Why does Sussex enjoy such a strong County Identity?
When one thinks of strong local identities, the likes of Yorkshire and Cornwall instantly come to mind. Yorkshire’s county pride, “a state of mind” the locals assert, derives from the 15th Century War of the Roses where the Yorkists had to pull together to defend themselves, and the sheer size of the county. Cornwall, meaning “foreigners of the horn”, has an ethnic distinction that sets it apart from the other counties, being historically an assimilated Celtic land rather than plainly, a territorial division of England. Accordingly, asserting their status as a distinct nation comparable to Wales and Scotland, Cornish people contend that their flag is a national flag, symbolic of their distinct national identity.
It has been said that at the end of the 19th Century, Sussex had a strong identity, comparable with those of the Cornish. However, Cornwall is a headland at the very edge of the island of Britain which inhabitants which derive from a clear ethnic group separate to the Anglo-Saxons of England, an obvious recipe for a strong local identity, but why was Sussex comparable to Cornwall?
Sussex originated as a Kingdom, Sūðseaxnaland, the Kingdom of the South Saxons. An independent nation from about 477 until 860. So, like Cornwall, the Sussex Kingdom embodied a self-determining society, the Sūðseaxe, detached from the rest of what was to later to become England. Cornwall is located on a peninsular though, the geography and landscape encloses Cornwall and the Cornish into a corner, enhancing the area’s cultural identity and uniqueness. Sussex is different though? The county is only 40 miles from the influence of the capital of England and is geographically fully part of the main body of England, it isn’t located on a peninsula out of the way. Well… The settlements of Sussex were for a long time actually located on a peninsula, of sorts, out of the reaches of London influence!
Take a look at this map, pictured below, published by the Sussex Archaeological Society in 1886. It’s a map of the settlements recorded 800 years earlier in the Domesday survey of Sussex from 1085-86. The map shows that the vast majority of Sussex’s settlements were located at the very south of the shire. With only a few pockets of villages located in the north, such as “Ifelt”, Ifield and “Hertevel”, Hartfield. The dense forest shown in the north, the Weald, acted as a barrier from Surrey and the capital. The marshland, the Walland Marsh, and sea, shown in the east was a blockade from Kent. For all intents and purposes, the population of Sussex lived on what was practically a “peninsula” only really accessible via Hampshire/Wessex with a few “islands” dotted about in the “sea” of Wealden forest. This geography ultimately led to the establishment of the distinct cultural identity of Sussex! One such cultural distinction being that Sussex was the very last Anglo-Saxon Kingdom to convert to Christianity in 681, despite the fact that neighbouring Kent was the very first, almost a century before!
Over the resulting centuries, the Weald, was mostly deforested, for farmland and accelerated by the Wealden iron industry in the 16th and 17th centuries. The Walland Marsh had been reclaimed from the sea by the 14th century. This changing landscape over this period didn’t change the strong cultural identity of Sussex, the county was still quite inaccessible from the rest of England and influence from London, the roads put pay to that!
A 15th century ballad about each English shire describes “Sowseks, ful of dyrt and myre”, Sussex, full of mud and boggy ground, in reference to the county’s low standard highways. As an 1856 article in the Brighton Herald states, “Whilst, to the people out of Sussex, the roads of that county were a reproach and an abomination, by the people in it they were regarded as a safeguard and protection both from the rogues and the cut-throats of the metropolis and the attacks of an invading enemy.” Sussex was very much isolated and self-supporting. It wasn’t until the late 18th century that the roads began to be improved. In 1770, improvements to the “London Road”, now much of the A23, were commanded by parliament in order to allow easier access through Sussex between the capital and Brighton; “a Bill for repairing and widening the Roads leading from Brighthelmstone [Brighton], in the County of Sussex… to the County Oak on Lovell Heath [Lowfield Heath], in the said County.” County Oak, of course being a part of modern day Crawley and the site of the traditional county boundary between Sussex and Surrey, where once a grand oak tree marked the border, before it was cut down in 1847.
Sussex historically looked in a southerly direction towards the sea, rather than northwards towards the capital. This can be demonstrated by a number of sources, but perhaps the most striking are the earlier estate maps from the 17th and 18th centuries. Almost all of them place the south at the top of the map, opposite to the standard convention of north-up. The presence of the sea and a long coastline has affected Sussex’s relationship with London, making the Capital, and the rest of England, of considerably less significance to Sussex than it is to Kent or Surrey.
As an isolated and self-sufficient county, the people of Sussex were poor, and poverty was rife. This is one of the factors which is key to the the strength of the distinct identity of Sussex. “We Wunt be Druv” is the county motto of Sussex. This statement is particularly prominent at Sussex’s traditional bonfire celebrations. It is a Sussex dialect phrase meaning “we will not be driven”. The motto asserts that the people of Sussex, Sussaxons, have minds of their own, and cannot be forced against their will or told what to do. It is believed that “I wunt be druv” originates from the Weald of Sussex where in medieval times this part of Sussex was freer from control from the ruling classes than other parts of Sussex. This came to fruition in the Peasant’s Revolts of 1381 and 1450 where the Wealdsmen lower classes rose twice in revolt against the ruling Kings. A stubborn county with a vigorous working class.
In spite of the improvements with the highways and now a new Victorian network of railway lines connecting Sussex to the capital, Sussex still enjoyed high levels of Sussex patriotism at the turn of the 20th century. County loyalty was just as important, if not more important, than national loyalty to the people of Sussex at this time. The recruiting posters dating from the beginning of the First World War gives evidence to this. Each playing on the loyalties of the men of Sussex which they held so strong, their county! It’s often said that men joined up to defend King & Country, and that is true, but some recruitment posters only challenged loyalty to Sussex, not the nation or King. This is quite clear evidence that the County of Sussex was close to the hearts of many Sussex men and these posters were produced to pull on these heartstrings.
‘Sussex by the Sea’, now the county anthem, was published in 1907 for, and adopted by the Royal Sussex Regiment in around 1908. This song was taken into the First World War. The words, again, refer solely to the county, not King or Country. Each chorus and refrain of this stirring anthem finishes, “You can (may) tell them all (that) we stand or fall, For Sussex by the Sea”. A powerful message that the men of Sussex will fight, or die in the struggle, to defend their beloved county!
Into the 21st Century, the county identity continues, although maybe a little weaker, but still more prevalent that that of most other English counties. ‘Sussex by the Sea’ is still a well known county anthem, the county motto “We Wunt be Druv” is enjoying somewhat a resurgence in recent years, and the county flag of Sussex officially adopted in 2011 and based upon the medieval martlets of Sussex is one of the nation’s most popular county flags! A modern tool used to display this county affection and a sign that the county’s staunch identity isn’t going away anytime soon. In fact, we believe it’s only going to get stronger!