Finding the Norman landing site

William of Poitiers and William of Jumièges, who wrote two of the earliest and most trusted accounts of the Norman invasion, say that the Normans landed at 'Peneuesellum'. Orderic Vitalis, who wrote another trustworthy early account, says that the Normans occupied Peneuesellum when they landed.

By tradition, Peneuesellum is thought to be another name for Pevensey. If you believe this, you need to read our Battlefield and Place Names blogs, where we list 20 or so reasons why it is implausible. If you are sceptical, perhaps you can help us prove where it really was, and therefore where the Normans really landed.

We think that the Normans landed on the north bank of the River Brede. This is the estuary that passes between Cadborough and Winchelsea on the relief heat map above. It separated the Udimore Peninsula to the north from the Hastings Peninsula to the south. Our reasons are explained in our main Sedlescombe Battlefield blog. It would confuse matters to list them all here, but three clues might be relevant.

1. Several other contemporary accounts say that the Normans landed near Hæstinga port, by far the biggest port in the region, with roughly ten times the shipping volume of the rest combined in the 11th century. We are convinced that Hæstinga port was at Old Winchelsea (aka Winchelse) on a former shingle spit at the mouth of the River Brede, not least because the Brede basin produced some 90% of the region's prodigious natural resource output at the time.

2. The north bank of the Brede had the greatest concentration of salt pans - 100, according to Domesday - in southern England. They would have dried out by the end of September to leave a wide dry 3-mile-long plain, the only place in the region that could simultaneously land 700 longships and firm enough underfoot to support mounted war horses.

3. The Brede salt pans, and the surrounding land, belonged to the Norman Abbey of Fécamp. They had a major alien cell here which managed the local port and the local salt production and some of the local iron production. Monks from that cell acted as William's interpreters during the invasion. It is difficult to believe that he did not also tap their expert local knowledge by forming a bridgehead on their land.

If the Normans landed at Peneuesellum and they landed on the north bank of the Brede, then Peneuesellum was on the north bank of the Brede. It looks like a Latin name. All three of the contemporary accounts that mention Peneuesellum were written in Latin. Normans spoke a dialect of Latin. The Abbey of Fécamp was Norman. The logical conclusion is that ex-pat Fécamp Abbey monks coined the term Peneuesellum for all or part of their land on the Udimore Peninsula, then passed the name to Normans back home.

Carmen, another early contemporary account, describes William restoring ‘dilapidated strongholds’ near where the Normans landed. Quedam Exceptiones, an abstract of William of Jumièges written in the early 12th century, says that William: “restored the most strongly entrenched fortification at Peneuesellum." They are both saying that there was a dilapidated fortress at Peneuesellum before the Normans landed.

Kathleen Tyson, a medieval language expert who has a special interest in the Norman invasion, has come to the same conclusion through a different route. She independently worked out that there was a fortress on the Udimore Peninsula by resolving the name Peneuesellum to mean 'fort in the wash'. She interprets this to mean that the fortress was on a tidal peninsula. The only tidal peninsulas in the region were the Udimore between the Brede and the Tllingham, and the Winchelsea between the Brede and the Pannel. Kathleen believes that the Winchelsea Peninsula - which she refers to as the Cape of Hastings - was known to the Normans as Hastingas. We believe that they used that name to refer to the Winchelsea and Old Winchelsea. Either way, that part of the Hastings Peninsula already had a name known in Normandy. Therefore, Peneuesellum referred to a fort on the Udimore Peninsula.

If the name Peneuesellum derived from a fort on the Udimore Peninsula, there are only four candidates: Brede village overlooking a low-tide ford; Udimore village; Cock Marling, where salt was processed from Brede estuary salt pans; and Cadborough. Kathleen Tyson favours Udimore village. She notes that it is where the Conqueror built an elaborate personal manor house (Court Lodge). She add that she thinks it had line of sight to Normandy and that it was at the northern end of causeway across the Brede that provided a taxable trading route between the Hastings Peninsula and Kent. We think a Brede causeway and line of sight to Normandy are unlikely and that the location of William's manor house was dictated by the monks of Fécamps who owned the land. We think Cadborough is a far more likely location for the fortress of Peneuesellum.

Cadborough is depicted on the 18th century Yeakell & Gardner hachure map (above), where it is labelled 'Caresborough Fm'. 'Care/Caer' is Brythonic for fortress, from which we get Welsh places names like Caerdydd and Caernarfon. If it is Brythonic, the fortress predated the Anglo-Saxons, which means that it was almost certainly Roman. The term 'borough' was coined to describe King Alfred's 'burh' fortifications, built to fend off the Vikings. Other burhs were made after Alfred's death. Many of them, original and subsequent, were built at former Roman fortifications. Cadborough's name therefore suggests it was a Saxon burh fortress built on a former Roman fortification.

Wace describes a Norman raid on their first day in England. He says that they followed the 'coast' until they came to the fortress of Penevesel, which they looted while the locals drove off their livestock and hid behind gravestones. We think this Penevesel is a cognate of Peneuesellum: Wace wrote in Old Franch. Early medieval Latin 'u/v' and Old French 'v' were pronounced the same; 'ellum' is a Latin declension that would be dropped in Old French. The names are therefore the transliterations of each other.

Wace could not be describing about a raid on the sea coast. There were only three fortresses in the region: Andrades ceastre (the Roman fortress at modern Pevensey), Hæstinga ceaste and, in our opinion, Cadborough. None of them were on the sea coast: Andrades ceastre was behind the Crumbles shingle spit; Hæstinga ceaste and Cadborough were behind the Camber shingle spit. The traditional argument that the Normans raided the Roman fortress at Pevensey is implausible anyway because it had no loot or livestock or church or graveyard in 1066. Neither Hæstinga ceaste or Andrades ceastre were along the inland coast from a long dry strand. A fortress at Cadborough and a landing strand between Brede Place and Cock Marling are the only likely combination to fit Wace's description.

These clues suggest that Peneuesellum referred to a fortress on the Udimore Peninsula and that it was at Cadborough. Plus, Cadborough is the logical location for a fortress on the Udimore Peninsula.

  • It was the only settlement behind a 2km stretch of sea cliff that protected it to the south.
  • It was at the eastern end of the Udimore ridgeway with a steep drop down to the sea which protected it to the east and prevented vegetation blocking its sea view.
  • It was the only place on the Udimore Peninsula with a sea view, not only east but all the way around to the south.
  • It was the only place on the Udimore Peninsula with a view of the breaches in the Camber shingle spit - at Old Winchelsea (aka Winchelse) and Old Romney - the two most likely invasion incursion points.
  • It was the only place on the Udimore Peninsula with a view of Romney Marshes, through a narrow dip north of Rye.
  • It had a good view of Winchelsea, where we believe it had a sister fortress and messaging tower.

To be clear, the Normans could not have landed on the strand below Cadborough because it had no strand; the estuary lapped the sea cliffs at high tide. Rather we think they sailed 7km or so upstream, to land between Brede Place and Cock Marling. Why then did Poitiers, Jumiéges and Orderic refer to the landing site as Peneuesellum? We guess either because the Normans used that name for all Fécamp Abbey's land on the Udimore Peninsula, or because it was the nearest place to the landing that had a Norman name that Norman readers would recognise.

The Norman landing site is depicted in Tapestry Panel 41 above. There are several unusual features about this panel. First, the scene is on the baseline. Baseline panels are normally reserved for indoor scenes. Outdoor scenes are normally depicted on a bobbly base, like underneath the tower on Panel 42 below. Panel 41 is the only outdoor scene on the baseline, apart from the motte at the second Norman camp. A motte has a smooth level surface. Buildings have smooth level indoor surfaces. We believe that the baseline scenes are all on smooth level surfaces, which means that Panel 41 is on a smooth level surface. A sandy strand perhaps? We think not. The huts in the background have stone foundations. They would sink on a sandy strand. We believe that the scene is on a plain of dried out salt evaporation ponds.

Then there are the huts. Most small Saxon buildings were wattle and daub with a thatched roof. Where wood was plentiful, most of the rest were overlapping planks - like the reconstruction at Bishopswood shown above - with a thatched or, occasionally, shingle roof. The leftmost hut seems to be masonry, which is almost unheard of in Saxon times, although it does have what looks like a shingle roof. The middle one seems to have a diagonal plank roof, the rightmost has a tile roof, both of which are almost unprecedented in Saxon times. We think their unusual construction was to make them fireproof because they were salt crystalisation chambers with permanent indoor fires. Note that all three huts are on stone foundations.

William of Poitiers, William of Jumiéges, Carmen, Wace, the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle and others say that the Normans constructed a kit fortress near where they landed. Some of them say that the Normans built another kit fortress elsewhere the following day. Tapestry Panel 42 shows a twin tower building somewhere near the landing site. It is usually assumed to the first Norman kit fortress. It is not. Both the Norman kits fortresses were brought from Normandy. Wace says they were timber planks connected with wooden pegs. The twin tower building in Panel 42 has cylindrical stone towers, windows, cupolas and stone foundations, none of which would be on a timber kit fortress. Note too that it is on the bobbly base whereas the scenes either side are on the baseline. We interpret this to mean it is in the background. We guess it is supposed to depict the fortress at Cadborough.

Evidence that would help pinpoint the Norman landing site

1. We believe that there was a Roman fortress at Cadborough that was restored in Saxon times. We would love to hear from anyone with evidence where it was.

2. We have been told of a local lore that St Mary's moved to Udimore village "from somewhere closer to the sea in the 12th century". Certainly, the current St Mary's dates from the 12th century. We would love to hear from anyone that knows more about where it might have moved from, or for any evidence of a Saxon era church and/or graveyard east of Cock Marling.

3. If Wace is right that the Normans looted Penevesel while the locals drove off their cattle and hid in the church graveyard, it was a substantial settlement, probably with dozens of families. We would love to hear from anyone that has evidence of a significant Saxon era settlement near Cadborough.

4. We are interested in the route of the ridgeway road on the Yeakell & Gardner map. It seems to circumvent something square that comes close to the edge of the former sea cliff. We would love to hear from anyone that knows more about what was there.

5. We believe that the fortresses at Winchelsea and Cadborough were relays in a Viking alert coastal messaging system. A station on the Fire Hills - presumably how the hills got their name - would get the first view of Vikings rounding Beachy Head. The Fire Hills were visible from a tower at Winchelsea which would relay the message to Cadborough which would relay it to Eorpburnan, the easternmost of Alfred's burhs. If this is right, there should be foundations for a timber tower somewhere near Cadborough. We think the tower would have looked like the one depicted on Bayeux Tapestry panel 45, which we think represents the messaging tower in a burh fortification at Winchelsea. This would be Alfred's burh of Hæstinga Ceastre. Note that it has stone foundations. Have you heard about anything that might be Roman or medieval masonry tower foundations?

6. The huts and twin tower building depicted in Panels 41 and 42 had stone foundations. We believe the huts were on the salt evaporation pond plain between Brede Place and Float Farm. Have you seen or heard about medieval stone foundations found in this area? We think the twin tower building was further back towards the Udimore Ridge, or perhaps on the Udimore Ridge. Have you seen or heard about medieval stone foundations in this area?