We are not short of castles in Sussex, the more spectacular being those at Arundel, Lewes and Bodiam, to name but three. Intriguingly, however, there are scores more fortifications all over the county that few people are aware of. That’s because what little remains of most of them are hardly visible to the layman who doesn’t know what to look for.
I count myself in the latter category but some research has revealed a trio of one-time defensive structures in locations just a few miles outside my hometown of Lewes. One of these is in the village of Isfield, near Saint Margaret of Antioch Church.
Archaeologists have identified eight feet high earthworks that were part of a small “motte and bailey” fort built to guard a ford over the River Ouse. The crossing would have been familiar to the Romans as one of their roads came through the village.
Sussex was the homeland of the Godwin clan with the area around Isfield being held by King Harold Godwinson. A tantalising tale has it that he stayed the night here before going on to his death at the Battle of Hastings in October 1066. Motte and bailey castles were introduced by the victorious Normans so if Harold did indeed call in he would have been accommodated in an earlier fortification known as a “buhr” or “burg” in Anglo-Saxon.
The fort is sited on a low-lying area where the Rivers Uck and Ouse once joined. The castle constructors cleverly diverted the waterways to create an island - effectively a moat - upon which the fortification was built. No masonry has been found at the site and any timber would have rotted away long ago or been used for firewood. Shards of medieval pottery have been recovered.
Not far from Isfield on the Lewes to Uckfield road is Clay Hill where there are the remains of another motte and bailey. Though it is obscured by trees and vegetation, experts have pronounced that “the monument survives well and retains considerable archaeological potential being one of only a dozen known examples in southeast England”. Excavations made in 1922 threw up pieces of Norman pottery. An earthwork east of Clay Hill has been found to date from the late Anglo-Saxon time. To the untrained eye the effects of ploughing and Second World War emplacements made by troops (probably Canadians) on training exercises have given the site a historically confused aspect!
Five miles east of Lewes is the village of Laughton and within the parish is found much more tangible evidence of a once impressive house that could also serve as a stronghold. Built for Sir William Pelham in 1534, Laughton Tower is all that remains of the edifice today.
The Pelham family enjoyed an illustrious history mainly accumulated at the expense of the French. They were key to the capture of the French king at the Battle of Poitiers in 1356. Then in 1545 (the year the “Mary Rose” foundered) Sir Nicholas Pelham rounded up a makeshift army of Lewes citizens, local gentry and yeomen to soundly rebuff a force of 1,500 French who had come ashore in Seaford Bay intent on plunder. The scene of the fighting was later named “The Buckle”, this being the Pelham family symbol.
Sir William’s house was constructed on the site of a much earlier building that was surrounded by a moat. It’s fairly certain that the former place was a fortification rather than a bespoke home. Laughton appears in William the Conqueror’s Domesday Book so the original building must have been Anglo-Saxon.
Known as Laughton Place, Pelham’s house remained in the family’s possession for several centuries even though by 1595 they had built another home at Halland (Halland House, demolished in 1768), which became their principal residence. Records from the 17th Century show that Laughton Place had seven fireplaces that attracted seven lots of “Hearth Tax”.
Laughton Place was subject to gothic-style alterations by Henry Pelham in the Georgian era and he also had farm buildings constructed around it.
Over time the house deteriorated with nobody living there and became sorely dilapidated. The last of the farmhouse farm buildings were pulled down in 1939. The tower remained standing and though used as a Royal Observer Corps post during WWII, rack and ruin seemed to be the building’s sorry future. Then in 1979 in a wonderfully imaginative move the Landmark Trust acquired the tower, repaired it and converted the interior into a most unusual holiday letting of great character.
I have been inside Laughton Tower. A terracotta buckle over a window arch on the second floor attests to the Pelham heritage. Surrounded by an enlarged moat, the tower is in a wonderfully isolated setting on flat Low Weald fields that are criss-crossed with ditches. To the west looms Mount Caburn while to the south the Downs and Firle Beacon dominate. Apart from Ashdown Forest there can be few places in Sussex so splendidly far from the madding crowd.
Finally, I thought I’d investigate Castle Hill in Rotherfield. Surely the name is a giveaway for the location of an ancient fortress? No such luck. Whilst experts agree that Rotherfield was the site of a large Roman “bloomery” where iron was worked they say there is no sign of anything remotely approaching the status of a castle ever having been there.