supply of wood in the county made it a favourable centre for the industry, all smelting being done with charcoal till the middle of the 18th century. In the time of Henry VIII the destruction of the forest for fuel began to arouse attention, and enactments for the preservation of timber increased from this time forward, till the use of pit-coal for smelting was perfected, when the industry moved to districts where coal was to be found.

The glass-making industry, which had flourished at Chiddingfold in Surrey, and at Wisborough Green, Loxwood and Petworth in Sussex, was destroyed by the prohibition of the use of wood fuel in 1615. The timber trade had been one of the most considerable in early times; the Sussex oak being considered the finest shipbuilding timber.

Among the smaller industries were weaving and fulling.



After the Romans left, roads in Sussex, as elsewhere, fell into disrepair. It was not until the late 18th century that the turnpikes, built and maintained by local trusts, began to be built, and by 1820 there were 521 miles of turnpikes in the county. Most trusts were wound up by the 1870s, but modern roads frequently owe their existence to them.

In the 20th century arterial roads began to be built to take increasing traffic, and today's roads often follow the same patterns; principal roads are those radiating from London connecting with the main coastal towns, and the A259 along the south coast.


Railways came to Sussex with the opening of the London and Brighton Railway in 1841. Like the roads, the railways link the main coastal towns with London, and include the coastal route through Brighton. Many of the original branch lines have been closed.


The two major ports in Sussex are at Newhaven, opened in 1579, and at Shoreham; Rye is a minor port. There are also many harbours, particularly Hastings and those in the inlets south of Chichester.

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