The Great Sedlescombe Hoard

by David EP Dennis BA (Hons) FCIPD LCGI RAF

Edward the Confessor listens to Earl Harold who has been forced to swear oaths of allegiance to Duke William

Sedlescombe is a small but beautiful village to the east of Crowhurst – north of Hastings in East Sussex. It is six miles from the sea and has a Roman road nearby. The river (now a brook) that flowed through the village was used by the Romans to transport iron ore to the coast through a landscape covered by great forests. This river was tidal, and the sea touched the edge of the village two thousand years ago. After the Romans left and the Saxons came, then the village belonged to Earl Godwin who had a manor there. Earl Godwin was King Harold Godwinson’s father. There is a legend that King Harold’s handfasted Danish wife, Edith Swanneck, hid in the woods at Sedlescombe before being called upon by monks from Waltham Abbey to identify her husbanded butchered remains. So Sedlescombe is suffused with a fascinating history.

The Ditch Digger

If you read the Hastings Independent Press, you may remember another article I wrote in that vibrant newspaper, concerning a ditch digger at Bulverhythe who was employed to help construct a small airfield on land reclaimed from the medieval harbour of Bulverhythe. He was using a bulldozer not a spade – and uncovered a Norman longboat in the 1930s. He was ordered to bury it again. Ditch diggers never seem to profit from their efforts. Now we look at the spadework of another ditch digger – at Sedlescombe.

One morning, nearly 150 years ago, on 26th August 1876, our Sedlescombe ditch digger was toiling away cutting a field drain, when he struck something hard – the remains of an iron pot, rusted and broken into shards. Inside those shards were the remains of a leather bag containing 3,000 silver coins of four different types and a small bar of pure silver – a shock and a wonder to this workman.

Some of the coins were very badly broken. However, it seems there were no ‘early type’ coins in which the reigning monarch Edward the Confessor (1042-1066) is shown as young and beardless with his upper body facing left. The average weight of the coins was twenty grains and there were 3,000 coins so the total weight must be the order of 137.14286 ounces or 8.5 lbs in weight. The silver bar weighed 1.5 ounces and was half an inch square and 2.5 inches long.

In those far off days, coins were made at many locations in local Mints (see below). These coins had been made at many Mints, but some had been made at the Hastings Mint which was probably located inside the Iron Age fort where Hastings Castle is now on its clifftop above the sea. Another example of a Mint inside an Iron Age fort is at Cissbury Ring in East Sussex.

At first the coins were thought to be hop tokens and they were given to children to play with. Due to the honesty of the ditch digger, the landowner soon grabbed back this treasure haul, and because there was no Portable Antiquities Scheme, Finds Officers or Treasure laws at the time, he sold off some of the coins to collectors. No list of the coins was made at the time and so we do not know how many coins of the missing 1502 silver pieces were made for kings other than Edward the Confessor. But we do know that of the remaining coins, the last issue of coinage marked for Edward is not present. As we have seen above, there no early coins either, so the currently known contents of the pot were mid-period for Edward’s rule.

At least 1,498 of these coins are still known and can be located in collections worldwide. The trouble is – since around half of the coins went missing then it cannot be fully proved that at the time of discovery by the ditch digger, there were no early coins for the reigning monarch or coins struck near the time of his burial, shown in the Bayeux Tapestry – 1066. No King Harold Godwinson II coins have been found in the remaining coins.

Silver coin of Edward the Confessor in British Museum – dulled red possibly from the rust of the hoard container.

Such a find nowadays is called a ‘hoard’; a mass of coins buried perhaps in a panic or to hide a crime in the distant past. Coin collecting, known as ‘numismatics’ is a hobby based on science rather than art. Numismatics has many unusual terms not found in everyday conversation – for example, ‘cupellation’ and ‘sylloge’. An informative website search will reveal that: ‘Cupellation is a refining process in metallurgy where ores or alloyed metals are treated under very high temperatures and have controlled operations to separate noble metals, like gold and silver, from base metals, like lead, copper, zinc, arsenic, antimony, or bismuth, present in the ore. A ‘sylloge’ is a collection or compendium or documents, coins, or antiquarian objects.’

The knowledge of ancient coinage is growing yet there is still much to amaze. Many of the coins found by the ditch digger were made or ‘minted’ in Hastings by ‘moneyers’. But where was the Hastings Mint physically located when Edward ruled – the Iron Age fort location is a fairly logical guess? How did the silver coins come to exist in that Sedlescombe bag when there are no silver mines in the area? At the time of 1066, it is thought the primary site for silver mining was the Hartz Mountains in Germany. Traders would have brought the silver to England in bars ready to melt down and form into coin blanks before stamping both sides using a die.

Over time, much has been learned about the process of coin-making. Firstly, coins are tokens of value. They are worth a fixed amount defined by respect and agreement. They are respected in trade because they look and feel ‘right’ and usually bear the King or Queen’s head – a sign of the authority or worth.

The Mints of Sussex in pre-Conquest days were at Hastings, Pevensey, Lewes and Steyning. There was also an outside chance of a Mint at Bramber and a Mint at a mysterious place called Sithesteburh which numismatists have speculated might be Cissbury Rings. The makers of the coins – the ‘moneyers’ put their names on the coins – immortalising their skill. At the Hastings Mint these coin-makers were called Wulfstan, Alfred, Elfwine, Leva, Brid, Leofwine, Dunninc, Colswegen and so on, over the ages.

Leofwine, Dunninc and Brid made most of the coins at Hastings in the time of Edward the Confessor. When the childless King died, then Harold Godwinson took the throne and Colswegen, Dunnic and Theodred worked away at Hastings making coins for the new King. When Harold was killed at Hastings (or spirited away wounded from the Battlefield by Edith Swan-Neck to Chester via Dover or Waltham Abbey if you believe the tales of monks) then William the Conqueror – having laid waste to the Hastings area and massacred the population of Old Romney, still permitted Colswegen and Dunnic and their compatriot Theodred, to make his coins at the Hastings Mint. They were joined by a new moneyer called Cipincc – and it seems that good old Dunninc was still making coins for William II and Henry I (1100-1135). What a hero! Long-lived, respected, and good at his job. So it is important to note that the Hastings Mint was not laid to waste.

Look at the breadth of its work – according to East Sussex County Council record HER307/20, the Hastings Mint began in the reign of King Athelstan, the son of Edward the Elder, who reigned from 924 to 927. It shut down then until 985 in the reign of Aethelred II (the so-called ‘Unready’ or ‘poorly counselled’) and then continued while Vikings ruled England, to produce coins for King Canute (Cnut:1016-1035) – with Brid the significant Hastings moneyer of his rule. Then Hastings Mint went on to serve a range of kings including Harold I (Harefoot – 1035-1040), Harthacnut (1040-1042), Edward (1042-66), Harold II (Jan to Oct 1066) and Stephen (1135-1154). Obviously, when the Normans came to Hastings, they erected a wooden castle, which may have been prefabricated and bought over by longship. Then they built a stone castle, still there in a somewhat ruinous state today – with half of it having fallen into the sea during the great storm of 1287.

Let us take another look at moneyer Dunninc – he would have served an apprenticeship and might be perhaps 20 years old when he struck his first coin (with sceptre and fleur-de-lis emblems) of Edward the Confessor’s reign and put his name to it. Let us speculate that he was born in 1030, started making coins in 1050 and was still making them in 1135, then he would have been around 105 – far too old perhaps! So if we go for the very least of the dates for coins he made – the last year of the reign of Edward the Confessor (1066) and the first year of the reign of Henry I then we have a life as follows: Dunninc, born 1046 and ceased making coins in 1100 – at the age of fifty-four. I speculate therefore that Dunninc was between 54 and 105 years old – say around 80 years old when he died, taking the midpoint of both sets of speculative ages. Since he seemed to be the chief moneyer of the period of great turbulence then I put forward the theory that he was the person who buried the Sedlescombe Hoard.

In late September 1066, in great alarm, he realised that the Normans were coming – yes – but also that all the coins in the bag were now out of date as there had been a new and final issue for Edward the Confessor and then completely new coinage in January 1066 for King Harold Godwinson. So numismatists consider that these 3,000 coins and the little silver bar or pure silver, were what is called ‘bullion’ – redundant coins to be melted down. At the point of burial of the hoard, probably around the end of September 1066, he did not know how the invasion would turn out. Would the bag of coins be useful to melt down along with the small silver bar to make more coins for Harold or would Duke William become king and thus all the coinage would be null and void with a Norman treasury dominating from then on?

When you go into hiding until the results of the Battle are known, you must tremble. But then the Normans come to Hastings and ask who the moneyer is because he has skills, then shaking with fear you come forward and are immediately employed on new coinage. Why bother to dig the bag up again when William the Conqueror is still willing to employ you at the Hastings Mint, even though he has laid everything in the area to waste? You breathe a sigh of relief.

Dunninc grows in stature as an important man. He was provably making coins after the Conquest and a Medieval silver penny of William II ‘Rufus’ (1087-1100), Cross in quatrefoil type minted by Dunning (DVNIC) at Hastings has been dated to 1089-1092 AD.

So what else can we say about him? What was the Sedlescombe Hoard for? What was its nature? Why was it buried in Sedlescombe and not in Hastings? Our Dunninc was probably an early member of the Dunning family ‘Dunn’ means swarthy or of dark hair or complexion). He had to obtain silver to make coins. He needed a furnace and a coin die to stamp the image of the king and his own moneyer’s name.

The Dolley Dublin Incident

A gentleman called RHM Dolley – a respected numismatist, was on holiday in County Limerick and was shown a collection of silver pennies. The man who owned the coins being viewed had obtained them from Dublin and London dealers in the late 1800s. Dolley began to look at the coins in detail and noted that coins of Edward the Confessor were stamped with the name of our hero Dunninc (Dvinnic on Haesti), but also there appeared the name of Brid (Brid OH Haesti) and Colswegen (Colsspeien on Haesti).

Now we come to a further mystery and a wonder that takes some teasing out and may give a different slant. When all the existing coins found at Sedlescombe near Battle were examined there were many coins struck in twenty-seven separate parts of England: Bath, Bristol, Canterbury, Chichester, Cricklade, Colchester, Dover, Exeter, Gloucester, Hastings, Ilchester, Ipswich, Leicester, Lewes, London, Norwich, Oxford, Romney, Sandwich, Shaftesbury, Southampton, Southwark, Thetford, Wallingford, Wareham, Winchester, and York.

Dolley thought these Dublin coins – all of Edward and all in superb condition had certainly come from the Great Sedlescombe Hoard. At the point of discovery in the ground back in 1876, some of the coins were so thin that they fell to pieces – thus eliminating themselves from saleable value. There were a few other coins that Dolley was not quite sure of, and he speculated that they were from Lindsey and Tamworth. He further speculated that the slight reddish stains seen on the Dublin coins were left by the gradually rotting iron-bound coffer that the 3,000 coins had been buried in. Dolley stated that the coins were probably part of ‘the bullion reserve of the Hastings Mint at the time of the Norman Invasion.’

Edward waves his crown – tempting Earl Harold no doubt!

Alternative Theory

Is there another explanation? The non-Hastings coins represent such a vast area of England. King Harold had been in the north at York to fight the Battle of Stamford Bridge (25th September 1066). The fyrd (an army that can be called up from local workers) had been asked to support him from all over the realm of England. The army needing paying. There are records of complaints by Anglo-Saxon troops that they were not paid anything from the spoils of war after the victory over the Vikings at Stamford Bridge. Could this bag of 3,000 silver coins really be a war chest, taken north to pay the troops? Then when Harold resting on his laurels at Stamford Bridge heard that Duke William was landing, he rushed to Waltham Abbey to pray – and then just before the dreaded Battle of Hastings, he had one of his huscarls (senior warriors) bury the war chest at Sedlescombe, where his Danish wife was hiding. His logic: if he lost then Duke William would not be able to find the hoard, but then if he won, he could then give great reward – with three thousand silver coins, his honourable bounty to those who came to help him in both the northern and southern battles?

Admittedly it does look initially as though the coins represent the locations of the fyrd ‘call-up’ – ‘help me in my hour of need you peasants of England!’ Each peasant brings a silver coin for the treasury…but no, I don’t think this alternative has legs, for the following reasons.

Many of the coins were thin and fell to pieces in the hands of children who were given them to play with as hop tokens. Hop tokens were paid to non-local workers who came to help with the harvest from other parts of England or overseas. The tokens were given for work and could be exchanged for food but only at the end of the working week. The hop tokens were usually made by a village blacksmith and are therefore rough and indistinctly marked – so if silver coins are thin and worn then the initial mistake is understandable.

Next, we have to remember what happened after the Battle of Stamford Bridge. The Vikings were wiped out and Harold had killed his own brother Tostig, who was a traitor. The feeling amongst the English army must have been of total jubilation and the spoils of war were gathered up, swords, shields, helmets, rings, gold ornaments of senior Vikings. But Harold was not going to pay out this great bounty because if he did then all the men of the fyrd would melt away into the landscape laughing – and rich. But when the messenger came hot foot from Hastings to say that Duke William had landed with around 770 ships, his men, and horses, then it did not make sense to give away the victory spoils of Stamford Bridge, so Harold gave them to Archbishop Ealdred (sometimes written Aldred) for safekeeping, to be paid out to the fyrd after his expected victory over the Normans at Hastings. This fact is confirmed by the Norman writer Geoffrey Gaimar. This pay-out was not to be – nor do we know what the archbishop did with the spoils. Archbishop Ealdred was a diplomat and warrior, Archbishop of York and greatly trusted by King Harold and later by King William. It is said he crowned Duke William as King in Westminster Abbey. So – where are the Spoils of King Harald Hardrada of Norway, his three hundred ships and 9,000 troops of his great army?

Another mystery indeed!


Coins and Moneyers of the Hastings Mint

Copyright 2021 David EP Dennis BA (Hons) FCIPD LCGI RAF

Image source: Wikimedia Commons Public Domain

American bomber crash – World War II heroes

The story behind the Bulverhythe Liberator Crash of December 1943

by David E P Dennis BA (Hons) FCIPD LCGI RAF


After many hours of research I have found the crash site of the famous United States Army Air Force Liberator Bomber called ‘Unstable Mabel.

The town of St Leonards-on-Sea in Sussex, England, is located between the towns of Hastings and Bexhill. The road joining the two, is called Bexhill Road and has been given the road number A259. As the A259 goes past Glyne Gap, the entrance to the ancient harbour of Bulverhythe, it then passes the remains of the medieval chapel of St Mary’s at Abbey Drive and within a few yards comes to a road called Freshfields.

Stretching from Freshfields to the Combe Haven River (formerly the Asten) is a large area of open fields and marshes know as Combe Valley. In 1928, the local council decided to make a recreation ground at the backs of the houses on Bexhill Road. In early 1927, the field was bulldozed flat and became known as Bulverhythe Recreation Ground.

On the 6th April 1927, Edward, Prince of Wales (later to fall for Wallis Simpson, to shake hands with Adolf Hitler, to become King Edward VIII and finally to abdicate), came to Hastings to open the new White Rock Pavilion. He then witnessed the handing-over ceremony of the area called the Firehills (now Hastings Country Park) which the council had purchased to prevent housing development from spreading from Fairlight Cove.

Prince Edward and Wallis Simpson: Source: Wikimedia Commons

Prince Edward was then asked to travel from Hastings to Bulverhythe where he officially opened the long rectangle of the newly flattened recreation ground. It had two football pitches on its south side which had been provided for Hastings Rangers Football Club. The pitch to the west became the home for Hastings Rangers as they entered the County League. They moved their team HQ to the recreation ground in 1928.

To the north of Bulverhythe Recreation Ground (considered to be in the district of Pebsham), and now called Tier 1 in the Hastings Planning Department) was an extensive area of scrubland and marsh in the valley of the Combe Haven which had already been used to build a railway viaduct taking trains from Sidley, Bexhill’s second station – officially called Bexhill (West) to Crowhurst and on to London.

The viaduct – a low-level approach air hazard – especially at night.

Bluebell Railway Archive – John J Smith Collection

The immediate area of land to the north of the flattened recreation ground (now called Tier 2) was seen by air ace Sir Alan Cobham, a member of the Royal Flying Corps in World War I, who wrote to Hastings Council in 1930 suggesting that it be used as an airfield to convey fruit and vegetables from markets in France and to export English goods.

Instead of acting immediately, the council prevaricated and decided instead to use some of the waste ground by the river as an uncontrolled waste tip. In those days, councils were being advised by the government that they should find areas with cracked bedrock so that the leachate would flow away ‘harmlessly’ into local rivers. This was eventually stopped by the Sunday Times scoop revealing the damage to the environment and a new preventative Act of Parliament quickly followed.

Nevertheless, some ‘self-help’ air activity did begin in the 1930s on Tier 2. The area immediately to the north of Tier 2 (now called Tier 3) became a rubbish dump.

In early September 1939 the United Kingdom and France both declared war on Germany after the Nazis invaded Poland. The Second World War had begun.

Bexhill Road and Combe Valley 1940: Source Bexhill Musuem

An aerial photograph taken from an RAF bomber in 1940 shows Bulverhythe recreation ground (on front left) which by then also had a cricket pitch and a pavilion. The photo also shows that a fence line ran from north to south across Tier 2 which eventually became Pebsham aerodrome. This fence is significant to our story.

Air enthusiasts continued to push the council for an aerodrome. So the council kindly said that they would bulldoze the uncontrolled rubbish tip material so far accumulated, over the area of Tier 2 so that an aerodrome could be built on the flattened rubbish overlain with earth and concrete.

Remarkably, during the 1932 to 1934 period when bulldozing took place, a Norman Longboat with Dacian Wolfhead prow was unearthed. But the digger driver was instructed by Hastings Council managers, to quickly bury it again rather than delay the airfield’s completion. It is still there to this day.

Scene from the Bayeux Tapestry showing a Norman Longboat with Dacian Wolfshead Prow : Source Wikimedia Commons

The Pebsham aerodrome of the Hastings and East Sussex Air Service was eventually officially opened on 27th August 1948. It was rough and ready and looked like this in 1952:

Pebsham Aerodrome 1952: Source: Wikimedia Commons

However, during the Second World War, Tier 1 remained a sports ground and Tier 2 was only partly flat with a fence line across it. It was not yet an official landing strip specified for use in wartime.

On 7th December 1941, the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbour, thus bringing the United States of America into the war. US forces moved into England.

In 1942 an RAF Station was newly-built seven miles south-west of Norwich in Norfolk, England and given the number Station 114 (ICAO EGSK). It was handed over on completion to the United States Army Air Force (USAAF).

RAF Hethel: Source US Air Museum

As the war became a struggle for the survival of democratic civilisation, on 14th September 1943, RAF Hethel became the headquarters of the 2nd Combat Bombardment Wing of the 2nd Bombardment Division.

With the completion of the airfield facility, RAF Hethel was assigned to several Bomb Groups. The Group we are interested in is the 389th Bombardment Group (Heavy), known as the ‘Sky Scorpions’ arriving from Lowry AAF, Colorado on 11 June 1943. The 389th was assigned to the 2nd Combat Bombardment Wing, and the group tail code was a “Circle-C”.

Its operational squadrons were:

564th Bombardment Squadron (YO)

565th Bombardment Squadron (EE)

566th Bombardment Squadron (RR)

567th Bombardment Squadron (HP)

The group flew Consolidated B-24 Liberators as part of the Eighth Air Force’s strategic bombing campaign. Because the aircraft were required to fly on long missions, their normal range of 800 miles was boosted to 2,000 miles by the additional fitting of extra aircraft fuel tanks, called Tokyo Tanks in July 1943. These extra fuel tanks did not have fuel gauges.

DAYTON, Ohio — Consolidated B-24D Liberator at the National Museum of the United States Air Force. (U.S. Air Force photo)

The group received a Distinguished Unit Citation for the detachment’s participation in the famed low-level attack against oil refineries at Ploesti on 1 August 1943.

The group was frequently detached overseas and took part in some remarkable attacks on the enemy. However, the group resumed operations from England in October 1943 concentrating primarily on strategic objectives in France, the Low Countries, and Germany.

Significantly, in October 1943, the 564th Bombardment Squadron (YO) squadron was assigned to very long-range strategic bombardment operations over Occupied Europe and Nazi Germany. Targets included industrial facilities, oil production facilities and refineries, rail and other transportation centres, enemy military airfields and garrisons.

Because of their outstanding bravery, their morale was high. Many Liberator bombers had images painted on their sides. The 564th Bomb Squadron aircraft we are most interested in, had this illustration – called ‘Unstable Mabel’, despite the aircraft really being called ‘John the Baptist’. Unstable Mabel was one of the famous aircraft paintings of women in a state of undress.

Unstable Mabel artwork: Source Imperial War Museum

It had the serial number B-24D/63957/YO:E. The full serial was 42-63957 with the year designator abbreviated on the airframe, resulting in 263957.

It was piloted by Captain Frank Wilby Ellis Jr. and had a crew of ten. It was fitted with long range Tokyo Tanks.

On the early morning of 31st December 1943, Captain Ellis, who had been commissioned on the 25th May 1938, (Service number 34843) – was tasked to fly Unstable Mabel on what might be called the Brandy and Cheese Run – with bomb load of between 5,000lbs (tactical) and 12,800lbs (max) to destroy a target somewhat north east of a line drawn between Cognac and Rochefort, south-western France. He was given the following attack co-ordinates:

45°53’59″N 0°27’27″W

His aircraft was fully fuelled to maintain a forward air speed of 220 mph using 200 US gallons per hour. He was to strike the target between 12.11 and 12.35 hours.

Cognac is in the Charente Department, Nouvelle Aquitaine, situated between Angouleme and Saintes – a very long way from RAF Hethel in East Anglia.

The specific target near Cognac was Saint-Jean d’Angély-Fontenet airfield (French: Aèrodrome Saint-Jean d’Angély-Fontenet) an airfield 390 kilometres southwest of Paris. See an article on this target here:

The airfield was built by the French Ministry of War in 1937. In 1939 the barrack buildings for radio-telegraphists were installed. In 1940 Jagdgeschwader 53 was stationed at the airfield. 

Jagdgeschwader 53 crews on standby: Source Wikimedia Commons

Through World War 2, the airfield served as a Luftwaffe fighter base, for which the Germans added dispersal areas, taxi tracks and asphalt roads. Just before the arrival of the Allies in 1944, the Germans destroyed their remaining equipment, which had already been hard hit because of Allied bombing.

Unstable Mabel was part of a huge bombing strategy in which 94 bombers were assigned to carry to multiple targets, some 181,850 tonnes of bombs (this works out to 3870lb or bombs per aircraft in short tonnes and 4333lb per aircraft in long tonnes.)

The normal mission profile would be to gain high altitude for a long-range mission. This used up fuel and further fuel was needed to maintain airspeed in the thin high atmosphere. You can imagine the roar of the engines and the shaking of the fuselage, as minute by tense minute these brave men pursued their mission.

B-24 airplane suitable for long, over-water missions: Source USAAF Air Museum

After perhaps five or six-hours flying time, Unstable Mabel reached the Cognac area, a journey of some 1,000 miles from RAF Hethel, and bombed its airfield target.

Having bombed his primary, then Captain Ellis decided to go for a target of opportunity – the Nazi submarine pens on the French coast at La Rochelle, some 50 miles to the north west of Cognac. La Rochelle is a major seaport and capital of Charente-Maritime and contained the la Pallice Nazi wolfpack submarine base in massive concrete housings.

La Pallice Wolfpack Installation La Rochelle: Source Wikimedia Commons

The aircraft turned, flew on for maybe 20 minutes and having dropped all its bombs near Cognac and La Rochelle, Unstable Mabel turned for home – yet taking a direct bearing on RAF Hethel would be a risky thing because of German air activity over France.

Unstable Mabel had to fly back for another five or six hours. But this time it was lighter with no bombs so made faster progress until it hit fuel problems.

Nevertheless, Unstable Mabel with her crew of ten made it to the edge of the English Channel, but either the fuel flow from the Tokyo Tanks became totally restricted or the whole fuel tanks system was almost empty. Then running out of fuel, not surprisingly, considering its massive mission, the aircraft descended and then – according to some eyewitnesses, burst into flames.

Captain Ellis gave the order to the crew to bale out over the coast of England at Pebsham (a parachute pack has been found on a house roof), but he heroically stayed with the aircraft.

Cockpit of the Consolidated B-24D Liberator “Strawberry Bitch.” (U.S. Air Force photo)

Coming much lower, he avoided striking the railway aqueduct. Then looking round over Pebsham, using only the light of the moon in its waxing crescent and the downward glare of the fire from his burning aircraft, he sought a possible landing ground – a dark patch of ground, maybe glistening with recent rain. He lined up parallel to the blacked-out houses of Bexhill Road. He could see that the Tier 2 fence line would impact with the aircraft if he chose the rough ground to the north of Bulverhythe Recreation Ground, so he alone put the aircraft down on the rain-soaked and frequently flooded Bulverhythe Recreation Ground, in the dark of the winter evening – the sun having set on 31st December at 16.02 hours.

The burning airframe slewed across the grass, struck the sports pavilion, totally destroying it down to the foundation brickwork, then shot across the drainage ditch at the back of the houses on Bexhill Road and landed up in the gardens of three houses, destroying some property including a greenhouse. Captain Ellis and his crew all survived. Unstable Mabel burned.

Then the bureaucracy of wartime Britain took over. The assessment of damage did not take place until 13th May 1944, some five months later – understandable in this dreadful war. D. W. Jackson of The Borough of Hastings, Town Clerk’s Department logged the damage in the Register of Damage to Property Directly Consequent upon Bombardment or Attack from the Air – Folder BDR 24 Report 117A states:

“31st December 1943 Bulverhythe Recreation Ground, Bexhill Road – USA Bomber Impact.”

It has not missed my notice that ‘Bulverhythe’ means ‘the landing place of the people’. It was once the harbour of the ancient Saxon settlement of Bullington, mentioned in the Domesday Book.


The 389th Bomb Group flew its last combat mission late in April 1945. It returned to Charleston AAF, South Carolina on 30 May 1945 and was inactivated on 13 September 1945.

Brave Liberator-24 pilot Frank Wilby Ellis Jr. earned many medals:

  • Air Force Longevity Service Award with 3 oak leaf clusters
  • Air Medal with 3 oak leaf clusters
  • American Campaign Medal
  • American Defence Medal
  • Distinguished Flying Cross with 1 oak leaf cluster
  • European-African-Middle Eastern Campaign Medal
  • National Defence Service Medal
  • World War II Victory Medal

He was eventually promoted to Lieutenant Colonel.

In a deeply sad incident, he was killed in crash of TB-47B “Stratojet” #50-0076 on 18 December 1957 while serving as its pilot. Also killed were Maj. Thomas M. Esmond (Aircraft Commander) and Capt. Frank F. Harradine (Flight Surgeon).

The Stratojet pilot, Colonel Ellis was trying to land in thick fog at March Air Force Base near the Mount Palomar Giant Telescope in California. However, it veered and struck the mountain and exploded.

Stratojet using rocket assisted take-off: Source: USAF Air Library


In this Liberator-24 crash at Bulverhythe, it was a miracle that no-one was killed. The exceptional determination of Captain Ellis to save his crew and then to try and save his aircraft reveals exemplary courage.


The following aspects of this incident need to be resolved:

1. The bomb load and fuel upload are all estimates based on typical Liberator operations and need further clarification to ensure accurate historical records.

2. It is not clear if the submarine pens were a target of opportunity or a planned secondary target, so the logbook is needed. I have written to the United States Ambassador to the United Kingdom to ask for help in finding the logbook.

3. Possible espionage. Although using Occam’s Razor, it would make sense to assume that there were 10 crew members, all of whom survived, some Liberators did have 11 crew spaces due to having 4 waist gunner spaces. Also some Liberators carried ‘Joe’ and ‘Jane’ spies to drop into France. There is a very outside chance that:

A spy who did not drop over France then was lost from the Liberator over Pebsham and the matter was covered up. However, the parachute pack was almost certainly ‘dumped’ to save weight in our opinion. Once again, the logbook would resolve this matter.

To learn about how the Liberator 24D bombers were used in espionage – go here:

4. What exactly did Captain Ellis write in his logbook to detail the remarkable escape he and his crew had in this crash?

5. Although we can see a note in the Liberator mission records saying ‘10RTD’ (ten returned to duty), because Bexhill Hospital wartime records are no longer extant, we cannot find out if any crew members were injured in the crash or if anyone died later from wounds. Help by US authorities is needed here to check with crew relatives.

6. How was the airframe removed from the crash site, was any of it preserved elsewhere, or were part of it recycled to other airframes?

7. Is part of the undercarriage still in the water-filled ditch? The crash site is on a flood plain in a naturally winter-flooded valley.

8. Was the waterlogged nature of the recreation ground so wet that the quarter moon reflection enabled the pilot to see the ground despite the national blackout regulations? The weather records for the area in 1943 show that it had rained several times in December 1943, including one day of 28mm on the 19th December. Since the water table rises in winter on this flood plain, the ground is often totally flooded or saturated.

9. How did the remaining 9 (or 10) crew get rescued after they para-dropped from the burning aircraft? Did they walk to a police station or were they found and helped by the local population and air raid wardens?

10. How (and when) did the crew get back to RAF Hethel?

11. Exact state of Bulverhythe Recreation Ground at the time of crash landing? Here are some photos showing photos of the varying water levels on this natural flood plain of the Combe Haven in a winter-flooded valley.

If you have any information about this air crash or the pilot, please email me at:


1. War diaries

2. Photographs:

Aerial 1940

My own crash site photos

Picture of the nose cone end of Unstable Mable with naked woman illustration.

3. Eyewitness accounts

Photo examples of Liberators.

4. The Hastings Borough Council signed damage report documents for the crash of an ‘American Bomber’ on Bulverhythe Recreation Ground on 31st December 1943.

5. Certification acceptance of the key facts and emails from and to:

Tom Fullam, Library and Information Assistant

Second Air Division Memorial Library

Tel: 01603 774747

Second Air Division Memorial Library, The Forum, Norwich, NR2 1AW

6. Email conversations with Imperial War Museum and Air Museum Duxford.

7. Advice on the law and preservation of air crash wrecks: Sussex Police PCSO Daryl Holter, Sussex Police Heritage Officer.

8. UK Ministry of Defence MOD War Detectives – the Joint Casualty and Compassionate Centre Commemorations Team: JCCC
Innsworth House
Imjin Barracks

Legal Aspects

The aircraft crashed at what is now part of Combe Valley Countryside Park, land owned by Hastings Borough Council, which they call ‘Tier 1’.

I have applied to MOD for permission to excavate the site because I think some parts of the airframe may be in a water-filled ditch which runs at the back of the three houses affected by the crash. Accordingly, the Ministry of Defence has specified me as the ‘named person’ for this crash excavation application in accordance with the Protection of Military Remains Act (1986). .

Key Importance of Conservation and Commemoration:

As English Heritage and Historic England both state: ‘The majority of aircraft losses in the 20th century have been related to military activity, and therefore they are automatically protected under the Protection of Military Remains Act (1986). Therefore, the records of aircraft crash sites across the Study Area are of interest; although the records appear to indicate Recorded Losses rather than known remains on the seabed, if these aircraft were to be found they would be of high importance.

Non-designated aircraft crash sites are also important, because they provide a tangible reminder of the development of the aviation industry in the UK throughout the 20th century. Because aircraft crash sites belong to recent history, they can also have significance; survivors and relatives may exist, and the sites can be important for remembrance and commemoration. Aircraft crash sites also have importance through their cultural value as historic artefacts and for the information they contain about the aircraft itself and its circumstances of loss (English Heritage 2002a; Wessex Archaeology 2008b). These can be considered important for remembrance and commemoration.’

You can also read about the importance of the site here

I am a Trustee of the national charity called Friends of Combe Valley and I am also fundraiser, historian and warden co-ordinator for Combe Valley.


I would like to acknowledge with thanks the great help of Alexis Markwick of Bexhill Museum support team, David Hatherell, air historian, Tom Fullam at the USAAF Air Library, Norwich and Sussex Police Heritage Officer Daryl Holter – and my dear wife Margaret (now sadly passed on 26th July 2021), for putting up with me while I researched it all. Love you forever.

David E P Dennis BA (Hons) FCIPD LCGI RAF

Copyright 2021 All photographs are mine except where stated under the image.

If any errors have been made in Copyright attribution, please let me know and they will be immediately corrected.

Deep Roots of the NHS

By David E P Dennis BA (Hons) FCIPD LCGI RAF


Despite all the controversy about Covid-19 pandemic politics, cancer and other huge waiting lists, insufficient PPE, we in Britain at least, seem to pass slowly through the fire though not unscathed, Now, we have to deal with the utter sadness of so many deaths and help the world itself to recover. At the time of writing, scientists warn us to be wary of the so-called Third Wave Indian Variant. Here in Britain, our salvation has been science and the great help and selfless care and dedication of the NHS and their wonderful staff.

But how did the staff know what to do? Where did the medical practices come from?

You can imagine the dreadful episodes of disease and infection 100,000 years ago. Maybe even then those far-off people, who are us, knew about the plant salves and how to treat their wounds. Perhaps there were ‘nurses’ back then – people who others turned to in desperation, as some sore or bone break caused agony after the hunt.

We use palaeontology and archaeology to seek answers from times before written history. Then, as writing began, evidence emerged that the Sumerians used medicine and cared for the sick (Teall, 2021). Later, the Greeks attempted to rationalise disease into simple categorical causes and thinkers in Arab lands of the Middle East and North Africa took these ideas up. But to what extent were Greek medical ideas changed by translation into Arabic and Latin – and how did they eventually reach UK medical practice and the NHS? This fascinating question requires an examination of Greek medical ideas in historical, geographical, and ideological contexts, as they flowed through translation, in diluted, damaged, or enhanced forms, to Arabic and Latin cultures.

Historians agree that Ancient Greek civilisation began in the Bronze Age, ending when Romans conquered Greece in 146 BCE. During that long period, Greek became the common language for intellectuals across Europe, the Mediterranean, North Africa, and parts of Asia. Greeks (Mycenaean, Macedonian, Hellenistic, and Greco-Roman) had developed and accepted a naturalistic view that the universe was composed of earth, air, fire, and water. Superimposed upon that matrix was a four-part common-sense medical concept of humorism, attributed primarily to Hippocrates, in which the effects of illness on wellbeing were obvious. For example, we know that vomiting produces a caramel yellow substance called in Latin – chyme and in Greek – khumos, which is partly digested food. To the Greeks, this together with the products of diarrhoea, was a covariant warm substance called ‘yellow bile’. Other body products often seen in illness and seldom in wellbeing were phlegm (cold), blood and black bile. The latter might be external wound-dried blood or dark ‘coffee-grounds’ digestion third-stage vomiting. These four ‘humors’ were linked imaginatively to the seasons. Humoral imbalances were ‘controlled’ by medicinal, often herbal, drugs and by ‘vomiting, purging, or the production of urine’ or ‘bloodletting’. The Hellenes, Arabs and European Latins easily understood this human concept. Yet, how was it vectored, changed or intact, from culture to culture?

While Greece and Egypt were being overwhelmed by Latin-speaking armies and Greek medical knowledge was being centralised in Rome and Alexandria, the diverse tribal sheikdoms of Arabia were still using speculative folk medicine and worshipping desert stone navigation markers, for understandable reasons. Only in 622 AD did the founder of Islam, Muhammad, begin unifying conquests of the Arabian tribes. After Muhammad passed, the Arabic-speaking Moors invaded Christian Spain in 711 AD and stayed in dominant or weaker states for the next 800 years. Roman Latins absorbed Greek medical ideas, eventually passing to Islam where they found their way back to the Latin world through many pathways, in a partly changed form, effected by intellectuals and translators. The problems they faced were these.

The root of the Greek language is a unique 3,400-year-old stem of the earlier Indo-European language group, yet with a Phoenician originated alphabet via Linear B. Arabic has a central Semitic Iron Age root coming out of the Anti-Lebanon mountains and Mesopotamia, yet its script is directly formed from Nabbatean Aramaic. The root of Latin is also Indo-European but heavily altered by Etruscan Iron Age peoples – the original occupants of Europe post-Africa. Written Latin is a combination of Etruscan and Greek scripts. Each verbal language is not linked to its written language by origin – a translational nightmare. People conversed, but few could write. Higher learning was still developing. Critical to the question, educated translators might not be medically trained and therefore in danger of mistranslating vital concepts. There were also religious objections. Overall, effective translators were hard to find.

Ancient societies bound populations to farm estates. Only upper echelon rulers or the professions could cross state/tribal boundaries. For example, warriors (Alexander’s army), doctors of medicine like Galen, a Greek employed by emperors Marcus Aurelius and Commodus in Rome, Rhazes, ibn Sina, ibn Rushd (Averroes) and Benzi. Travelling academics including translators, Dioscorides, Hunayn ibn Ishaq, Al-Ghazali (the Persian Arabic-speaker Algazel), al-Ghafiqi and sailor-traders, could take medical knowledge and pass it on, provided language was not a barrier. Sometimes it was possible to use semiotic hand-pointing and diagrams (Hunayn’s eye diagrams), to enhance understanding between people of different cultures but the overwhelming method of transmission was through writing – books and parchments. Though never error-free, Greek medical texts were read across the known world.

Yes, skilled translators with medical knowledge were needed but here it is necessary to examine the word ‘translation’. This can have two meanings, the common one of changing the coded signs or phonemes of language to new understandable equivalents – but also the ‘cloud-movement’ of ideas – almost a transubstantiation from an old concept to a new state of knowledge. Nowadays Christians talk of the ‘translation of the Host’ in Communion. This essay on the deep roots of the NHS, is more about the latter kind of translation – did something fundamentally new come out of the old during the communion of cultures? Was medical knowledge enhanced by both types of translation? In what order did this occur?

Conduits for the flow of Greek medical ideas into Arabic culture, with minor deliberate or inadvertent alteration, were mediated partly by Syriac translators of Greek into Arabic, by Nestorian Christians (via Abbasid patronage) and by wise Arabs both pre/post Islam. ‘Certainly, no Islamic author attempted to fundamentally revise humoral medicine’ (Ullmann, 1978, p.24). However, ‘translated texts provided the basis for a distinctive Islamic culture of medicine which continued and developed Greek ideas’. So, if Greek ideas were altered or enhanced by Islam, then to what extent?

First, it was necessary for translators to recognise a disease, but ‘there were no Arabic words for many of the diseases and symptoms described in Greek texts’. So, Greek ‘lethargos’ (inactive through forgetfulness) was changed to ‘litharghus’ (fatigue), thus changing the original meaning. Epilepsy, which Greeks knew as a ‘sacred disease’ (worshipful), became altered erroneously to Arabic ‘divine disease’ (God-given).  I translated treatments for snakebites verbatim despite a lack of such snakes in Islamic territories. Common words in each language for colours like red were used to describe inflammation. Errors crept in when the Greek for meningitis was altered twice into ‘quaranitis’. Therefore, ‘consciously or unconsciously’, the Arabs altered Greek medicine in a minor way. It was partly weakened because of religious bars on using pigs and alcohol in remedies, and ‘not all Hippocratic works were translated’. Greek medical knowledge was ‘subtly reshaped’. If Greek medical knowledge was reshaped by translation, transubstantiation, and omission by Arabic sources, then what effect did this have when Greek medical ideas were re-routed via the Middle East into Europe?

The high esteem Arabic translators had for Greek learning, embedded as it was in the burgeoning Islamic religion, meant that the warriors invading Spain, a Latin country, would bring in their train, people with Greek medical knowledge, partly altered or enhanced by Arab scholars. ‘Historians now agree that the greatest achievement of Islamic medical writers was to systematise Greek medicine’. Introducing Greek medical ideas into Latin cultures had intellectual cogency – it was not just common-sense or folk medicine but had a deep flavour of emerging science. Huge numbers of books, for example, the 10-volume Mansurian Book of Medicine, were organised by methods developed in Greek culture. Islamic wisdom improved these into remedial tools and sources of some power, aiding understanding of diet, hygiene, anatomy, and other aspects key to medical practice, like diagnosis, therapy, and surgery. Islamic medical knowledge was more detailed and systematic than the earlier Hippocratic ‘first attempts’. It had been stabilised, albeit filtered through religious precepts which removed aspects unacceptable to Islam.

As Islam moved into Latin Europe via Spain, Italy, Sardinia, and Sicily so the Islamic books of newly systemised knowledge were seen by Latin scholars. The problems began again with the need to transliterate where there were no Latin terms for Arabic medical knowledge. The obvious opportunity for any similarity in Greek to Latin roots (scripted in Etruscan) via Indo-European ancient language groups was missing because Greek ideas had already become Arabic ideas expressed in Semitic Nabbatean symbols, quite different to the Greek Phoenician script. Understandably, mistakes were made in translation and thus the already altered ‘qaranitis’, became ‘karabitus’. ‘European practitioners complained that the transliterated names of drugs were quite incomprehensible’.

In a breakthrough, at Monte Cassino, the Saracen monk Constantine Africanus, an Islamic convert to Christianity, began to translate Galen, Majusi, al-Jazzar and ibn Ishaq, without altering systematised Greek medical theories. Then Gerard of Cremona based at Toledo, capital of the Caliphate of Cordoba, worked on Ibn Sina (Avicenna – often a source of error and obscurities) and al-Qasim’s surgery texts. These and others found their way into the emerging universities employing competent remedial translators such as Leoniceno who graduated from the University of Padua and taught at the University of Ferrara. Niccolo Leoniceno was a brilliant man, whose work should be better celebrated. He was the first academic to write a science paper on syphilis. He wrote or accumulated hundreds of books, pointing the way to the academic route of textual evidence for learning. He had read Pliny’s Natural History and conducted a detailed criticism of his work, pointing out errors in understanding and especially in translation.

There was also an echo of Greek humorism still sounding from Roman times, not translated but absorbed practically into folk medicine treatments. Latin scholars, by then ‘standing on the shoulders of giants’ (Bernard, Newton) both Greek and Arabic, realised Greek medical knowledge was valuable and translated it directly, as well translating the great surge of coherent knowledge coming from Arab contact with Latin cultures. Gradually this massive effort in understanding diverse medical information assembled by different cultures, developed into a science.

In conclusion, the extent to which Greek medical ideas were diluted, damaged, or enhanced by translation into Arabic and Latin can be expressed as follows. For the minor meaning of ‘translation’ – converting symbols into meaning, there were several errors from Greek to Arabic. Basic concepts were preserved although there was less focus on body fluids. When Islamic scholars had systematised the knowledge base in Phoenician script, then Latin scholars made few errors because they had Arabic language roots or knowledge. For the major meaning of ‘translation’ as transubstantiation, Greek humoral theory was taken without significant error into Arab and then Islamic culture. This major transubstantiation reached its apogee when the Arabs systematized and enhanced the Greek medical knowledge onto a platform of great significance including surgery and diagnostics, albeit filtered by Islamic law. Latin practitioners refined this corpus further. Then western and middle eastern cultures continued to build a modern scientific medical system of remarkable excellence. So, overall, Greek medical ideas were not ‘changed’ for the worse by translation (of either type) but were positively changed by coherent preservation of knowledge and enhanced into the lifesaving systems we have today.

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Copyright: David E P Dennis BA (Hons) FCIPD LCGI RAF 2021

References / Bibliography

Ullman, M. (1978) Islamic Medicine, Edinburgh, Edinburgh University Press.

Quotation: ‘…standing on the shoulders of giants.

Original idea or concept from Bernard of Chartres (12th century) and paraphrased by Sir Isaac Newton in 1675 as, ‘If I have seen further, it is by standing on the shoulders of giants.’

What happened before the Greeks? To go further back to Sumerian times you can read the superb essay by Emily K. Teall, Honors College Graduate, Grand Valley State University: via the Brewminate Website.

Roman Might: Etruscan Plight

by David EP Dennis BA (Hons) FCIPD LCGI RAF


During the early formation of Italy, how did tiny Rome come to dominate and then totally absorb established Etruria? Why is it that we now speak of the ‘mighty Roman Empire’ and not the ‘invincible Etruscan hegemony’? This short essay cannot resolve all the fierce debates as academics strive to discern kernels of truth embedded in the mythic origin of Rome. Instead, it sets out to show that a single factor made the final difference between faltering Etruscan expansion and Roman domination: who had the greater grip on reality?

To reach a resolution, we have to move from a time of myth – a cloud of unknowing in early development, called the orientalising period, to a time of fact. Near East farming cultures permeated the Mediterranean. Greeks (Graikoi) came to the Italian peninsula, bringing with them the implacable militaristic world of Homer. Yet facts are scarce, sources conflicting, – if we cannot tease truth from myth, then we have to look at products.

Etruscans and Romans were humans, and being human, then to verify purported facts from early writers, we may legitimately use our knowledge of the way people think, their customs and religions, and by archaeology – of settlements, weapons, writings and tomb DNA.

Evolution, disease, aggression, and famine have thinned our ancestors down to a single species – homo sapiens. Yet within the species culturally, humans are extremely diverse in outlook and belief. Caution is needed: the views of men rather than women predominate; Roman rhetoric might not be the best guide to Etruscan thought; purported ‘history’ turns out to be myth. A dry list of battles cannot reveal thoughts and motivations, so using primary and secondary sources, this essay looks at evidence for likely mindsets on both sides of the Roman/Etruscan psychodrama to discover the psychological tipping point that enabled Rome to rise, leaving Etruria quiescent?

The fate of cultural groups is traced directly to decisions by men and women. Hills, forests, rivers and farmland plains of the Italian peninsula are merely the landscape stage on which the acts of the ‘play’ are revealed. No civilisation has a right to eternal dominance. However, for readers new to this part of world history, it is necessary to explain that the core of Etruscan civilisation emerged gradually from the Stone Age through to the Villanovan Iron Age of ninth century BCE, in what is now northern Italy. By the fifth century, Italy was patterned with many cultures, languages and beliefs. Intergroup expansionist wars and disruption by foreign invaders reached a crux in which the highly effective army of Rome began to dominate and extinguish Etruscan identity. Instead of coalescing from city states into a nation, the Etruscans fought each other, city vying with city. Fatally, Etruscans also partnered with the enemies of Rome, including the Samnites and Carthaginians.

Etruria was never a nation, it was a language and landscape-linked social structure, formed by a collective group of hill villages and Tyrrhenian coastal settlements, whose people shared common gods and rituals, partly copied from the Greeks. Etruria existed before Romans began to build their own tiny village group on the volcanic hills above Tiberian malarial marshes. Etruscans developed a fundamentally religious and artistic culture led by priests (cepen), expanding their control further south in what is now Italy and also began foreign adventures, becoming rich in the process.  

As the Etruscans expanded, so tiny Rome also grew. In between the two cultures was a dark, almost impenetrable Ciminian forest (Silva Ciminia). Myths and legends echo the acceptance of Sabine and Etruscan kings, then Romans banished them and became an efficient militaristic Republic. It is key to the evolution of Rome and the decline of Etruscan power, that the Romans and Etruscans had different languages (Latin/Oscan), gods and beliefs. It is the contention of this essay that the fate of Etruria was inevitable because Etruscans misunderstood reality to a dangerous degree.

Understanding reality

Reality is what happens whether you like it or not. To protect yourself from harsh truth about the world, life and death, you can use the mental protection salve of myth and religion.  Or, because the legendary past does not exist, you can face up to reality. In some societies, children are not given that choice.

When you wake up, you hope your parents will still be there. They will give you breakfast and show you how to behave. They will explain their own view of the universe to you and encourage you to believe it. Only later might you discover an independence of mind. However, if the religious teaching is so fervently intense, it may be almost impossible for you to emerge from it unscathed. Your mindset will have become possessed by the gods of your parents and ancestors.

As primary sources reveal, so it was with the Etruscans – their beliefs were exclusive and permanent. They had derived from the spreading cultural and religious memes of the pre-Babylonians. Humans had no idea how the universe was formed, so they made up stories. The forces of nature were said to have godlike powers – perhaps they were really anthropomorphic gods – a sun god, wind, lightning and harvest gods.

Once farming began, animals were domesticated, bred and used as food. Hens, sheep, cattle and goats were butchered to fill the pot every day. The livers of these animals, although of normal shape for each species, seemed to the Etruscans to have variable marks which might help to show the will of the gods. Etruscan priests reshaped and renamed the natures and characteristics of Greek gods. Despite Etruscan religion appearing like Greek religion to outsiders, it was very different to Greek and Roman belief.

To understand Etruscan religious thinking, we need to consider two central elements: animism and teleology. The Etruscans, and many other peoples in early times, believed that the universe had a spiritual essence or soul and that, for example, rivers, forests and thunderstorms were not inanimate but alive with an essence of the gods – things that are plainly inanimate to us, were animate to them. The Etruscans gathered together observations about their animistic world and placed them in sacred books (Etrusca disciplina). All these books have been lost, but Etruscan tomb carvings show them held lovingly, or used as pillows. We can glimpse the partial content of these lost books through the works of later writers who had access to some of them. Key to the animistic beliefs in these books was that the liver, where blood was thought to originate, was the seat of the soul.

We now turn from animism to teleology. Current scientific theories derived from the physics of the early universe, are accepted by many as showing an inanimate and undirected path to evolution of our world. If we even use the phrase ‘we are here because of an amazing series of accidents which refined the nuclear fine structure constant to be perfect for our existence’ then we immediately fall into the animism and teleological trap. There is no previously planned direction to the evolution of the universe. This is not to infer that religious belief is an intellectual crime, nor to deny the efficacy of religious belief in giving succour in an implacable universe. Many millions love their religion and find it a great comfort. However, it has been shown that there is a space in the brain for religious thinking and that humans naturally default toward teleological explanations for aspects of the world that are totally without direction. Important here is the early discussion of Darwinian evolution in which Man is said to be the ultimate goal – a stupor mundi – wonder of creation. Whereas in truth anything alive is just as wonderful. There is no evidence to show that Man is more or less important to evolution that an ichneumon parasitic wasp. Life exists, but it does not have a purpose. However, to the Etruscans this philosophical stance would be sacrilege. The animistic goal-directed purpose of the liver was, teleologically, to reveal the future.

When Christianity began to take hold, the early fathers of the church condemned pagan superstition and animism, making martyrs of those who resisted. This at the same time as they accepted the miracles of the virgin birth, walking on water, water into wine, feeding the five thousand, rising from the dead and the truly phantasmagorical doctrine of chiliasm, in which trillions of dead would finally rise up at the command of an angel’s trumpet, to sit with God for eternity. It was from this fantastic yet supervening religious stance that the Berber Christian writer Arnobius (in Haynes, 2000, p.270) was able to say:

Etruria is the begetter and mother of superstition. (Arnobius, Adv. Nat. 7.26.)

Even before Christianity embedded, the Roman writer Livy declared:

Etruria is a nation devoted beyond all others to religious rites – and all the more because it excelled in the art of observing them. (Livy (5.1.6)

Like crossing your fingers, avoiding the cracks in the pavement and not walking under ladders, Etruscans were convinced that they were enmeshed in a mythic landscape which required them to behave in certain ways or be damned by the gods. They believed that gods had powers and that fate could be revealed by divining meaning from entrails in a practice called haruspice.

Learned academics and every other reader of early history will know that the Romans too were superstitious, worshipped various gods derived from the Greeks, and used not their own but Etruscan haruspice.

So what was the fundamental difference between the beliefs of the Etruscans and those of the Romans? This is revealed in the most important and deeply analytical quote by Seneca the Younger (Sen Q. nat 2.32.2 in Haynes, 2000, p.270) and it gives a major clue to why Roman might led to Etruscan plight:

This is the difference between us and the Etruscans, who have consummate skill in interpreting lightning: we (Romans) think that because clouds collide, lightning is emitted. They (the Etruscans) believe that clouds collide in order that lightning may be emitted.

Seneca goes on to say:

Since they attribute everything to divine agency, they are of the opinion that things do not reveal the future because they have occurred, but that they occur because they are meant to reveal the future.

Even accepting the hold which animism and teleology had on early thinkers, this is such a remarkable reworking of the way the universe operates in reality, that it ensures that fervent Etruscans lived in a helpless dream perpetuated by haruspicing priests. For the practical common-sense Romans, B (lightning) happens because of A (clouds colliding). A is the action and B the product. For the myth-sodden Etruscans – B (clouds) think, animistically conspire and plan to make A (lightning) happen. B is the action and A is the product.  

The Roman view is concessionary yet pragmatic: Gods might exist so we will nod to them while we continue our inexorable progress – building roads and winning battles.  The Etruscan view is passively animistic and teleological. If Romans lose a battle, then they try to understand why. If Etruscans lose a battle, it was the will of the gods and nothing can be done about it.

Raphael (1483-1520 CE) caught the essence of this dilemma of possibilities in his famous ‘Academy’ painting The School of Athens, with two Latin putti inscriptions – ‘seek knowledge of causes’ and ‘knowledge of things divine’. At the top of the steps, Plato points heavenward and Aristotle to earth. In this painting almost all the thinkers are men – and in Roman society women found it difficult to promote their own world view of ideas. There is no evidence that Etruscan women fared better. In fact, the rejected academic efforts of Momigliano to prove Tanaquil as a matriarch example, leave us with a picture only of what Romans thought of Etruscan women, not what they really believed. The work of Livy and Dionysius of Halicarnassus effectively parodies Etruscan women as people who ‘perita ut volgo etrusci, prodigiorum mulier’ – knew how to interpret prodigies – including the eagle and cap incident and the head of a boy bursting into flames (Cantarella, 1987, p.102). Etruscan women could come and go as they pleased, reclining on banqueting couches with men – not slaves, yet not matriarchs either, and certainly not capable of realising the folly of liver divination. Etruscan men and women alike, were trapped in their culture and their time, far more than the Romans, who gave their nods to what might be, whilst attending to what is.

The Romans, with their practical and militaristic mindset, realised that though the entrails might theoretically predict victory or defeat, it was up to them to overturn fate. To the Etruscans, the idea of overturning fate was impossible. Nothing can be done if the face of the gods is turned against us – and how will we know? The priests will tell us. The fact that the priests were just ordinary men, and that one pile of goat entrails is very like another, seems to have escaped the Etruscans.

The Fatted Calf

As the Etrurian cities became richer, so Etruscans realised the need for defence. Italy was a dangerous place, with three types of conflict: fighting between aristocratic families, conflict caused by the migratory impulsion of peoples, such as Greeks and Phoenicians, to move into the territories of others, and marauding Celtic tribes from the north, expanding their territories through raids. Initially, both the Roman Army and the Etruscans had adopted the Greek hoplite style of heavily-armed spearmen.

The significant evolutionary difference between the Roman Army and Etruscan fighting troops was that the Romans adopted the deep phalanx. In a narrow phalanx those at front facing a terrifying enemy could easily flee and the thin phalanx would then collapse, perhaps losing the battle. In the deep phalanx, it was harder for the front rank to run. Adrian Goldsworthy in his book The Complete Roman Army (2018), points to this moment in which practical decisions about fighting changed Rome from a set of hill villages into an inexorable force: the development of the deep phalanx marked the growth of Roman’s population and was also a sign that a significant part of that population owned land. With the deep phalanx, the Romans could easily win battles when fighting in open country, but initially it meant winning in local squabbles, tactical rather than strategic. It is a tradition rather than pure myth, that early Roman commanders adopted the phalanx after they had encountered Etruscan hoplites. Once again, we have our prime sources in Livy and Dionysius. They describe the Comitia Centuriata and Servian Reforms in full detail. The wealthy Romans had a greater say in the formation and structure of a sound defence (of their property). So, in one inspirational decision not produced by haruspice, but by practical knowledge of what works in battle, the deep phalanxes of the Roman Army gave the Roman aristocratic families a way of gaining even more wealth from the rich fatted lands of Etruria.

The End is Nigh

Polybius (Walbank and Scott-Kilvert 1979), detailed how the Roman Army had improved so much by the second century despite being a temporary militia subject to ‘farmer call-up’. The consular army, with its cavalry on the wings and the triarii, principes and hastati triple formation of the legions, produced a fearless and inexorable fighting force. Key to this was the deep phalanx method of putting the triarii of most experienced soldiers at the rear. Since the youngest – the hastati, even if they panicked, turned and ran could not get past the calming and wise triarii at the back, then warfighting with legions became Rome’s greatest acquisitive weapon.

It is easy to see from this that military wisdom was deeply practical and that the deeply false rationale of Etruscan thinking would fail. The Etruscan religion preached that armies lost because the gods made them lose. Roman commanders prayed to the gods but reorganised their deep phalanxes in perfect arrangement for winning, without the help of any gods. Interpreting spots on liver is not going to give you an advantage in war. Instead you need to watch when the fresh-faced young understandably try to run and how to overcome that fear. Etruscans feared their gods. The Roman Army was its own invincible god and it understood the psychology of fear in war. It had a victory mindset.


The critical state of Italy in the fifth through third centuries, with social unrest and political strife, called for a sense of purpose. The clearheaded purpose of the single city of Rome was to dominate through the use of its well-constructed army. The religiously oversaturated Etruscans, with their aristocratic rivalries – city against city and their failure to strive for a national identity, made them an easy prey. The Etruscans, poking hopefully at their animal livers, must have thought the gods were against them as their major trading partner, Sybaris, was destroyed, wrecking trade with the Greeks in the south of Italy. A Cumaean-Latin alliance beat the Etruscans at the Battle of Aricia and then the Cumaeans with the help of the Syracusans, defeated the Etruscan Navy. The Etruscans lost their coastline supply routes. The desperately unwise attack on Sutrium, not far from Rome in 311 BCE, caused the Romans to attack several Etrurian cities through a series of battles, forcing Etruria into a thirty-year truce. A rebound on Rome by Etruscans and Umbrians was defeated by Quintus Fabius Maximus. Desperate Etruscans then allied with Samnites and invading Gauls. The superb Roman Army of some 36,000 men, did occasionally lose, but once Samnites and Gauls were defeated, the Etruscan cities saw in their goat entrails that it was time to join Rome as allies, just in time to help Rome fight the Greeks. Etruscans faded, not because their gods failed them, but because their gods never existed, yet reality certainly did.

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Cantarella, E. (1993) Pandora’s Daughters – The Role and Status of Women in Greek & Roman Antiquity, trans. M. Fant (1981) Baltimore, The John Hopkins University Press.

Goldsworthy. A. (2018) The Complete Roman Army, London, Thames & Hudson.

Haynes, S. (2000) Etruscan Civilization – A Cultural History, London, The British Museum Press.

Livy, The History of Rome, Books 1-5, trans. V. Warrior (2006) Indianapolis, Hackett Publishing.

Walbank, F. and Scott-Kilvert, I. (1979). The Rise of the Roman Empire, London, Penguin Classics. 

Background Reading

Campbell, B. (2011) The Romans and their World – a Short Introduction, Yale, Yale University Press.

Swaddling, J. and Bonfante, L. (2006) Etruscan Myths, London, The British Museum Press.

This is my own unaided work. Copyright 2021 by David EP Dennis BA (Hons) FCIPD LCGI RAF


The Old Coach Road

by David EP Dennis BA (Hons) FCIPD LCGI RAF

This essay is part of the overall History of Combe Valley. The Old Coach Road enabled commerce between Crowhurst and Bulverhythe in East Sussex, England. It has a fascinating history.

Postcard from Wikimedia Commons

In 1756, soldiers were dying, crammed together in the Black Hole of Calcutta. We were at war with France and a massive hurricane struck England. It was a tumultuous year, with George II on the throne and Thomas Pelham-Holles, First Duke of Newcastle about to resign as Prime Minister.

Another Pelham, Colonel Thomas Pelham, the owner of Crowhurst Park was in a bad mood. Some miserable person – an estate tenant no less, called Polhill had ruined his beautiful coach road by carting in bad weather. Pelham had built the road at his own expense just for the locals and now the local ‘peasants’ were wrecking it. He was furious, and wrote to a Mr Collier on 20th May 1756:

‘I am concerned to hear that my private road is almost as bad as the highway, which is very hard – when ’tis chiefly for you gentlemen in the neighbourhood.’

As you can see from this modern photo, not much has changed – the winter weather makes for a muddy morass.

So where was the Old Coach Road and what was it really for?

It started at the Roman Iron Ore mine and Bloomery at Beauport, then found a course along Telham Ridge to Crowhurst Park, down to Upper Wilting Farm and on across the fields right through the middle of Monkham Wood, until it reached the Combe Haven river at a place called Coach Bridge.

Here it crossed over the Combe Haven, and went straight up the hill to Pebsham Farm, down to St Mary’s Church ruins and on to Bulverhythe.

Here’s a section of the modern path from Upper Wilting Farm but the Old Coach Road runs along the hedges on the horizon to the left of this picture.

Shortly after this point things degenerate into the famous morass again.

You can imagine that this Coach Road was used by all the local people – those who worked on Pelham’s estates and those who worked at local communities such as Bexle (Bexhill), Pepplesham (Pebsham), Filsham, Worsham and Bulverhith (Bulverhythe), the ancient harbour of Domesday Bullington that has mostly fallen into the sea due to great storms and coastal erosion.

This was not a mail coach service, but more of a horse and trap or carting service, because at Bulverhythe and Bexhill large quantities of chalk were unloaded from the cliffs at Eastbourne. Beachy Head was being mined for chalk. The chalk was then turned into lime in furnace kilns and spread on the fields to increase crop yields.

The Wagons may have looked like this:

Both images: Wikimedia Commons

When Hasting Area Archaeological Research Group (HAARG) first began to examine Colonel Pelham’s carting road they thought there might be a Roman road underneath it. It turned out to be entirely an 18th century estate road – but it may have followed an earlier pathway to the coast because a broach pin dating to 1400 AD was found by the side of the road.

In the 1700s, the Combe Haven River (formerly the Asten) was tidal to Pebsham (Pepplesham) – at Coach Bridge and Filsham (where the SSSI reed beds are now). There was a landing quay at Coach Bridge where, when the tides were right, goods could be put on boats and taken to Bulverhythe.

As well as chalk for the lime kilns, the type of goods moved by these boats were: cattle being brought to summer pasture on the main marshes, the carting of wood for charcoal and home fires – and dare we say it – smuggling!

You could a take a boat to Bulverhythe or stay on board and row to Bo-peep, as the Combe Haven had two outflows back then. Nowadays one of them is blocked by Ravenside Retail Park and the other by sluice gates. The land was owned by ancient families – the Pelhams, Papillons, Worshams, Peppleshams and the likes – mostly farming landowners who were also into politics.

So what did these people look like? Well here’s one of the Pelhams:

Henry Pelham by John Shackleton – Wikimedia Commons

Crowhurst Park History says: ‘The much coveted symbol of the park is the Pelham Buckle, said to have been awarded to John de Pelham for his part in the capture of King John of France at the Battle of Poitiers in 1356. The buckle first appeared on the coat of arms of the Earl of Chichester, originally known as Baron Pelham of Stanmer. The Pelicans which also feature on the coat of arms are a play on the name ‘Pelham’ and the buckles which adorn the coat of arms are said to represent those of the surrendered sword of King John.’

You had to have plenty money to employ people to build a road like this. It seems it was built for heavy use, with turf in the centre and gravel on the outsides and with sandstone curbs. The road had a good camber and the depth of construction was 70cms in four layers.

So where was it built?: Here’s an overview of the road marked in red:

This map with a red line of the Old Coach Road is based on a map of 1813, so not many years after it was built. Nowadays you can walk some sections and not others. For example, the Old Coach Road went straight up the hill from the Coach Bridge Quay (at Waypoints 54, 5, 6 to 58 of the Combe Valley map), so right over where the Tip is now and straight over to Pebsham Lake. So the path we walk now from the top of the Tip down the slope to Pebsham Lake is around 100 ft lower than the Old Coach Road, but when it gets to the latch gate at Pebsham Lane and then goes down to the back of the Bexhill Road Garden Centre – that is part of the Old Coach Road at Waypoints 45 to 44 of the Combe Valley map.

Also, the cut through to the river from the Tip Path (that some of us call ‘Dragonfly Alley) is also part of the Old Coach Road and Coach Bridge is right there. In days gone by, if the tide was right, you could have stepped off the Quay and you could have got onto a boat with your cargo of wood and sailed or rowed to Bulverhythe near St Mary’s Chapel.

For a broader view in relations to Bexhill – see this map:

Back then…maybe more birds singing in the trees – a carter whistling away, quiet landscapes of dragonfly willows and heron reeds, the clip-clop of horses, but the insects would have been mostly the same. So let us treasure what we have – and don’t upset the cart!

Happy Days.

All photographs by David E P Dennis BA (Hons) FCIPD LCGI RAF except where stated. Copyright 2021

A Wonderful Walk in Dorset

by David EP Dennis BA (Hons) FCIPD LCGI RAF

Looking back down to Lulworth Cove from the cliff path to Durdle Door Rock Arch

A Jurassic Coast Walk

Next spring or summer – or if you’re brave enough, in winter – go to Lulworth Cove in Dorset, England and walk over the cliff paths to Durdle Door rock arch and back. It will make you fit and happy. You’ll get to breathe in some clean sea air. Lay down in the clifftop grasses and absorb peace and tranquility. You’ll see kestrels hunting and (in summer) hundreds of butterflies including the beautiful Marbled White. There are huge views to Portland Bill from the clifftops – and good shops and cafes next to the car park in Lulworth Village. In summer – get there early as the roads are jammed later, on sunny days.

Once you’ve parked your car, walk down to the beach. You’ll pass the public toilets – always useful before you start on your walk over the cliffs. There’s a stream to see, ducks and some lovely thatched cottages…

Lulworth Thatched Cottage

Lulworth Cove is part of the Jurassic Coast where dinosaurs hunted each other. Over millions of years, the sea has carved an almost perfect arc out of the chalk, making a beautiful a harbour anchorage for small boats.

Lulworth Cove – Bringing home the Catch

Take a stroll around the water’s edge and look at the Jurassic Cliffs with their amazing geology.

The Jurassic Cliffs at Lulworth Cove

Once you have visited the cove and cliffs, turn back up to the car park at the top of the village and begin your walk to Durdle Door Rock Arch.

Path from Lulworth Cove to Durdle Door

Walk up nice and slow – taking in the views and the wildlife. Sit down every now and then to admire the developing landscape view and get your breath back. It’s a good idea to wear walking shoes and to take a drink, a snack – and a rain-cape just in case of a shower.

Once you reach the top of the cliff path, the views are terrific! You’re looking out across the English Channel towards Portland Bill promontory.

The view to Portland Bill

As you climb up and walk down to Durdle Door Rock Arch, you’ll kestrels hunting and lots of butterflies in summer.

Kestrel hunting on Lulworth Cliffs
Marbled White Butterfly (Melanargia galathea)

Now it’s time to walk slowly down to Durdle Door. Pace yourself because you will need to come back up the path again to get back to your car – unless you have a friend with a car who can pick you up at the end of the first walk stage down in the dip. But if you do the walk in both directions you will feel proud to be so fit! Go for it!

The side of Durdle Door opposite to the famous rock arch
A Jurassic geological paradise

Have a good look at the remarkable geology of vertical planes in the cliffs. Then walk over the rise to the famous rock arch.

The famous Durdle Door Rock Arch

Now it’s time to walk back over the cliff path to Lulworth and back to your car. You’ll be a little more tired, so have plenty of stops. You’ll see – in spring and summer, lots of boating activity – coastal tours by motor launch – and kayaking.

Kayak tours below the cliffs of the Jurassic Coast at Lulworth and Durdle Door

If you look back towards Durdle Door and over it, into the distance, from the cliff top, you’ll see the next section of the coast path – to Bat’s Head.

Dorset’s Jurassic Coast – Bat’s Head and Bat’s Hole with Portland in the distance.

Back down you go. In summer hundreds of butterflies will accompany you.

Small Tortoiseshell butterfly (Nyphalis urticae)
Lulworth to Durdle Door – the Jurassic coast path milestone

Then say goodbye to Durdle Door – but keep your fond memories – and photos! Slowly wander down to the village for a meal, or coffee and buns – and do some shopping too. You will notice how the car park has filled up. So the key to this magnificent walk is – start early and leave – either before the rush home – or after they’ve all gone!

Say goodbye to Durdle Door
The car park at Lulworth Cove – enough room for everyone – but narrow roads in and out.

Enjoy! I certainly did.


Route details:

You can take all day over this route and take a picnic. There and back it is around 2.6 miles and if you never stop it will take you around 1 hour and 10 minutes there and back – but what’s the rush? Geology – scenery- wildlife – picnic. Slow down and be thrilled by it all.

Photography attributions:

All photos by David E P Dennis BA (Hons) FCIPD LCGI RAF.- the author, except for:

Durdle Door Sunset and Durdle Door aerial shot: these two by Saffron Blaze – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0,

Saffron Blaze, via

The Vikings – and the Mystery of Castle Toll

by David EP Dennis BA (Hons) FCIPD LCGI RAF

In the year 2000, the publishing house, Tempus released a book by the geologist Jill Eddison titled – Romney Marsh – Survival on a Frontier.

The book contained, in chapter 4, a description of an attack in the year 892 AD in the Marsh area, by a large Viking fleet. These Vikings procured between 230 and 280 ships from Boulogne, so the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle says. They sailed up an estuary in the Romney Marsh area and raided ‘a half-built fortress’, containing, ‘a few peasants’.

1. Imaginative concept of Viking Invasion

In her book, Jill Eddison makes a strange statement. She says, ‘It only remains very difficult to identify any possible credible location for the half-built fort.‘ This article explains that the only credible location for this fort is Castle Toll.

2. The remains of the Castle Toll Hill Fort near Newenden in Kent, England

It is a mystery why Jill, a scientist living in the Marsh area as the Secretary of the Romney Marsh Research Group, did not know of its existence in the year 2000. It had already been listed as ancient monument and excavated as far back as 1971 and its history specified in detail by Historic England.

A further and far more complex mystery connects Castle Toll to King Alfred who fought the Vikings. Here’s the background to this mystery.

Castle Toll and the Vikings

The River Rother drains a large part of East Sussex and the Kent border. Its headstreams originate as far away as Crowborough and Wadhurst and it now flows into the sea at Rye Harbour. Before the 13th Century’s great storms, the river complex was much larger and the coast we know now was more of an inland sea, called the Limen, with the Brede Valley tributary flooded to Sedlescombe and Whatlington (King Harold’s manor), near Battle, with a long history of trading with early Europe. There was a ferry across the flood at Newenden.

Back before 890 AD, in the middle of the flood, a developing island burh (fortified settlement), now called Castle Toll, stood proud. It was farmed land and a bastion for the Saxons.

3. Vikings on the move – big trouble ahead!

In the winter of 892 AD, the horizon darkened as 280 ships of the Viking fleet left Boulogne and sailed to Castle Toll. On board were 5,000 heavily-armed Danish Vikings, led by their chieftain Haesten, who quickly killed the farmers on the island, then moved on to Appledore, (known then as ‘Apuldre’), where they captured the population and settled in their Isle of Oxney encampment for the winter, raiding and plundering the nearby farmers and Anglo-Saxon nobles of booty.

4. King Alfred the Great

King Alfred spent much of his life fighting the Vikings. He sent his army to Appledore and after some desperate fighting managed to chase the Viking army into Surrey, where they were defeated at the Battle of Farnham in 893 by Edward the Elder, the king’s son, who recovered the stolen goods. The harried remainder fled to Benfleet in Essex and lost another battle in 894. Haesten’s wife and children were captured with the help of Earl Aethelred of Mercia (Alfred’s son-in-law), but it is said they were ‘returned because they had been baptised as Christians’.

Many Vikings perished, and the rest took what ships they could to flee back to Scandinavian ports. From then on, the coast of England was constantly harried by repeated invasions of large Viking fleets including those of the notorious Jomsviking Thorkill Havi (The Tall), father of Edith Swanneshals (Swan Neck). Eventually England became a Viking kingdom under Canute, in 1016 AD.

5. The Viking Fleet approach the shore.

Yet there is even more to Castle Toll than this. It seems possible, though controversial, that Castle Toll is actually Eorpeburnan, the first Saxon fortified settlement in the long list of Burghal Hidage forts set up by King Alfred. His defensive principle being that each fort would be no more than twenty miles from another, so the local population could flee with their families to a protected encampment and help defend it against the Vikings.

By the mid-10th Century, Rollo and his Vikings had been granted land outside Paris (911 AD), and formed the Dukedom of Normandy. As Viking culture evolved into militaristic Norman Christianity, then Norsemen captured England once more at the Battle of Hastings in 1066. So, in a way England had become a Viking kingdom once again.

The small raised island of rich farming soil at Castle Toll became a real Norman castle then, sitting as it does near the Hexden Channel – ideal for shallow draught shipping to the continent. In 2019 – now in ruins and heavily predated by agriculture, it still consists of a Norman ‘motte and bailey’ but with sparse evidence of former Roman, Saxon and Viking times. Burghal Hidage forts often had the right to strike Saxon coinage, though when the Vikings struck, there was no mint yet formed here.

Much heritage history remains to be discovered at this legally protected and listed ancient monument. It may even have been formed as a raised encampment on the Celtic Regnenses (Regnoi)/Cantiaci tribal border before the Romans arrived in strength at the direction of the Emperor Claudius, in 43 AD.

Those of you who loved to delve into early English history will enjoy reading the many written ‘battles’ as academics try to prove, one way or another, if Castle Toll really is Eorpeburnan. It is said by some, that Kent had its own defensive system and was not part of the Wessex of King Alfred. Certainly, the border between Kent and Sussex once ran down the centre of Pevensey Marshes. Later there are documents which suggest that Sussex was much larger and that what is now part of east Kent is where the county border was. Now in 2019 – the border is further east beyond Rye, so it may well be that Castle Toll was really in Sussex in King Alfred’s time, not Kent for a while, when tribal and administrative border ‘perceptions’ moved back and forth over time. If this could be proved, then Castle Toll probably is Alfred’s Eorpeburnan.

6. The low mound of Castle Toll – full of history and mystery from Roman times to the present day

Newenden itself has fascinating history. In 791 AD, King Offa of Mercia gave the Saxon manor of Newenden to the Prior and Monks of Canterbury. Then in 1242, came the Carmelite monks who settled here. Possibly building St Peter’s Church and installing a very old Norman font from elsewhere – and shortly after this may have invented the game of cricket, first mentioned in 1300 AD. In later days there was a two-room Toll Cottage at Newenden opposite the site of the old fortified encampment – hence the current name – Castle Toll. This cottage was knocked down in 1963.

I hope that one day archaeologists can really study the whole of Castle Toll in much greater detail – including the surrounding land which was once the sea. Who knows what might be buried there?!

Further Reading:

Heritage at Risk: Castle Toll:

The Eorpeburnan Controversy:

Photograph attributions:

 (1) “Normannenfahrt. Nach dem Gemälde von O. Wergeland.

(2) David E P Dennis BA (Hons) FCIPD LCGI RAF – the author – copyright 2021


(4) Wikimedia Commons

(5) Slaget fandt sted i 1184. (Christian Blache 1838 – 1920)



(8) By Oast House Archive, CC BY-SA 2.0,


The Mary Stanford Lifeboat Disaster, Rye Harbour – the Latvian Connection

by David EP Dennis BA (Hons) FCIPD LCGI RAF

Commemoration of 15th November 1928

Mary Stanford Disaster Commemoration Window – St Thomas-a-Becket church, Winchelsea

A few days ago, I came across a tweet on my Twitter account in a foreign language. It was a reply to the tweet I made of the image above – the commemoration stained glass window in St Thomas-a-Becket, Winchelsea, East Sussex. All I could understand in the foreign tweet was the name of a ship – Alice. Carrying out further research I found the language was Latvian.

So what is the Latvian connection to this terrible tragedy where the entire lifeboat crew of 17 men were drowned in the sea off Rye?

The Old Lifeboat House, Rye Harbour

In the late evening of the 14th November 1928 it was raining and the wind was howling at over 80 miles per hour. In the early hours of the 15th November, thought to be about 4am, a small steamship called Alice of Riga (Riga is the capital of Latvia) collided in the pitch dark with a much larger German ship – the Smyrna. The collision ripped open a hole in the side of the Alice and took off her rudder. The captain of the Smyrna could see that rescuing the crew of the Alice was impossibly dangerous but he alerted the coastguard and at five minutes to five the first maroon rocket calling out the lifeboat crew was fired.

Despite the utterly appalling weather, the 17 brave men of Rye got up, pulled on their very basic cork life-jackets and launched their lifeboat into the raging surf. Some were as young as 17. To get to the lifeboat they had to walk 1.5 miles in a wind that was so strong that they could hardly stand up – but they were determined to save life if they could.

They finally managed to get the boat into the water and begin to row out into the storm. Unbeknown to them, at 06.50, Rye Coastguard were finally aware of the captain of the Smyrna’s message – that he and his crew had bravely and miraculously managed to save the entire crew of the Alice. The captain had sent his message at 06.12 to Ramsgate Coastguard who were unaware of what was happening at Rye , so did not treat the message as a priority.

So still, the outstandingly brave men of the Rye lifeboat, The Mary Stanford, were rowing towards the rudderless Alice.

Once the coastguard knew that the crew of the Alice of Riga had been rescued, they began to fire the recall flares over and over, but the wind and rain was so bad that their efforts were thwarted.

Then, onshore several people saw the lifeboat tumble in a massive wave. It went over, casting the men into the dark and freezing sea. After much horror and sadness, 15 men’s bodies were recovered along with their lifeboat. The men – a true band of brothers, were buried together in communal grave. One more man was washed up at Eastbourne and he too was eventually interred with his colleagues. One person has never been found. It hit Rye hard and since the relatives of those brave men are still alive – it still is deeply sad.

Wikipedia records the names of the lost heroes: The seventeen men were the coxswain, Herbert Head (47), two sons James Alfred (19) and John S (17); Joseph Stonham (43), 2nd Coxswain; Henry Cutting (39), Bowman and his two brothers Roberts Redvers (28) and Albert Ernest (26); Charles Frederick David (28), Robert Henry (23) and Lewis Alexander (21) Pope, three brothers; William Thomas Albert (27) and Leslie George (24) Clark, brothers; Arthur William (25) (more likely to be Arthur George A) and Morris(s) James (23) Downey, cousins; Albert Ernest Smith (44), Walter Igglesden (38) and Charles Southerden (22).

Because the Alice of Riga was a Latvian vessel, members of the Latvian government came to the funeral of the men of the Mary Stanford. The vessel was a collier carrying a cargo of bricks. It had 14 Latvian seamen on board. So a close bond has developed between Rye and Latvia.

If you want to know what ‘brave’ is – this is it.

Copyright 2021 David EP Dennis BA (Hons) FCIPD LCGI RAF

You can read more about this disaster here:

The End of Local Christianity?

by David EP Dennis BA (Hons) FCIPD LCGI RAF

A doorway at St John the Baptist – Westfield Church, East Sussex, England

Christianity in England has Her Majesty the Queen as Defender of the Faith. This has come about after centuries of bloodshed between Catholics and Protestants. Each side had its Archbishops burned by the other. Yet Christian religion was strong – the idea of faith – the belief in Jesus Christ, still embedded in the mind. How else could the universe be here? Did not God make Man in his own likeness?

Then along came physics and the scientific method followed by a fight back by the creationists. Now the main problems for local Christianity seem to be falling congregations and falling churches. Beware the Cromwells! The ‘poling-out’ and smashing of stained glass windows by Oliver Cromwell’s men and before him the mass vandalism and art atrocities of the Dissolution of the Monasteries by Henry VIII and Thomas Cromwell, is now replaced by teams of thieves taking lead from roofs and smashing more glass, stealing from offertory boxes, overturning gravestones, illegal use of metal detectors, and the theft of valuable church items.

In those long ago days when you could be hanged for stealing a loaf of bread, theft of church property would likely see you dead too. Nowadays, crimes against churches are a daily occurrence and there is only one police officer in the whole of Sussex whose impossible job it is to specifically protect our Heritage – my good friend PCSO Daryl Holter.

Daryl explains: ‘Nowadays, crimes against churches are a daily occurrence, My work here is to specifically protect our Heritage. Sadly, churches make up 51% of all recorded Heritage crime for Sussex Police to investigate, that’s at least one to two crimes a week.’

Focusing on the divided county of the South Saxons – Sussex, visitors will find more than 560 Anglican parish churches, ranging in date from, at the earliest, the Eighth Century to the present – of these, 284 are in East Sussex. Each church has a history detailed in this most excellent website here:

In the past, the Anglo-Saxons set up churches here and abbeys and monasteries too. The Saxons managed to covert the Viking Danes after much bloodshed. To the east of Hastings, prior to the famous 1066 Battle and the building of Battle Abbey, there was a large area of French Abbey land called Rameslie, owned by the Norman Abbey of Fecamp. Rameslie covered an area from east Hastings to Rye and Winchelsea and the valley of the River Brede. The precise borders of Rameslie are not known, however, I have been visiting churches in the general area of Rameslie to see how Christianity is faring a thousand years after the fateful Norman invasion – anniversary 14th October.

In the two weeks prior to the battle, the Normans laid some villages nearby to waste, including some in the remit of Rameslie. Instead of giving the Abbey of Fecamp the right to build Battle Abbey, Duke and then King William gave it to one (creepy) monk from Marmoutier who kept plaguing him.

Then came the punitive Erminfrid Penitential:

The Bishop of Sion eventually told King William that the Pope was displeased with his murderous rule and wanted him to make amends. So finally after burning half of England, he let Marmoutier build their abbey and eventually- after his death – to forge its charters to ensure a grab of lands and spurious rights including the killing of the King’s Deer.

Here’s a view of some of the local churches in Rameslie or nearby.

Westfield Church – St John the Baptist
St George – Brede Church
Catsfield Old Church – St Laurence – early 11th Century and mentioned in the Domesday Book
St Mary – Salehurst Church
St Mary – Udimore Church
St Laurence Church, Guestling
All Saints Church, Icklesham
St Thomas-a-Becket, Winchelsea

Each of these churches has its own problems – of congregation size, administration and repair. So, for example, take a look at Salehurst Church.

St Mary – Salehurst Church frontage

When you get to the door, you will see a notice telling you (despite the Church’s stance on temperance), that if you want to see inside you must wait till the local pub opens and get the key from the pub landlord.

Contrast this with Westfield Church where, apart from a disrupted path border, the church is open and well-kept.

St John the Baptist – Westfield Church gardens
Inside St John the Baptist -Westfield Church

When you take a good look at the very old 11th Century Catsfield Old Church you can really see the problems.

St Laurence – Catsfield – roof repairs to the church

The sheer cost of re-tiling this huge roof must be very considerable – but if it is not done then the whole building will fail and it will be impossible for the congregation to sustain it, with rain falling inside it. So money has been found from somewhere – which shows commitment – either locally or from central church funds perhaps.

Now look at a commercial premises and the way they keep up a very high standard using business money because if no-one wanted to go there it would be impossible to keep the building in such a fine state. I’m talking about the Netherfield Arms Public House – here:

The Netherfield Arms Public House

Public Houses have been closing all over the UK. Those that have survived have done so by meeting local demand – for wholesome restaurant-quality food without posh and snobby waiters, for example, and children’s playgrounds, outside seating and sufficient parking. It has been a struggle to survive and relies entirely on customers’ goodwill and footfall.

So does the survival of the Rameslie and Battle District churches. they need ‘customers’ and footfall. Will we see a steady closure of churches, a loss of beauty and ancient architecture in the next 20 years? Will this be caused by a lack of money locally, centrally or just a drifting away of the ‘unfaithful’ who have decided to follow humanism, paganism or any other -ism rather than Christianity? What is at the tipping point of church collapse? Building costs rise, refurbishment is an endless task, although the greatest cost to the Church of England overall are the pension payments to retired clergy – who are living longer as health services improve.

Take a look at some of the problems of upkeep.

St Laurence – Catsfield Church graveyard staircase
Caring for the many oaks and yews at Westfield Church
Caring for graves, tombs and ornamentation – for example: The Brede Giant – Brede Church
St George – Brede Church Graveyard

Churches have been built on hills and high points, in the marshes, in woodland – all places of great beauty and tranquility. It is vital to remember that the loved ones of the local community are at rest here. The tranquil spaces must be preserved. Even if churches no longer have a use as religious centres of worship due to cost of maintenance, their grounds are hallowed, their trees are national treasures. We do not want to lose any square centimetre of peace.

I have found as I toured these places, local people who were knowledgeable about their history and the ancient history of their churches. They worry about the future for these buildings. They are concerned that housing estates are not built over graves and stunning views lost to the public due to private estate enclosure.

The question is – is this whole religious system sustainable? Have we lost too much already? Should the government and local authorities or central church authorities do more? Should precious objects and paintings be sold just to preserve church stone fabric? Should the collection boxes and church roof lead be protected by alarms and cameras? Should each church have a more active warden with a camera at the church linked by wi-fi to the warden’s home laptop?

Should the police give more manpower and resources to the issue of heritage preservation both religious and civil?

All these are tough questions. I hope I have spurred debate. Please let me know what you think.

The glorious view from St George – Brede Church

kind regards


Copyright 2021 David EP Dennis BA (Hons) FCIPD LCGI RAF

Crowhurst Churchyard – a little piece of heaven

by David EP Dennis BA (Hons) FCIPD LCGI RAF

Death and Life in a Country Churchyard

By David Dennis

In England, there are at least two Crowhursts with a very old Yew Tree – one in Surrey and this one in East Sussex near Battle. Before we learn about the magnificent King Harold 1066 Yew Tree and the other beautiful Crowhurst trees, let’s find out about St. George’s Church, where this enormous yew is located.

As M. E. Newman says in her little guide ‘Some Notes on the Church and Manor of Crowhurst’ (1971):

‘The church was first mentioned in the year 771 in the charter of King Offa of Mercia. The village was then called Croghyrst.’ Offa gave some land to the Bishop of Selsey to build a Saxon church here and then Robert Count of Eu and the Norman Archbishop of Canterbury Llanfranc rigorously enforced ownership after the bloody Conquest, in which the Crowhurst area was laid to waste by William the Bastard.

Yew trees can seed themselves naturally or be planted for a specific purpose. A human settlement can form around a naturally occurring yew tree or a yew tree can be deliberately planted to form a focus of community importance or worship.

Unfortunately, no-one seems to have been able to determine for sure, why or when the oldest Crowhurst Yew was planted and so we need to dig down through history – which is always fun.

There are several old and new yews here in the Parish Church of St George: without much ado you can view a few new yews it’s true (couldn’t resist that), and two older ones planted most probably on the orders of Sir John Pelham, who paid to have part of the pre-existing Saxon and 12th century enhanced to its present form church building, in 1412 or so. Then we come to the eldest yew here – and various sources give dates from to 1,250 years to 3,000 years.

Often yews were planted on sites of pagan worship and then Christian activity began to incorporate existing trees in a reverential way, rather than chopping them down This reverence was maybe, to entice pagans to believe in Jesus because it is said he died on a wooden cross. In fact the current priest incumbent Father told me that he thinks yews were planted by worshippers not for arcane druidic reasons but simply to provide greenery ready for Palm Sunday services.

This whole area has a truly wonderful history. Twelve thousand years before, Stone Age hunters sat on the shore of Combe Valley below where Crowhurst is now situated. Some had walked for more than 100 miles – from Dorset. Combe Valley was then, like Pevensey Levels, just the sea. You can imagine many hunters coming and sitting for an hour or so knapping flint to make knives, scrapers and arrowheads – these beautifully crafted items have been found here. Their descendants continued to hunt and occupy the area, developing into Iron Age cultures easily because of the massive amount of iron in the rocks stretching from Crowhurst to Beauport in Hastings. 

Iron was mined in the south-east of England long before the Romans came, but when they did invade they had already had a belly-full of the Druids who worshipped and used the yew tree as a source of magic and poison. The Saxons certainly lived here, King Harold owned Crowhurst and is said to have had a manor here at Wilting at the top of the hill above Crowhurst village. A case has been made that William the Conqueror’s fleet sailed up Combe Valley to beach below Upper Wilting farm near modern Crowhurst recreation ground – but this has been discounted by some experts because of evidence of silting and longshore drift at the time of the invasion.

However, the theory that best fits the facts in my opinion, is that of Kathleen Tyson in her book ‘Carmen Widonis – The First History of the Norman Conquest’. This theory sites the landing and battle near a once sea-flooded estuary near Icklesham, not that far from modern Battle. My own discovery supports her ideas. The traditional historians mistranslated the early word ‘Apuldre’ to mean ‘hoar apple tree’ whereas in fact it means Apppledore, not far from where the Vikings sailed with 230 ships and attacked Castle Toll in the sea marshes. Updated versions of books describing the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, now use Appledore not hoar apple tree – so the message is getting there slowly. Anyone who looks at Kathleen Tyson’s maps of the coast in the year 1066 will soon see how things became confused later.

A lot more work needs to be done to prove to English Heritage that the current ‘Senlac’ is not where the battle took place after all! It really took place at ‘Sandlache’ (Sandy Loch) near Icklesham. This was – back then – a very large but quiet estuary big enough for 770 ships. It would have been madness to land soldiers (and horses) on beaches with crashing waves – as Julius Caesar soon found out.

Laying to waste was a bloody business in which humans and livestock were killed, forests burned and farms destroyed. It is possible that King Harold’s Danish right-handfasted wife Edith Swan-Neck lived at Upper Wilting – and that one scene in the Bayeux tapestry shows her being burned out of her home along with her boy child – never to be king.

Thankfully the old Yew was spared – after all, the Normans were Christians. For those who think the Yew is 1,250 years old then the planters must have been Saxons not Normans. Planting a yew is usually done when then slow-growing sapling is 8 or 9 years old, so the tree and the early church building might be a simultaneous enterprise.

For obvious reasons of hatred, the Domesday book never refers to Harold as King, but as Earl Harold – who owned Crowhurst. Once he was dead, the overall landowner of church lands here has been the King of England until 1412, though the Walter of the Fitz-Lambert family managed it first for the Count of Eu from the Domesday Survey until the 12th century. Then an ancestor of Walter Fitzherbert – Walter de Scotney (originally Escoteni), was given stewardship by Richard I after the Third Crusade, although Walter forfeited it in 1259, having been found guilty of a crime.

And it was a humdinger! – Walter de Scoteni (then called), was tried and hanged, at Winchester, for administering poison to Richard, Earl of Gloucester, and William de Clare, his brother, the latter of whom died on 23rd July 1258 at Retheford in Scotland and was buried at Durreford Abbey.

Sir John Pelham, coroner of Sussex, Treasurer of the Exchequer and Royal Swordbearer was then given Crowhurst to own in perpetuity by Henry IV in 1412; Pelham built the present parish church.

To find out if our Yew could be as old as 3,000 years we need first to see if there are any such yews that old – and we find that in Wales there is one that is claimed to be 5,000 years old. On 8th July 2014, the Daily Express revealed:

‘…they say the tree in St Cynog’s churchyard, at Defynnog near Sennybridge, Powys, is certainly Europe’s oldest living thing. The yew tree is more than 5,000 years old, from the era 3,000BC. It started growing nearly 500 years before the Pharaohs built the Great Pyramid of Giza. And it was a sapling at about the time work first began on building Stonehenge. The 60ft wide tree’s age has been revealed by experts who carried out ring dating and DNA analysis. It could be the oldest living tree in the world, a title currently held by a bristlecone pine in California known to be 5,063 years old.’

So what is the girth of the Welsh giant? The Express reveals that:

‘“It is so old that it has split into two halves, one 40 feet wide and the other 20 feet wide.

“It’s DNA has been tested by the Forestry Institute and its ring count is 120 per inch, which makes it over 5,000 years old.”

This means it outranks its nearest British rival, the Fortingall Yew in Perthshire Scotland, which is said to be up to 5,000 years old.’

However, this ‘dendrochronology’ of yews is slightly suspicious, as some experts say that big yew trees don’t make annual rings?

So the Welsh tree has an approximate diameter of 60 feet. How about the Crowhurst Yew? How big is it?

Well, in 1680 it was measured to be 27 feet in girth at 4 feet from the ground and 33 feet in girth at ground level and in 2012 it measured 30 feet and two inches around with the tape measure 18 inches above the ground.

Tony Hindson and Lesley Elphick who measured it in 2012 explain that  has grown 2 feet and 10 inches (86 cm) in girth in the last 332 years so that is 2.59 mm a year, but it increased its growth rate to 3.44mm a year between 1879 and 1894 because it had been damaged – which spurred recovery. The Ancient Yew Group say that any Yew tree with a girth of 23 feet should be older than 800 years. So combining all the factors about growth rate and damage we come to the conclusion that the tree is at least 1,300 years old – not 3,000 years old.

In the much-praised book on the conflict between Harold of England and William of Normandy, Hope Muntz tells of a treasure buried nearby whose location was known by Harold’s reeve at his manor of Crowhurst. Because the reeve stayed loyal to his Saxon king, he was hanged from the Great Crowhurst Yew. The trouble is – the tree by then would only have had a girth of 10 feet so could not have been that imposing. But where is the treasure of Crowhurst now?

In 1669 Evelyn Silva alleged that the Yew  had a diameter of 10 feet and as most schoolchildren know, we can calculate its girth then using the formula: C=piD = 31.42 feet. In 1842 it was reported to be ‘flourishing’ at the topmost branches. Then in 1870 it was claimed to be 33 feet around – but gradually through storms it began to split and the top of the tree is past its best – like we would be if we were over a 1,000 years old. Twenty years ago it had a health & safety check and a fence was put around it to stop people from climbing up its temptingly convoluted and amazing branches.

Please note that all the photographs of the yew tree above are of one tree only – the King Harold – all parts connected to the roots in one massive structure – an awesome survivor.

There are more large yews and some huge oak trees in the churchyard too – it is a quiet place full of butterflies and moths, with wild flowers and well as commemorative bunches. Here for example is a magnificent holly.

And here’s a great oak…

Crowhurst also has a direct descendant tree of Joseph of Arimathea’s Holy Thorn at Glastonbury – but that’s another story!

If you have enjoyed this article please ‘Follow’ this blog – there’s lots more history and wildlife information to come. Thank you. David

St George’s Church, Crowhurst, East Sussex, England

Article copyright 2021 David EP Dennis BA (Hons) FCIPD LCGI RAF