Pevensey

‘Lookers’. men employed to keep an eye on a farmer’s animals as they grazed and ensure that none went astray or were stolen, are a breed of the past. It took a special kind of character to endure the hours of solitude in all weathers, but at Pevensey Horace Field made up for it when he returned to human company. He was the last looker of the marshes, with a great beard as white as the wool on the sheep he tended. His day’s work done, Horace would invariably make his way to the local hostelry where he was renowned as a demon at dominoes.

William of Normandy landed here with his mighty invasion fleet in 1066, though he was not the first conqueror to come to Pevensey. The Romans built the original fortress of Anderida which was added to down the centuries to become the pride of the village, with walls 12ft thick and 25ft high enclosing an area of about 10 acres.

It has had a bloody history. In AD 490 it was besieged by Aella the Saxon, who slaughtered all the British inhabitants; it withstood a siege by Simon de Montfort; and in 1399 Lady Pelham defended it against the Yorkists. Twenty years later Queen Joanna, widow of Henry IV, was imprisoned in the castle for four years by her stepson on a charge of witchcraft. Her custody under Sir John Pelham can’t have been too uncomfortable for she was allowed nine servants.

During the reign of Elizabeth I the castle was ordered to be razed to the ground, though the command was ignored, and in 1650 it was sold to a builder for £40 as a pile of stones. He obviously did not think it was worth the demolition job. In 1940 it was ready for a German invasion, with reinforced towers and pill boxes disguised as ancient masonry.

The sea which made Pevensey an important strategic centre had retreated long before the Second World War, leaving the village more than a mile inland. Evidence of that former greatness as a medieval commercial centre lies in the coins which have survived from the days when it had its own mint. The much restored Mint House stands in the single street of cobble and flint, along with the Court House, reputed to be the smallest town hall in England in the days when Pevensey had its own mayor and corporation.

There is a story of one mayor busily thatching his pigsty one day when a messenger arrived with an important letter. The mayor adopted an important air and put on his spectacles, broke the seal of the document and began to read it upside down. The messenger politely suggested that it would be easier if he held it the right way up, and was told: ‘Hold your tongue, sir, for while I am mayor of Pevensey I’ll hold a letter which end uppards I like!’

The village court once found a man guilty of manslaughter because he stole a pair of buckskin breeches – the theft was a capital one and so the jurors hastily looked for a sentence which carried something less than the death penalty. They used to have a nasty way of executing felons, incidentally – by drowning them.

The court house also served as the village lock-up, and one of the last people to be incarcerated there was Betty Breach. Her husband Billy had a frequent thirst and had lingered too long in the New Inn one night. So she went to retrieve him, emptied the remainder of his drink over his head and smashed the glass under her feet. For this she was jailed by a zealous magistrate, who relented when he saw public opinion was against him and sent word that the prison door be opened. Stubborn Betty refused to leave until the magistrate came in person to let her out and apologise. He did, and she went home to her spouse in triumph.

The Breach family also caused a stir one Christmas Day, when the sound of raised voices was heard from their cottage and the window pane suddenly shattered under the impact of a plum pudding which came to rest in the street. Billy had apparently paid another lengthy visit to the pub.

It was at the Mint House that jealous lover Thomas Dight took a terrible revenge on his wayward young mistress in 1586. The wealthy London merchant rented the house from its owner as a place to discreetly meet Eleanor Fitzjohn, an attractive young girl many years his junior.

Late one evening Dight arrived unexpectedly with a retinue of servants to find his mistress naked in bed with a local fisherman. Livid, Dight had Eleanor bound by the servants and when she tried pleading he had her tongue cut out. He suspended the fisherman by chains from the ceiling and lit a great fire beneath the spreadeagled figure. Eleanor was forced to watch while he was roasted alive, then she was carried still bound and bleeding to an upper room where she was left to die.

Andrew Borde, whose bubbly personality earned him the nickname Merry Andrew, a phrase which has passed into the English language, lived for some time at Pevensey. This one time Carthusian friar, scholar and physician to Henry VIII seems to have advertised his healing powers by shouting them to all and sundry at country fairs. For all his cheeky-chappie image with the fairground crowds he remained a monk at heart, staying celibate, drinking only water three times a week, wearing a hair shirt and hanging his shroud at the foot of his bed every night. He wrote a great deal, from The Principles of Astronomical Prognostications to the more racy Merry Tales of the Mad Men of Gotham.

To the east lie Pevensey Levels, which may look like empty and windswept acres stretching as far as the eye can see and broken by countless dykes, but are to the naturalist a place of great importance as a habitat for flora and fauna. The levels end at the shoreline, where less than a century ago the natives still walked with ‘backsters’, flat pieces of wood fastened to the soles of their boots to enable them to get across the pebbles.

Here were erected the martello towers, 40ft high and of such a thickness they required 50,000 bricks to complete a single course, to withstand the threatened Napoleonic invasion of England. Behind these forts the stalwarts of Pevensey were ready to deal with the French too. A song of the time ran:

“If Bonyparte should have the heart,

To land on Pemsey Level,

Then my three sons with their three guns

would blow him to the devil.”