'Built to demonstrate a man's devotion to God '
The Augustinian Priory at Michelham was founded in 1229 by Gilbert L'Aigle, although there are known to have been settlements here dating back to earlier Saxon times. The name Michelham 'Mincel hamm' itself is Anglo-Saxon in origin and means 'the great watermeadow' referring to it as a piece of land bordering a large bend in the river, the river being the River Cuckmere. Medieval documents record it as being Mykeleham in 1279, but by 1325 it was known as the familiar Michelham.
After the Norman Conquest, King William divided the County of 'Sudsexe' (Sussex) into six 'rapes' - Chichester, Arundel, Bramber, Lewis, Pevensey, and Hastings. Each one commanded a harbour or river, along with a carefully sited Castle, and the 'rape' system in Sussex cannot be found in any other County. The origin of the term 'rape' is unknown but it is believed to come from the Icelandic measure, 'hrapa' or it could well come from the Norman French word, 'rapiner' to plunder. There is evidence that William systematically laid waste to much of the County in his efforts to form a strong bridgehead for his troops; Sussex was the nearest County to Normandy where reinforcements could be rushed in the event of a Saxon revolt, and in every Sussex 'rape', lesser castles and towers were built to support the main castle.
Michelham lay in the rape of Pevensey, where the nearby Castle at Pevensey was starting to grow considerably from the run-down Roman ruin William had found at his arrival on English shores. The rapes of Pevensey and Hastings were awarded to Robert, Count of Eu, a kinsman of King William and close advisor on the plans of the conquest. It is not known exactly when, but not long after the conquest the site at Michelham was used as a hunting lodge by the Lords of Pevensey and one of those Lords, albeit nearly 150 years later, went on to became the founder of Michelham Priory.
Gilbert de L'Aigle's family came from the town of L'Aigle in Normandy. One of his ancestors, Euguenulf de L'Aigle was said to have been killed at the Battle of Hastings and is mentioned by the Chroniclers Orderic Vitalis and Wace.
'He came with shield slung at his neck, and with his lance fiercely charged the English'
Wace doesn't mention his death at Hastings, but Orderic Vitalis writes that he was killed at the Malfosse, during the chase of the Saxons at the end of the battle.
' At this place Enguerrand, Lord of L'Aigle, and many others fell '
His ancestors became overlords of the Rape of Pevensey and Gilbert himself later took up this position in the thirteenth century where his administrative headquarters and large estates in Sussex were known as the 'Honour of the Eagle'.
Like many of the wealthy and leading figures of the Middle Ages, Gilbert founded the Augustinian Priory of the Holy Trinity at Michelham to demonstrate his devotion to God. Around 1220, Gilbert obtained help from the Priory at Hastings to set up his new community and a small group of canons travelled from Hastings to start work on the land that Gilbert had endowed. In 1229, King Henry III gave his permission for the community and over the next four years many other local people gave land. Although Gilbert provided the vast majority of the estate and the leadership for the venture, the community was seen as an act of piety by the men and women of East Sussex.
The Prior's Lodging
Gilbert also gave the churches of Laughton and Hailsham to the Priory, but as a result started a 10 year quarrel between the Prior of Michelham and Abbot of Bayham Abbey. The Abbot claiming that Hailsham was a chapel of Hellingly, which was already under his jurisdiction. Whoever was in the right, the Prior of Michelham backed down, but only after securing compensation equal to £16-67p per annum.
Once the community of canons and a prior was settled the community soon got down to farming and working their land, and it was through their careful management that they were able to quickly finance the permanent buildings of the community. The Order followed the teachings of St Augustine of Hippo, which in the 12th Century had emerged as a full religious order. Like monks, they lived in communities and were bound by vows of poverty, chastity and obedience but they also put a greater emphasis on pastoral duties. Nearly 200 Augustinian priories were founded in England between 1100 and 1250 and each was usually to be found under the supervision of the Bishop whose diocese it was situated in.
The Priory buildings at Michelham followed the typical layout adopted for most religious houses in Europe. The main buildings stood around the cloisters with a refectory on the south side and part of the western range. Archaelogical excavations in 1059-60 revealed the ground plan of the long cruciform church, situated on the north side of the cloister
The Canons' most important duty was the daily rounds of prayers. Services would begin at midnight and were resumed at daybreak after an interval for sleep, then continuing throughout the day from sunrise to sunset. At its height, Michelham had ten canons and up to five would have held named offices but their daily duties would have been assisted by officials and servants of the priory.
The gatehouse and moat, built by Prior Leem around 1390
Michelham lay near the important road between Lewes and Pevensey, which dates back to Roman times, and this important strategic road was also used to connect Battle, Hastings and the Cinque Ports. Many visitors would stop at the Priory to seek shelter for the night and in 1283 the priory entertained the Archbishop of Canterbury. On 13th September 1302, King Edward I also lodged at the priory with his retinue while passing through.
There is nothing else to report about Michelham until 1349 when the Black Death hit the community hard. They lost about half their number to the plague, after which, the decay slowly started creeping into the community.
Prior John Leem 1374 -1417 was the most distinctive character of those who lived at Michelham, but this has more to do with his worldly ways and dealings than his religious activities.
John of Gaunt, Duke of Lancaster and son of Edward III, acquired the Honour of Pevensey in 1372 and added it to his already vast estates. Gaunt was one of the most powerful men in the country during this period and not a popular man with many in the south. It is believed that John of Gaunt was responsible for the election of John Leem as Prior of Michelham, so as to give Leem a convenient base for his duties as Receiver for the Duke in the county of Sussex. Leem would have been responsible for collecting rents, meeting the running expenses of the Duchy and handing over the balance to the Receiver General in London. He was also on the commission of sewers for the Pevensey Levels, a body responsible for the important task of land drainage around the area, keeping back the sea.
John of Gaunt, Duke of Lancaster
It seems that Leem not only used his position to his own advantage, but also that of the Priories. He increased the land endowment by adding the Churches of Alfriston and Fletching, and was also responsible for adding the moat and gatehouse, built around 1390, to protect against French raids, which in the past had sacked and burnt Rye, Winchelsea and Hastings.
Michelham was to become one of the most complete examples of a defended priory in the country. It's strong moat, which is the biggest in England, and its 60 foot high gatehouse, faced with Eastbourne sandstone, were added to protect against these possible French raids. Indeed, it would have been an improvident community which, by the late fourteenth century, had done nothing to forestall or deflect these raids should they arrive.
'Michelham' A watercolour by Jas Lambert 1791
The Priory soon started to fall into disrepute once Prior Leem was succeeded. In the 1440's there were serious troubles when after the Bishop's visitations it was revealed that the new Prior had been wasting the Priory's endowment in gifts to Laymen, failed to keep adequate accounts and lived too extravagantly. It was also noted that the canons were not observing the Order's rule of silence and had been reported as frequenting the tavern outside the priory.
Further decline came around 1478 when it is reported that three canons had left the community, while another who had returned after a fifteen year absence was,
' Poisoning the whole house with his evil arguments '
The vestments and ornaments of the church were in terrible condition, the canons were not eating together in the refectory and some were chatting through services. One canon even admitted to having sexual relations with a local married woman. With this decline in standards, the small religious house soon started to lose local support and their failings to bring it under control just made matters worse until the Dissolution came in the reign of Henry VIII.
The Dissolution came to Michelham in 1537 when control of the priory was given over to Henry VIII's Secretary of State, Thomas Cromwell. The salaries and wages were paid up to 25th March and the eight canons were allowed to take their beds with them. All the jewels, ornaments and silver vessels were sold for £43 and the bells were transported off to a Maidstone brazier for £27.
The gatehouse would originally have had a wooden drawbridge
Henry VIII granted the Priory to Thomas Cromwell at a very low rent and he soon set about destroying the church and eastern range. After Cromwell's fall from grace and later execution, the estate returned to the ownership of the Crown, some being leased and some sold off in separate lots. In 1556 the Crown sold off the remainder of the Priory to John Foote who had been a tenant since 1542 and he remained as owner until 1574. Foote modified the west range and did other major building works which by now were much needed.
The Pelham family of Sussex became the next owners and Herbert Pelham is reported to have done more considerable work to the Priory, adding in size to the Tudor work undertaken by Foote before him. On 6th April 1601, Pelham's trustees sold Michelham to the Earl of Dorset, Thomas Sackville who was also the Lord Treasurer. The Sackville family held the Priory for much of the 17th century when they sold it to the Child family.
By now the Priory had been converted into a working farm and the Child family led the way with some top livestock breeding winning many awards. Through much of the 19th and early 20th century, Michelham slowly fell into ruin and disrepair until it was purchased by Mr & Mrs Beresford-Wright in 1927. They employed an architect and builders to restore the house and near derelict refectory.
Mr Beresford-Wright died in 1951 and couldn't provide an endowment for it to be handed to the National Trust or the Sussex Archaeological Society. This was finally done in 1958 when Mrs RH Hotblack purchased the Priory buildings with the express purpose of ensuring their preservation.
On 1 November 1959, Mrs Hotblack gave Michelham Priory in trust to the Sussex Archaeological Society who have managed the property so well ever since.
© MWC 2000
Michelham Priory additional information
Michelham Priory is owned & managed by the Sussex Archaeological Society
Hours of opening and details of admission
15 March - 31 October
Wednesday-Sunday 10.30am-5pm (April-July & September);
10-30am-4pm (March & October)
Daily 10.30am-5.30pm (August)
Admission - Adult £4.40, Child (5-15) £2.30, Senior Citizen/Student £3.80,
Registered Disabled/Carer £2.20, Family (2+2) £11.40
Group Admission - Adult £3.60, Child £2.10 (Min 20)
Discount for English Heritage Members
Telephone - 01323 - 844224
OS Map - 199
Nearest Rail Station - Berwick or Polegate
Tourist Information - Eastbourne, Bexhill, Hastings, Battle.
**There is no Photography or Video allowed inside of the Priory Buildings**
It is possible to walk up the River Cuckmere from near Arlington all the way to Michelham Priory, the best preserved medieval religious house in Sussex. It is also a rare surviving example in England of a fortified monastery.
It had been a long time since I had visited Michelham and I was pleasantly surprised at the familiar welcome the gatehouse offers its visitors. It hasn't change a bit, except that the Sussex Archaeological Society have continued their splendid work in restoring this lovely building and its surrounds. The moat has been fully cleared and the watermill house, which has been there since the mid fifteenth century, was fully restored in 1971 although sadly this isn't the original machinery.
It's a wonderful place for an afternoon's visit with plenty to offer the whole family, especially the children. As well as the moat, the gardens have been restored, along with all the outbuildings, although sadly the church disappeared in the 16th century and no trace remains but the foundations. The house is also very interesting, offering the visitor an insight into Michelham's past as a farm and as a religious house.
It would be very easy to combine a visit to Michelham with a visit to the Roman-Medieval stronghold of Pevensey Castle, the place where William the Conqueror first landed in England in 1066 before the Battle of Hastings. Pevensey is now just a shell of a castle, but it retains its glory through the crumbling remains. The castle itself in medieval times was situated by the sea, but with land policies and drainage, the sea now lies almost a mile away to the south at Normans Bay, which is something that confuses many visitors as folk have always read that Duke William landed by sea at Pevensey.
I did enjoy my return visit to Michelham Priory and also my whistlestop tour of Pevensey Castle, pictures of which I shall post in the future. Michelham is a delight and there is much more to see now than on my previous visit many years ago. Unfortunatly, it does get very busy, especially when the schools are on holidays, but don't let that put you off.
© MWC 2000
Information on Michelham Priory was obtained from
Michelham Priory - Miss J Bellam.
The Abbeys and Priories of Medieval England - Colin Platt.
The Monastic Grange in Medieval England - Colin Platt.
Sussex - Barbra Willard.
Sussex - Desmond Seward.
Anglo-Norman England - Majorie Chibnall.
The World of Orderic Vitalis - Majorie Chibnall
Oxford History of Medieval England - Nigel Saul.
Domesday Book - Thomas Hinde.
The Hundred Years War - Desmond Seward.
The Plantagenet Encyclopedia - Elizabeth Hallam.
The Middle Ages Concise Encyclopedia - L.R. Loyn.
Western Society and the Church in the Middle Ages - RW Southern.
Sussex Place Names - Judith Glover.
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and must not be reproduced in any format without permission
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