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Is there a tunnel across Cuckfield Park? (2)

The need for a tunnel and refuge

So why might there be a tunnel across Cuckfield Park?

Cuckfield Place, which was the mansion's original name, was built around 1573 by Henry Bowyer. There were several factors that probably contributed to the family feeling insecure in their own home - and needing to be ready and able to escape if attacked. The threats included international invasion, competing ironmasters and angry villagers. Let's consider each in turn.

International upheaval

This was a time of great insecurity in Europe. It was part way into the Eighty Years' War 1568-1648 (also known as the Dutch War of Independence).

The dispersal of the Armada in Calais Roads by fire ships 1588

The reign of Elizabeth I was one of considerable danger and difficulty for many, and much of northern England was rebelling in 1569-70.

Then there was the Anglo-Spanish War (1585–1604) - an intermittent conflict between the Habsburg Kingdom of Spain and England with the threats of invasion from Spain through Ireland. During this time there were added threats of war from France through Scotland.

Although war was never formally declared, battles were actively encouraged by the monarch and engaged in by English privateers against Spanish ships including Francis Drake. A military expedition in 1585 to, what was then, the Spanish Netherlands took place to support a Dutch rebellion against Spanish Habsburg rule.

Spanish Armada

Despite King Philip II of Spain wanting to invade England with the help of the Spanish army in Flanders - the Spanish Armada took two years to prepare before taking place in 1588.

England was started on the road to naval supremacy by the foresight of Henry VIII. Although he strengthened the navy, it was Elizabeth I who built on this with a view to expanding England’s territory, power and wealth. A key part of this strategy relied on the constant and reliable supply of firepower and ammunition.

The nation spent enormous sums not only fighting but building its navy and armaments. The 'high tech' artillery development of cannon in Buxted, East Sussex, would give our nation the decisive capacity it needed in future battles. During Elizabeth's reign the arms build-up and conflicts cost an estimated £5 million (at the prices of the time). This was beyond the monarch's own means. The Crown revenues in 1588, for example, amounted to £392,000.

Part of the Bowyer family memorial in Cuckfield Church showing the family

The Bowyer family made its fortune in these troublesome times from the manufacture of cannon balls and selling pig iron to other foundries for the production of cannon, armour and guns.

Well connected

Henry Bowyer was well connected, as Maisie Wright explains in 'A Chronicle of Cuckfield, he was '… typical of the new merchant and manufacturing class of Tudor England, now challenging the old style nobility. His father, John Bowyer of Hartfield, had furnished cannon balls* for Henry VIII’s war against France and secured himself a coat of arms. And Henry inherited his father’s local ironworks …'

* described as 'gunstones for great bambadys' in 1514. The term ‘bombard’ was first used to describe guns of any kind from the early to mid-14th century, but it was later applied primarily to large cannons during the 14th and 15th centuries.

Catterlen Hall, Elizabeth's family home in Cumbria

Henry married Elizabeth Vaux, daughter of the Thomas Vaux, Clerk Comptroller of the Household of Henry VIII, a man of great influence and wealth.

Elizabeth grew up in Catterlen Hall, near Penrith in Cumbria, which was a fortified home called a 'Pele Tower' (designed to keep out the raiding 'Border reivers' from Scotland). So she would have been well versed in protecting a home against attack, and perhaps even had the experience of their family having to protect their home.

One of Henry's brothers Simon Bowyer (1550-1606) was gentleman usher to Elizabeth I.

All this connection with the Royal Courts, and the necessary direct communications with the Royal Armouries suggests that Henry Bowyer was a man not to be crossed. His actions confirm he would use his connections to achieve what he wanted.

Ironmasters were a tough breed and made enemies easily. High stakes were being played for when negotiating deals for government munitions contracts. And, inevitably, they were won or lost in direct competition with neighbouring ironmasters. But Henry knew the business well having worked in the business with his father.

In 1573, the same year that Henry moved into his new home at Cuckfield Place, Ralph Hogge - who ran a forge in Buxted and risen from a humble forge owner to the Queen's Gunstonemaker - perfected the technique of casting a cannon barrel in a single piece which would not split apart when the cannon was fired.

But he found others copying his methods and petitioned the monarch to prevent other Sussex ironmasters from infringing his method - both in the production of iron cannon and shot - for the Royal Armouries at the Tower of London.

It is interesting to note that Henry's father was listed among the gunfounders of England in this time. And another reference shows that he employed two French immigrants who were saltpetre makers - an important ingredient in gunpowder. So this must confirm he was making weaponry, at least before the Hogge technology took over. There is no evidence of cannon production happening at the Cuckfield ironworks.

Bowyer family tree

Maisie Wright in ‘A Chronicle of Cuckfield’ notes: Sir Francis Walsingham [1532-90 was principal secretary to Queen Elizabeth I] set up a Commission of Enquiry in 1573 which summoned 77 ironmasters from 98 ironworks which represented a total of 115 iron production locations.

The list includes several Cuckfield men: Ninian Chaloner of Cuckfield; Ninian Burrell owning a furnace; Mr (Walter) Covert of Slaugham Place a forge and furnace at Slaugham, Henry Bowyer, working a forge and furnace in Ashdown Forest, the property of the Queen, besides the works at Slaugham which he held in partnership with Ninian Chaloner.

Rose Theatre built by Lindfield man

Incidentally the Elizabethan theatrical entrepreneur and impresario Philip Henslowe, who built the Rose Theatre in Southwark and hosted Shakespeare's acting troupe, was brought up and lived in Lindfield and then Buxted. His father, Edmund, was appointed Master of the Game for Ashdown Forest. Philip's sister, Margaret, married Ralph Hogge the Buxted cannon maker.

Bowyer's wife attacked by ironmaster's men

In an earlier ‘Connections’ story we described how Henry’s mother, Denise, following the death of her husband John (after 1514), rallied her 18 workers at the Hartfield forge and took part in a pitched battle with another ironmaster, William Saunders, who had cut off the water supply to her forge.

The tale ends with her being abducted by Saunders. But was this to do with a shortage of water - which is crucial to drive the bellows of an ironworks? Or was a competitor attempting to take commercial advantage of an ironmaker's widow? Or had there been a disagreement about contracts? Whatever the reason - she survived this and was known to be operating Hartfield's Parrock (or Parrocke) Forge in 1544. Clearly the Bowyers were no strangers to 'turf wars'.

Dangerous working conditions

Pressures on the workforce

Once a contract was won from the Crown to manufacture cannon balls or other armaments then the foundry workers, would be under considerable management pressure to deliver on time - especially at the time of war.

The men may have been paid well but they toiled in the heat of molten iron in seriously hazardous working conditions. On occasion this led to terrible injuries or even death. There was little sympathy or consideration given to the workers. This contrasted with the style, luxury and comfort that their taskmasters enjoyed while being attended to by servants in their mansions within sight and sound of the ironworks.

So there was a potential threat of an angry workforce rebelling at any time.

Cuckfield Church feud with Bowyer

In February 1571 a new Cuckfield vicar was appointed by the Bishop of Chichester. Edmund Curteys was well qualified with a Cambridge education and had previous parish experience. He was also the bishop’s brother.

Henry Bowyer who had just bought Cuckfield Park, and was in the process of building his new mansion, to be called Cuckfield Place (Park today), but he would soon receive a rebuke from the new vicar for his alleged misbehaviour with a servant. To be precise - making her pregnant.

As Maisie Wright put it: 'Henry Bowyer retaliated by denouncing the Vicar to the Privy Council for “insufficiency of knowledge and sundry misdemeanours". This started a bitter feud between them which lasted ten years and involved every Cuckfield family of note on one side or the other.' The matter was taken to the Archbishop and the Ecclesastical Courts.

A petition supporting Curteys was sent to the authorities by leading villagers saying that the vicar had been ‘lame and sicklye’ but that they ‘have good cause to think well of the zeale and behaviour … in discharging his duties and his calling’.

Bowyer's letter to his ipbrother Simon shows how angry Bowyer was. His brother persuaded Sir Francis Walsingham to write to the bishop in1579 asking him to eject the Cuckfield vicar:

'Any note of the lewd vicar of Cuckfield. The number of communicants there 800. The people well affected to religion. The pastor now Idolum [false thinking], void of all learning and discretion, a profaner of the Sacraments, a depraver of preachers, a scoffer at singing of psalms, a quarreller, convicted for a common baratter [agitator], etc.'

A very comprehensive account of the affair is given by David Cressy in ‘Travesties and Transgressions’, is based on a thorough analysis of the correspondence and court records and reveals much about Bowyer’s character.

Curteys attempted to discredit Bowyer by embroiling Henry Bowyer’s wife. Local women’s testimony claims she prescribed a 'deadly medicine' after the pregnancy, not only suggesting that it was an illegitimate pregnancy, but implicating her in an abortion. Much revolved around the medicine that had been adminstered to Mercy Gould - was it noxious or benign? Was it prescribed against the plague as the Bowyer’s testimony maintained?

To add to matters, Henry Bowyer was angry and implicated a male servant in his service in the pregnancy. He also wrote to his courtier brother Simon, who brought in Francis Walsingham, no less, to try and resolve the argument:

'The strumpet he writeth of was sometime my wife's servant but of such untowardness as she was sent home to her mother, and she being there her mother and father-in-law died both within the space of six days or thereabouts, which being in the time of the plague at Cuckfield it was much doubted that it was the plague.'

But whatever the truth - it is interesting to see that the memorial in the church carries a telling inscription written by his wife that seems to largely sideline her ex-husband and distanced herself from her former husband:

‘Henry Bowyer married Elizabeth Vaux, daughter and heir to Thomas Vaux, comptroller of the household to Henry VIII, and together they had three sons Thomas, Francis and Henry and two daughters Anne and Mary’

The upshot of all this was that in February 1581 Curteys was relieved of his post, he was allowed to occupy the vicarage for a year then given a sum of £40 by the villagers, and subsequently died in the village. Whatever the merits of the arguments, what is clear is that Bowyer would stop at nothing to pursue his convictions - even to the highest church courts in the land. He was clearly not a man to be crossed.

Devout church goers

An interesting aside to all this is added by Rev. James Hughes Cooper in his history of Cuckfield that a chapel (now today's vestry) was, he believed, built by Bowyer.

As so often historically, major works to the local church were paid for by the wealthiest local benefactors - and it is known that much money was spent in the enlargement and improvement of the Holy Trinity Church in the time of the next incumbent of the church, John Waterhouse (who was the vicar for the next 25 years). This appears to have been made by the Bowyers by way of compensation for the unpopular outcome of the village feud.

Security issues - summing up

So with the danger of war and invasion, and the potential of trouble with a workforce, falling out with other ironmasters, in a hostile row with the villagers, it really comes as no surprise that Bowyer might have been concerned about self-protection. Which might have motivated him to build an escape route from his home either to a place of sanctuary or to a concealed exit away from the house.

In any event, escape tunnels were often part of the intrinsic design of fortified houses and palaces - just as today safe rooms (often called panic rooms) are incorporated into prestige properties. Tunnels from manor houses would typically be several hundred feet to somewhere not readily visible to attackers or to another building.

In the final article we explore the possible circumstantial and physical evidence, and the verbal testimony that a tunnel might exist and then try and draw some conclusions.



List of gunfounders: The Gun Founders of England: With a List of English and continental gun-founders from the XIV to the XIX centuries by Charles Ffoulkes 2010.

John Bowyer's saltpetre makers: First Series of the Bulletin of the Wealden Iron Research Group, No 16 1979.

Agnes Bowker's Cat: Travesties and Transgressions in Tudor and Stuart England by David Cressy, 1999. Sections to found in Google Books.


The dispersal of the Armada in Calais Roads by fire ships 1588, illustrator unknown.

Family tree and coat of arms from County Genealogies Pedigrees of the Families in the County of Sussex by William Berry, 1830

Catterlen Hall tower house, from Historic England:

A 17th Century Cannon Ball Deals a Lot of Damage, Smithsonian Channel

Forge photograph, taken in Egypt., Public domain image.

1681 drawing of Cuckfield Place: Sussex Archaeological Collections Relating to the History and Antiquities of the County, Volume 25, Sussex Archaeological Society, 1873.

Contributed by Malcolm Davison.


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