AS THE invaders circled a small village, residents who had not been killed in the fighting fled to the nearby church.

With resistance crushed, the landing party blocked the exit and burned the building with the villagers inside.

This was not a Nazi massacre in the Second World War – this was Rottingdean, a tiny parish chewed and spat out in the fierce 14th century fighting of the Hundred Years’ War.

Sussex suffered greatly as five generations of English and French kings traded blows for 116 years in a bitter struggle for each other’s crown.

But the slaughter in Rottingdean was hardly the first instance of foreign invasion in the county, as Duncan Cameron’s book Invasion describes.

Even in 1336, a year before war was declared, English King Edward III had Sussex on lockdown.

Fearing an attack by King Philip VI’s French forces, Edward demanded all landowners stump up men and ships for the cause.

Lookouts were posted across the coast, ready to light beacons as soon as they saw the enemy.

Three years later, the invasion came.

As part of a major French invasion, mercenaries from Monaco landed on the beaches of decaying Hastings.

Led by soldier Carlos Grimaldi, the landing party terrorised the townspeople, hanging those who could not flee.

After looting the town and destroying its three churches, the Monegasque raiders loaded their ships with one last item: the bodies of those they had executed, which they displayed upon return to Calais.

But despite the massacre in Hastings, French forces failed to penetrate English defences elsewhere.

The pre-war lull resumed, but only for a month before the invaders had their sights again set on Sussex.

Nowadays, grassland separates the small rural towns of Rye and Winchelsea.

But in the 14th century both settlements were thriving fishing ports on the now non-existent Rye Bay.

Winchelsea in particular was an up-and-coming town, almost as big as London and laid out very similarly.

The next few decades were not kind to either place.

A French invasion in 1339 damaged the towns, but the soldiers were chased away before they could get to burning.

Eleven years later, the bay was the site of a major naval battle between English and Spanish ships.

As Spain was patrolling the Channel for its French allies, King Edward decided to set up an ambush.

Staying in Winchelsea with his family, he gathered 4,000 knights and waited for the Spaniards to arrive.

He was in good spirits, mind. His historian Jean Froissart said the king was “in a gayer mood than he had ever been seen before”.

When 40 Spanish ships were spotted, Edward took his sons Edward and John on to his ship and set sail.

Surprising his soldiers, he pointed to a Spanish ship and barked: “Steer this ship to that Spanish one. I want to joust with it.”

The Spaniards fired arrows and stones at the English, but Edward’s sailors used their grappling irons to pull in the enemy ships and board them.

The result? Twenty four Spanish boats captured.

But in 1360, Winchelsea’s darkest hour came.

French deputy marshal Jean de Neuville planned a daring raid of the town, massacring its people and taking their barrels of Gascon wine.

Next morning the raiders set fire to the town, putting an end to Winchelsea’s big city hopes.

This put Rye on high alert.

For the next two decades, the taxes were raised to build defences while English sailors stayed in the area – not necessarily a welcome thing for the paranoid townsfolk.

They had reason to be worried. In 1377, French admiral Jean de Vienne set sail for Rye on the advice of his aide Rainier de Grimaldi.

“It is from there that the hardy seamen come who have outraged our coasts on so many occasion,” Grimaldi had said.

“The people of that town do not believe that we could descend on them.”

Two decades had not been enough to prepare for the French invaders who quickly ransacked Rye, even taking the church’s bronze bells.

Word soon reached the influential Hamo of Offynton in Battle, who led his men through the Weald and set up camp in the ruins of Winchelsea.

Fearing a bloody battle, de Vienne first tried to negotiate with Hamo, then attempted to fight his forces.

Both gambles failed, so the French sailed further west.

Swanning past Beachy Head, de Vienne decided to land at Rottingdean and make his way to poorly defended but rich Lewes.

As royal historian Jean Froissart described it: “As they entered Lewes there was a great deal of fighting and many French were wounded by the arrows.

“Finally the French conquered the town and dislodged the English. The whole town of Lewes was ransacked and burnt or destroyed.”

Ovingdean Church, Seaford, and even the tiny parish of Exceat were all burnt to the ground before the French made their merry way home.

Though the destruction the Hundred Years’ War caused to Sussex may not seem obvious today, in many ways it was significant in shaping it.