How Lindfield Started


Previous articles have focused on people and building in recent centuries relative to Lindfield’s long history.  This article explores the early history of the area and how Lindfield as we know it today came about.

The first recorded reference to Lindfield is in a Saxon charter dated 765, but what was happening here before that date?  Unfortunately the archaeological record is rather sparse, but thanks to a survey prior to Barratt’s building The Limes, on farmland previously Luxford Farm, two important discoveries were made.  Pieces of Bronze Age pottery were unearthed, indicating people were in the area some 3,000 years ago.  It is most likely to have been the site of a seasonal camp, rather than a permanent dwelling site.

At that time and through the Iron Age [6000BC – 50BC] and into the Roman period the area, in common with much of the lowland Weald, would have been wooded and criss-crossed with tracks. The High Street is believed to follow the line of an ancient north-south route that existed in the Iron Age.  On land at Birchen Lane, an iron-smelting furnace of mid Iron Age date has been discovered, indicating exploitation of local resources.

Although there was no known Roman presence, the area was not isolated as a Romana road running from London towards the coast passed about a mile to the west, crossing land now Harlands Primary School.  Two other Roman roads were only a few miles away.  Local tracks connected with these roads.  Some settlement, either seasonal or permanent, must have taken place during the Roman period, as the well-respected historical geographer, Dr Peter Brandon, says that by the end of the Roman occupation the woodland on the Wealden margins, such as around Lindfield, had been cleared by the Romano-British villa economy and peasant grazing to create wooded pasture.  These pastures, used primarily for cattle and also seasonal grazing of pigs, known as pannage, led to the creation of small and scattered communities.

This is supported by the second archaeological discovery made on The Limes site.  Very old field ditches, that existed long before the field pattern of Luxford Farm, were uncovered, with one containing early Saxon pottery [circa 650] in the bottom.  Evidence that land in Lindfield was being armed.

The manorial system of landholding developed during Saxon times.  In this part of Sussex the manorial centre was usually based on fertile arable land close to the coast, with outlying lands extending northwards.  This is why if you look at an Ordnance survey map of Sussex there are more roads running south to north than east – west.  Several manors could hold land within the same area; thus in and around Lindfield manors with land included Stanmer, with the largest holding, Ditchling, Framfield, Plumpton Boscage, and Street.  Each exercised control over their land through their own manorial courts, called Court Baron.

Returning to the Saxon charter of 765 mentioned earlier, this evidenced the granting of lands by Aeldwulf, one of the last kings of the South Saxons, to his earl, Hunlabe, for him to build and endow a minster church.  These lands formed the Manor of Stanmer, comprised of separate parcels of land mainly in a line stretching from Stanmer north to Crawley Down, basically along the line of today’s B2112, with by far the largest parcel being in the centre at Lindfield.  In the charter, Lindfield, meaning open land with lime trees, along with Walstead and Henfield [Scaynes Hill] were described as pig pastures.

There is much to support the belief that the minster church, which would have been a small and simple building, was built in Lindfield and that All Saints stands on the site.  This indicates the area had a settled population of sufficient size to warrant building a church.  The manor and church were held by the secular Canons of St. Michael, South Malling.  Sometime between 765 and Domesday, the manor passed to the ownership of the Archbishop of Canterbury but remained within the canon’s control.  In 1150, Archbishop of Canterbury but remained within the canon’s control.  In 1150, Archbishop Theobald reorganised his Sussex peculiars, promoting St Michaels to a ‘College of Canons’ with a structure comprising a dean and three canons, respectively the chancellor, treasurer and precentor.  The dean, an important and influential position, was the Record of the Parish of Lindfield and together with the canons held sub manors in Lindfield from which they received an income.  The dean was required to reside in Lindfield for 90 days a year and the canons 40 days.  The Bower House was the dean’s residence.

The canons’, and especially the dean’s influence on Lindfield was considerable, as collectively they were the ‘lords of the manor’.  It was very much in their interest to ensure that those parts of the parish within their manorial holding, which included virtually all of Lindfield town, prospered.  They were responsible for the growth and layout of properties down the main street, the extent of the town in medieval times.  There were fields immediately behind the houses.  Recognising Lindfield as an important and thriving community, Kind Edward III in 1343 granted a charter for two fairs on the feast days of St Philip and St James [both 1st May] and St James the Great [25th July], each lasting eight days, and a weekly market was held.

The five high status medieval house was built by the canons in the 14th and early 15th century, namely Bower House, The Tiger, Thatcher Cottage, Church Cottage and Clock House survive today.  The width and line of today’s High Street has remained unchanged since that time   The street, from church to the Lewes Road junction, was lined with houses and workshops.  The other timber-framed houses built in the 14th to the 16th century that still line the High Street underline the prosperity of Lindfield under the canons.  This prosperity was primarily based on farming, the cloth trade and iron working.  Our large and impressive parish church, dating mainly from the 14th century, in the perpendicular style, bears witness to its importance and the canons’ influence.

The 153os and 1540s, with Henry VII on the throne and seeking a divorce, the English Reformation and the establishment of the Church of England leading to the dissolution of religious houses, brought far-reaching change to the country.  Lindfield, with a population of about 400, having the College of Canons as lords of the manor was heading for a major change in its fortunes.

In March 1545, an order for the dissolution of the College of Canons was issued and subsequently all possessions, tithes and lands were granted by the Crown to Sir Thomas Palmer, a gentleman of the Privy Council.  Over the next 300 years importance and prosperity gradually ebbed away.  But Lindfield after the Reformation is another chapter in its long history.


Published in Lindfield Life December 2017




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