10 Historical Places to Visit in Sussex

Sussex is split into two counties; East Sussex and West Sussex. Discover traces of historic battles, the remains of churches, and literature, art, and sporting history across these famous counties.

May 27, 2024By Katie Parr, LL.B. Law
historical places visit sussex
Ruins of Battle Abbey, Dorter ground level, 2023. Source: Tilman2007, Wikimedia Commons


Sussex has seen the most recent conquest of Britain; the Norman conquest of 1066. Learn about the famous battle and subsequent standoffs and skirmishes between monarchs. Uncover the plight of famous novelist Virginia Woolf and the deeply religious roots still preserved in the remains of castles and churches. This article covers East Sussex and West Sussex, two counties with spectacular history dating back over 1,000 years. Discover all the must-see historical highlights and explore priories, ruins and homes of powerful and prominent people from the previous millennium.


1. Journey Through the Fields of Britain’s Most Famous War: The 1066 Battle of Hastings

Bayeux Tapestry – Scene 57: the death of King Harold at the Battle of Hastings, circa 1070 CE. Source: Myrabella, Wikimedia Commons


On October 14, 1066 CE, the Norman-French army, led by William the Duke of Normandy (William the Conqueror) launched the Norman Conquest upon England. Defending the English territory was the Anglo-Saxon army, led by King Harold Godwinson. The battle took place around 11 km northwest of Hastings, and today visitors can discover the battle grounds and walk through the ruins and remaining buildings, some still intact, of Battle Abbey.


battle abbey dormitory
Battle Abbey dormitory, 2014. Source: Fanfwah, Wikimedia Commons


King Harold had only held the crown since January 1066, following the death of King Edward the Confessor, who had no children. King Harold faced threats of invasion by the Normans; the Norwegians (led by King Harald Hardrada, also known as Harold III of Norway); and Tostig, King Harold’s younger brother. After defeating (and killing) Hardrada and Tostig in September, King Harold’s forces were in the process of recovering from the skirmishes when some unfortunate news was received: William’s forces had landed at Pevensey, a small village on the English coast, and were preparing to attack.


King Harold gathered his battered army and marched south. His army consisted of mostly infantry and some archers, whereas half of William’s army were infantry, and the other half an equal split of archers and cavalry. During the fighting, which lasted a whole day, the Normans struggled to break through the English lines, eventually pretending to retreat, before turning around and attacking the Englishmen who were in their pursuit.

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battle abbey novices
Battle Abbey Novices’ Chamber, 2017. Source: Cmao20, Wikimedia Commons


It was near the end of the fighting that King Harold met his fate. Various historical accounts, including by an Italian monk, Amatus of Montecassino, suggest his death was caused by an arrow to the eye piercing his brain. The Tapestry that recounts the battle doesn’t clearly state how Harold was killed, and other historical accounts suggest there is simply no way of knowing how he died. Regardless, Harold’s passing, along with various other military advantages held by William, led to the end of the battle and a victory for the Normans.


Today it’s possible to walk the battlefield and learn about the fight between the Saxons and Normans, and see the Harold Stone, which is kept in the abbey and marks where King Harold was killed. The rib-vaulted dormitory range boasts stunning stonework from the 13th century and the remains of the Abbey and the grounds can be explored year round.


2. Discover 800 Years of History at Michelham Priory House and Gardens

michelham priory
Michelham Priory, 2011. Source: Colin Smith, Wikimedia Commons


Founded in 1229, Michelham Priory began life as the Augustinian Priory of the Holy Trinity. It was founded by a man named Gilbert de Aquila, a Norman knight. He appeared in Rudyard Kipling’s story “Old Men at Pevensey” and was also known as Gilbert of L’Aigle. Following the dissolution of the monasteries during the Tudor period (1485-1603), much of the original buildings erected in the 13th century were destroyed. Today, only the east and north wings date back to the 13th century, with the west wing dating back to the 16th century.


The house boasts plenty of history, from its early years as a monastery through to the Second World War when it housed both Canadian soldiers and evacuees. The entire grounds, nearly 8 acres (3.2 hectares), are enclosed by a moat and there is a restored watermill on site. Along with the house, it’s possible to explore the medieval gatehouse, a large old barn, and physic and medieval herb gardens.


3. Wander the Anne of Cleves House Museum, Belonging to Henry VIII’s 4th Wife

anne of cleves
Anne of Cleves House Museum, 2017. Source: Paul Farmer, Wikimedia Commons


Of the many wives that King Henry VIII betrothed, Anne’s story is one of the least gruesome. Anne of Cleves was born in 1515, in Germany. Although she had been betrothed at 11 years old to 9-year-old Francis I, the nuptials were canceled on account of her future husband being too young to consent. In light of religious clashes and desired allegiances, Anne and her sister Amalia were put to Henry by Thomas Cromwell, his chief minister, as great candidates for marriage.


Henry requested accurate portraits of the two sisters, warning the artist not to attempt to flatter the women, and despite her not being the best character match for Henry, a marriage treaty was signed and preparations were underway by March 1539. She was Queen of England from 6 January to 12 July 1540, however she was never crowned queen consort as the marriage was declared unconsummated and was annulled.


Betrothal portrait of Anne of Cleves by Hans Holbein the Younger, circa 1539. Source: Wikimedia Commons


Anne became affectionately known as “the King’s Beloved Sister,” and enjoyed an honorary membership to the king’s family affairs, courtroom, and kingdom (Henry decreed that she was to have precedence over every woman in England, with the exception of his own daughters and wife).


Following their annulment, Anne received a large and somewhat lavish settlement from her ex-husband, with properties including Richmond Palace and the home of Henry’s former in-laws, the Boleyns’ Hever Castle. She also received the property of what is known today as Anne of Cleves House, despite never actually living there. The house has a traditional timber-frame, a  medieval aesthetic and boasts a beautifully preserved Tudor kitchen, parlor, and bedroom. Find Tudor-period herbs and fruit trees in the garden and domestic tools and artifacts from the Tudor age.


4. Visit Monk’s House, Home of English Novelist Virginia Woolf

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Monk’s House, home of Virginia Woolf, 2016. Source: Daderot, Wikimedia Commons


Virgina Woolf, was born Adeline Virgina Stephen on 25 January 1882. She grew up in London, in a large blended and creative family; her father was the English author Leslie Stephen and her sister was the painter Vanessa Bell. Woolf began writing in her 20s, following much encouragement from her father. She married Leonard Woolf in 1912 and was known professionally as Virginia Woolf.


Woolf’s most notable works include Mrs Dalloway, A Room of One’s Own, and To the Lighthouse. She was homeschooled, with her studies focused on Victorian literature and the English classics, which laid the foundations for future studies of literature. She attended the university of King’s College London and became a valuable member of London’s artistic community and literary society. She helped form the literary Bloomsbury Group. Her work would become central to the 1970s feminist movement and she has become a prominent character in popular culture.


virginia woolf
Virginia Woolf sitting in an armchair at Monk’s house, before 1942. Source: Harvard University Library, Wikimedia Commons.


Life for Woolf was not without its struggles. Despite being married to a man, she had romantic relationships with women and found comfort in the Bloomsbury Group which had progressive views and mostly gay or bisexual members. However, the real challenge lay in her mental health which caused her to be institutionalized on a few occasions, and eventually she took her own life. Today she would have been diagnosed, and received treatment for, bipolar disorder. Woolf’s contributions to literature, feminism, and the arts can be further explored at her home of Monk’s house, where she lived from 1919 until her death in 1941.


5. Walk the Footsteps of Medieval Monks at Priory Park

priory st pancras lewes
Ruins of the Priory of St Pancras, Lewes, 2012. Source: Marathon, Wikimedia Commons


The Lewes Priory is home to the ruins of the Priory of St Pancras and Priory Park. The Priory of St Pancras was a monastery named after a boy called Pancras, a Roman citizen who converted to Christianity and suffered the fate of being beheaded at the age of only 14 because of his change in faith. His death took place around 304 CE, and he is venerated in the Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, and Anglican Churches, and considered the saint of children in Syriac traditions. The area of St Pancras in London is also named after him.


In Lewes, the Priory of St Pancras boasted one of the largest churches in England and was the first ever Cluniac house built in England. The Cluniac reforms took place across many parts of England, France, Italy and Spain between 878 and 942 CE. The Lewes Priory was founded around 1081, and the remains of the priory can be explored. The local community takes great care and pride in maintaining the site and sharing its history. Consequently there is plenty of history to uncover should you choose to visit.


6. Find the Last Remains of old English Forts, like Knepp Castle and Bramber Castle

knepp castle
Ruins of Knepp Castle, 2021. Source: Richard Nevell, Wikimedia Commons


Castle ruins are a somewhat common site across the two counties of Sussex. In West Sussex, the ruins of a motte castle, founded most likely around the 12th century, can be seen. Despite being founded by a prominent Anglo-Norman noble family, the Braose family, in 1208 King John seized the castle and lands for a short period, and kept the castle as his personal hunting lodge.


During the First Baron’s War (1215-1217), King John ordered the castle to be destroyed, however Knepp Castle continued to be used for another century or two, before it fell into disrepair following prolonged disuse. By the 1700s, stone was being taken from the castle to help build nearby roads. Today a single wall stands prominently on the mound and it’s possible to wander around the ruins and observe some of the restored local wildlands.


bramber castle
Ruins of Bramber Castle, 2015. Source: Marathon, Wikimedia Commons


Sitting somewhat close to Knepp Castle is Bramber Castle, again built under the Braose family. Compared to Knepp, the design of the castle is slightly different as it is a motte and bailey. Whereas a motte is a castle built on a mound, a motte and bailey castle is built on a mound with a walled courtyard for slightly more protection. It is thought to have been built around 1070 and was seized by King John along with Knepp Castle between 1199 and 1216.


Like Knepp Castle, Bramber Castle also fell out of use over the years, with records indicating that the surrounding lands were used for grazing in the 1550s. Thereafter, not much is known, and surveys undertaken in the 1960s point to the date of its construction and have revealed little else. Still, it is a remarkable slab of stone sticking out of the ground, much like its sibling Knepp, and at nearly 1,000 years old, the ruins are well worth a visit.


7. Explore the Restored 18th Century High Salvington Windmill

High Salvington Windmill, 2010. Source: osde8info, Wikimedia Commons


The windmill is a listed building (Grade II), indicating it is a structure of historic or architectural value and in need of protection. The windmill has undergone full restoration, permitting it to operate as a traditional mill. The windmill was first recorded in church records dated 1615, when the miller of the windmill was fined; its date of establishment is unknown. It was a working mill from around 1750 and was also known as Durrington Mill for a period of time.


The mill has a history of myths that have somehow woven their way into official records despite lacking concrete evidence. These make for rather interesting stories, and upon visiting you can learn more about the myth of the private house, the myth of the Post Tree and the “Fantail” myth, to name a few. The windmill also has a fascinating history covering its construction and mechanics, including a Glynde windpump being added in 2009, allowing the mill to raise water for the first time in over 50 years.


8. Examine Exquisite Art Collections at Petworth House

petworth house
Petworth House from the west, 2016. Source: Martinvl, Wikimedia Commons


Petworth House was built in the 1600s and rebuilt under Charles Seymour, the 6th Duke of Somerset in 1688. It is a fine country house, listed as a Grade I building and is home to an alluring collection of artworks, and has an interesting architectural history, boasting designs from the 1870s architect Anthony Salvin and wood carver Grinling Gibbons (1648-1721).


Prior to construction works in the 1600s, the site was home to a fortified manor, built by the medieval English magnate, Henry de Percy, sometime in 1308-1309. The Percy family were devoted Catholics and lost Petworth during the English Reformation. The family aligned themselves with Mary, Queen of Scots, however Thomas Percy was beheaded for his treason in 1572. Henry Percy, Thomas’ younger brother took his title and begged Queen Elizabeth to show the family mercy. Consequently, the Percy’s lives were spared from death or prison, but they were put under the equivalent of house arrest at Petworth House.


petworth north gallery painting
The North Gallery at Petworth House by J. M. W. Turner, 1827. Source: The Yorck Project, Wikimedia Commons


The Wyndham family took control of the state in 1750, and divided up the Percy estate over the following 30 years. Charles Wyndham, 2nd Earl of Egremont (1710-1763) inherited Petworth, and his collections of Rococo mirrors and antique statues are on display in the house to this day. The 3rd Earl of Egremont, George O’Brien Wyndham (1751-1837) expanded on his predecessor’s collections and re-ordered the house to showcase his growing collection of contemporary artworks. This included works by his friend, William Turner, the English Romantic painter. The estate and art collections became national property in 1947. This included handing over the deer park, which is home to a herd of fallow deer.


9. Uncover Niche British Histories at the Fine English Estate of Goodwood House

goodwood house
Goodwood House, 2011. Source: Ian Stannard, Wikimedia Commons


Goodwood House was established in the 1600s, and like Petworth House, is a Grade I listed and protected building. Goodwood House is known for motorsport racing and other sporting affairs, including horse racing, a flying school on the airfield, golf courses and a cricket pitch. The Goodwood Festival of Speed is hosted annually, and showcases historic and modern motor racing vehicles. There is also the Goodwood Circuit motorsport track, hosted at the Goodwood Airport.


Goodwood House Sussex The Tapestry Drawing Room, 1904. Source: In English Homes Vol 1, Wikimedia Commons


The house was acquired in 1967 by Charles Lennox, 1st Duke of Richmond. South and North wings were added later on, with some suggesting that five more wings were to be added, resulting in an octagonal layout. This, however, has never been proven. The property is still a fine example of an old English estate, and the Goodwood Estate Archives date from 1418-1984. It’s possible to take tours around the estate and discover the Dukes of Richmond and The Coronation Exhibition, and a collection of other paintings.


10. Take a Stroll Around Boxgrove Priory and View the Remains of a 12th Century Benedictine Monastery

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Boxgrove Priory ruins, 2009. Source: Charlesdrakew, Wikimedia Commons


Once the site of a Saxon Church, in 1123 Boxgrove Priory was founded by Robert de Haia, (Robert de la Haye), by gift of Henry I. As the church was gifted to the Benedictine abbey of Lessay in Normandy, the church at Lessay Abbey in Normandy is considered the ‘mother house’ of Boxgrove Priory.


The site became home to three Benedictine monks and over the years the number of monks grew. By 1230, a 19th monk joined the monastery. It was dissolved in 1536 and became a Parish church. The impressive ruins are now roofless, although the outline of a two story guest house is still visible and standing to its full height at the gable ends. What once was a thriving community is now a solemnly standing skeleton, watching over the many benefactors who lay buried within the grounds of the priory.

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By Katie ParrLL.B. LawKatie holds a First Class Law Degree LL.B. from the University of Kent, Canterbury. She is a professional writer and owns a small copywriting business. When she’s not creating content for different projects, she’s planning her next travels. She has a keen interest in history and culture of both Great Britain, where she is from, and abroad. She enjoys exploring old bookshops, visiting new places, and walking her dog.