Castles in Sussex

‘When is a castle not a castle’ was one of the questions posed by John Bleach, former custodian of Lewes Castle and an expert on the Sussex Castles, at Ferring History Group’s August meeting, the first since Covid. The answer, perhaps, he said, was ‘When it is a crenellated manor house’. The early Norman castles like Arundel, Bramber, Lewes and Hastings, were clearly built for military purposes – the first three guarding important river crossings and the fourth guarding the coast right back to Beachy Head. These were built by Norman nobles closely associated with William the Conquerer, and from them they ruled the ‘rapes’ – the county divisions of that name, which persisted for many centuries.
Other ‘castles’ in Sussex, like Bodiam, might look like classic fortresses but they were really large houses built, or rebuilt, in the ‘military’ style, sometimes to deter potential marauders, whether from the sea or thieves and rebellious barons inland, and sometimes for prestige. Amberley Castle was another example – this time of a manor house surrounded by ‘castle ‘ walls. This practice, known as ‘crenellation’ required a licence from the King.
The Bishop had little to fear from marauders in his manor of Amberley when he obtained his licence in 1377, and a later Bishop had even less to fear in Ferring when he applied for a ‘Licence to Crenellate’ the manor house there in 1447, along with his 10 other manor houses. No further mention of the Ferring licence is recorded and there is no archaeological evidence for the project being carried out.
John Bleach said military castles were built in later centuries in Wales and in northern England, for good military reasons, but not in Sussex. But the many fortified, or decorative stately homes, designed to look like castles, and restored castles like Arundel added enormously to the landscape and historical treasures of the county.