There is no denying that Uckfield has strong and long-lasting ties with France, the UK’s closest neighbour and oldest ally. The town is twinned with the French city of Arques la Bataille, which lies a mere 88 miles away across the English Channel. The official Visit Arques la Bataille website describes its relationship with Uckfield as an “established partnership” and a lasting “relation of friendship”, thanks to the many decades that the two towns have been linked.
When one looks further toward the surrounding county of East Sussex, it is clear that French influence is in many ways more pronounced than it is in virtually any other area of the country. Owing largely to East Sussex’s geographical proximity to Metropolitan France, evidence of the county’s centuries-old relationship to the French is abundant and highly visible. Read on to find out more about the myriad components of East Sussex’s French connection.
History: From the Battle of Hastings to World War II
When assessing the history of the French in East Sussex, the first place many people refer to is Hastings in the year 1066, when the French king William the Conqueror defeated Harold II, ushering in the Norman conquest of England, described by the Encyclopaedia Britannica as one of the most profound historical developments in the history of the British Isles.
This is not the only way in which conflict has shaped East Sussex’s French connection. The county was at the frontline of the Hundred Years’ War, with Hastings, Rye, and Winchelsea being designated as Cinque Ports, essential for the English military effort against France.
During the Napoleonic Wars, East Sussex was the epicentre of joint European military planning to bring down the French Republic, as well as being the main target of Napoleon’s naval invasion efforts.
Of course, France’s historic relationship with East Sussex goes far beyond the realm of adversarial conflict. French emigres have chosen the region as a place of refuge, opportunity, and commerce for centuries.
During the 16th century, Huguenot refugees fleeing religious persecution fled in their thousands to England. The BBC website gives an extensive description of the Huguenots in Sussex, described as the most popular destination for French refugees in England, many of whom would go on to become highly influential figures in British arts, politics, and education.
Fast forward more than 300 years, and many of East Sussex’s towns would provide refuge and resources to members of the French resistance in Sussex during the Second World War, with many “secret houses” acting as camouflaged military planning centers existing in places such as Petworth, Rye, and Brighton, with the full blessing of the British government.
French People and Commerce
Beyond serving as a place of refuge for countless French people, East Sussex has also been a center of French commercial activity for centuries. The Huguenots would go on to establish countless businesses in the region, including pubs, French wine shops, and butchers. Of the many historical and culturally important pubs in East Sussex today, some have French origins dating from this period.
There are many more modern examples of French commerce in the region. One notable highlight is the French origins of what My Brighton and Hove describes as the first licensed casino to open in England; the Clarence Room, housed inside the Metropole Hotel in Brighton.
The casino was opened in 1959 and attracted plenty of attention due to its management. Given that the games played in the ‘posh’ casino were of the classic French variety, including French roulette and Chemin-de-Fer, the casino board decided to appoint the legendary French croupier Jean-Marie Cruciani to be the Director-General of the casino. It was thought that, given the French origins of many classic casino games, a Frenchman was needed to ensure that the casino did it right. As Betway explains, roulette was invented in 18th century France, and the most popular variant of the game is still the French one in many places, which has its own distinct rules.
French businesspeople have also been flocking to sell their wares in East Sussex for decades. The longest-running French market in England, Le Marché, has been selling wine, bread, cheese, and fashion in the town of Heathfield for decades, which is just another example of the enduring ties between the region and France.
These are just some of the ways that French culture and history has left an enduring mark on East Sussex, as they will hopefully continue to do so long into the future.