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The Tudor Society - Tudor History at your Fingertips  

The East Grinstead that the Tudors knew

By Ian Mulcahy

This article first appeared in the July 2020 edition of Tudor Life, the magazine of the Tudor Society.

Old Britain Home | Historic curiosities of East Grinstead


East Grinstead is a town of just under 30,000 inhabitants nestled in the far north east corner of West Sussex. The Surrey border is immediately to the north of the town and the East Sussex Border just to the east. The town also straddles the Greenwich Meridian Line.

Deriving its name from ‘grenestede’, meaning ‘green place’ in old English (with East first being noted as a prefix to distinguish it from West Grinstead, some 20 miles to the south west, in the late 13th century), East Grinstead appears in the Domesday book as The Hundred of Grinstead with 12 different places scattered over approximately 25 square miles containing a total of 31 households, suggesting a collection of isolated farmsteads rather than a large settlement. Whilst it’s not specifically mentioned in the Domesday Book, the Church of St Swithun (named after the Anglo-Saxon Bishop of Winchester between 852 and 863) is thought to have existed on its present site by 971. There is also the possibility of an earlier dedication (to St Edmund) dating back to 840, though this could have been a previous structure on a different site. The present Church was built in 1789 after the tower of the church of 971, or earlier, collapsed in 1785, destroying the entire structure. The falling tower was only 100 years old, having been badly rebuilt with substandard materials after the original was gutted by fire following a lightning strike in 1683. 

It is probable that the area which now makes up the centre of the town was once a focal place for trade which evolved in an open space on a major route. If this is the case, it is likely that the church was attracted to the area to serve travellers and hawkers, as well as the inhabitants of those isolated farmsteads, which points to the area being a place that we were drawn to as far back as the early 9th century. For such a town, the distinct lack of archaeological exploration is surprising though the number of medieval buildings, and therefore a subsequent lack of development (which normally gives rise to such exploration), perhaps explains this. A rare town centre excavation, just north of the High Street on the site of the town’s museum, discovered some shards of medieval pottery, the earliest of which could have dated from the late 12th century.

The next documentation of East Grinstead occurs in 1235 when it was recorded as a borough. It is thought that area started to develop as a town in the 2 or 3 decades prior to this as a stopping point on the route from London to Lewes, and on to Pevensey, and by 1247 the town was granted a Royal Charter to hold a weekly market and an annual fair, though it’s fair to say that both were probably being held illegally well before this time.

By 1300, East Grinstead had grown sufficiently to be sending two representatives to Parliament and within the next 50 years some of the surviving timber framed buildings were starting to appear on the southern side of the High Street. We will take a look at these buildings, over 650 years old, during our exploration of the East Grinstead that was known to the Tudors. In 1524, the only date during the Tudor period for which records are available, the town was recorded as having 44 taxpayers meaning that the, by now well-developed, town had a population of perhaps 200-250.

This article will concentrate almost exclusively on the 400 metre long High Street, notable for the almost unbroken run of 14th, 15th & 16th century timber framed houses on its southern side, though I shall include an exceptional out of town farm house at the end. Having left the car in one of the town centre car parks at the northern end of Church Lane, our Tudor tour of East Grinstead commences in the churchyard, having entered it on the eastern side via the Lychgate in Church Lane.

As we have already discussed, the church building is relatively modern, but the churchyard and history of the church as an entity, rather than as a building, is of interest to Tudor aficionados. In December 1553, Robert Best was removed as the church vicar as a result of Queen Mary’s efforts to undo her Fathers break from Rome when she decreed that vicars should not be married. He was subsequently re-instated in November 1558 following Elizabeth’s accession.

St Swithuns Church

On the southern side of the churchyard, the charred remains of ‘The Three Sussex Martyrs’ are interred under a memorial stone. Thomas Dungate, Ann ‘Mother’ Tree and John Foreman were, on 18 July 1556, burnt at the stake for refusing to return to the teachings of Rome. The Martyrs met their horrific fate a mere stone’s throw away outside number 34 High Street, a building that we shall visit later.

The memorial stone to the three Sussex Martyrs


On leaving the churchyard by the same route that we entered, the western aspect of Sackville College is visible immediately in front of you. Not strictly Tudor in construction, but certainly Tudor in character, the college was designed in 1609 and completed in 1620 as a result of a bequest in the will of Robert Sackville, the 2nd Earl of Dorset. In 1580 the Earl had married Margaret Howard, the only daughter of Thomas, the 4th Duke Norfolk, who was beheaded on Tower Hill on 2 June 1572 as a result of his efforts to have Mary, Queen of Scots, placed on the English throne at the expense of Queen Elizabeth. The family histories of Sackville and his bride were already entwined as Thomas Sackville, Robert’s father, was one of the judges who sent Margaret’s father to the chopping block!

Sackville College isn’t a college in the sense of a seat of learning, rather it is an almshouse which has provided sheltered accommodation for the elderly throughout its entire 400 year history. Sackville’s will stipulated that the almshouse should provide ‘for ever towards the relief of one and thirty single and unmarried persons, thereof one and twenty to be men and the other ten to be women, there to live, to pray, serve, honour and praise Almighty God’.


Sackville College.
The statue is that of Sir Archibald McIndoe who performed pioneering plastic surgery on badly burnt air crew during WWII at the nearby Queen Victoria Hospital


A short walk down Church Lane and a left turn on reaching the High Street brings us to the front of the college, opposite which is Windsor Cottage, a hall house dating back to 1450 whose timbers are exposed on the upper floor of the eastern side.

Windsor Cottage


To the right of Windsor Cottage and separated from it by an access passage is The Porch House, so called due to the ornate stone porch which leads to the garden at the rear of the house. Unfortunately this feature is not visible from public land. The house was built in the late 16th century and the front has been refaced in local sandstone, seemingly almost immediately after the original construction. There is also a substantial sandstone extension to the rear which was probably added in 1599 when Cromwell House was built.

The Porch House


Adjoining The Porch House is the Annexe to Cromwell House followed by Cromwell House itself. The main building is a fine 3 storied jettied house built in 1599 by Edward Payne, a member of a successful local iron dynasty. The house was badly damaged by fire in 1928, but the street elevation was, with the exception of the windows, left untouched by the inferno. Curiously, the annexe is older than the main house having been built in the early 16th century, probably as an annexe to Cromwell House’s predecessor.

Annexe to Cromwell House (left) and Cromwell House, complete with more modern building paraphernalia  


Continuing westwards along the High Street 2 doors along is Sackville House, originally a 15th century hall. This property was converted from a hall house in 1574 and the roof was raised by a couple of feet. The notches which held the original rafters can be clearly seen on what was the wall plate and is now a horizontal beam a little way below the eaves of the house. It is likely that the rear extension, and the required passageway that this necessitated, were added at the same time.

Adjoining Sackville House is the 650 year old Amherst House. Dated by dendrochronology to 1370, this was built as a two bay open hall house with a floored over solar bay. To the rear is a 16th century extension and the Annexe, to the right, is also a 16th century Tudor building. An interesting feature to this house is a small opening, approximately 70cm by 30cm, just under the eaves, with small oak balusters. Based on the balusters, it is thought that this opening was inserted in the 16th century for a purpose unknown. Though glazed now, this would have originally been open.

Amherst House (left) and Annexe

Sackville House (left) Amherst House (centre) and Annexe

Sackville House (left) Amherst House (right)

Rear extension to Sackville House

Small opening under the eaves of Amherst House


Opposite Amherst is a pretty little late 16th century building, 61-63 High Street, which now hosts two shops.

61-63 High Street


Back on the southern side the High Street is The Dorset Arms Public House, formerly known as The Cat. Believed to have been built in 1510, first documented in 1574 and refaced in brick in the 18th century, this timber framed structure reveals its coaching inn origins by virtue of the wide passageway through to the carpark which, when constructed, would have course been stabling.

The Dorset arms


At the front of the Dorset Arms, the High street is split in two by Middle Row, a 60 metre range of mostly timber framed properties which seem to have been placed in the middle of highway! Middle Row has its origins as temporary market stalls, but these gradually began to be replaced by permanent structures, operating as shops, workshops and a tannery from about 1400. A survey of 1564 reported that stabling for the Crown Inn was also in Middle Row. Of the extant structures, numbers 4 & 5 were built in the early 16th century, number 9 dates to the 15th century and 11 & 12 are from the late 16th century.

Middle Row


Opposite the northern aspect of Middle Row is the main entrance to the churchyard, guarded to the right by 51 and 53 High Street, a large timber framed house of 1600, and to the left by 49 High Street, a smaller timber framed building which is a decade or two older.

51 & 53 High Street 

49 High Street


Turning around and heading back to the southern side of the High Street through one of the narrow alleys that split Middle Row, where exposed timber framing is visible, we reach 48 High Street, also known as Wilmington House. This is one of the earliest surviving examples of a typical Wealden hall house, being built in the mid-14th century. It also boasts a 16th century oak door. The rear extension, as well as the brick clad number 50, are 16th century Elizabethan additions and the passageway to the rear was probably added at this time. The adjoining building, 46 High Street, is a 15th century hall house, with a 16th century rear extension added at the same time as those to number 48.

48 High Street

46 High Street


Next door is 42 & 44 High Street, a late 15th century house with a front jetty which is mostly hidden by the modern shop front. The timbers of the house are hidden by painted tiles. To the rear of the building is another 16th century extension.

42 & 44 High Street


The final building in this unbroken run is 34-40 High Street. 36-40 is a rare aisled hall house, which has been dated to 1352, putting it in fierce competition with number 48 for the title of East Grinstead’s oldest building. Number 34, the gabled cross wing to the right, has been dated to 1410. It was outside of this building that the three Sussex Martyrs were burned at the stake in 1556, an event no doubt witnessed by the patrons of the Red Lion Inn as the building was at the time. Unlike many of the previous buildings we have seen with passageways, where they were added many years after the initial construction, the high access to the left of this building is thought to be an original feature.

34-40 High Street


Opposite is The Crown Hotel, a large late 15th century timber framed structure that was refronted in the 1700s. The Crown was first documented in 1502 when it was bequeathed in a will. Unless there have been any undocumented changes, this means that it has retained the same name for over 500 years. Remaining on the northern side of the road, a little further west is 7-11 High Street, a very well disguised 4 bay Wealden hall house, constructed in 1455 with the cross wing added about 10 years later. Some timber framing is visible is on the eastern aspect.

The Crown Hotel

7-11 High Street


Returning to the southern side of the street, we have 26 & 28 High Street which is another mid to late 15th century hall house, the solar wing of which was number 30 until it was demolished in 1968; an event which prompted the formation of the East Grinstead Society. To the rear is a 16th century extension and adjoined to the right is 22 & 24 High Street, also known as Tudor House, which was built in 1535. After a short run of comparatively modern buildings we arrive back in the 15th century with 4 High Street, a small 2 bay hall house built in 1452.

26 & 28 High Street

22 & 24 High Street

4 High Street


Continuing westwards, behind the 19th century Constitutional Buildings you will find Judges Close and before looking at the final three buildings on the main thoroughfare we will have a little walk down the cul-de-sac to have a look at the 16th century Clarenden Cottage, a picture postcard timber framed Tudor building hidden away from the sight of those who are simply passing through.

Clarenden Cottage


Returning back to the High Street, to our left is a group of three buildings which collectively form Judges Terrace, and the first building is 1 & 2 Judges Terrace, the front portion of which has been dated to 1448. The front of the building was refaced in brick, now painted white, in the 18th century, but the old timbers can still be seen in the northern wall, enclosing the entrance to Judges Close. A large extension was added to the rear in the 17th century.

1 & 2 Judges Terrace


Adjacent to numbers 1 & 2 is the imposing Clarendon House. Originally a hall built in 1455 as the headquarters of The Fraternity of St Katherine, a local ‘religious and philanthropic organisation’, it was converted during the reign of Queen Elizabeth, a chimney (which survives intact) was added and the building became an inn known as The George. At the same time, a sandstone cross wing was added to the west and the combined building was used to house visiting judges who were sitting at East Grinstead Assizes. The cross wing is now known as The Old Stone House and has a 19th century mock Tudor extension to its right.

Clarendon House

The Old Stone House


That is the end of our look at the surviving buildings that the Tudors knew in East Grinstead High Street, but you may recall that I promised one out of town trip at the end, and this is a journey well worth making for those with the time and energy for a 4 mile walk. East Grinstead railway station is a half mile walk from the High Street and from there you are able to join Worth Way, a 7 mile bridle path linking East Grinstead with Crawley along the track bed of the old Three Bridges to East Grinstead railway line which was closed in 1967.

Around a mile and a half out of East Grinstead, to the north of the track, is Gulledge Farmhouse. The area surrounding the farm has a long history of human activity with finds including 10,000 year old Mesolithic flints, 3rd century Roman bloomeries and items from the 13th-15th centuries including coins, knife handles, a silver cufflink and a sword belt hanger. 

The current house was built in the 2nd half of the 16th century, almost certainly on the site of a former building and, from the outset, had three floors (including the cellar) and huge chimney stacks. This was a grand house built by, or for, a wealthy person! The close studding of the timber frame is an exhibition of wealth, as it’s not structurally necessary and its existence is for show only. The grandeur of the house was further enhanced in the very early 17th century when the continuous full length jetty across the southern side of the house was hidden behind locally quarried stone and three gables were added. I have elected to include Gulledge Farmhouse as the fantastic view of the house from Worth Way across a field of wheat swaying in the breeze, as seen in the photograph, is a view that is unchanged in over 400 years.

Gulledge Farmhouse



  • East Grinstead. Notes On Its Architecture (R T Mason, Sussex Archaeological Collections (SAC) 80, 1939)

  • The Topography of East Grinstead Borough (P D Wood, SAC 106, 1968)

  • The History of East Grinstead (Wallace Henry Hills, 1906)

  • East Grinstead Character Assessment Report (Roland B Harris, 2005)

  • East Grinstead Conservation Area Appraisal (Mid Sussex District Council, 2019)

  • Felbridge & District History Group


Text & photographs © Ian Mulcahy. Contact or visit my 'Use of my photographs' page for licensing queries (ground level photographs only)

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