Origins of Hastings

The word ‘Hastings’ comes from the Haestingas, the people who supported a Saxon (Danish or German) migrant leader called Haest (or Haesta) who occupied Sussex east of the Pevensey Levels in the 6th or 7th century. In Old English, -ingas means followers, so originally the word ‘Haestingas’ was describing a group of people spread over a wide geographic area, rather than giving a name to a village or a town.

There had been some people living in what is now eastern Sussex for thousands of years before the Haestingas, except in the Ice Ages. The most recent Ice Age reached its height c19,000 BC, making England almost uninhabitable. There were then glaciers north of a line between the Severn and the Wash, and tundra to the south of it. The gradual retreat of the ice northwards over the next 10,000 years brought itinerant hunter-gatherers across the land-bridge from the continent until about 9,500 BC, when southern England started becoming a place where people could again live permanently. The Ice Age had ended by 8,000 BC, and this was followed by a steady global warming between roughly 7,000 BC and 3,000 BC, by when it was hotter than today. Southern England became a near-forest of mainly deciduous trees, with many forms of animal and plant life.

During the last Ice Age England was part of the Europe land-mass. There was a valley where the English Channel is today, but the sea level was much lower at that time, and the only significant area of water in the valley was a wide river, a continuation of the River Rhine draining much of northern Europe into the Atlantic. Then, as the ice melted, the water level rose in the North Sea, until around 6,150 BC it broke through the barrier of the North Downs at Dover and flooded down the Channel valley to meet the encroaching Atlantic.

So Britain only became a sea-bound island about 8,000 years ago. It took another 3,000 years, to c3,000 BC, for the British Isles to take a shape similar to that of today. The sea level continued rising till about 1,000 BC, since when the many changes in the coastline have been more the result of shingle movement, steady erosion and severe storms.

There is archaeological evidence of continuing human life in the Hastings area since the end of the last ice age. The most significant early evidence, in the form of flintwork, shows there was a substantial settlement on Ladies Parlour, and probably the castle site, late in the Mesolithic period (Middle Stone Age), which ran from c8,500-4,000 BC. At that time the landscape was largely forested and the Mesolithic people were semi-nomadic, living by hunting, fishing and fruit gathering.

The Mesolithic period gradually evolved into the Neolithic period (New Stone Age) 4,000-2,400 BC, when the people became more settled as farmers, with cereals and domesticated animals, and the first pottery. Neolithic stone axes were found at Fairlight, plus flints in the Bourne Valley and pottery on the site of the East Hill’s cliff railway station.

The use of metal grew during the Bronze Age (2,400-700 BC), and three axes from this time were found at West Marina in 1869. In the Bronze Age the coastline was further to the south than today, and much more uneven, with many inlets. Pottery sherds were found in Ecclesbourne Glen. Trees dating to 1,500 BC and earlier can be seen along much of the low water mark between Pett level and Bexhill, showing the sea level was much lower then. 

At that time there was much interaction between the coastal communities of what are now England and France, sharing the same culture, and showing that the Channel was a means of communication, and not a national barrier, as it is today. Large wooden boats are known to have traded with France from Dover, and this probably also happened from the Hastings area. In 1992 a large part of what is believed to be the world’s oldest-known sea-going boat were unearthed during town centre road works in Dover. The high-quality boat, now in Dover Museum, dates from about 1,550 BC

Next came the Iron Age, from 700 BC until the Roman invasion of England in 43 AD. The Iron Age had worse weather than the Neolithic and Bronze Ages, and was also a more dynamic time, with more human activity, including the nucleation of settlement and the expansion of agriculture onto previously marginal land. By the last years of the Iron Age, Britain had between 1.5 million and 2.5 million people, living as farmers or small tribal groups, but with safeguarded areas (known as ‘Iron Age forts’) where they could meet for protective, cultural and religious reasons. The East and West Hills were both such forts, the one on the East Hill covering 60 acres. The production and use of iron as a worked metal began in 200-300 BC. Pre-Roman coins dating from 52 BC onwards were found in the Bourne Valley.

When the Romans invaded England they may have experienced little conflict in Kent and Sussex, as indigenous traders had had a working cross-Channel relationship with them. It appears that the Romans allowed the existing way of life to continue where possible, in a period which saw the reorganisation and expansion of settlement across Sussex. No remains of Roman buildings have been found in Hastings, the nearest being a high-quality bath-house complex at the major ironworks which was set up in Beauport Park to produce the hardware needed by their military forces. This was the third largest ironworks in the Roman empire.

But many Roman artefacts have been discovered in Hastings, including a large quantity of coins in Elphinstone Road, and these indicate that there probably was a settlement and trading centre here. Roman roads in the Weald were small and rough, and the iron would have been transported from Beauport by boats as much as possible. The large inlet of the Priory Valley would probably have provided a good harbour, with a wharf and/or a flat gravel spread where vessels could be beached at high tide and unloaded at low tide.

On top of the East Hill is an enclosure which for many years was called ‘St George’s Churchyard’, but there is no evidence that there was a church on the hill at any time, and the soil-depth is too shallow for graves. There is some evidence, however, that the enclosure may have been a Roman signal station, for in 1840 an old earthen vase containing about 30 Roman coins was found inside the enclosure, and in a 1750 map the enclosure is named ‘Beacon Hill’ and there is a flagstaff with a red pennant in the south-east corner.

After the Romans left Britain in 410 AD the population of England fell, and the indigenous people probably returned to much of their previous culture, living in self-sufficient settlements. In the following two centuries, Saxons and other native peoples of north Germany and Denmark area migrated into south-east England in what have been called ‘invasions’. But this may have been a largely peaceful influx by a relatively small number (tens of thousands?) of elite people who brought with them a new way of life, especially to thinly-populated areas such as eastern Sussex. Indigenous skeletons in graves dating from that time show no sign of having been killed in fighting, and there are no remains of burnt farmhouses.

It was the arrival of the immigrant named Haest or Haesta and his/her backers in the 7th century which seems to have given a specific identity to the district lying between roughly the Pevensey Levels to the west, and Kent to the east and north. This settlement by Haest/Haesta probably brought a significant number of new people who shared common interests to this diffuse, sparsely habited and unnamed district. They may have been Christians before they arrived, because there are no pagan Saxon sites in the Hastings area.

Until 1066, the Haestingas were a ‘third county’, separate from Sussex west of Pevensey, and from Kent, with a stronger Hastings-Kent relationship than Hastings-Sussex. The earliest Haestingas seem to have lived in mainly farming groups initially. But in the 8th and 9th centuries England began taking shape as a single nation, and the Haestingas were forced to become part of it in 771 when King Offa of Mercia invaded and took control of the area. The 771 invasion by Offa is the first record of the name Haestingas.

Hastings had become some form of town by the end of the 9th century because it was one of the 31 fortresses – called burhs – founded in 878-79 by King Alfred  as a defence against Viking incursion of southern England. Hastings (called Haestingaceastre as a burh) was one three burhs in eastern Sussex, the others being at Lewes and possibly near Newenden.

But Hastings quickly became more than a fortress, because by c900 a new national economy was beginning to emerge, with more trading, manufacturing, transport and commercialised agriculture. It was then that the size of England’s population began to rise again, and towns began to develop for the first time since the Roman period. The main form of transport in England was by water, using natural havens and estuaries as harbours, and the lucky Haestingas could provide one of the nearest ports of passage to and from the continent for the budding cross-Channel trade. By around 930 Hastings had a mint, showing it was a significant town. The first recorded coins date from 985-91, and thereafter coins continued to be minted at Hastings until 1154.

There was almost certainly some form of port at Hastings right through the first millennium AD, using at least the natural shelter of the Priory Valley for as long as possible, depending on the movement of shingle along the coast.

But the narrow Priory Valley could easily be blocked by shingle, and from at least the ninth century there was also an ‘official’ port at Bulverhythe. This name is derived from the late Saxon words Burhwara hyd, meaning the ‘hythe or harbour of the burgesses’, being the men living in the Cinque Port and Borough of Hastings, to which the area belonged. The haven at Bulverhythe was much larger than the Priory Valley, with many streams running into it that could combat the shingle build-ups. There was also probably a significant settlement at Bulverhythe, on today’s small hill around the Bull Inn on Bexhill Road. That hill would then have been much larger to seaward, Its harbour would have been where the flat land to the north-east is now, with wharfage on the sheltered northern edge of the hill. The large haven of Bulverhythe could have been one of the main landing places that William the Conqueror was aiming at with his large number of invading vessels in 1066, although there is no archaeological evidence of this.

The town of Hastings in the 10th century, and up to the Norman invasion, was probably centred on a piece of ground that has nearly all been lost. This was the headland at White Rock which then extended further to seaward than it does today, sloping down to sea level. The church of St Michael probably stood just beyond the seaward edge of today’s St Michaels Place on White Rock, and this must have been the most important church in Saxon times, as the town’s 12th century seal depicts St Michael slaying a dragon. There were three other now-lost churches along the mile of coast west of White Rock, showing there was significant settlement of some kind there.

The Saxon town overlooked the port in the Priory Valley, while on the other side of the valley was the West Hill, with possibly a church and some fortifications (the fortress of the burh?) where the castle is now. The West Hill also went further out to sea, while on its east side was the inlet of the Bourne Valley, which may have formed a small port and where some people probably also lived. The East Hill was possibly also used by the Saxons, as what seemed to be a 9th century burial was found on top of the hill when the East Hill Lift was being built.

The late 10th and 11th centuries saw a remarkable economic growth in England, with many new towns emerging by the Norman Conquest. William probably chose Hastings as the first base for his invasion because it was by then a town of some size with two harbours, being an important trading place, fishing port and cross-Channel communications route. In addition, much of Hastings lay within the extensive manor of Rameslie, which included Rye and Old Winchelsea, that had be given to the Abbey of Fécamp in Normandy by King Cnut in 1017.

It was from the late 11th century onwards that the town of Hastings moved, or began to move, into the Bourne Valley, becoming the ‘New Hastings’, as a contemporary document called it. Somehat confusingly, ‘New Hastings’ is now called the ‘Old Town’, the unoffical name given to it in the 19th century when Hastings overspilled westwards back into the Priory Valley – to form the ‘new town’ of Hastings, next to the oldest town of Hastings, on White Rock!

During the late 11th and 12th centuries Hastings was both a successful town and an important port. It was then the most dominant of the five Cinque Ports, which supplied naval vessels to the Crown when needed, in return for fishing and other concessions (called ‘liberties’). But by around 1200 Winchelsea and Rye had both become wealthy ports, overshadowing Hastings. From this time onwards Hastings would suffer constant coastal erosion, eating into the cliffs on which much of the town stood, and the long-shore movement of shingle that steadily blocked up the Priory Valley harbour. Severe storms in the 13th century seriously damaged the ‘new town’ of Hastings in the Bourne Valley, forcing the rebuilding of much of it further inland. The part of today’s Old Town south of Courthouse Street may be the inland part of the 11th/12th century ‘new town’ which survived the 13th century storms. In contrast, the section of the Old Town north of Courthouse Street must have been laid out in one phase after the storms, as the building plots are of roughly equal size, and there are long raised pavements in both High Street and All Saints Street which would have to be created before the houses were built on them.

French attacks on the town in 1339 and 1377 hastened the decline of the town, and by about 1400 Hastings was little more than a minor port, based mainly on its fishing industry, with a derelict castle. Hastings was to remain largely insignificant, until it started playing a major role in the smuggling industry in the early 18th century, and then also started becoming a popular seaside resort in the 1780s.

Much more detail on the history of Hastings – and its 19th century neighbour St Leonards – are in the following chapters of the Chronicle’s Key Events.