Built in the immediate aftermath of the Norman invasion, Hastings Castle was one of the first of many motte-and-bailey fortifications constructed across England in the late eleventh century. Situated high on sandstone cliffs, the castle was suffering from coastal erosion by the thirteenth century and this also ended the viability of Hastings as a port.
Following the death of King Edward the Confessor in 1066, the English throne was claimed by William, Duke of Normandy. However, the English chose Harold Godwineson as Edward's successor and accordingly William raised an invasion army. It eventually sailed from Saint-Valery-sur-Somme and landed near Pevensey on 28 September 1066. King Harold however was in the north, where just days earlier he had defeated another rival at the Battle of Stamford Bridge. This gave William time and he used it to build castles to protect his beachhead. Hastings was one of them (the others were Pevensey and Dover). All three were adjacent to important harbours and, in the case of Hastings, the site of a Saxon burh (fortified town).
Hastings Castle is one of the few Norman structures that can be dated with certainty. Not only is there is a picture on the Bayeux Tapestry, its narrative states William the Conqueror "commands that a castle be dug at Hestengaceastra". The castle is also mentioned in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle and the Domesday Book (1086). Finally the Chronicle of Battle Abbey stated William I built a "wooden castle" at Hastings. Together these sources strongly suggest the castle was started before the Battle of Hastings (which wasn't fought until 14 October 1066) using wooden prefabricated parts imported from Normandy. William was probably accommodated within its walls prior to the battle and in the immediate aftermath it would have been crucial as a secure logistical hub ensuring his sustainability in the south east.
The original castle consisted of a motte, which would have been topped by a timber palisade and tower, with a large broadly rectangular bailey to the west. An outer bailey, probably used for livestock, was located to the east. The castle was built on top of a cliff overlooking the Saxon settlement, markedly different from elsewhere which saw Norman castles stamped on top of former urban settlements (good examples can be seen at Exeter, Totnes and Wallingford).
William initially left the Hastings Castle under the control of Humphrey de Tilleul, an engineer whose castle building expertise made him an important asset to the Norman war effort. However, in 1069 the King granted the castle and its associated hinterland (known as the Rape of Hastings) to Robert, Count of Eu. He was one of William's closest supporters and shared descent from Richard I, Duke of Normandy. Robert rebuilt the castle in stone and founded the church of St Mary within its precincts. It later passed to William, Count of Eu who rebelled against William II in 1096. When this attempted overthrow of the King failed, the Count was sentenced to be blinded and castrated and ultimately died from these injuries. Hastings Castle remained with his heirs, who took the title Lord of Hastings, until 1148 when King Stephen granted it to the church under the control of the Bishop of Chichester. It was back in Royal custody during the reign of Henry II with the Pipe Rolls detailing expenditure of £235 between 1160 and 1181. This probably accounted for a partial rebuilding of the fortification in stone perhaps including the Keep and St Mary's Chapel.
In 1216, during the latter days of the turbulent reign of King John, the castle was deliberately slighted to avoid it falling into the hands of Prince Louis of France. Louis had invaded at the request of the Barons opposing the King and the Royalist faction was keen to deny them a strong base near a significant harbour facility. The damage done is not known but some sources suggest only the timber elements (floors and internal buildings) were destroyed. Regardless the damage was rectified in 1220 when Henry III ordered the re-fortification and repair of the castle.
Throughout its history the castle suffered from coastal erosion and during the thirteenth century particularly acute weather caused much damage. As early as 1287 the sandstone cliffs on which the castle was built started to fall into the sea along with a portion of the bailey curtain wall. The harbour also suffered resulting in a general decline in the economic worth, and thus the military importance, of Hastings. This led to infrequent repairs and, by the fourteenth century, the castle was ruinous. The situation was further exacerbated by French attacks in 1339 and 1377.
Long since abandoned as a military site, the final end seemed to come for Hastings Castle under Henry VIII when the church of St Mary's was forcibly dissolved. By 1591 the castle and adjacent lands had been sold to the Pelham family who utilised them for farming. But the advent of World War II, and the German bombing assault on England, led to the site being briefly re-fortified. An anti-aircraft battery was positioned adjacent to the castle ruins whilst the cliffs were used as a training site for the Commandos. Some bomb damage was sustained during the war. In 1951 it was sold to the Hastings Corporation for £3,000 and was subsequently stabilised and opened to the public.
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Hastings Castle has been badly damaged by coastal erosion with much of the medieval structure having fallen into the sea. However the original motte, built by William’s forces prior to the Battle of Hastings, survives as does a section of curtain wall and the gatehouse.
Motte. The remains of the castle are dominated by the motte which was part of the original fortification built in 1066.
Division of Sussex. Sussex was critical to the Normans as it secured access to the continent and accordingly was divided into five administrative areas known as rapes (derived from the Saxon term rap which implied demarcation). Each was granted to a Norman Lord who established a castle to serve as the administrative centre. At the time of the Domesday Book (1086) these were Arundel (Roger de Montgomery), Bramber (William de Braose), Lewes (William de Warenne), Pevensey (Robert, Count of Mortain) and Hastings (Robert, Count of Eu). In the twelfth century a sixth rape, Chichester, was created by dividing the rape of Arundel. In each rape minor castles were established in the hinterland to ensure control of the area.
Hastings Castle Layout. A significant portion of the castle, including the Keep, has fallen into the sea however the original eleventh century motte is still visible as it was incorporated within the curtain wall defences rather than as a base for the new Keep. The area to the east of the castle (not shown on plan) was probably an Outer Bailey.
Hastings. The castle was built on top of a cliff overlooking the former Saxon town and port.
Hastings Castle is situated above the town and is well sign-posted. There is limited car parking in immediate vicinity of the castle but town car parks are close by and also well sign-posted. One example is listed below.
Car Parking Option