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Sussex History: A Baron Affair

Sussex history

A mostly true Sussex history of a Polegate street…

Today Barons Way is an unprepossessing street of bungalows and carefully trimmed verges. Part of the suburban spread of the nineteen sixties it was apparently named for the almshouses adjacent to it on the crest of the hill. But the origins of the name go deeper.

In AD 1214 England was once again on the brink of civil war. King John had fought a series of short wars against France with, for the most part, poor results. Although considered politically astute he had all but bankrupted the country and in doing so had alienated many of the powerful landowners; the barons that made up the feudal aristocracy.

Sussex History

One of the many plots against the king took place on a small south facing ridge just north of where the South Downs turn their final corner and sweep down to the sea. The site was probably chosen because it was halfway between the new priory being built at Michelham and the king’s castle at Pevensey, and possibly more importantly, was not waterlogged like the rest of the surrounding area.

Michelham Priory

William d’Aubigny had travelled from his fortress at Arundel. Although he was a staunch supporter of the king it is likely he was already harbouring doubts about his allegiance as less than two years later he abandoned John and joined the invasion forces of Louis VIII of France.

Arundel Castle

Bishop Giles de Braose may have been staying at the new priory before joining the meeting. His family had controlled the access to the River Adur from their castle at Bramber before it was acquired by the king. He was a man on a mission of revenge. John had not only taken the castle but had murdered his family four years earlier in a particularly unpleasant manner even by Medieval standards.

Bramber Castle

The third key player was William de Warenne, Earl of Surrey and Lord Warden of the Cinque Ports. His castle at Lewes and the Cinque Ports themselves gave this group of barons complete control over the routes through Sussex from the sea towards London.

Lewes castle

It is recorded that the meeting lasted two days. At the end of it, the plotters had drafted a document that listed their demands and their desired approach for a new way to rule the country; the Modo Barones (the Barons’ Way). One year later, on 15th June AD 1215, at Runnymede near Windsor, King John agreed to this document. It was so important it was renamed the Magna Carta (the Great Charter).

Seven hundred and fifty years later this momentous meeting on a windswept hillside in Sussex just outside the modern town of Polegate, and the document that had started the beginning of modern government, was finally recognised in a street name.

This article was contributed by Paul Hitchcock 

If you’ve enjoyed this post about Sussex history and the rebellious barons, you may also like:

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