Bramber and the Knights Templar
The village of Bramber is a parish and former manor in West Sussex. It has a ruined medieval castle. The village is located on the northern edge of the South Downs and on the west side of the River Adur.
Nearby are the communities of Steyning, to the west and Upper Beeding to the east, and the other side of the river. However, the closest historical connection is with the village of Botolphs to the south.
The ecclesiastical parishes of Bramber and Botolphs were united possibly as early as 1526, but certainly by 1534 with the priest living at Botolphs. Later, the priest’s official residence became the imposing Bramber mansion and landmark now called Burletts and located on Clays Hill. The union of the civil parish councils followed 400 years later in 1933.
Bramber was the caput of a large feudal barony held from the 11th to 14th centuries by the Braose family, which was noted for its impact on the medieval history of the southern Welsh Marches. On a small hill stands the remains of Bramber Castle, a Norman castle built by the family. The Bramber Parish Church of St Nicholas was originally built as the castle chapel and is the only part of the castle site not in ruins.
The church attracts large numbers of tourists and is the oldest post-conquest Norman church in Sussex. Bramber Castle originally protected the Rape of Bramber, the historic sub-division of the county of Sussex.
Little survives of the original structure of the castle, as much of the stone was later used to construct the bridge and other buildings in the village. The castle was excavated in 1966-1967, with another minor survey in 1987; these indicate most of it was built between 1073 to 1130. The addition of an outer ditch around 1209 caused the collapse of much of the original defensive curtain wall in the early 16th century.
The most prominent remaining feature is the gatehouse tower, which still stands to almost its full height; a window and floor joist holes are clearly visible. Beyond it are the foundations of what is believed to have been the living quarters and a guardhouse. The original gatehouse appears to have converted into a single tower in the 12th century, and another 3 metres were added to its height while the entrances were blocked up, coinciding with an increased threat during the reign of King John.
The one surviving wall of the tower stands 14 metres high and shows how imposing the castle once was. King John held Bramber Castle only briefly but is known to have carried out repairs to the buildings. Later the castle passed back to the de Braose family, who owned it until the 14th century and then the Mowbray family took ownership.
The Knights Templar connection
The Knights Templar was an order of Catholic knights set up by Pope Honorius II in Jerusalem nearly 1,000 years ago. They were a powerful group that fought in the Crusades, and their influence spread throughout the world with banking networks. The history of the Knights Templar in England began when the French nobleman Hughes de Payens, the founder and Grand Master of the order of the Knights Templar, visited the country in 1128 to raise men and money for the Crusades in the Holy Land.
The Knights Templar was disbanded in the early 1300s, but intrigue, mystery, and conspiracy theories have surrounded them ever since. Back in the 12th century, Bramber was a much more prominent place than it is today. While it is now a few miles inland, Bramber used to be a seaside village before the coastline gradually moved further south. Bramber was in a prime strategic position on the south coast – a few miles north of Shoreham – and many people used it as a crossing point to sail to and from Europe.
The village was on a very popular pilgrimage route from Winchester to Canterbury, the holiest site in England. The Knights Templar decided to step in and build accommodation for the pilgrims travelling through Bramber (on their way to the tomb of St. Thomas of Canterbury), taking advantage of the natural spring nearby.
After the Knights Templar dissolved, the building fell into disrepair until it was replaced by a stunning manor house that stands on the very site where the Templars housed the pilgrims: St Mary’s House.
St Mary’s House
St Mary’s House is a late 15th century timber-framed house on a site associated with the Knights Templar. Five acres of land in Bramber were given to the Knights Templar by the widow of Philip de Braose, following his death in 1125.
The present building was constructed in about 1470 by William of Waynflete, Bishop of Winchester and founder of Magdalen College, Oxford.
The land on which the house sits goes back to the 12th century when it was given to the Knights Templar.
The house has beautiful gardens with topiary figures and a sizeable secret garden at the back. There is a tearoom, and the house is open to the public in season. The house has a music room with two 14th century ornately carved stone chantry tombs that serve as fireplaces and is regularly used for concerts and recitals.
Originally, it was a monastic hostel for pilgrims and monks who collected the tolls at Bramber bridge, a 170-foot-long bridge over the River Adur, incorporating a Chapel dedicated to St Mary the Virgin on its central span, though now reduced to a flat bridge of just a few feet over a tributary of the river, following silting, and a change of course.
The bridge described above should not be confused with the nearby Beeding Bridge, a hump-back bridge that now spans the main course of the river. It is hard to imagine that Bramber was once a busy river port, but over time the river silted up and changed course, changing the fortunes of the village and its residents.
It is claimed that King Charles II stayed at St Mary’s House during his escape to France after defeat at the Battle of Worcester in September 1651. That battle was the final battle of the English Civil War, which began in 1642. Oliver Cromwell’s Parliamentary New Model Army, 28,000 strong, defeated King Charles II’s 16,000 Royalists, of whom the vast majority were Scottish.
Just outside Bramber, in the direction of Botolphs village, formerly stood a medieval hospital and nunnery, caring for leprosy sufferers and dedicated to St Mary Magdalene.
Although long since closed, this part of Bramber is still known as the Maudlin District, spelt following a phonetic pronunciation of the saint’s name. Maudlyn House stands on the hospital site, and nearby roads include Maudlin Lane, Maudlyn Park, Maudlyn Parkway, and Maudlyn Close.
Sources and Further Reading
Sketch of the ruins of Bramber Castle
By Wenceslas Hollar ca 1642 By Wenceslaus Hollar – Artwork from University of Toronto Wenceslaus Hollar. Public Domain.
File URL: https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=6235179
Source: Sussex Live at: https://www.sussexlive.co.uk/whats-on/bramber-tiny-sussex-village-links-5579164 ↑