Castle of the Week 37 – Pevensey Castle

As well as having one of the most complete Roman Walls in England there is an enormous amount of history associated with the site of Pevensey Castle, now in East Sussex. The ruins of the medieval castle at Pevensey stand in one corner of a Roman fort, on what was once a peninsula surrounded by the sea and salt marshes.

It was built by the Romans between 250 and 300AD to defend the coast against the Franks and Alemanni who were attacking the Roman Empire in northern Europe. It was built on a small island, and was known as Anderida.

When the Roman Legions withdrew from Britain in 408AD, the castle was occupied by the Anglo-Saxons until it was seized in 491AD by Aella the Saxon.

The irregular oval shape of Pevensey Castle dates from Roman times and follows the shape of the peninsular. Evidence of this period can still be seen in the remains of the rectangular gatehouse and a small postern in the north west wall. The walls of the castle have remained in a relatively good state of preservation, providing a good indication of the layout and structure of the castle buildings. Although some of the early earthwork defences were subsequently replaced by structural fortifications, the old Roman ditches and mounds around the site can still be seen.

In 1042 and 1049, the castle was raided by Earl Godwine, soon to become Harold II, and during the Spring and Summer of 1066 the castle was occupied by Harold’s army who were expecting the forces of William the Conqueror. At this time the castle stood on a spit of land jutting out in to the bay. Now the sea is 3 miles away.

In September 1066, William, Duke of Normandy, landed his invading army at Pevensey, and immediately set up a defensive camp within the walls of the old Roman fort, before marching on to Hastings.

Ditches were dug to provide extra protection against attack. However, when no attack came he hastily moved his army to Hastings where he heard King Harold and his army were camped nearby and erected his first castle. It is probable that William brought the ready-cut wood and nuts and bolts with him.

Having beaten the English at the Battle of Hastings, William needed to consolidate his position and set about building castles which would dominate the areas surrounding them. Following his victory at Hastings, William gave Pevensey to his half-brother, Robert of Mortain, who built a stronghold inside the old Roman fort.

Robert found Roman walls 20 to 30 feet high, and 10 feet in thickness. It was situated within the south eastern quarter of the Roman enclosure, and at first can only have been a simple earthen castle defended by a palisaded bank and ditch. The castle was repaired and improved and later, in around 1100, work started on building a large stone keep.

The castle developed gradually over the centuries with phases of building interspersed by periods of decline, including the slighting of the castle by King John in 1216. The castle was rebuilt and remained occupied into the 15th century, by which time it served as a state prison.

The castle’s strategic location as a possible landing point for foreign invaders gave it an importance that led to several sieges over the course of its history, and even after it had fallen into ruin it was put to use for the defence of the country.

A gun emplacement was built at the time of the Spanish Armada, and during the Second World War machine-gun posts and billets for troops were created within the remains of the castle. The pillboxes can still be seen at the castle, camouflaged to look like the rest of the building.

Write-up and pictures courtesy of Granite Q.


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