Pevensey Castle was built within the walls of a former Roman Saxon Shore fort. Initially it was a series of earthworks augmenting the existing Roman walls but it was later rebuilt as a substantial medieval fortress. It endured numerous sieges throughout its long history and was also used to imprison King James I of Scotland. The site was refortified during World War II.
The first fortification at Pevensey was a Roman fort called Anderitum. It was built between AD 280 and AD 300 by Carausius, an individual who had been appointed to command the British Roman Navy (Classis Britannica) with the specific task of ending sea borne raids by Frankish and Saxon pirates. However, he was accused of corruption and Emperor Maximian ordered his execution. In response Carausius declared himself Emperor of Britain and Northern Gaul, separating it from the rest of the Roman empire. Pevensey fort was probably built as part of his efforts to secure the coast from Imperial forces.
The fort deviated from the traditional 'playing card' shape of earlier Roman outposts and instead was laid out in an irregular plan that matched the terrain on which it was built. The defensive circuit was oval in shape and enclosed ten acres making it one of the largest surviving Roman forts in Britain. Although today it sits 1000 metres inland, it was originally located overlooking the waterfront.
Raids by Saxon and Franks continued into the fourth century AD and a new military command, under the authority of the Count of the Saxon Shore (comes litoris Saxonici per Britanniam), was established to guard against the threat. According to the Notitia Dignitatum, a written record of Roman military dispositions dated to around AD 395, nine forts formed part of this scheme including Pevensey.
The Roman West Gate was originally the main access into the fort.
After the Romans
The Roman Army withdrew from Britain in the early fifth century but Pevensey fort continued in use by a small community who sheltered within its walls. However, according to the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, the fort was attacked in AD 491 by a Saxon force under Ælle who exterminated the inhabitants. Thereafter the site seems to have been abandoned and its next recorded use was during the Summer of 1066 when the forces of Harold II camped within the old Roman walls whilst they waited for the arrival of Duke William of Normandy. However, by the time the Norman army landed nearby on 29 September 1066, the Anglo-Saxon forces had moved north into Yorkshire to deal with the invasion of Harald Hardrada, King of Norway.
After landing his forces near Pevensey and finding no Saxon army present, William the Conqueror immediately set about securing his beachhead. He occupied Pevensey fort and augmented the Roman defences with a number of dry ditches. Further to the east he built Hastings Castle. With his army having secured these two key bases, he awaited the approach of Harold II before marching north and defeating him at the Battle of Hastings (1066).
Post-conquest Sussex was divided into five (later six) administrative zones known as 'rapes', a term which derived from the Saxon word rap meaning demarcation. Each area was granted to one of William I's key supporters who were responsible for ensuring the security of the region enabling the Normans unrestricted access to the continent. The Rape of Pevensey was given to his half-brother Robert, Count of Mortain who founded the castle to act as the administrative centre for the area. He re-used the Roman wall which became the Outer Bailey for the new castle whilst an Inner Bailey was demarcated by a ditch and earth rampart topped with a timber palisade.
William I died in 1087 leaving three male children; Robert (who became Duke of Normandy), William Rufus (crowned as William II of England) and Henry (later King Henry I of England). The division of the former King's territories was not popular with his magnates who preferred a single ruler to whom they owed allegiance. Accordingly Robert and his brother - Odo, Bishop of Bayeux - rebelled against William II of England hoping to replace him with Robert, Duke of Normandy. Odo occupied Pevensey Castle which, given its strategic location on the coast and the risk of an invasion from Normandy, prompted the new English King to take immediate action. He mobilised his forces and besieged the castle which only surrendered after a six week siege from land and sea that was personally supervised by William II. Odo was captured when the castle fell and was taken as a prisoner to Rochester. He later went into exile.
Although Odo forfeited his own properties, his brother was allowed to keep his estates including Pevensey Castle which was duly returned to him. Robert died in 1090 and the castle passed to his son, William. He forfeited his title in 1102 following an unsuccessful rebellion against Henry I and the Rape of Pevensey was then granted to Gilbert de l’Aigle. It was during his ownership that Thomas Becket, later Archbishop of Canterbury, spent some time at the castle due to his association with Gilbert's son, Richer. The Norman aristocrat exposed Thomas to the joys of hawking and hunting giving him an appetite for pleasures far beyond the means of a Merchant’s son and motivating him to pursue a career in the church. Some authors suggest that it was either Gilbert (died 1120) or Richer who built the first iteration of the Great Keep at Pevensey Castle sometime before 1130.
The castle's Keep may have been started in the early twelfth century.
Henry I died in 1135 without leaving a male heir which led to a civil war, the Anarchy, over the English succession. The rival claimants were the King's daughter, Matilda, and his nephew, Stephen, with most magnates supporting the latter. However, Richer de l’Aigle allied himself with Matilda and accordingly his possessions, including the castle, were confiscated by Stephen and granted to Gilbert de Clare, Earl of Pembroke. He changed sides in 1147 prompting Stephen to besiege Pevensey Castle and ultimately starved the garrison into submission. Thereafter, the castle was taken into Crown ownership.
Later Medieval Period
It is not known for certain when the stone buildings of Pevensey Castle's Inner Ward were built but a series of regular payments by Richard I in the 1190s suggest substantial building activity at this time. It is possible the Great Keep was one of these buildings or, if it already existed, it was certainly substantially modified at this time. However, the castle was probably slighted by the forces of King John in 1216 during the First Barons' War, when south-east England fell under the control of Prince Louis of France. The damage was repaired after the war and in 1230 the castle was granted to Gilbert Marshal, Earl of Pembroke. In 1246 it was given to Peter of Savoy who commissioned substantial upgrades to the site. This included halving the size of the Inner Bailey and replacing the former timber palisade with a stone wall.
The upgrades made by Peter of Savoy were timely as Pevensey Castle saw action during the Second Barons' War. This rebellion against Henry III was led by Simon de Montfort, Earl of Leicester. He defeated Royal forces at the Battle of Lewes (1264) and the routed troops fled to Pevensey Castle for safety. The castle was besieged by Montfort but, largely due to the strengthening of the defences in the preceding decades, was able to resist his attacks. It remained in Royalist hands until the defeat of the rebellion at the Battle of Evesham the following year.
Peter of Savoy died in 1268 and Pevensey Castle was returned back into Royal ownership. During the next century, regular payments were made to maintain the structure but the castle suffered due to its exposed coastal location and corruption from its Constables. Nevertheless it remained a credible fortification and in 1372 it was granted to John of Gaunt, Duke of Lancaster. He defied an instruction by Richard II to garrison the castle against the risk of French attack allegedly claiming that if it was destroyed he had the funds to rebuild it. Such an attitude did little to endear him to the populace and Pevensey Castle was sacked by a mob in 1381 during the Peasant's Revolt. The castle was later restored and in 1399 was able to resist a further attack from locals opposed to the overthrow of Richard II by John of Gaunt's son, Henry Bolingbroke. The custodian, Sir John Pelham, was granted the castle and Rape of Pevensey in gratitude by the newly crowned Henry IV.
The castle played no part in the Wars of the Roses and was allowed to fall into decay and ruin although its role as a regional prison continued. Inmates included a number of high status magnates including King James I of Scotland, who had been captured in 1406, and Henry IV's widowed queen, Joan of Navarre. By the sixteenth century the castle itself was ruinous although in 1587, faced with the threat of a Spanish invasion, emergency repairs were made by Elizabeth I and a gun emplacement built within the Outer Bailey. Thereafter it was again neglected until 1940 when faced with the risk of a German invasion, it was refortified. An observation post and a number of machine gun pillboxes were constructed whilst a blockhouse for anti-tank weaponry was seamlessly built into the fabric of the Roman West Gate. Concurrently the castle grounds were utilised as a training area for the home guard.
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Pevensey Castle consists of the remains of a Roman Saxon Shore fort that was later converted into a medieval fortification.
Pevensey Castle Layout. The Roman fort had an unusual oval layout that matched the terrain upon which it was built. The interior was divided in two by the Normans to create an Inner Bailey but this was reduced in size during the thirteenth century. Until recent land reclamation, the sea flowed up to the base of the castle.
Saxon Shore. The Saxon Shore Command is described in the Notitia Dignitatum, a written record of Roman military dispositions dated to around AD 395. Nine forts were listed - Portchester, Pevensey, Lympne, Dover, Richborough, Reculver, Burgh Castle, Bradwell and Brancaster. A further two - Bitterne and Caister-on-Sea - are also believed to have been part of the scheme. The forts were under the command of the Count of Saxon Shore.
Roman West Gate. The Roman gate was flanked by two semi-circular bastions whilst the entrance itself was inset from the main wall. The West Gate was the main entrance into the fort. It was constructed of layers of rubble bonded with concrete and reinforced with layers of tiles.
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.
Inner Bailey. The stone castle of the Inner Bailey predominantly dates from the mid-thirteenth century when Peter of Savoy made substantial upgrades to the site. Note the remains of the original Norman Inner Bailey ditch in the foreground.
Inner Bailey Gatehouse. The gatehouse dates from around 1200 and originally was the entrance into the larger Inner Bailey. When the castle was rebuilt in the mid-thirteenth century, the existing gatehouse was incorporated into the new defensive perimeter.
Keep. Precisely who built the Keep is a matter of speculation. The design suggests it dates from the late twelfth century in which case it was probably raised by Richard I. However, a document dated 1130 mentions a tower at Pevensey which could have referred to this Keep. Either way, it was extensively modified in the mid-thirteenth century.
World War II. Following the evacuation of Allied forces at Dunkirk and the possibility of a German invasion, Pevensey Castle was refortified with a series of machine gun pillboxes along with an observation post and a blockhouse. Some were built into the fabric of the castle itself.
Pevensey Bay. Prior to modern land reclamation, the castle overlooked the beach and Pevensey Bay.