Topography of Great Britain

From Historical Hastings

The following is the description of Hastings given by the book 'The Topography of Great Britain (George Alexander Cooke 1829)'[1]:

The entrance to Hastings from Fairlight Down, by the London road, is one of the finest that can be imagined. It opens on a smooth terrace from the Down, from whence is an extensive prospect of Pevensey Bay, Beachy Head, Bourne Hills, and a large space of sea.

When through the turnpike gate, the valley of Hastings appears discovering the Upper Church, and the tops of houses. At the bottom of the hill you enter a pleasant shady lane, on each side of which are tall spreading trees, whose branches in the summer form an arch which is impenetrable, through which you enter to the town, consisting of two parallel streets of considerable length, running nearly north and south, and opening to the sea, with several lesser ones intersected by gardens and a suburb, which extends along the beach. A small stream of water called the Bourne, runs between the two main streets, which empties itself into the sea. Here are several modern built handsome houses, and the number is still increasing.

The valley in which the town of Hastings is built, forms a spacious and beautiful amphitheatre of an oval figure, sloping to the south; the houses and gardens rising gradually to the east, and the hills to the north.

Here are two parish churches, St. Clement’s and All Saints, which are both very ancient fabrics, though it is uncertain when they were built, as no account is discovered concerning them. In St. Clement’s, commonly called the Lower Church, several curious inscriptions are to be found in brass and marble. In this church is also a very neat altar piece by Mortimer. On the ceiling is a representation of the heavenly regions: and underneath, at the corners, are the figures of Faith, Hope, and Charity. The font is a very curious piece of antiquity; it is an octagon, on the squares of which, are carved in relievo, the instruments of our Saviour’s passion. The gallery was erected about the year 1774, by subscription, and the pews disposed by lot, among the subscribers. Benches are placed in the chancel for the convenience of summer company.

All Saints, or (as it is generally called) the Upper Church, is a much larger and loftier building, but contains nothing requiring particular notice, excepting the pulpit cloth, which was part of the canopy held over Queen Ann, at her coronation; and at the upper end of the north aisle, an ancient grave stone, on which are cut the figures of a man and woman in lines; the inscription round the edge is obliterated, except the word "anno."

There was formerly another church, called St. Michael, and a hospital of St. Mary Magdalene, but no certain accounts have been obtained concerning them. In a small square field, upon the eastern hill, stood a church called St. George, the last inconsiderable remains were levelled many years ago. There had likewise been a church or chapel on the hill, over the east well; at times, on the falling away of the cliff, human skeletons, bones, and fragments of buildings have been found.

This town was formerly defended by a strong wall next the sea, which ran across the valley from hill to hill, having two gates, one at the bottom of the Oak hills, the other to the eastward, at the bottom of Fish Street. There are yet standing some remains of it, at a place called the Bourne’s Mouth, which runs from thence to the gate steps, and proves it to have been of considerable strength and thickness. Vestiges of a Roman encampment are discernible, eastward of the town upon a hill. It is of considerable extent, and appears to have been strongly fortified, for which purpose the situation is well calculated.

The remains of a large and very ancient castle are upon the hill, to the westward of the town; the shape is nearest two sides of an oblique spherical triangle, having the points rounded off. The base or south side, completing the triangle, is formed by a perpendicular craggy cliff, about 400 feet in length, which appears to have had no wall or other fortification, for which there was no necessity; nature having made it sufficiently inaccessible on the side opposite the sea. The east side is made by a plain wall, measuring 300 feet, without tower or other defence. Its adjoining side, facing the north-west, is about 400 feet; a perpendicular let fall upon the south side or rock, from the angle formed by the junction of the walls, measures about 260 feet, and the area included is about one acre and a quarter. The walls, which are no where entire, are in some places eight feet thick. The gateway, which has been long demolished, was on the north side near the northern angle. Near it, to the westward, are the remains of a small tower, enclosing a circular flight of stairs; farther on the west, on the same side, is a sally port, and the ruins of a square tower. Just within the sally port is every appearance of an entrance to a vault, by steps which are choaked up with rubbish. Behind the east wall is a dry ditch, about 60 feet deep, and at top, 100 feet wide.

It does not appear, from either Leland or Camden, at what time the present building was erected, or from any of the writers who have treated of the antiquities of the county. From the situation of the spot, which seems extremely proper for the ancient mode of fortification, it has been thought more than probable, that here was some sort of fortress in very early times, long before the coming of the Normans.

This supposition receives some confirmation from a passage in the Chronicles of Dover Monastery, printed in Leland’s Collectanea, which says, "That when Arviragus threw off the Roman yoke, he fortified those places which were most convenient for their invasion, namely, Richborough, Walmore, Dover, and Hastings."

In the history of Canterbury, written by Eadmer, and published by Selden, it appears that in the year 1090, almost all the bishops and nobles of England, were assembled by royal authority, at Hastings, to pay personal homage to King William II. who was on his return to Normandy. Father Anselm likewise attended, offering up his prayers to heaven for the safety of the king, during the voyage. But the king and nobles were detained here more than a month, the wind being contrary. During that interval, Anselm consecrated, in the church of the Virgin Mary (which is within the castle walls), Robert Bloet, to the church of Lincoln, by the approbation of seven of his brethren, who assisted at the ceremony. Little more concerning this castle occurs in history, except what is recorded of the free royal chapel, dedicated to the Virgin Mary, wherein were a dean, and several secular canons or prebendaries, to which, Henry de Augo or Ewe, (who lived in the time of Henry I. ) was benefactor. It was said 27th Edward I. that the gift of the prebends had been in the crown ever since the barony. Hastings came into the king’s hands; but before that, Conen Augi was patron. In the 26th of Henry VIII. the deanery was valued at 20l. per annum, and all the seven prebends at 41l. 13s. 5d. The college and deanery were granted 38th of Henry Till, to Sir Anthony Brown. By a patent 5th of Edward III. the dean had licence to build himself a mansion within the castle walls.

Prynne, in his History of Papal Usurpations, mentions the following circumstances relative to the chapel here: he has likewise preserved the original writs.

In the 6th of king John, John Redmond, coming from Rome to lay claim to a prebend of Hastings, sued to the king, for licence and safe conduct to come into and return from England, which was granted upon this condition, that on his arrival, he should give security, that he came hither for no ill to the king, nor for any other business but that prebend.

In the first year of Edward III. that king issued a commission for visiting the free chapel, at Hastings, and placing a dean therein; this commission was directed to William of Feversham, and in the 27th of the same reign, a writ was issued by the king, forbidding and restraining certain oppressions, by the bishop of Chichester, of which, two canons, William de Lewes and Walter de Tothy the then complained. Nevertheless the same year, the bishop pretending, that as this chapel was under his jurisdiction, all the prebendaries ought to be presented and admitted by him; the king thereupon issued his writ to the warden of the cinque ports, to inquire into the ancient usage, and to inform him thereof at the meeting of the next parliament, to which he adjourned the dispute, and directed the prebendaries to attend and defend their privileges, and to make themselves masters of the state of the question, when Conen Augi was patron. It seems, however, that it was not then determined; for in the next year the bishop renewed his claim, and the prebendaries were again directed to search for precedents. The archbishop of Canterbury, probably instigated by the bishop of Chichester, now claimed from his metropolitan authority, a right of visitation: but the king issued his prohibition, forbidding him to do any act that might infringe the rights of that chapel; this writ was entered on the clause roll. The next year, the king being informed, that notwithstanding his prohibition the archbishop persisted in his visitation, he by a writ to Stephen Sprot, then constable of the castle, directed him not to permit the bishop, or any from him, to exercise any ecclesiastical jurisdiction within the free chapel. In the 31st of the same reign, the archbishop cited one of the prebendaries for exercising that office on the king’s presentation, without being admitted by him or the bishop of Chichester, during the suit and question in the king’s courts. Whilst things remained thus unsettled, the archdeacon of Lewes attempted to visit this place, but was stopped by the king’s order. In the 33rd year of the same king, the archbishop having excommunicated the keeper of Hastings castle for his obedience to the royal command, in refusing him admittance to visit the chapel, and during the absence of the keeper, caused his commissioners to visit it, and place therein a dean: the king thereupon issued a writ, to summon the archbishop personally to appear before him at a day, to answer for these high contempts to his crown and dignity; and another writ was sent to Robert de Burghersh, the constable of Dover castle, to go to Hastings and inquire into the truth of the premises, remove the new dean, there placed unduly, to appoint another in his room, and to certify him the next parliament of all his proceedings therein. It does not appear how this matter then terminated: but, in the reign of Henry VI the chapel with its appendages was put under the jurisdiction of the bishop of Chichester and the archdeacon. From this castle there are a variety of beautiful and extensive views; a great extent of water to the south; to the west East Bourne.

A little to the westward of the castle cliffs is a farm-house, called the priory; a priory of black canons was founded here, in the reign of Richard I. by Sir Walter Bricet, and dedicated to the Holy Trinity; some remains of old walls are yet to be seen.

Close to the farm-yard is a piece of water, which being drained off some years ago, discovered a large hole, near 30 feet, with the remains of a sluice, deep gates, and immense large timber.

Hastings had formerly a good harbour; a large wooden pier that ran out in a south-east direction below, where the fort now stands, admitting large vessels to lie and unload along side; but about the beginning of queen Elizabeth's reign, this pier was destroyed by a storm, since which time it has remained in its present state, and is called the Stade. Camden says, "that queen Elizabeth granted a contribution towards the making a new harbour at Hastings, which was begun, but the contribution was quickly converted into private purses, and the public good neglected." Large pieces of timber, the remains of the pier, are still to be seen at particular times, at low water, when the tide has swept away the beach, covered by enormous rocks, which were brought there to form the foundation; and three or four long rows of piles are visible every day at half ebb, which shews the direction in which the pier ran.

The method of getting the sloops and cutters up and down the Stade, is surprising to those who have never seen any thing of the kind: they are wound up by a capstan with three or four horses, and are then in general empty; but loaded when they go down, and the facility and expedition with which such large heavy bodies (vessels from 50 to 100 tons burthen) are moved is astonishing; pieces of wood, well greased, are laid for the vessel’s keel and side to run on; a large wooden screw is then applied to her bows, with which she is set a going: when she has run as far as is thought proper, she is easily stopped, by cables round the capstans; the pieces of wood, called troughs, are relaid, and she is put in motion again, and so on, till she is far enough to float when the tide returns.

At the west end of the Stade is a fort, that mounts eleven twelve-pounders, built about the year 1764; prior to which there were two small batteries. In violent gales the present fort is an excellent barrier against the sea, which would otherwise have broke into and considerably damaged the suburbs, particularly in January 1792, when there was an extraordinary high tide, with a most furious gale of wind, at south, which did much mischief, both here and on other parts of the coast. The sea was not remembered by the oldest inhabitant to have flowed so high as on that day. Some capstans and rope shops, which had stood for years unmolested by the tides, were torn up and washed along the shore. A large boat of 15 or 20 tons burthen, that stood near the Bourne’s mouth, was washed off its wood, and thrown up against the houses. The vessels upon the Stade were in great danger. The banks along the road to the westward of the town were all broke in upon, and in many parts carried away. The suburbs were a continuous stream, the water running through the houses, and carrying with it different articles of furniture; men, women, and children were wading about from house to house, &c. which at once formed a scene distressing and ludicrous. It happened fortunately in the day-time, or the consequences might have been much more disastrous.

The trade of this town, was formerly very considerable: 60 or 70 years ago, they had vessels which traded from hence up the Straits; the fishery was then much more considerable than if now is, especially the herring, of which great quantities were dried and exported It has been seen by the ancient charters, that boats went from thence during the herring season, to Yarmouth, to catch and dry their fish. They likewise went to the North Foreland and Margate, for that purpose, though the custom has long since been dropped. For several years past a number of large boats come annually from Brighton to Hastings, where they stay the season to catch and sell fish. The fisheries have much declined within the last fifty years, though there are still great quantities of herrings, mackerel, and trawl fish caught, and sent to the London markets, as well as supplying the country around; besides about 1500 barrels of herrings, about 800 to the barrel, that are annually dried and sent to the different markets, where, from their superior flavour, they are said to fetch a better price than any others.

The herring season commences about the beginning of November, and is generally over by the middle of December. Some idea may be formed of the extent and value of the herring fishery at Hastings, when it is mentioned, that in one day, a few years since, as many herrings were landed on the beach as sold for upwards of 900l. The herring voyage is succeeded by the trawl fishing, which comprehends soles, skate, thornbacks, maids, and some turbot. The mackerel season commences about May, and continues till about August, when flat fish comes in again, and employs the fishermen till the return of the herring voyage. Some whitings are caught here in the autumn, though not in any great quantity, but they afford excellent sport to those who are fond of angling: boats may be hired at a small expense, with proper lines and hooks; a few herrings are easily procured for bait; the whitings will bite nearly as fast as the hooks can be let down.

A great deal of plank iron and grain are brought here from the country, to he exported coastwise, though the iron branch (which consisted chiefly in cannon from the founderies, at Rothersbridge and Ashburnham), has within some years considerably failed; it is said to be owing to the great scarcity of wood for heating the furnaces; as since hop planting has become so principal a branch of the farmer's system, the woods are chiefly reserved for hop poles.

The only imports of any consequence besides fish are coals, of which the quantity has considerably increased lately.

Hastings having of late years become one of the most favourite places of resort during the summer season, there is most excellent accommodation provided for bathing, as twenty machines stand westward of the town near the Marine Parade; besides which there has recently been erected some very commodious warm baths under the management of Mr. Powell, the bookseller. There are two very good libraries with billiard rooms for the amusement of visitors; also assemblies held weekly at the Swan and Crown inns, both of which afford excellent accommodation.

Here are two weekly markets; the days are Wednesday and Saturday: they are in general well attended by the country butchers, and afford plenty of fine meat, particularly South Down mutton, which is esteemed much superior in flavour to any other. The town is also well attended by people from the country, with fowls, butter, &c. at reasonable prices; upon the whole most articles are to be had as cheap at Hastings as at any other town equally distant from the metropolis.

There are three annual fairs at Hastings, on the days inserted in our list.

At Hastings was fought that famous battle between Harold, King of England, and William, Duke of Normandy, on the 14th of October, 1066, in which the former was defeated and killed; and by his death, William, surnamed the Conqueror, became King of England. The night before the battle the aspect of things was very different in the two camps, the English spent the time in riot, jollity, and disorder; the Normans in prayer, and other duties of religion. In the morning the Duke divided his army into three lines; the first, headed by Montgomery, consisted of archers and light-armed infantry; the second, commanded by Martel, was composed of his bravest battalions, heavy-armed, and ranged in close order: his cavalry, at whose head he placed himself, formed the third line; and were so disposed that they stretched beyond the infantry, and flanked each wing of the army. He ordered the signal of battle to sound; and the whole army moving at once, and singing the hymn or song of Roland, the famous peer of Charlemagne, advanced in order, and with alacrity towards the enemy.

Harold had seized the advantage of a rising ground, and, having besides drawn some trenches to secure his flanks, he resolved to stand upon the defensive, and to avoid all action with the cavalry, in which he was inferior. The Kentish men were placed in the van, a post which they always claimed as their due; the Londoners guarded the standard; and the King himself, accompanied by his two valiant brothers, one named Gurth and the other Leotin, placed himself at the head of his infantry, and expressed his resolution to conquer, or to perish in the action.

The first attack of the Normans was desperate, but was received with equal valour by the English; and, after a furious combat, which remained long undecided, the former, overcome by the difficulty of the ground, and hard pressed by the enemy, began first to relax their vigour, then to give ground, and confusion was spreading among the ranks, when William, who found himself on the brink of destruction, hastened, with a select band, to the relief of his dismayed forces. His presence restored the action; the English were obliged to retreat with loss; and the Duke, ordering his second line to advance, renewed the attack with fresh forces, and with redoubled courage. Finding that the enemy, aided by the advantage of ground, and animated by the example of their prince, still made a vigorous resistance, he tried a stratagem, which was very delicate in its management, but which seemed advisable in his desperate situation, when, if he gained not a decisive victory, he was totally undone, he commanded his troops to make a hasty retreat, and to allure the enemy from their ground, by the appearance of flight. The artifice succeeded against these unexperienced troops; who, heated by the action, and sanguine in their hopes, precipitately followed the Normans into the plain. William gave orders, that at once the infantry should face about upon their pursuers, and the cavalry make an assault upon their wings, at d both of them pursue the advantage which the surprise and terror of the enemy must give them in that critical and decisive moment. The English were repulsed with great slaughter, and driven back to the hill; where, being rallied again by the bravery of Harold, they were able, notwithstanding their loss, to maintain the post, and continue the combat.

The Duke tried the same stratagem a second time, with the same success; but, even after this double advantage, he still found a great body of the English, who maintaining themselves in firm array, seemed determined to dispute the victory to the last extremity. The long bows of the Normans, however, greatly annoyed the English, who at that time were unused to them, and threw them into great disorder. The Duke ordered bis heavy-armed infantry to make the assault upon them; while his bowmen, placed behind, should gall the enemy, who were exposed by the situation of the ground, and who were intent in defending themselves against the swords and spears of the assailants. By this disposition he at last prevailed. Harold was slain by an arrow, while he was combating with great bravery at the head of his men. His two brothers shared the same fate; and the English, discouraged by the fall of these princes, gave ground on all sides, and were pursued by the victorious Normans. A few troops, however, of the vanquished dared still to turn upon their pursuers; and taking them in deep and miry ground, obtained some revenge for the slaughter and dishonour of the day. But the appearance of the Duke obliged them to seek their safety in flight, and darkness saved them from any farther pursuit by the enemy.

Thus was gained by William, Duke of Normandy, the great and decisive victory of Hastings, after a battle which was fought from morning till sun-set; and which seemed worthy, by the heroic feats of valour displayed by both armies, and by both commanders, to decide the fate of a mighty kingdom. William had three horses killed under him; and there fell near 15, 000 men on the side of the Normans. The loss was still more considerable on that of the vanquished; besides the death of the King and his two brothers. The dead body of Harold was brought to William, who restored it without ransom to his mother.

The country round Hastings abounds with variety of pleasant walks and rides; the sea view, being most novel to strangers, their excursion may begin by visiting Bexhill, or Beckes-hill, a neat village about six miles distant; pass the bathing-room, under the castle cliffs, and over the white rock, a little beyond which are the remains of a ruin, on the edge of a cliff, supposed to have been St. Leonard’s Chapel. About a quarter of a mile further on, at a place called the "Old Woman’s Tap," is the rock on which it is supposed William the Conqueror dined after his landing; it hangs over a pool of water, and still retains the name of the "Conqueror’s Table proceed on to Bo-Peep, a public-house, by the road-side, frequently used for tea-drinking. From the hill behind the house is a fine view of the sea and Beachy Head. From Bo-peep to Bulverhythe is about a mile and a half over the levels; which, in winter, abounds with snipes, and wild fowl, and some plover. Here was formerly a haven of the same name, but no remains of it are now visible. Behind the house, in a field, are the ruins of an ancient church or chapel.

Bexhill is situated on an eminence, that commands a very extensive view on every side. Some barracks have been erected at this place. Camden tells us that it was much frequented by St. Richard, bishop of Winchester, who died here.

About four miles from Hastings, in the middle of a wood, stands Hollington Church, remarkable for the singularity of its situation, not having a house or hut of any kind within a quarter of a mile; nor is there any account when or by whom it was built.

In the middle of a thick wood, about two miles to the north-west of Hastings, is a fall of water known by the appellation of the "Old Roar. "It is a small stream which rises a considerable distance off, and runs unnoticed, till it arrives at a rocky precipice in the wood, over which it falls perpendicularly, about 40 feet, into the basin below; the situation is beautifully romantic; for after long heavy rains, a large body of water tumbles over with a tremendous roar, that is heard half a mile off.

About two miles to the eastward, a little elevated above the beach, under a most stupendous cliff, stands a solitary cottage, called the Govers, from a wood close by, which runs along the shore farther cast. Here, in stormy weather, the raging sea rushes furiously against the bank, threatening to undermine it, and overwhelm the inhabitants with instant destruction.

A path winds through the wood upon the hill; thence turn to the right, and gain the summit; a little below which, on the other side, a winding track leads to a recess, over-hanging the wood, known by the name of the Lover’s Seat, from having been the rendezvous of two modern lovers. The situation of this enchanting spot is perhaps not to be equalled any where; beneath is a stupendous precipice; at the bottom is a wood, the verdure of which relieves the eye, and takes off from the horror inspired by the craggy height, and before you is the wide expanse of waters, than which, from that elevated station, a finer sight cannot be imagined.

References & Notes