The name of Amberley is a subject of much learned debate. It is likely to have its origins in the old English word amber meaning a measure of volume. The suffix Ley probably refers to a field, so the name may possibly come from a description of agricultural output from one particular field.
In the 19th Century, Amberley residents were known by the nickname "Yellow Bellies" supposedly, because the women lifted up their skirts in front of the fire and had their skin discoloured by the smoke. The nickname lives on today with the yellow shirts of the football team.
To find the true beginnings of the history of the village and its surrounding hamlets , we must go back four thousand years 2,000 BC, in the Neolithic Age, when there was quite a large-scale industry operating in Rackham: the making of flint tools. Near the Rackham-Greatham road, evidence of an even earlier site, dating from the early Mesolithic times, was discovered, which was probably a short-stay camp for a small group of hunter-gatherer people, protected from the wind blowing across Amberley Wildbrooks.
Prehistoric man lived on top of the South Downs alongside a series of tracks running East-West. His burial places - low mounds called tumuli on the Ordnance Survey maps - are scattered alongside what is now the South Downs Way. His fields were mere lines of cultivation terraced on the steep sides of the hills and between 80 and 90 acres of them can still be seen in the area around Amberley Mount.
We know that Late Bronze Age/early Iron Age families lived amidst their fields here around 1100 BC: two circular huts of this period on the south-face of Amberley Mount were excavated and remains of horses and ponies were discovered and were presumably used on the farm. One hut was 36 ft in diameter, the other 25 ft: sizeable dwellings that must have supported quite large family groups. We know that the river was important during this period as fragments of three oak dug-out canoes were discovered in peat-beds on lands then belonging to Amberley Castle. All probably date from the Iron Age.
In Roman times, this part of the Arun valley was quite heavily developed and there was almost certainly a Roman settlement at Amberley, probably just a farmstead, serving the huge villa at Bignor, four miles to the west. There are reports of several Roman burials found on the site of Highdown House, half way up Amberley Mount, during the construction of the building early in the 20th century. Roman pottery has also been found on the hillside and a Roman glass phial was discovered at Amberley Castle, which is now in the British Museum.
The beginnings of St Michael’s church lie in the Dark Ages, the period of English history when Saxon kings bitterly fought for supremacy in this region and Christianity had only just arrived in Sussex. There is no reason to doubt that after conversion of some or all the South Saxons, a small wooden church was erected in Amberley on top of the ridge above the Wildbrooks, surrounded by the hovels, topped with turf as roofs, of the villagers. It probably lies within the walls of the nave.
After the Norman invasion, the Saxon church was replaced by a stone structure and the church was enlarged around 1150-1160. The magnificent chancel arch dates from this period as does the square font, with its shallow blank arches carved in the Purbeck marble.
Around 1230, the chancel was enlarged and three tall Early English lancet windows were inserted in the east wall, although they were much altered in the 1864-5 restoration by the then vicar, George Clarkson, whose wall tablet remains on the South wall of the chancel. This restoration, costing £800, was completed in 1865 and marked by a special service of rededication that year with the congregation coming by “boat, barge, omnibus, road and rail.” St. Michael’s was also equipped with a brand new harmonium to enhance the singing.
The centuries after the Norman invasion are dominated by the Bishops of Chichester who enjoyed the benefits of Amberley as one of their palaces. Earlier buildings which served as a Manor House, were enclosed by a wall in the late 14th Century, intended not to protect against raids by French pirates, but to safeguard the sacred person of the Bishop from the surrounding peasants.
The licence to crenellate - literally, permission to build battlemented walls - was granted in December 1377, just before the Peasants' Revolt. However, the fortifications would not have been sufficient to have stopped a determined military force.
The Bishops needed to travel to their palace at Amberley, so in 1440, we find a contribution by Bishop Pratty towards the upkeep of Houghton Bridge when it was being partially rebuilt. By 1478, the bridge required a larger sum than the Bishop's purse could afford, so he granted 40 days of indulgence from Purgatory to all who made a contribution.
Contrary to many suggestions, Amberley escaped much of the bloodshed and chaos of the Civil War, although there were cavalry skirmishes on the South Downs above Parham in December 1643 between Royalists and the Sussex Parliamentary Militia after the Cavaliers briefly captured Arundel Castle. There was also a skirmish around Greatham bridge using artillery, and those killed were buried in Greatham churchyard.
The occupant of Amberley Castle at the time, John Goring, was a notorious Royalist and after Parliament's recapture of Arundel, Parliamentary soldiers were sent to Amberley to seek payment of back taxes he owed. No doubt it was them who wrecked much of the buildings inside the Castle: the romantics amongst us will be disappointed there was positively no siege. The Parliamentary administration then seized Amberley Castle in 1648 and sold it for £3,341 14s 4d to a London merchant, whose family later moved to Thakeham and Warminghurst.
The villages of Bury and Amberley were joined, since Charles II’s reign by a ferry, operated by the occupants of a cottage on the other side of the river Arun. The footpath beneath the castle still runs across the railway to the ferry site. Sadly, the ferry ceased operating in 1965.
In the 18th Century, Amberley must have been a busy and interesting place. The main coaching road from Arundel to London ran down through Houghton, across the Bridge, up what is now School Road and the High Street, round by the Black Horse, through Crossgates, and past Rackham School, carrying on Northwards. The remains of this old road, which continued up to Mare Hill, outside Pulborough, still exists as a footpath, carrying on due North from the "T" junction with Greatham Road, alongside Wiggonholt Common.
In Amberley itself, the area around The Alley, off Church Street, then known just as "The Street" had its own busy activities. The old name for this little lane is "Smock Alley" - a name which indicates its true business; that of the village's red-light area. All this so close to the Vicarage!
In 1861, the population of the village was 650, around 150 more than it is today. Vine House in Church Street, was a beer house called the Golden Cross in the 19th Century. Amberley then had eight beer houses or inns. Next door is The Brew House, whose connection with the beer house next door is obvious. In Amberley the farms - and there were nine separate ones in the 19th century - all were within the village, instead of being surrounded by their land.
The Chalkpits started off in the early nineteenth century, and in their heyday employed more than 100 men. Before their advent, the main industry was farming. In the period 1813 to 1838, registers record the names of 105 labourers, (probably all working on farms); nine farmers, three butchers and three shepherds. Hay was loaded up at Ham Corner and despatched to London by barges on the Arun.
As well as being well-served by pubs, Amberley at one stage had up to 12 shops – butchers, tailors, bakers, shoemakers, and, at what is now Old Postings, a purveyor of fancy goods who augmented his income by making coffins.
Amberley is constantly changing. Some may well decry the trend of conversion of some of the buildings within the conservation area. But this itself is not a new process. A row of three eighteenth century cottages in Church street, opposite the entrance to the churchyard, were converted by in 1911 into today’s splendid Amberley House.
Some things never change.
Amberley people down through the centuries have always been independently minded and the village today carefully protects the heritage of the past.
© Robert Hutchinson 2009.