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Pevensey Castle

T was to the shore of Pevensey that William the Norman came to invade and conquer England. It had then a castle of formidable strength and a good harbour. Now its castle is a picturesque and ivy-covered ruin; and the sea has retreated so far from it that it stands on a headland about half a mile from the sea, in the level called the Marsh of Pevensey, and is a most picturesque object from the Channel, it is so beautifully covered with ivy and is surrounded by such rich pastures. Pevensey is united by the village of West Ham with the remains of the great Roman castrum, the ancient Andenda which held out so long against the Saxons.

In the Bay of Pevensey the Norman ships first appeared, and on one of the neighbouring heights a Saxon thane, alone, and on horseback, witnessed the scene, and then rode off at his best speed to bear the evil tidings to Harold, who had been called northwards by the Norwegian invasion, and had just fought and won the dreadful battle of Stamford Bridge.

It was on the 28th of September that the momentous landing took place. The archers came on shore first: they wore short dresses and shaved hair; then the horsemen landed in full armour, with their long lances and double-edged swords; then the pioneers, carpenters, and smiths, bringing three wooden castles, in pieces, prepared in Normandy, to be erected in England when required. William was the last to spring on shore. As his foot touched the sand, he fell on his face. The soldiery cried aloud, "God keep us! but here is a bad omen." But William leaped gaily to his feet, crying, "What now? what astonishes you ? I have taken seisin of this land with my hands, and by the splendour of God, as far as it extends it is mine - it is yours."

"We have seen that Pevensey was the first scene of the Norman Conquest, the most momentous event in English history. Southey, upon the conjoint authorities of Turner Palgrave, and Thierry, gives such a version of the Normans landing at Pevensey as to decide its having been a Roman station. 'They landed,' he says, 'at a place called Pulverhithe. William occupied the Roman castle at Pevensey, erected the wooden fort, the materials of which he had brought with him ready for construction, threw up works to protect part of his fleet, and burnt, it is said, or otherwise rendered them unserviceable."' (Abbeys and Castles.)

The ruins of Pevensey were explored in 1852 by two clever antiquaries, Mr. Roach Smith and Mr. Mark Anthony Lower. They found that the castrum, which encloses about a dozen acres, is by far the most perfect Roman building in England. Nearly two-thirds of the great wall, which is twenty five feet in height, and nine in depth, with huge solid towers, remains almost as perfect as ever. On the side facing the sea there is a bank of considerable height, overlooking a lower one. It is supposed that the sea formerly flowed up to this side of the fortress. Excavations showed that the lower bank is, in fact, nothing hut a fallen wall, now buried under soil and herbage. On this side a small postern door was discovered; there is one opposite to it in the north wall. The chief entrance was the only one that could be approached by carriages. The castrum includes a fine Norman castle, partly formed out of the Roman walls.

Pevensey was called the "Castle of the Eagle honour," from its long possession by the great Norman family of De Aquila.

It was used in the Plantagenet times as a prison, of great strength and (for the poor captives) of gloom.

Here a queen, accused of witchcraft, was immured. Joanna, the queen dowager of Henry IV., was accused of having endeavoured by magic arts to destroy the life of her stepson, Henry V.

"The king's stepmother, Queen Johanne," says Walsingham, "being accused by certain persons of an act of witchcraft, which would have tended to the king's harm, was committed (all her attendants being removed) to the custody of Sir John Pelham, who, having furnished her with nine servants, placed her in Pevensey Castle, there to be kept under his control."

Joanna's chief accuser was her confessor, John Randolf. Henry had been informed of the queen's employing two "domestic sorcerers" to influence the powers of darkness for his destruction, and at once had the friar arrested. He was in the island of Guernsey, and was sent over to Normandy to the king, who examined him, and on his confession took proceedings of the utmost rigour against his stepmother. She was first confined in one of her own palaces, Leeds Castle, and then committed to the charge of Sir John Pelham at Pevensey. Her property was taken from her; her lands, castles, money, and even her clothes, 1 and proclamation of her offence was made throughout the kingdom. We are not told the exact act of magic of which she was accused; it might have been the wax figure melted before the fire - as this effigy of the person doomed melted away, his health also waned; when the last wax floated off altogether, he would, it was believed, die. This dark magic is the subject of a very fine ballad by Dante Rossetti.

The queen was never brought to trial, for the chief witness against her (the friar) came to a singular and sudden end. While he was disputing with the priest of the chapel in the Tower, the anger of the latter waxed so hot that he actually strangled friar Randolf! There was therefore no witness against Joanna. But it is believed that she was quite innocent of the attempt. Of course we know that she could not in reality have thus injured Henry.

For years, however, the poor lady remained a prisoner at Pevensey. In the fourth year of her incarceration another remarkable prisoner was brought to Pevensey - Sir John Mortimer, the uncle of the Earl of March. He had been a prisoner in the Tower, but had made so many attempts to escape that it was thought safer to keep him at Pevensey. The last illness of Henry V. released Joanna from prison, for on his deathbed he repented of his treatment of his father's widow, and addressed the following injunction to the bishops, who were of his council.

"Right worshipful Fathers in God, our right trusty and well beloved: Howbeit we have taken into our hand till a certain time, and for such causes as ye know, the dowers of our mother, Queen Johanne, except a certain pension thereof yearly which we assigned for the expense reasonable of her and of a certain menie 2 that should be about her: we, doubting lest it should be a charge unto our conscience for to occupy forth longer the said dower in this wise, the which charge we be advised 3 no longer to bear on our conscience, will and charge you, as ye will appear before God for us in this case, and stand ii;. charged in your own conscience also, that ye make deliverance unto our said mother the queen wholly of her said dower, and suffer her to receive it as she did heretofore. Furthermore we will and charge you that her beds and all other things moveable that we had of her, ye deliver her again.

And ordain her that she have of such cloth and of such colour as she will devise her self five or six gowns, such as she useth to wear. And because we suppose she will soon remove from the palace where she now is, that ye ordain her horses for eleven chares [cars], and let her remove them into whatsoever place within our realm that her list, and when her list," etc., etc.. 4

Joanna was released from her captivity before this injunction was written, and was, when Henry wrote, living at her own palace, Leeds Castle. He must have known that she was innocent of the charge against her, or he would not have thus made restitution; for Henry shared all the superstitions of his time, even to the strangely fulfilled prediction that Henry of Windsor would lose all that Henry of Monmouth had gained, and he was even vexed with his queen, Catherine, for having allowed his son (against his commands) to be born at Windsor. It would, in his eyes, have been a deadly sin to release a sorceress, consequently we may pronounce her wronged and innocent.

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1. Parliamentary Rolls, 7th of Henry V.
2. Servants.
3. By his confessor.
4. Parliamentary Rolls, 1st of Henry VI.

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Picturesque England
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Picturesque England - Matthew Spong 2004