Monday, 7 July 2014

The Rape of Lewes

I had started out to write a little bit about what was, I thought, a Sussex legend.  I have in the past described the legends of the Devil's Dyke and of the origin of the Long Man of Wilmington and it was my intention to describe the martlet.  This is a legendary bird which was featured in the heraldic shield (commonly called the coat of arms) of the old county of Sussex and can still be seen on the shields of the newer counties of both East Sussex and West Sussex.
Sussex - the old county
West Sussex
East Sussex

I had thought the martlet to be peculiar to Sussex but have discovered to my astonishment that is not the case.  McGill University in Montreal, the University of Houston Law Center, Worcester College (Oxford), Westminster School (Connecticut) and the University of Victoria (Australia) all have martlets incorporated in the heraldic shields or coats of arms.

The martlet has no feet, although tufts of feathers are shown in place of legs and feet.  The bird is thought to have been based on the swift, which in olden times was thought never to land.  The supposed inability of the martlet to land is said by some modern commentators to symbolize the constant quest for knowledge, learning, and adventure - hence its incorporation in the shields of schools and universities.

As far as Sussex is concerned, the six martlets represent the six historical rapes- the administrative divisions of the county - Chichester, Arundel, Bramber, Lewes, Pevensey and Hastings.

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