BRIGHTON and Hove is known around the world for its incredible Regency architecture. However, unlike many of the surrounding towns and villages such as Lewes and Arundel, there is little in the way of medieval buildings. Reporter Ben James finds out why.
THE fishermen of Tudor Brighton were used to intimidation from the French.
While putting out their nets in the morning, our neighbours across the Channel would glare at them from their warships.
However, it was believed the French would not want anything from what was then a fairly insignificant fishing town.
Their troubles were with King Henry VIII in London.
But on one summer’s night 500 years ago this week, all that changed.
As the town’s people looked out to sea they noticed French warships moving closer.
By the morning, Brighton had been burned to the ground. All had been destroyed apart from St Nicholas Church, which remains to this day.
Tim Carder, a local historian and author of the original Encyclopaedia of Brighton, said: “At the time it must have been absolutely devastating. The town was completely wiped from the map and they had to rebuild from scratch.
“As far as I am aware, all that was left was the church and the layout of the Lanes.
“It is an incredible story but not one which is widely known.”
An illustration of the raid provides a fascinating glimpse into what Tudor Brighton would have been like.
Setting aside the rampaging French warships for a while, the layout is much different from today.
Named Brithampton or Bright-Helmstone at the time, the entire town was contained within three major roads: North Street, West Street and East Street.
A route called the Steine is also visible, which runs northwards at the eastern side of the settlement.
There are five rows of houses and a number of other properties on the beach front where the fishermen are believed to have lived.
Two windmills, or “wynds-mylles” as the drawing labels them, were on the north-eastern edge of town.
A small village separate from Brighton appears to be the beginnings of Hove.
And on a hill to the north of that village is the only landmark that would survive the deadly raid: St Nicholas Church.
There are various reasons for its seemingly odd location – which is a fair distance from the residential areas surrounding it.
Firstly the high ground would have provided a dry surface away from the marshy lowlands towards the beach.
It would also have acted as a beacon for home and travelling fisherman who used the stars and landmarks for navigation.
But perhaps most importantly, it would act as a stronghold for the townspeople in absence of any real castle or fortress in the area.
One thing is certain from that dreadful night in June 1514. The location of the church saved it and preserved the only medieval building in Brighton and Hove.
While the exact reason for the raid is not certain, hostilities between the two nations were common.
We had been warring with our closet neighbours for hundreds of years and the Tudor period was no different.
However, Brighton had been a relatively peaceful place, with humble fishermen making up the majority of the population.
There were no defences, no occupying force and no notable landmarks.
But the French were angry.
Sir Edward Dalyngrigge, a Sussex nobleman, had travelled to their northern towns and villages and plundered their treasures.
With the goods he had taken he built the majestic Bodium Castle, which remains largely intact to this day.
The high walls, towers and ramparts protected the lowlands of East Sussex, but there was no such protection for Brighton.
In the spring and early summer of 1514, the French navy was becoming increasingly hostile and Brighton’s fishing fleet reported sailors glaring at them as they passed.
That was but a taste of things to come in early June.
Although the exact date of the raid is unknown, it is believed to have taken place in the first couple of weeks of the month.
With no street lights or electricity, moonlight would have provided the only warning of the invading force.
A number of galleys would have appeared on the horizon, led by the French Admiral Pregent de Bideaux, a knight of Rhodes, who was known among the English troops as Prior Jhon.
Edward Hall, a prominent historian at the time, recounted the attack in his Chronicle of 1542.
He said: “Great capitayne of the French navy who with his galleys and foists charged with Grete baslyyskes and other greate artillery, came on the border of Sussex and came a-land in the night at a poore village in Sussex called Bright-Helmstone.”
The townspeople were taken completely by surprise and there would have been panic at the rampaging French troops.
Prior Jhon sounded his trumpet and his soldiers jumped into the shallows and waded to shore.
With torches in hand, they set about burning the fishing village and surrounding houses. The buildings, many of which were little more than hovels, would have gone up in minutes.
With swords drawn, they continued northwards, killing all as they went.
But the proud people of Bright-Helmstone were not giving up their town. A beacon was lit, calling all able men from surrounding villages to arms.
Reinforcement arrived from Lewes and arrows from the higher ground rained down on the invading troops.
One English archer took aim at the French commander Prior Jhon and with devastating procession shot him through eye.
With the English reinforcements building in number, the French signalled the retreat.
Mr Hall, in his Chronicle of 1542, added: “The archers which kept watche folowed Prior Jhon to the sea and shott so fast that they bett the galeymen from the shore and Prior Jhon himslefe waded to his foist and th’ Englishmen went into the water after, but they shott so fast that they wounded many in the foyst.”
The French had destroyed the town and notably the Priory of Bartholomew, which was near to where Brighton Town Hall now stands.
It is remembered only by the name of Bartholomew Square.
Despite the arrow to the eye, remarkably Prior Jhon survived.
As a gesture of thanks to God, he presented a wax image of his face which depicted the arrow in his eye to a church in Boulogne.
All that was left of Brighton was St Nicholas Church and the brave local archers who defended the building.
Furious at the barbarity of the attack, English commanders planned their revenge.
Leading the line would be Sir John Wallop, an English soldier who hailed from Hampshire.
He sent an army of 800 men to the Normandy coast and was said to have sacked more than 20 villages.
It is believed the French hit back once more in 1545. This time a better prepared force held strong.
However, there is dispute as to the accuracy of the second raid and whether it even happened at all.
One thing is certain – after the devastating 1514 raid the locals rallied and campaigned for better defences.
They were clearly not ready or equipped to repel the French.
In 1559, the Lord of the Manor gave the town a piece of land on which a small fort was built.
Near to the southern end of Middle Street would have stood a circular building with 18ft walls, seven to eight inches thick.
There were spaces for cannon, powder and shot and also a dungeon below. Above would have been a turret and also a clock tower.
Nothing remains of the defences today.
With them neglected following a dying down of tensions, a series of storms are believed to have washed most of them into the sea.
While the raid may seem a distant event with little relevance, there are reminders of the devastation in modern day Brighton.
It is believed a number of the walls in the Lanes, which was completely rebuilt following the attack, are indeed made from the ancient flint and pebble from the destroyed buildings.
Kevin Bacon, digital development officer at the Royal Pavilion and Museums, discussed the significance of the map in a recent blog marking the anniversary.
He said: “As the first known map of Brighton, this document has an obvious historic importance.
“But what is also striking about the map is how it uses cartography to tell a story.
“It depicts the ships of the invading French, annotations describe the course of the attack, and it describes the arrival of men from nearby Lewes who came to help defend the town.”
He added: “Since the Second World War, Brighton has had no cause to fear an attack from the sea.
“Today, thousands of French visitors come to the city, all of whom are very much more welcome than Prior Jhon and his men.”