1066 and all that

Without doubt, the people of Fairwarp were represented at Hastings in the historic battle. Areas of excavation around the battle site have produced small piles of winkle shells amongst the bones of long dead soldiers. It would be hard to prove that the bones were those of a Fairwarp man but it’s nice to think they might have been.

After the battle, Sussex was divided into five Rapes (administrative areas of Sussex) and each Rape administration levied taxes on the towns and populaces in their control as one of the ways to subdue the English. Legend tells of the village being unable to pay the taxes levied. And so, with little to lose, following instruction from the then Wise Woman, three women from Fairwarp carrying a trug full of winkles wrapped in moss and lichens, walked to Pevensey Castle, held by William the Conqueror’s half brother, Robert, Count of Mortain, under whose jurisdiction Fairwarp fell within the Rape of Pevensey.

They had been told by the Wise Woman that they would know what to do once they got there. The women thought perhaps that they needed to offer them as a part payment. After days of trudging they arrived in Pevensey but were forbidden entry to the castle. Tired and hungry the three women set up a fire in front of the castle, boiling up some water to cook some of their supply of winkles to given them sustenance after their journey.

The story goes that Count Robert was returning from travels, walking through the town having sent his servant ahead with his horse, so he could stretch his legs after a long day in the saddle. Alone and covered with the dust and dirt of the day’s riding, he arrived at his castle unrecognised by any. He stopped by the women’s fire asking what they cooked having only had a noon-piece much earlier in the day. Not knowing to whom they spoke, the women offered the hungry stranger a sample of their winkles which he looked at curiously but picked out skilfully and ate with relish. Asking if he could taste more they generously shared their supply but apologetically said they could not spare much more as it was a gift for the new Lord. Robert asked from whence the gift had come and why they had brought it. The women told the stranger of their tiny village and its poorness, its inability to meet the demands of their new Lord and how they hoped to persuade him to accept these winkles of their village as a part payment rather than bring down harsh measures on their village. The man nodded and wished them luck, bidding them farewell and walking onwards towards the castle.

Later that evening the women were summoned from their campfire and brought before the Lord. Their faces must have registered surprise and perhaps fear when they realised that they had already met him – at their campfire. Despite being a man who was making many very aware of his hard rule, Robert is supposed to have given the women thanks for their winkles and in acknowledgement of their generosity and willingness to feed a hungry man, gave them leave to advise their village that no further taxes would be laid upon them other than a wicker basket of winkles every year on the first Monday in May.