The Saxon Shore

IMG_4145It’s been raining like crazy for weeks now.  We’re getting close to forty days and forty nights.  I’m expecting the Ark to swing into view any time now with Mrs. Noah peeking out the window to check whether its time to hang the washing out.

IMG_4147The Rother Valley has been quite severely flooded at times, as has the Medway.  One of my friends has had to move out of their house after the water came in.  That was Christmas Eve. Not great timing. But at least they seem to have been bailed out by the insurers and have landed in a better pad than they’d hoped for while their own dries out.

IMG_4050But the flooding reminded me of something I find fascinating, the changing Sussex coast.  We tend to think that the coast as fairly static but seven hundred years ago the sea came miles inland of where it is now.

Why this was we’re not sure.  Sea levels are probably higher now than in mediaeval and Roman times, but it’s possible that as the glaciers receded that the British Isles rocked – with Scotland rising as the glaciers disappeared and the South falling.  If that sounds incredible it’s worth bearing in mind that geologists trying to model tectonic plate collisions have had good results pushing solids into a layered ‘cake’ of putty and honey.  Under the great weights of the continents the subterranean transition zone acts almost as a semi liquid.  So imagine a brick rocking in a sea of golden syrup.

SE flood 4mAnyway, I digress slightly.  What we do know is that the sea reached up almost as far as Bodiam and that Smallhythe, just outside Tenterden, and now around 10 miles from the sea, was a port.  In Roman times barges used to head upstream to Etchingham to take on loads of iron from the Weald.

The coast was changed irrevocably in the great storm of February 1287, a storm that diverted the course of the Rother from New Romney to Rye, destroyed Old Winchelsea and collapsed the cliff at Hastings, and with it half of Hastings Castle and blocking the entrance to the harbour.  Later that year another great storm, St Lucia’s storm flooded the Netherlands and Northern Germany killing some 60-80,000 people.

Sussex coast flood 4mIn the years that followed Romney Marshes were ‘inned’, reclaimed from the sea.

So to see the Rother Valley under water once more was a little akin to travelling back in time (albeit without being able to place a bet on England to win the 1966 world cup and thus be rich on one’s return).

Rother valley flood 4mOne quirk of the realisation that much of today’s coast was underwater is that it brings into question some of the theories surrounding the Battle of Hastings.  You see, despite their being an abbey built on ‘the site’ there’s no archaeological evidence of a battle having taken place at all on the official location, Senlac Hill.

William is supposed to have landed at Pevensey, but if the higher sea levels were replicated across the Sussex coast, that landing site, Normans Bay, would have been flooded.

pevensey bayMoreover it would call into question the idea that the Normans took the route suggested in the recent Time Team special – up from Hastings and that the battle was fought on the ridge where the current Battle to Hastings road runs.

If Pevensey was the nearest place of note to the landing spot it suggests that the Normans may have landed on the East side of a then flooded Pevensey Bay.  We may have been looking for a battle in all the wrong places for years.

It would seem quite possible, if indeed the nearest landmark to where the Normans landed was the refurbished Roman fortification at Anderitum or Pevensey and managed to get to the area around Battle that they would have approached from the West, perhaps via Ninfield.

OK, lots of people like to speculate about this sort of thing, but our changing coast might provide a few clues.

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7 Responses to The Saxon Shore

  1. Andy. says:

    How fascinating. Last summer I stood in the centre of Rye explaining to my wife that the land she could see to the east was once underwater. I found it hard to believe myself. We had the same conversation at beautiful Winchelsea, having a purchased a bottle of Sussex wine from the deli.
    But I had no idea about Bodiam and Smallhythe! That seems even more amazing.
    It is surprising that there are still so many questions about the hows and whys of this shaping of the coast.
    So, what do we now call the battle of Hastings!!

  2. Senlac says:

    Re the Norman invasion, if one estimates the number of ships necessary to transport William’s army from St. Valery sur Somme (a well protected lagoon), and then beach them side-by-side in an area protedte ted from the prevailing winds, there are no real alternatives to the then-flooded Pevemsey Bay. In fact they probably needed all of the eastern side of the bay for that number of ships (ships were typically 30-40ft in those days so could take, say, 20 men and 3 horses each – so 10,000 men and 1,000 horses (trying to remember) = maybe 500 ships each needing min 8 metres lateral berthing = 4km of shoreline). And it would be the downwind shore I.e. the east shore.
    As for the site of the battle, isn’t it accepted that William got all his men ashore and likely built a lightly fortified camp, while sending out recce parties – incl. a larger group to take old Pevensey castle to protect his fleet and flank. Was it then that he move to Hastings and constructed his pre-fabricated castle (Hastings have a harbour then – the pre-Cinque Ports one?). Either way William was a smart military commander, so we can safely assume he would have moved inland along the high ground. The only decent high ground near his landing area is the Hasting’s-Battle ridge? So Scenrio A sees him approaching what we now call Battle from Hasting’s via Telham. If he went directly from his landing site, with his main army by-passing Hastings, then Scenario B has him approaching Battle from the direction of Catsfield, I.e. up what we now call Powbermill Lane (though that would put the defending army on his flank – not wise…). Scenario C has him, as you suggest may have occurred, approaching Battle from due west (along what is now the A271). Under all these scenarios, the battle site would be in the vicinity of what we now call Battle – either (a) the traditionally accepted place below Battle Abbey; or (b) the Time Team hypothesis – 200 yards east at the top of Battle Hill; or (c) the altogether more logical location of Caldbec Hill (which fits the A271 approach rather better…)

  3. Senlac says:

    Re the evolution of Romney Marsh over the last 2000 years, yes it’s fascinating and all entirely logical. It’s reasonably to assume people in those days were just like us and if we were in their shoes we would have done the same. So it follows that:
    A) the Romans probably landed around Appledore – as it was better than Dover and a sea port then;
    B) as (old) Winchelsea was a massively prosperous port, perhaps the largest in England in the 1200s, when they found themselves being overwhelmed by the sea in 1285-7 they would have started a back-up plan and set out a new town on the nearby hill. Then when the big storm of 1287 pretty much wiped out the town they relocated and retained trading operations;
    C) in 1385 Bodiam castle was built to protect the headwaters and tidal reach of the Rother estuary i.e. the first crossing point for invaders landing around Rye and heading for London;
    D) in 1535 it was logical to build a fort on the shingle spit overlooking the entrance channel to Rye and Winchelsea harbours, hence Camber Castle.

  4. Senlac says:

    PS. I’m trying to find a map showing what Hastings harbour looked like pre-1287. I.e. before the great storm caused the cliff (and some of the castle) to collapse and wreck to harbour. I guess no such map exists – as no maps or charts of that period have such details anyway?

  5. PeteRoper says:

    Nice stuff Jonathan, your recreation of the south coast look great, I did the same with Google Earth and posted a couple of movies of it on YouTube, anyway, thought I’d just pop by and say hi!

  6. PeteRoper says:

    Oh and in response to Senlac, it is now widely accepted that William landed in Bulverhythe and his ships were landed all along the coastline from Pevensey to Winchelsea and William and his army camped in Combe Haven marching his army and train out of that valley the very morning of the battle, Combe Haven, or rather ‘Wilting’ back then WAS the site of old Hastings and it’s old harbour, modern Hastings is not in the same place old Hastings was, as for the battle, I favour the Crowhurst theory and that amateurish Time Team carve up was a load of old cobblers! William neither needed or craved the high ground, he needed to draw Harold into battle and do it quickly or he would be simply cut off on the Hastings peninsula and starved, he knew he had the equipment to defeat Harold with his fighting Destriers and Genoese Crossbowmen, a state of the art unseen weapon in England before then, a weapon powerful enough to split the Saxon shields in half, he needed his army desperately fighting for their lives if he was to be king, their backs against the sea with nowhere to run, the ships all burnt or dismantled a Saxon shield wall in front, he knew if he took to the superior high ground, Harold would not attack him, Harold would wait, for William to move off the high ground and come to do battle, wait for his own forces to swell, wait and win, William needed the battle more than Harold did, that why the Normans were the attacking army and the Saxons defending, William could not return home without his ships, it was all or nothing to him, life or death and by waiting on the Hastings peninsula for Harold to come and trap him, he guaranteed himself that battle and Harold thought he could defend that high ground all day long and he very nearly did. There are field scans going on in Crowhurst as we speak with promising results already and there is also to be a full-scale investigation at Battle this year, so I guess the truth will out soon. There’s my tuppence worth anyway!

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