Pages 45-47

A History of the County of Sussex: Volume 2. Originally published by Victoria County History, London, 1973.

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Sussex, for its size, was well supplied with religious foundations, though for the most part these were small and not of more than local importance, the two chief exceptions being the abbey of Battle and the priory of Lewes, whose heads were constantly summoned to Parliament.

Besides the great abbey of Battle, the Benedictines had houses for monks at Boxgrove and Sele, both originally cells of alien monasteries. The nuns of the order had a settlement at Chichester previous to 1075, but were ejected when the cathedral was removed thither. They had also a short-lived convent at 'Ramestede,' and another at Rusper.

The Cluniacs had only one priory, but that was the greatest house of the order in England—the priory of St. Pancras at Lewes, whose possessions extended almost all over the kingdom. The monks of Lewes held at one time or another no fewer than fifty-six churches in Sussex.

The only Cistercian abbey was that of Robertsbridge.

The Augustinian canons had six houses, all small; and there was a nunnery of the order at Easebourne.

An abbey of Premonstratensian canons was founded, about 1180, at Otham in Hailsham, but subsequently removed to Bayham on the borders of Kent and Sussex. The canons had also an abbey at Dureford on the borders of Sussex and Hampshire.

The Knights Hospitallers possessed a preceptory at Poling, and succeeded to the greater part of the possessions of the Knights Templars, who had preceptories at Shipley and Saddlescombe.

Chichester and Winchelsea had convents of both Dominican and Franciscan friars, and the former also settled at Arundel, and the Franciscans at Lewes. The Austin Friars had a house at Rye, and the Carmelites at Shoreham, the latter being subsequently removed to Sele in Beeding parish.

Of the many hospitals in this county the most important was that of St. Mary at Chichester, which still flourishes. In each of the Cinque Ports members, Hastings, Rye, Winchelsea, and Pevensey, there were hospitals under control of the town officers, serving the purpose of almshouses, and this was possibly also the case at Seaford and Shoreham. The two hospitals at Lewes were intimately connected with the Cluniac priory, as was that at Battle with the abbey, and the 'Maison Dieu' at Arundel with the neighbouring college.

In some ways the collegiate churches may claim to be the most interesting class of religious establishments in Sussex. The canons of the cathedral of Chichester were the direct successors of those of Selsey, dating back almost to the foundation of Christianity in this district; the college of South Malling traced its pedigree back to the seventh or eighth century, and that of Bosham, though remodelled in the twelfth century, was the successor of one that flourished before the Conquest. At Hastings secular canons were introduced shortly after the Norman Conquest, and even at Arundel, where the college was only founded in 1392, there had been a similar establishment in Saxon times.

The alien houses present several remarkable features. The abbey of Fécamp acquired lands in Rye and Winchelsea and Steyning from Edward the Confessor. At the latter place they had control of a small college of, apparently, three canons under a dean or 'provost'; their principal agent, however, was the 'bailiff' of Warminghurst. A similar 'bailiff,' of Atherington, managed the estates of the Abbey of Séez, who had also a cell in the priory of St. Nicholas, Arundel. The abbey of Troarn had a small priory at Runcton, but soon made it over to its daughter priory of Bruton in Somerset. At Wilmington there was a priory whose head was in charge of all the English estates of the abbey of Grestein. Marmoutier, or rather its daughter, St. Mary of Mortain, had land at Withyham where there was a 'prior' resident. Finally, there was at Lyminster a small house of nuns under the abbey of Almenesches. The lands in Beddingham and Hooe belonging to the abbey of Bec-Hellouin do not seem ever to have constituted a priory, although so spoken of after the suppression of the alien houses; (fn. 1) and the claims of Tréport to the free chapel of Hastings are shadowy and appear never to have been acknowledged. (fn. 2) A mysterious 'prioress of Nonyngton' appears amongst the alien religious on the Pipe Rolls of 15-25 Edward III as paying for her temporalities in 'Nonyngton'; she may be the 'prioress of Novynton,' 'Noveton,' or 'Neweton,' who held 13s. 8d. of rent in 'New'' according to the Taxatio. (fn. 3) But unless this is a corruption of 'Nunminster' which was the early name for the nunnery of Lyminster, her identity remains undiscovered.

The two classes of 'solitaries,' namely hermits and anchorites, seem to have been numerous in this county and demand a passing note. The 'hermit' often had definite duties, such as the care of a bridge, ford, or causeway, as in the case of Simon Cotes, the site of whose hermitage is still known in Westbourne. This hermit by his will, made in 1527, left his house and the chapel which he had built 'in the honor of Almighty God and the Holy Confessor Saint Antony,' to be a dwelling for a professed hermit, who was to see to the 'maynteynence of the breggys and hyways' which he had made. (fn. 4) Hermits seem also to have settled in abandoned chapels; thus in 1459 the former leper hospital at Arundel was occupied by a hermit, (fn. 5) and in 1405 indulgence was given to those assisting Richard Petevyne hermit of the chapel of St. Cyriac in Chichester, (fn. 6) which had belonged to the alien abbey of Troarn, (fn. 7) and was occupied by a recluse in 1247. (fn. 8) In 1272 Peter the hermit of Seaford obtained royal protection for five years, (fn. 9) and not long afterwards his cell was the scene of a tragedy, for in 1287 one William Potel hanged himself 'in the hermitage of Seford.' (fn. 10) Certain caves at Buxted are traditionally ascribed to hermits, and there was certainly a hermitage near Winchelsea, for in December, 1536, 'the men of the admiral of Sluys burnt the hermitage of the Camber in despite and hewed an image of St. Anthony with their swords, bidding it call upon St. George for help.' (fn. 11)

Of the stricter order of anchorites or recluses a good many examples are found in Sussex. An inscription built into the wall of St. John's-subCastro in Lewes commemorates an early anchorite, Magnus by name, of noble Danish birth, (fn. 12) and there are considerable remains of an 'anker-hold' or recluse's cell in the south wall of Hardham church. (fn. 13) The Pipe Roll of 1 Richard I mentions the recluse of Stedham, and St. Richard in his will bequeathed money to the anchorites of Pagham and Hardham, and the female recluses of Houghton, Stopham and Westout. (fn. 14) About 1402 one of the Dominican friars of Arundel had himself walled up as an anchorite in a cell of his priory, (fn. 15) and in the same year Dom. William Bolle, rector of Aldrington, was allowed to retire from the world into a cell on the north side of the Lady Chapel of Chichester Cathedral; (fn. 16) he was probably the 'Dom. William the recluse of Chichester' to whom William Neel left half a mark in 1414. (fn. 17)


  • 1. Pat. 35 Hen. VI, pt. ii, m. 6.
  • 2. See article on the college of Hastings, below.
  • 3. Taxatio Eccl. (Rec. Com.), 140.
  • 4. Suss. Arch. Coll. xii, 80.
  • 5. Tierney, Hist. of Arundel, 679.
  • 6. Chich. Epis. Reg. Reade, fol. 14.
  • 7. Cal. Doc. France, 170.
  • 8. a Mun. of Dean and Chap. Chich. 'Liber Y,' fol. 135b.
  • 9. Suss. Arch. Coll. xvii, 144.
  • 10. Assize R. 924, m. 52 d.
  • 11. L. and P. Hen. VIII, xii (1), 718 (4). A seal of a preceptory of St. Anthony was discovered in Winchelsea, and may possibly have been connected with this chapel; Cooper's Hist, of Winchelsea.
  • 12. Suss. Arch. Coll. xii, 133.
  • 13. Ibid. xliv, 78.
  • 14. Ibid. i, 167.
  • 15. Cal. Papal Let. iv, 352.
  • 16. Chich. Epis. Reg. Reade, fol. 105.
  • 17. Cant. Archiepisc. Reg. Chicheley, pt. i, fol. 316.