The ruins of Bramber Castle are significant in our county’s history and if you’re in the area, they are well worth a visit. After all, William the Conqueror left his mark here.
Just north of the South Downs and not far from the pretty town of Steyning, Bramber used to hold an important position on the busy River Adur, as it made its way to Steyning’s port. The river has long since silted up and changed course, but clues as to Bramber’s historical significance remain. Apart from its role in Norman history, legend has it that Elizabeth I may have stayed in Bramber at St Mary’s (a privately owned house) as part of a tour through the south of England.
During the Civil War, Bramber was a Parliamentary stronghold and in December 1643, a skirmish took place nearby when a Royalist force unsuccessfully tried to secure the bridge over the River Adur. It’s believed that this may be when Charles II narrowly avoided capture as he pushed through the crowds in disguise and tried to make his escape to the coast along what is now called Monarch’s Way.
But first, let’s go back in time. Built in about 1073, Bramber Castle was one of many that sprung up across Sussex as a display of the wealth, strength and power of the new Norman regime. Bramber was built by William de Braose – yet another name that crops up often in our local history. Following the Norman conquest, de Braose was granted lands by William the Conqueror and became the first feudal baron of the Rape of Bramber. At the time, Sussex was divided into six rapes each with its own castle.
William owned considerable lands elsewhere including the castle where Sedgewick Park House now stands and Knepp Castle and would have known William de Warenne at Lewes Castle to the east. It’s believed he built the first bridge at Bramber along with a causeway connecting the castle to the bridge. The causeway took the form of a sort of peninsular built into the river which in those days more or less lapped at the feet of where St Mary’s now stands.
Later, William’s son, Philip de Braose became founder of new port facilities at a purpose-built town further south, called New Shoreham, where he also built a new church named St Mary de Haura – St Mary of the Harbour. William was also on the first crusade to Jerusalem in 1099 which led to the founding of the Knights Templar to whom he left land which is believed to include St Mary’s.
The castle and church
Bramber Castle must have been an impressive display of the Braose prosperity and power. Today, a short climb takes you past the remains of the tower to where you can explore the layout of the castle and a few other remaining sections. You can also enjoy superb views across towards the South Downs. Just below the castle sits the delightful little church built at the same time and still intact. It’s a Commonwealth War Grave, which again has fabulous views.
In 1209 King John seized Bramber castle as part of his persecution of the de Braose family. The then William de Braose III was outlawed and his wife and eldest son were imprisoned and starved to death. The family did eventually recover Bramber Castle which continued in use up until the 15th century. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, it was home to tea rooms and the occasional fair.
We’ve mentioned already that Bramber sits on what is now Monarch’s Way. It also joins the Downs Link and is a short distance from the South Downs Way, making it the perfect destination for some walking. If you head east on Monarch’s Way, there is a triangular walk that brings you back via the South Downs Way and takes in Beeding Hill. The walk is about 10 km although there are car parks nearer to Beeding Hill if you want a shorter route. Suffice it to say, the views of the Adur Valley southwards to Lancing College and Chanctonbury Ring are pretty special. You’ll need Ordnance Explorer 11.
If you’re in Bramber, you really have to visit the historic house and gardens at St Mary’s. This house is one of particular historical significance and has been lovingly restored over the last 40 years by its current owners. Although privately owned, both house and gardens are open to the public in the summer months.
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