KEVIN GORDON - Seaford’s hidden medieval gem

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This week the Crypt Gallery in Seaford will be open every day for an exhibition of art, prints and photographs by Seaford artists.

There will be cards and crafts on sale too, but it will also be a great opportunity to explore a small piece of Sussex Medieval history.

The Crypt Gallery in Church Street was opened in March 1994 following the redevelopment of an area which had been devastated by a German air-raid in April 1941.

The Luftwaffe bombs destroyed much of old Seaford but one little historic gem was left unscathed; the undercroft (working cellar) of a wool merchant who was plying his trade in the Cinque Port of Seaford in the 13th century.

Seaford was the busiest harbour in Sussex at this time and was granted its status as a Cinque Port, along with Pevensey, to assist Hastings with its compliment of men and ships in time of national emergency.

Until the 16th century, the River Ouse flowed into the sea at Seaford and a harbour was built under the imposing cliffs of Seaford Head.

The port (the closest to Normandy) was the centre of the local wool trade. With huge flocks of sheep across the South Downs, Seaford (even today surrounded by the new National Park) was the ideal venue for wool merchants who were made rich by exporting wool to France and Flanders.

By 1298, Seaford was flying high; there were at least 16 wool merchants in the town, there was an impressive church with beautifully carved columns and the town was returning two Members of Parliament.

One of the merchants sited his impressive house in Church Street, the main thoroughfare for sailors heading for the church of St Leonard, the patron saint of press-ganged sailors. The name of the merchant is unknown but he did leave evidence of his occupation in the form of his undercroft.

It has two sections of vaulting each surmounted by a fine stone boss carved into the shape of vine leaves.

Our merchant was exporting wool but importing wine. Just like today tax could not be avoided. For every sack of wool exported, six shillings and sixpence had to be paid in tax.

Seaford was one of the ports, along with Bristol, Southampton and Ipswich who had to pay tax on imports of wine. Two shillings per cask imported had to be paid to the King’s Butler.

The Seaford undercroft still has the original steps which once led from the back yard and a smaller set of steps which led into the house.

The outer door was secured by a hefty timber locking-bar and and you can still see the slot in which it was stored. The smaller windows are the original ones and we can guess that the merchant had his desk under them. If you look to the right through the internal door at the far end of the room, you will see a wall safe (again showing signs that it could be locked.)

Archaeological excavations in 1993 around the area found some clues as to how this man and his family lived. Over a thousand animal bones were found including sheep (of course) but also goats, cattle, poultry and pigs. Also found were rabbit bones. Rabbits were much rarer than they are today and would have been a particular treat. Pieces of pottery were found, some originating from Brittany and Flanders. So we know what he was eating but we also know he was well mannered as an aquamanile was discovered. An aquamanile is a decorated jug used to wash hands with (sometimes scented) water at the table. This beautiful object originated from a pottery in Yorkshire and is now on display at the Barbican Museum in Lewes.

A necklace was also found – quite small so it may have been lost by the merchant’s daughter. It is just possible that the merchant who built our ‘crypt’ was of foreign origin.

A book “King’s Customs” published in 1908 says ‘aliens appear to have dominated the export wool trade until the 14th century”

I like to think that he was a well travelled family man from Flanders. Who knows? - but you can take the opportunity to visit the Crypt this week. (By the way that name was given in Victorian times. There is no evidence that it was ever used for religious purposes.) The Gallery and ancient undercroft are open from tomorrow until Thursday from 10am to 4pm. There is no entrance charge.