Part Twenty-seven
It is my opinion that having personally examined the historical record of the most eminent sources relating to Hastings Castle and the town of Hastings,(82) that there is no conclusive evidence whatsoever that Hastings Port has ever been located in the area of land immediately below the current Hastings Castle. It is a matter of historic record that all these most eminent sources substantiate their claims by the words “most probably located” below Hastings Castle or words to this effect.

Charles Dawson, who probably wrote the most detailed study of the Castle and History of Hastings(83)states:

“there can be no question that harbours once existed at Pevensey, Bulverhythe, and Hastings, which have now vanished. These points need critical examination...”

He goes on further to confirm:

“In the absence of any detailed record, it is impossible to give a precise description of the appearance of Hastings in early and medieval times....

Dawson goes on to study all the known historical documents prior to the Invasion. He draws attention to the Charter of Offa dated as early as AD.795 making the point that it may possibly be a forgery but confirming that:

“..the ports of my possession which are in the same neighbourhood on the sea, Hastings and Pevensey, with their salt works”

Further confirmation is found in the Confirmation of King Aedelwulfus AD 857 in which it is stated:

“that a monk of St.Denis had bitterly complained of the injuries which the kings men had miserably inflicted on the followers of the Saint in England, especially at Rotherfield, and in Hastings and Pevensey, at their salt works

On their own these reports account for little since they do not say one way or the other where the port in question is. However the fact that they locate salt works in one and possibly two separate accounts confirms that the port in question could not be an open sea port, since salt works require draining. In fact these reports strongly suggest that the port of Hastings must have been located at the Combe Haven valley, adjacent to the Bulverhythe, where the only known salt works in the immediate district have ever been located.

The first report of Hastings Castle or Ceastre occurs in the Saxon Chronicle in 1050 (84) when there is a reference to “the men of Hastinga-Caestre”. However this should not be misinterpreted to mean a stone castle. Prior to the Normans the word “Ceastre” more likely referred to a fortified residence of the local chief, made of wood. In consequence the British Museum manuscript throws no further light on where this was located.

Dawson examined all the evidence prior to the Invasion, that was known, but still had to assume that the castle was the one drawn in the Bayeux Tapestry. He registered his own doubts (85) about the inconsistencies, but faced with no other apparent alternative concluded that they must be one and the same.

Having re-examined the record, as a result of the archaeological work, which I shall report later, I must conclude that Dawson drew the wrong conclusion, all be it for the best intention. He should have known that salt works could not geographically have been located where he proposed that the port was located at the time of the Invasion. Alarm bells should have registered when he wrote:

“That there were at Bulverhythe pertaining to the said barony at Hastings - 20 acres of salt pasture (86) worth per annum 6s 8d”

Further alarm bells should have sounded when he reported that

“Jeakes, in his annotations on the Cinque Ports Charters, speaking of the neighbouring spot called Bulverhythe, sets forth that it was not only the original haven of Hastings, but as such the then supposed place where William the Conqueror landed (87)”

Yet Dawson chose to ignore the implications that these independent observations would have. Did he prefer to ignore them because they may undermine the authority upon which his book was based? I do not know, but what struck me was that the more I looked into these matters the more likely it seemed that Bulverhythe may have been the site of the original port at the time of the Invasion. As reported earlier Dawson registered doubts about the authenticity of the mound at Hastings being of Norman origin (88) , but chose to take the traditional view, most probably for fear of critical attack. To his credit he reported all the anomalies, whilst he could have easily ignored them. None the less it is my understanding that the assumptions he made were flawed because they had no basis in hard facts. In my view a tragedy given the scope and detail of the works involved.

As soon as you are alerted to the possibility that prior to the Norman Invasion the port of Hastings may have been located at Bulverhythe it is possible to put all the documents of the time into perspective without contradiction. First this explains the charters naming salt works at the port. Secondly it explains the various reports that the Normans landed at the port by virtue of the geography of the area, as well as the confirming documentation that we have studied earlier in some depth. Thirdly it explains why some 200 years later Pope Nicholas IV granted a one year and forty day relaxation of penance for pilgrims to visit the Chapel at Bulverhythe. The question must be asked why pilgrims should ever want to visit such a site. Bulverhythe had no apparent historical importance except for the report that William the Conqueror landed there. Indeed the Bulverhythe Point was considered of some strategic value, since it was reported at the time of the Armada to be a place where the Spanish could also land.(89)

Spoken tradition in Hastings town states that the original Hastings harbour was below the castle cliffs, on the site of the current town. However this is not substantiated by the record in any way. W.H.Dyer, a well known local lecturer, states “Hastings was a busy port in Saxon times, but it is not known whether any fortifications stood on the eminence where later the castle was erected”, indirectly confirming the uncertainty about knowledge of the site at that time. Interestingly enough the spoken tradition in the Combe Haven valley (90) places the original Hastings harbour at Bulverhythe. Barry Funnell reporting for the Hastings Area Archaeological Research Group (HAARG) on the America Ground (91)in 1989 states that “the early chronicles describe Hastings as having the best natural seaport in South East England”. This is indeed only true of Bulverhythe, which was at that time a flooded inland harbour, second only to Poole as the largest natural harbour on the South Coast.

A further study of other writings on this subject produce many examples of cross referenced support for Bulverhythe, as the original port of Hastings, at the time of the Norman Invasion. E.M. Ward in his detailed study The Evolution of the Hastings Coastline (92)states that “Bulverhythe, as a 13th century port was of some importance”. Straker and Lewis (93) make the point that “the haven of Bulverhythe was possibly used as an iron port” for the Romans. Millward and Robinson (94) confirm that “Bulverhythe was probably an important Saxon port and was later a member of the Cinque ports”. Lastly the Patent Rolls still mention the importance of Bulverhythe as a port as late as AD 150 (95)

Whilst these later examples are mostly qualified by the use of the word “probably” they each show for different reasons why Bulverhythe played a strategic roll in the history of the area. Geographically it represented an inland harbour that may have extended to several square miles of calm water. In consequence the Romans, the Saxons and the Normans would each have identified a use for such a strategic resource. The surrounding land provided a perfect landing site for anything up to several thousand small craft and it is my contention that William used this to his advantage.

One final clue arises to confirm the fact that Hastings port pre 1066 was almost certainly situated on the Bulverhythe within the natural harbour area. This is that Hastings enjoyed a pre-eminent position in relation to the Cinque Ports. These five ports, Hastings, Romney, Hythe, Dover and Sandwich received special privileges most probably because they were the only source of ships in the absence of a navy.

The first reference to the Cinque Ports is in a charter of Henry II according to the eminent historian, and ex curator of Hastings Museum, John Manwaring Baines. In his book Historic Hastings (96) Mr Manwaring Baines makes the point that whilst each of these ports enjoyed a special relationship with the crown Hastings appeared to enjoy special favours. He notes that “all freemen of the ports were called “Barons” and “although not en-nobled by that title, their representatives were recognised as being almost on the level with peerage barons”. They were exempt from taxation and trading dues and had the right to be tried by their own courts. These were extraordinary privileges. However Hastings appeared to enjoy a special privilege, which many attribute to it’s roll as head Cinque Port. This was the right to provide barons to carry the canopy of the King and Queen in procession at the coronation. Further at the banquet after the coronation they sat at the right hand side of the king, in the place of honour.

It is my opinion that these honours were special and bestowed upon the people of Hastings because of their special relationship with the crown, dating back to the time of William. This explains why these privileges were granted, but also provides a logical explanation based upon the fact that the port of Hastings was the largest and most influential of all the ports in the South of England. The honours bestowed matched the status of the port and could only be located at Bulverhythe.

There are many people who have studied history and in particular those who have written books on this subject who may take offence to my proposal. Indeed they have much to loose from the acceptance of the proposal that Hastings port has been lost in history. Firstly, if correct, all existing books on the area would need re-writing and secondly there needs to be an explanation as to how and why the town of Hastings is now below the castle. It is logical that the town should have developed where the port was. I shall seek to propose an answer to these questions that is both logical and is supported in part by documentary evidence.