Monday, 27 February 2012

The Battle of Rottingdean 1377 - The French lay their ambush

1) In Rottingdean find the short section of High Street south of the A259 that runs down to the sea. Walk to the end of this road where a slipway leads down to where the sea laps the shore.

It was the fact that there was a narrow gap in the towering chalk cliffs here that had attracted  Jean de Vienne. It meant that he would be able to land his men and march inland. The leading French troops landed and started to move north. They were at once met by a volley of archery. The men of Rottingdean were competent bowmen and were determined to slow the French advance so that their women and children could get away.

2) At the busy junction of the High Street with the A259, cross the main road with care and continue northwest up the High Street. Just beyond the crossroads with Steyning Road and Nevill Road, bear right into The Green to reach the parish church.

It was up this road that the French advanced as the Englishmen fell back. As soon as the last of the families were seen to have got away up what is now the B2123, the local men fled. Their job was done. One man, mounted on a local horse, was sent at high speed to Lewes.

The French, meanwhile, were getting ashore in numbers. The houses of the village were ransacked, then set on fire. The Church of St Margaret was also set on fire. It was at this date about 500 years old, with some recent additions such as a modern tower. The flames were intensely fierce, destroying the roof completely. Three of the pillars at the west end of the nave still show scorch marks caused by this fire. The church as it stands today is the Victorian restoration of the structure built in the 1390s, with only the tower remaining of what was here in 1377.

By late afternoon the main French force was ashore and Jean de Vienne was preparing to march inland on a raid intended to last all the following day. At this point one of his scouts came racing back down the road to announced that a force of 500 armed Englishmen was approaching.

This relief force was the local militia under the command of John de Caroloco, Prior of Lewes, supported by two local knights Sir John Falvesley and Sir Thomas Cheyne. The English were unaware of the true size of the French raiding force, thinking that they outnumbered the invaders when, in fact, they were outnumbered by around eight to one.

Vienne wasted little time making his arrangements to meet the English. He sent a small force of men north of the village to play the part of the small body of men the English were expecting to meet. Then he led his main force into position to spring an ambush.

3) From the church return to the Steyning Road crossroads and turn right into Nevill Road.

4) After about 100 yards Nevill Road meets Sheep Walk. Turn right. This road comes to a dead end, but a footpath continues straight on up the hill and past a windmill. A short distance beyond the windmill the path meets another near the top of Beacon Hill.

It was probably here that Vienne drew up the bulk of his army. In 1377 the slopes of this hill were more wooded than they are today, so the Frenchmen would have been out of sight of the advancing English.


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