Rape (county subdivision)

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Map of Sussex in 1832, showing the six rapes
Location Sussex
Created Saxon period (pre-1066)
Rape of Bramber by 1086
Rape of Chichester by 1275
Number 6

A rape was a traditional sub-division of the county of Sussex in England. Their origin is unknown, but they appear to predate the Norman Conquest.[1] Each rape was split into several hundreds. The rapes may derive from the system of fortifications devised by Alfred the Great in the late ninth century to defeat the Vikings.[2] Alternatively, King Alfred's system may in turn have its roots in an earlier age. If so, the Sussex Rapes, like the Kentish Lathes, go back to the dawn of English history when their main function would have been to provide food rents and military manpower to the king.[2] Possibly surviving from the Romano-British era[3] or perhaps representing the shires of the kingdom of Sussex,[4] the Sussex rapes each had a headquarters in the developed south where the lord's hall, court, demesne lands, principal church and peasant holdings were located,[3] whereas to the north there were smaller dependent settlements in the marsh, woodland and heath.[3]


One suggested etymology of the word, from Edward Lye in the 18th century, is in the Icelandic territorial division hreppr, meaning 'district or tract of land'. However, this is rejected in the New English Dictionary, and according to the English Place-Name Society 'phonologically impossible'.[5]

First suggested by William Somner in the 17th century,[5] it seems that the derivation of the word from the Old English rāp (rope) has been made practically certain.[5] The suggestion that ropes were used to mark out territory,[6] was well countered by J.H. Round, asking "do those who advance such views realize the size of the districts they have to deal with?"[7] However, Heinrich Brunner explained the application of 'rope' to an administrative district by the old German custom of defining the limits of the 'peace' of popular open-air courts by stakes and ropes,[5] the ropes then giving a name first to the court and then afterwards to the area of its jurisdiction, and produced a case where reep, the Dutch cognate of rāp, is applied to such a judicial area.[5] The parish of Rope, in Cheshire is one place name in England derived from the word rāp.[5]

The Saxon origin has been questioned, as the Normans showed little interest in learning the English language, and thus it seems unlikely that they would have adopted a local word.[8] It has been suggested that the term in fact comes from the old French raper, meaning to seize or take by force.[8]


The origin of the Rapes is not known.[9] It is possible that the rapes represent the shires of the ancient kingdom of Sussex, especially as in the 12th century they had sheriffs of their own.[4] According to JRM the boundary between the Rapes of Lewes and Pevensey, which cuts through the middle of Lewes, probably pre-dates the founding of Lewes in the late 9th or early 10th century. If one boundary had existed so early then it is quite possible that other boundaries also existed.[9] Sussex's rapes may have been a similar division to the six or seven lathes of neighbouring Kent which were undoubtedly early administrative units.[5]

Another possibility is that the rapes may derive from the system of fortifications, or burhs (boroughs) devised by Alfred the Great in the late ninth century to defeat the Vikings. The Rapes, or similar predecessors may have been created for the purpose of maintaining these early boroughs, or they may have re-used earlier divisions for this purpose.[9] In Sussex, the fortifications in the Burghal Hidage were recorded as being at Eorpeburnan on the Sussex-Kent border, Hastings, Lewes, Burpham and Chichester. The 'Burghal Hidage' lists boroughs in geographical order.[9] Burpham was the predecessor of Arundel and Eorpeburnan or Heorpeburnan should be the predecessor of Rye.[9] Pevensey and Steyning were not included. It looks as if the lands of Steyning served Lewes and those of Pevensey served Hastings, while the eastern portion of the later Hastings rape was attached to the Rye area.[9] It is possible that these divisions might be rapes as four of them (taking Burpham as equivalent to neighbouring Arundel) had the same centres as later rapes.[5] If this is the case then the rapes must have been completely reorganised in the next century and a half. Since the system of fortifications introduced by Alfred the Great extended into Surrey and Wessex as well, but neither of these regions have rapes or any similar sub-divisions.[5]

It is also possible that the 'rape of Arundel' that is twice mentioned in the Domesday Book was the later rape of Arundel and not the whole 'rape of Earl Roger (of Montgomery)', which included the later rape of Chichester.[5] The Normans are not likely to have created rapes and then to have at once thrown two of them into one.[5] The existence of the rapes before the Norman Conquest provides the most natural explanation of the fact that the two later rapes of Chichester and Arundel are represented in the Domesday Book of the single 'rape of Earl Roger', William the Conqueror's most important grantee in Sussex.[5] William might of course have created five rapes only, one of which, out of all proportion to the others in size, was afterwards divided, but for this there is no evidence.[5]

Norman castleries[edit]

At the time of the Norman Conquest there were four rapes: Arundel, Lewes, Pevensey and Hastings. Arundel and Bramber replaced Burpham and Steyning as Rapal centres.[9] The rape of Arundel consisted of the entire area of Sussex west of the River Adur, corresponding to the boundaries of both the western division of the church in Sussex (the forerunner to the archdeaconry of Chichester)[10][11] and the boundaries of the traditional western area of the Sussex dialect.[10] By the time of the Domesday Book, William the Conqueror had created the rape of Bramber as an afterthought out of parts of the Arundel and Lewes rapes, so that the Adur estuary could be better defended.[3][11][12] Although the origin and original purpose of the Rapes is not known, their function after 1066 is clear. With its own lord and sheriff, each Rape was an administrative and fiscal unit.[9] The organisation of the whole of Sussex apart from royal and church lands into territorial blocks each with a fortress near the sea was exceptional.[9]

In the Domesday survey, five great Norman lords held the rapes into which Sussex was divided, four of them giving their names to four of the five divisions as they were called in Domesday Book; at the accession of King Henry I in 1100[13] they were Robert of Bellême in Arundel rape,[14] Robert's nephew William, Count of Mortain in Pevensey,[15] William of Warenne in Lewes,[16] the count of Eu in Hastings and, the only fully trustworthy Sussex lord at the time, Philip de Braose[17] in Bramber.[18] These lords had succeeded, not to similar Anglo-Saxon magnates, but to a crowd of lesser landholders:[19] each also held lands in the rapes of others.

Under the Normans each traditional rape was now centred on a castle: Sir Henry Ellis's observation that the rapes "were military districts for the supply of the castles which existed in each" applied to the Anglo-Norman period[20] Each rape had a single sheriff and ran as a strip, north-south, from the Surrey/Kent border to the English Channel. The castles of Arundel, Bramber and Lewes were sited on positions overlooking the rivers Arun, Adur and Ouse respectively, while those at Chichester, Hastings and Pevensey overlooked the coast. This formation was a creation of William I of England, presumably designed to protect routes to Normandy.

Between 1250 and 1262, the rape of Chichester was created from the western half of Arundel rape.[11] From this time onwards, Sussex was divided into—from west to east—Chichester, Arundel, Bramber, Lewes, Pevensey and Hastings rapes.

Name Castle Hundreds Towns and cities Highest point
Rape of Chichester Chichester Castle Aldwick, Bosham, Box and Stockbridge, Dumpford, Easebourne, Manhood, Westbourne and Singleton Bognor Regis, Chichester, Midhurst, Selsey Blackdown (280m)
Rape of Arundel Arundel Castle Avisford, Bury, Poling, Rotherbridge, West Easwrith Arundel, Littlehampton Glatting Beacon (245m)
Rape of Bramber Bramber Castle Brightford, Burbeach, East Easwrith, Fishersgate, Patching, Singlecross, Steyning, Tarring, Tipnoak, West Grinstead, Windham and Ewhurst Crawley, Horsham, Shoreham-by-Sea, Worthing Chanctonbury Hill (242m)
Rape of Lewes Lewes Castle Barcombe, Buttinghill, Dean, Fishersgate, Holmstrow, Poynings, Preston, Street, Swanborough, Whalebone, Younsmere Brighton and Hove, Haywards Heath, Lewes Ditchling Beacon (248m)
Rape of Pevensey Pevensey Castle Alciston, Bishopstone, Burleigh Arches, Danehill Horsted, Dill, East Grinstead, Eastbourne, Flexborough, Hartfield, Longbridge, Loxfield Dorset, Loxfield Pelham, Pevensey Lowey, Ringmer, Rotherfield, Rushmonden, Shiplake, Totnore, Willingdon East Grinstead, Eastbourne, Uckfield Crowborough (242m)
Rape of Hastings Hastings Castle Baldstrow, Battle, Bexhill Battle, Hastings, Rye Brightling Down (197m)

See also[edit]


  1. ^ The origin was still reported as "contested" as late as 1942 (Helen Maud Cam (preface dated 1942), Liberties & communities in medieval England: Collected Studies in Local Administration and Topography, 1944:193).
  2. ^ a b Domesdaybook.net: Rape
  3. ^ a b c d Brandon, Peter (2006). Sussex. Phillimore. ISBN 978-0-7090-6998-0. 
  4. ^ a b "The Encyclopedia Britannica 11th edition, 1911, Online Version". Retrieved 13 March 2012. 
  5. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l m Mawer, Allen, F. M. Stenton with J. E. B. Gover (1930) [1929]. Sussex - Part I and Part II. English Place-Name Society. 
  6. ^ F.E. Sawyer "The rapes and their origin", Archaeological Review 1 (1888), p. 54-59.
  7. ^ Round, letter in Archaeological Review 1 (1888), p. 229.
  8. ^ a b "Origin of the Sussex 'Rapes'". Sussex Castles. Retrieved 2015. 
  9. ^ a b c d e f g h i Thorn, Caroline; Thorn, Frank (June 2007). "Sussex" (RTF). University of Hull. Retrieved 30 August 2015. 
  10. ^ a b Hare, Chris (1995). A History of the Sussex People. Worthing: Southern Heritage Books. ISBN 978-0-9527097-0-1. 
  11. ^ a b c "Victoria County History - The rape of Chichester". British History Online. Retrieved 31 July 2010. 
  12. ^ "Victoria County History - The rape and honour of Lewes". British History Online. Retrieved 31 July 2010. 
  13. ^ Henry's dealings with the lords of the rapes is discussed in Judith A. Green, The Government of England Under Henry I 1989:115.
  14. ^ Confiscated by Henry in 1102 and held by the Crown through his reign (Green 1989)
  15. ^ Pevensey was confiscated by Henry in 1102 and regranted to Gilbert de l'Aigle (Green 1989).
  16. ^ William transferred his allegiance to Henry and remained a stalwart supporter (Green 1989) as Earl of Surrey.
  17. ^ Philip's revolt against Henry came a decade later.
  18. ^ Eleanor Searle , Lordship and community: Battle Abbey and its banlieu, 1066-1538, 1974:208.
  19. ^ Noted by Round .
  20. ^ Ellis,quoted in Norman John Greville Pounds, The medieval castle in England and Wales: a social and political history 1993:17.