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The History of Hastings

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Hastings is first found mentioned in written history in the late 8th century as Hastingas. This name comes from Hæstingas, meaning ‘Hæsta's people’. Symeon of Durham writes of the victory in battle of Offa over the Hestingorum gens, or ‘the people of the Hastings tribe’, in 771. Another form of the name, the Latinised ‘Hæstingaceaster’ is recorded in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle of 1050. There’s plenty of evidence to suggest the area has been settled since pre-history. Archeological finds include flint arrowheads and Bronze Age artefacts and two Iron Age forts have excavated, one each on the East and West Hills. Historians believe the settlement was already established as a port when the Romans arrived in Britain for a brief foray in 55 BC. The local Wealden rocks provided a plentiful supply of iron ore and the Romans exploited this resource. The port of Hastings provided the ideal way of getting the iron goods out to far-flung places in the Roman Empire. There were many local iron foundries and workshops including that at Beauport Park, to the north of the town. This facility employed up to one thousand men and is considered to have been the third largest such workshop in the entire Roman Empire.

When the Romans left in the 5th century the sea claimed the old Roman port at Hastings, it is now underwater and well out to sea. The town began to rebuild itself as a Saxon Burgh and a royal mint was established in Hastings in AD 928. Hastings gave its name to the famous Battle of Hastings that marked the start of the Norman Conquest in 1066. The battle didn’t take place there at all, rather at what is now called Battle , eight miles north of the current town at a place called Senlac Hill. A new Norman town, built in the valley to the east and called ‘New Burgh’ in the Domesday Book was founded in 1069. The Normans built a Castle at Hastings possibly using the earthworks of the existing Saxon castle. Hastings is recorded with the status of a borough by the time of the Domesday Book was written in 1086. A
Charter issued by Elizabeth I in 1589 replaced borough’s original bailiff’s office with that of a mayor.

In the Middle Ages Hastings became one of the Cinque Ports, an affiliation of defensive towns. The town was ravaged by the sea during the 13th century, large areas of the town was washed out to sea. Trouble came again from the sea in the 14th century, but this time it was the French. Their offensive campaign of 1339, and again in 1377, saw raids on the town. The town was badly damaged in the attacks and
the port began to decline. Hastings had always struggled with its lack of a natural harbour. Elizabeth I had a stone harbour constructed but storms soon destroyed it again. Another abortive harbour project started in 1896. It also floundered on the rocks, this time structural and financial problems finally sunk the project. Today all that remains of what might have been a mighty harbour is a decaying seawall. The foundations of the harbour project were partially blown up to discourage possible use by German invasion forces during World War II . The lack of a harbour means that Hastings’ fishing boats are still stored on and launched from the beach.

After the Napoleonic Wars the town grew into one of the most fashionable resorts in Britain. The expansion of the town took place to the west, since there was no room left in the valley. During this time of expansion the elegant Pelham Crescent and Wellington Square were built. Other development included The Crescent, within which is the classical style church of St Mary in the Castle . To build The Crescent the castle hill cliffs were excavated. This helped to encourage a move away from the old town and resulted in rapid expansion along the coast. Hastings eventually spread far enough to join up with the new town of St Leonards . Hastings had grown significantly with the coming of the railway. In the 1801 census the population was a mere 3,175 and by 1831 it had reached over ten thousand. It rose meteorically to almost 60,000 by 1891. The 2001 census reported over 85,000 inhabitants indicating the growth slowed as seaside towns fell out of favour after the coming of package holidays in the 1960s.

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