Cast your minds back to the summer of 2016. The Olympics took place in South America for the first time in Rio, grown men and women crossed busy motorways on foot in pursuit of elusive Pokémon and the UK bookies lost an absolute fortune on something called ‘Brexit’. (Apologies, I’m sure you vaguely remember the term, but it’s so long ago now that The Castle Drum concedes that some of you may have to Google it.)
In the summer of 2016 the BISC also welcomed USSRF students to the Castle for the first time. Undergraduate Student Summer Research Fellowships, to give them their full title, are an opportunity for undergraduate students at Queen’s to develop their research skills under the guidance of a faculty researcher. Over the course of this particular summer, the BISC hosted two such students, who worked closely with our Archaeology professor, Amelia Fairman.
The USSRF students were aided by an SSHRC grant from Queen’s. (Pronounced ‘shirk’). The acronyms are flying thick and fast in this article, so for the uninitiated, this grant was courtesy of the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council, a funding agency for her Majesty’s Government in Canada. The SSHRC recognises that pure science alone cannot solve the challenges of the 21st century, and only innovative, collaborative research will lead to knowledge that will change the world.
The students were attached to a SSHRC Partnership Development Grant which provided seed money to develop the formal partnership agreement signed between Queen’s University, ourselves, The University of Waterloo, and St. Jerome’s University. The purpose of the project was to explore the impact of climate change upon the fourteenth and fifteenth-century estate of Herstmonceux, and to gauge its impact on everyday life.
Fast forward five hundred years or so and climate change is very rarely out of the news, but did you know that Herstmonceux Castle’s history and indeed its entire raison d’etre is linked to a climate change disaster?
We know that Herstmonceux was farmed from Anglo-Saxon times, throughout the Norman Conquest and until around the late 1300s. Records show that after the year 1250, global temperatures cooled dramatically due to an expansion of north Atlantic ice around the same time. For decades East Sussex was hammered with the most torrential rains and storms that battered the land, causing terrible floods. In 1341 for example, nearby Hooe lost 400 acres of farmland and in 1375 the whole of Herstmonceux was completely waterlogged, leading to grain shortages and famine. Scientists estimate that in total, the county of Sussex lost over 10,000 acres of arable land to the flooding.
For the peasants struggling to work the remaining land in Herstmonceux, the decision to build the Castle in 1440 provided opportunities for work and an alternative livelihood. When Sir Roger Fiennes then received permission from the crown to crenellate his manor, there was further good news when it simultaneously expanded the estate of Herstmonceux to 600 acres by royal decree. A massive enclosed, private deer park was created, providing a life-saving boost to the local economy, and essentially turning Herstmonceux Castle into a resort destination for the rich and famous of the day.
Brief history lesson over. But what of today? Three years on from the original SSHRC grant, the research partnership goes from strength to strength. Acting now under the name ‘Environments of Change’, and boasting not four, but thirteen partners, this interdisciplinary collaboration uses Herstmonceux Castle and the surrounding area as a focus for some truly remarkable research. Cutting-edge technology, such as digital mapping and 3D modelling is being used to research how factors such as historical weather patterns, climate change, and access to water have shaped how people lived.
The Castle Drum thoroughly recommends a visit to their website: http://medieval-environment.com/, where the eagle-eyed will also note that one of the research partners is none other than ex-BISC Scholar in Residence Dave Brown, whose digital expertise was the subject of CD#18. Virtual archaeology will play a major role in the future research plans and examples of what can be achieved can be seen here with this fantastic 3D model of the Castle:
We sincerely hope the rest of the Castle community is as flattered as we are that our little corner of East Sussex is garnering such scholarly (and international) interest! The research carried out by Environments of Change will not only provide a better understanding of the history of Herstmonceux, but ultimately provide agencies with vital information concerning the history of climate change in Europe that could influence policy makers in the UK and EU.
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