It has been found that some people lived in what is now Sussex before the last Ice Age. When the ice started to cover the ground as far south as the Thames Valley, the people were driven farther to the south. When the climate improved about ten thousand years ago, hunters came back to the south of England. At that time what is now the North Sea was in fact dry land. These were nomadic people who moved from place to place where food could be found. They did not practise any form of agriculture. The ice still present in the northern countries started to melt and raised the level of the seas and oceans. Britain was again separated from the Continent by sea.
Around 2500 BC, Mediterranean people very different from the previous nomadic inhabitants invaded Britain, and especially the south. They had a well-organised social life. During the following period, known as the Bronze Age, new immigrants crossed the Channel in their flat-bottom vessels. The climate became lest hospitable, colder and drier. Some of these people were farmers breeding also livestock while others were semi-nomadic, following their herds from place to place in search of green pastures. The Bronze Age lasted about one thousand years. The Celts came next, but gradually and peacefully, from 600 to 400 BC. At that time Britain was slightly populated and the climate became again warmer and damper. Iron was used more and more and, after 8,000 years, replaced flint in making tools. Farming became more concerned with growing crops that with semi-nomadic herding. This led to closer links between the people and to the creation of many communities, and even some hilltop walled cities. The Celts were bigger and stronger people than the previous inhabitants and they soon took over. During the last century BC more invasion took place. First in 75 BC, people known as the “Belgae” of mixed Celtic and Germanic origin invaded what are now Essex, Hertfordshire and Kent. Twenty years later the Romans, led by Julius Caesar, invaded twice the Southeast. Sussex was not directly involved but their influence was important. The Belgic tribe of the Atrebates invaded the Isle of Wight and Hampshire four years after the second Roman invasion. They also invaded part of Sussex where they established an important settlement south of Chichester.
The colonisation of Britain by the Romans was organised by the Emperor Claudius in 42 AD. Soon they rebuilt the existing Celtic settlements as towns and centres for the dissemination of Roman culture, and to show Roman ideals and authority. Chichester was a new town with defending walls, and a good example of what a city looked like in the Roman Empire. However its population never exceeded 2,000 people in the second century AD, to decline later on. Sussex, and especially its agriculture, prospered during the first years of the Roman occupation. The farms were still small and individually owned, and the farmers lived in small villages near their land. Many inns and stables, where horses could be changed, were there to facilitate the journey to and from London. Around 400 AD the situation started to degrade. Sussex became isolated, both from the Continent and from the rest of Britain, by dense forest to the north and a dangerous sea to the south.
The Romans retreated to the Continent between 400 and 410 AD where they were attacked by powerful Teutonic armies. The Saxons replaced them and invaded Britain. History tells us that they landed in Sussex in 477 AD. It seems however that many small invasions took place in the previous 70 years. Strange enough, Sussex remained isolated from the rest of England until the seventh century, probably because the forests to the north made communication difficult. However the Saxon influence was very strong.
History also tells us that St Wilfred landed near Selsey in 681, converted the South Saxons to Christianity, and built a monastery there making it one of the more important Sussex towns of the seventh century. Other towns grew in size in the next 200 years: Chichester, Pevensey, Steyning, Lewes and Hastings. In the ninth century there was a new decline in Sussex due to the insecurity created by Danish invasions. At the beginning of the tenth century, Alfred the Great, King of the West Saxons, stopped the Danes and built some forts to protect the population and to restore security. Sussex had five forts: Hastings, Lewes, Burpham, Chichester and “Heorepeburan” (probably Pevensey).
It was during this period that the territorial division known as the “Hundred” emerged as a unit in local administration. Its origin is not known, and it is not certain if it refers to measurement of land or population. In Sussex there were 61 “Hundreds” of various sizes and their boundaries were not clearly defined nor generally accepted. However it is clear that, from the tenth century, the “Hundreds” became important, not only as courts of justice equivalent at least to the County Courts and the Quarter Sessions of today. They dealt also with matter that are now the responsibility of the County Council such as highway and police. The courts usually met in a central point of the “Hundred”.
The concept of “Parish” dates also from the Saxon times. This was an ecclesiastic division. New parishes were created, and older ones subdivided, as new churches were built. In the settled area, the parish boundaries were settled before the end of the Saxon period, and, with some exceptions due to rearrangements made within the last hundred years, they are still the same today.
During the reign of Ethelred, and especially between 990 and 1016, the Danes returned and terrorised the population. After the death of Ethelred, the Dane Canute became king and peace returned, at least for a short period of time. It is then that most Saxon churches were built in Sussex.
William, a Norman King, invaded Britain in 1066. He landed at Pevensey and fought King Harold at Battle near Hastings. The Saxon army under King Harold was tired from the long march from Yorkshire where they had defeated a Danish invasion. The battle involving about 30,000 soldiers lasted eight hours. William won but there were many thousand casualties, including King Harold. Sussex was in a very important position in the middle of the communication lines between William’s army and Normandy. It was subdivided into “rapes”, administrative divisions running north to south, each based on one port and controlling one highway to the north. These rapes were given by William to five of his most trusted Norman Barons. Strong castles were built to defend the harbours and ports and, for some time, soldiers guarded the main roads north.
Roger of Montgomery held the rape of Chichester and Arundel from 1067. It was initially known as the rape of Arundel and, also, as the rape of Earl Roger de Montgomery de facto the first Earl of Arundel. It was divided in two parts (rape of Arundel and rape of Chichester) in the middle of the 13th century. At Arundel the Norman created a new town protected by a castle on the hills above. Many Sussex men fought against William at Hastings and their estate, whether they survived or not, was taken over by the winners. As a result very few Sussex properties remained in Saxon hands. The other rapes were Bramber, Lewes, Pevensey and Hastings.
The recorded Sussex population -10,000- was classified as follow in the first Doomsday Survey after the Conquest:
- The “villani” or villagers -about 6,000. They had a share of the common fields of the village (from seven to thirty acres) and owned services and payments of various kinds to the Lord of the manor
- The “bordars” -about 2,500- owned smaller holdings but had the same duties
- The “cottars” had very little land and were forced to work for their neighbours to earn their living
- The “serfs” (420 were recorded) held no property in land and worked for the most as servants in the manor
- 260 were listed as burgesses or townsmen
Most people at that time had some link with the land, as even the craftsmen were also direct or indirect farmers. As only the heads of households were recorded in this survey, and many others people were also left out (forest dwellers, inmates of monastic houses, etc.), it can be estimated that the total population of Sussex was between sixty and seventy thousand. The population of Sussex in the seventh century had been estimated at seven thousand families, or around forty thousand people.
After the Norman Conquest the monastic Orders began to play a vital role in the social and cultural life of the communities of the Middle Ages. This change found its origin in the monastery of Cluny in France that had created hundred of sister houses in all Western Europe at the beginning of the eleventh century. In Sussex alone, many churches, monasteries, hospitals and other foundations were established in the hundred years following the Norman invasion. Most of these buildings were made of stones imported from Caen in Normandy. The Knights Templars and the Knights Hospitallers were well established in Sussex. When the former Order was dissolved in 1312 its properties passed to the later’. The new Order of the Friars created at the beginning of the thirteenth century revived the religious faith that had declined in the previous years. The Franciscans (Grey Friars) and the Dominicans (Black Friars) followed them; both Orders brought something to the religious fervour of the time. However they did not prevent the general decline in religious belief and activities that became even more obvious after the Black Death (1347/1350). Henry VIII seized this opportunity to justify the Dissolution of the monasteries and, in many cases, their destruction. In Sussex, like everywhere else, schools and hospitals maintained by the Orders were closed at the time of the Reformation and were not replaced.
Sussex was a very rich county in the thirteenth century with important ports, like Hastings, involved in international trade (timber, wool, salt, etc.). Shipbuilding was its most important industry. The port of Arundel was also thriving. Due to their wealth, thirteen Sussex towns, including Arundel, had their own representatives in Parliament. From the end of the twelfth century to the middle of the fourteenth many churches were built, or rebuilt, in the early Gothic style, the Norman castles were enlarged and big manors were erected everywhere.
In the Middle Ages the church was the symbol of the community but their importance decreased in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries. Many big mansions were built north of the Downs in the Tudor and Stuart periods. These were financed by the growing iron industry based on new techniques discovered at the end of the fifteenth century and by the great demand for heavy cannons. Most forests disappeared as a direct consequence and the roads of Sussex were ruined by the heavy traffic linked directly to the iron industry. Henry Hobbs, a mason from Arundel, built many mansions for the new rich of the time: industrialists, civil servants, lawyers and others. This wealth, unfortunately, did not last because even newer techniques based on the use of coal instead of wood led to the migration of the iron industry to the Midlands and the North.
The Sussex iron industry was important in the Civil War, but the main factor was the proximity of Sussex to France, from which King Charles was hoping to receive some kind of assistance. In consequence the Parliamentarians had to prevent the Royalist to control the county. Chichester and Arundel were attacked and seized by the Parliamentarian forces of General Waller at the beginning of the Civil War that is at the end of 1642. Royalist General Hopton liberated Arundel between December 6 and 9, 1643, but General Waller came back and Arundel castle surrendered again on January 6, 1644. Both the castle and the town suffered heavily and remained in Parliamentarian hands for the rest of the war.
With the decline of the iron industry the need for wood decreased, and the forests grew up again in Sussex. Careful planting of trees at the end of the seventeenth century helped too. Landscaping by the rich landowners is a characteristic of the Georgian eighteenth century in Sussex, as well as everywhere in England. Many parks built at this time are still here today, and Arundel castle Park is one of them. New techniques in land improvement increased the food production and fed the expanding population of the new towns of the industrial North in which the industrial revolution took place. The big landowners who had swallowed the small farmers and made a fortune in the eighteenth century led this agricultural revolution.
The Regency period is limited to the decade between 1811, when King George III became incurably insane, and 1820 when the Prince Regent became king under the name of George IV. However most people consider that it covers the period from 1795 to 1825. It was then that the Brighton Pavilion, and many other similar constructions of the same style, were built. The Prince of Wales first visited Brighton in 1783. He bought a piece of land in 1786 and the Pavilion was built on it in five months in 1787. Initially it was a Georgian villa that was extended later on to the building we know today.
The main function of the Sussex canals was to provide a cheap way of transportation for the agricultural and forest products, as the rivers were often useless for the navigation, even for small boats, due to centuries of neglect. The arrival of the railways initiated the rapid decline of the canals. The main Sussex railway lines were completed between 1839 and 1863, and the secondary lines were in place before the end of the century. Many secondary lines have been closed after the Second World War.
The last two centuries have seen enormous technological progress, but Sussex seems to have been left out compared with the Midlands and the North of England. It is a fact that there is no big industry in this county but many developments originated here. The beginning of the 19th century was also a bad period for agriculture and the local farmers suffered a lot at that time, even if the demand increased later on, for instance after 1830. However more and more people came to live in Sussex, and unemployment was low. After 1870, and until the 1930s, the situation declined again as cheap import of corn brought prices down. As a consequence, the population of many Sussex parishes decreased. The first Reform Act of 1832 changed the traditional representation in the Parliament dating from the thirteenth century. Many towns lost both their members and Arundel, Horsham, Midhurst and Rye were from that time represented by a single member. More changes occurred later on. The Poor Law Amendment Act of 1834 changed the system established in the reign of Queen Elizabeth I. Until then the parishes were responsible for their poor. Some had the means to do it but some others could not, and their poor suffered in degraded workhouses. With the new Law the Sussex parishes combined in twenty unions, and new workhouses were built. The conditions of the poor improved but it was still far from perfect. The Local Government Act of 1929 finally abolished the “Workhouse System of 1824” and old people homes replaced the workhouses. Also in the 1830’s the first grants were given to religious organisations to bring education where there were no schools before. The Education Act of 1870 made primary education compulsory and universal. Schools were built in most villages of Sussex, two third of them by the Church of England. Since then education has reached practically every children in Britain.
During the last fifty years the conditions of life, the distribution and density of the population, and the landscape of Sussex have changed faster that ever before. This is due in part to migration into the area for residential or recreational purposes and, partly, due to change in agriculture and industry. Since before World War I the population of Sussex has been increasing. The “Town and Country Planning Act of 1947” has been enacted to regulate these changes and to protect the rural landscape and the agriculture. The Education Act of 1944 aimed to adapt the schools to the new needs brought up by the increase in population and the technological changes of the time. The growth of population, and in the number of cars, has brought new problems to Sussex: traffic congestion and parking difficulties. Crawley is the only new town in Sussex created under the New Towns Act of 1946. Agriculture, encouraged by subsidies, has seen a new revival since 1939 and now it has reached the same level that it had in the middle of the nineteenth century. However the number of people employed in agriculture has decreased, as the increase in production is now due to mechanisation and the use of chemicals. Since the last war extractive industries -chalk, sand and gravel- have changed the Sussex landscape in some places and new regulations had to be enforced. A growing public conscience, and the creation of preservation societies, tries to limit the damage to the Sussex landscape, very often with success. Museums, theatres, learning facilities have been built for the young, but also for the generally wealthy growing retired population that choose to come and live in Sussex after leaving work.