The History of Midhurst
Midhurst was founded when man settled in a place where the River Rother bends to create a naturally safe and convenient enclosure. The river lies to the north and east of the parish boundary, which officially contains 669 acres. There is evidence of some Saxon defensive works there that predate the later Norman structures. A motte and bailey castle was constructed on St Anne’s Hill in Norman times and afforded the conquerors a fine view of the river and surrounding land. The original defences were made of wood built upon the earthworks but a stone castle was established in the mid-12th century by Geldwin fitz Cana. The Norman knight encased his new manor house with an oval curtain wall made of stone. The castle and the walls gave security and governance and these helped establish Midhurst as a small town, with much of the development initially happening within the castle walls. The castle began to fall into disuse from about 1280 and is said to have been dismantled by the Bishop of Durham between 1284 and 1311. It was subsequently excavated in 1913. All that remains to be seen now are the foundations of a keep, a hall house, a chapel and a range of buildings.
Midhurst Castle was abandoned as a home because Sir John Bohun had built a new seat nearby at Cowdray House . The first house, la Coudraye as it was known then, was a hall-styled manor house with moat. This building was subsequently demolished to make way for large Tudor quadrangle house started, but not finished, by Sir David Owen in the early 16th century. In 1529, Sir William Fitzwilliam purchased the estate and the building works. He added the southern and western ranges and later, in 1533, he crenellated the building to give it the look of a defensive castle. The house hosted many monarchs and noblemen, Henry VIII enjoyed the opulence of the house three times. Queen Elizabeth I stayed there for an entire week amongst much pomp and ceremony. However King Edward VI , when visiting as a boy, complained that the food was too rich! The magnificent structure was almost totally destroyed by an accidental fire in 1793 and has remained derelict ever since. Only the separate and recently-restored kitchen block survived the devastation of the fire. It was a bad time for the family as the house burned down while the owner Viscount Montague was away on holiday in Europe. The Viscount never returned to see the ruins of his house, he died in a boating accident while in Switzerland before he had even heard the news!
A Norman church had been built in the grounds of the old castle, dedicated to the saints Mary Magdalene and Denys. It possibly marks the spot of an earlier Saxon building. The church as it stands today is of rubble with ashlar dressings and some chequer of flint and ashlar apparent on the west front. It is roofed with tile and was rebuilt in the Perpendicular style in 1422, towards the end of Henry V reign. Subsequent restoration and rebuilding has removed much of the building’s medieval history. The chancel is thought to have been enlarged in the 15th or 16th century and the ground stage of the tower dates from the early 13th. The upper stages and the aisles east and west were added in the 16th century.
Midhurst’s Spread Eagle Hotel is a former coaching inn that dates back to 1430. There are claims that Elizabeth I once stayed in the Spread Eagle when she went hunting from Cowdray Park. The famous British author and science fiction novelist H.G. Wells was a resident of Midhurst when, during the 1880s, he worked briefly as an apprentice at a chemist. He later left his apprenticeship to work at the Midhurst Grammar School, where he was both a pupil and an assistant teacher. The school is now Midhurst Rother College which replaced the former grammar school, originally founded in 1672.
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