When William the Conqueror made his pre-channel tunnel landing on the Sussex coast he wasn't coming, as many do now, on an away day excursion from France. He intended to stay – and did.
His bloody battle near Hastings became one of the seminal dates in the history of this country. As the victor William became ruler of what was Saxon Britain and imposed on the country a sense of order and discipline not seen since Roman times.
The Conqueror rewarded those who had crossed the sea and fought alongside him with parcels of land. Exercising great Norman wisdom, William divided Sussex into six parts which he called Rapes, each of which contain forestland, cultivated land, habitable land and a port.
The Rape of Lewes, which contains an area of forest land where Cuckfield now stands, was given by William to his son-in-law William de Warrenne. Later known as Earl Warren, de Warrenne lived with his wife Gundreda in Lewes Castle. From there the Norman nobleman would embark on frequent hunting expeditions in search of wild game in the forests north-west of Lewes.
To avoid having to return to Lewes every night, de Warrenne eventually cut a clearing in the forest and erected small shelters in which he and his men could sleep.
It wasn't long before some of the Warrenne's men brought their women to the clearing and started to live there permanently. As the settlement grew it became known as Kukefeld – “a clearing in the forest where the Cuckoo abounds”.
Gundreda, concerned that those who now lived in the clearing were lacking in religious education, had a chapel built and directed the monks of Saint Pancras, based at Lewes Priory, to care for the settlers’ spiritual needs.
The chapel, which stood on the site now occupied by Holy Trinity Church, was given to the monks as a gift by de Warrenne. The change of ownership was confirmed by a charter in 1092. It is that charter, to be found today in the public records office in queue, near London, which is the basis of this years Cuckfield 900 celebration.
Under the system of government of the day Cuckfield was ruled from Lewes with bailiffs exercising authority over the serfs. By 1255, Cuckfield had become a centre of local trade and boasted an increasing population. King Henry III granted the current Earl Warren a Royal Charter permitting him to charge dues on a weekly Tuesday market and an annual fair held on 8th and 9th September.
At the same time the monks of Lewes Priory handed over the Church to the Bishop of Chichester, who encouraged his new vicar to rebuild much of the existing church. The square tower – but not the spire– was also built.
The 14th century also saw Cuckfield granted another charter – this one changing the weekly market day to Monday and the yearly fair to Trinity Sunday and the day before and after. The 1327 equivalent of the poll-tax register shows there were 30 substantial property owners in Cuckfield at this time.
With the end of the Middle Ages, the feudal landlords were replaced by the rich iron masters, owners of the 140 forges in the Weald of Sussex. One Forge lay south of Cuckfield churchyard. The sites of others can be traced by the sites of Hammer ponds dotted around the countryside at places such as Slaugham and Horsted Keynes.
A family from Devon, the Burrells, came to Cuckfield as part of the iron industry and have had close ties with the village ever since. In 1658 Walter Burrell bought Ockenden Manor, a magnificent country house which takes its name from the family of Okynden. Burrell added the stone South Wing to the original Tudor building. Another ironmaster who made a lasting impression on the area was Henry Bowyer, who in 1573, built Cuckfield Park, the Manor house of Cuckfield.
The Reformation saw the establishment of the Church of England. In common with churches all over the country, Holy Trinity was seized from the Roman Catholic Church by the new denomination.
The Civil War by-passed Cuckfield although local legend has it that a troop of Cromwell’s soldiers on their way to London after the Battle of Hayworthe Heath used Holy Trinity Church as a stable. During their unruly visit the font was smashed but subsequently repaired. The cracks in the Norman stonework are clearly visible.
The damage and neglect suffered by the church during the time of the Dissenters was repaired by the Burrells of Ockenden Manor and Hendleys of Cuckfield Park. They added the shingled spire, now as much as symbol of Cuckfield as the Eiffel Tower is of Paris.
In the same year as the spire was erected, Charles II granted Cuckfield yet another charter. He withdrew all existing charters, and reissued them at a price in order to raise revenue. The charter of 1670, which can be seen in the church, changed the weekly market day to Friday.
The French Revolution brought a number of refugees to Cuckfield seeking asylum. The local Justice of the Peace allowed them to stay. But a group of local residents, concerned about the influence the foreigners might bring to bear on the locals, for the committee to uphold local values and traditions.
In the late 18th century, the Prince Regent initiated a practice which hasn't stopped since – he escaped from the humdrum of London life to the bracing sea-air of Brighton. Courtiers and others who like to emulate royalty followed their lead to the coast. Consequently there was a marked increase in traffic between London and Brighton. With its five inns and its situation on the London to Brighton Road, Cuckfield soon became a major staging post with all the extra commercial activity and prosperity that this brings.
The coming of the railways brought more Cuckfield committees into being – this time to oppose this new form of transport. Well healed local people bought up much of the land needed by the railway company for the project. Had they not done so, much of Brook Street would now have a railway running beside it, before disappearing into a tunnel near Whitemans Green and re-emerging somewhere near the churchyard.
The railway was forced to detour through a small area of heathland halfway between Cuckfield and Lindfield called Haywards Heath. The resulting drop in trade saw Cuckfield decline and decay while Haywards Heath grew and prospered. Cuckfield never quite recovered from the commercial loss caused by the railway’s detour.
Today, Cuckfield has turned its leaders’ own goal to its advantage. A sleepy picturesque village with its own unique character, Cuckfield has become a small community which rejoices in the old world charm it has left. In 1989, the village, as the town of Cuckfield likes to think of itself, underwent bypass surgery. Fields to the south of Cuckfield were sliced through by a new road designed to take much of the main A272 traffic around the village rather than through it.
Over the past 900 years Cuckfield has seen its fortunes rise and fall. Today it is past its zenith. Never again will it be a busy bustling business centre it will once was. No more market traders haggling weekly over the price of animals and produce. No more unruly mob is waiting inside and out the courtroom to see some villain sent down. No more streets thronging with travellers breaking their weary two day journey between London and Brighton.
But what remains of Cuckfield today is what it started with 900 years ago when William de Warrenne’s men cut “a clearing in the forest where the Cuckoo abounds”. Those earliest members of Cuckfield were what we should be today – a community.
From Cuckfield 900 souvenir programme