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Lewes, Sussex

"You can see Lewes lying like a box of toys under a great amphitheatre of chalky hills."
William Morris

Lewes, the county town of Sussex, brims with history. Sited on a downland spur on the edge of the South Downs beside the River Ouse, it was prey to invasion by the Vikings and the Romans, who built a fort to guard the ford, south of the town. The fort’s remains are in the churchyard of St John Sub Castro.

This was a densely wooded area in 10,000 BC, but, in 4000 BC, the woods were cleared for farming. Barbican House—a 16th century timber-framed building with a fake Georgian façade—is home to the Museum of Sussex Archaeology, detailing the history of the county from its beginnings to medieval times. In the Museum, prehistoric flint axes and scrapers are on display along with gold, bronze and glass Anglo-Saxon ornaments, uncovered at Itford Hill, north of the city.

In 1066 William the Conqueror landed nearby at Pevensey and granted his friend, William de Warenne, charge of Lewes, called ‘Hlaew’,or hill, by the Saxons. William de Warenne built both Lewes Castle (1067) and the Cluniac Priory (1077) of St Pancras. A fragment of the castle’s Norman gatehouse and the almost intact 14th century Barbican Gate survive, still standing guard over the surrounding countryside.

Lewes prospered under the Normans—the river was navigable at the time. Ships imported wine, cloth, spices, salt and fish. Corn, malt, leather, timber, and wool were exported. Twisting, narrow medieval streets still exist in the heart of the town. Some passages wind beneath parts of the old town wall. The High Street follows an original Saxon trade route and proudly shows off the town’s historical mix of architecture: buildings made from flint, stone, timber, brick, stucco, and tiles that were fixed to the walls of houses to look like brickwork. It is rumoured that George IV, while Prince of Wales, drove a coach and four down steep, narrow, cobbled Keere Street on a bet. The street, with its old cottages and beamed 15th century bookshop, marks the boundary of the medieval town.

16th century St Michael’s—much altered in the 19th century—is near the keep of the Norman Castle. Its slender shingled spire on a round flint tower is one of two in the county. Remnants of the Priory of St Pancras—destroyed in 1538—survive. In the 13th century the Priory consisted of a marble Great Gate, a refectory, a dormitory, an infirmary, a chapel, and cloisters. In 1264, a battle was fought at Lewes between Henry III and Simon de Montford. Henry retreated to the Priory and was forced to sign the ‘Mise of Lewes’ treaty, restricting his royal authority.

Lewes’s best example of Norman ecclesiastical architecture is St Anne’s, built in the12th century. It has a small rounded doorway, a 12th century carved font, and a 13th century chancel. Gruesomely, in the 12th century, an anchoress had herself walled up in a tiny cell by the chancel wall and stayed there until she died.

The timber-framed Anne of Cleves’s House, located in Southover, the post-medieval section of town, was part of Anne’s divorce settlement from Henry VIII. Anne was the daughter of the Duke of Cleves—her political marriage was arranged to form an alliance with German Protestants. The couple were married less than six months, Henry taking an instant dislike to her. (His comment on first seeing her was, “I like her not.”) Luckily, he divorced, rather than beheaded, her. She never lived in the house that is home to the Lewes Folk Museum. Furnished rooms and artefacts from the 16th century to the present illustrate the post-medieval social and economic history of Sussex. Nearby, the 16th century Southover Grange, is the original Mock Beggars' Hall in Harrison Ainsworth's novel Ovingdean Grange.

In the 17th and 18th centuries, corn, wool, and iron products—produced locally from Wealden iron ore—were the main items of commerce. Wool smugglers, known as "owlers", plied their trade in the area. In the 19th century, sheep farmers on the Downs brought upwards of 30,000 sheep to Lewes for the Great Fair. In 1850 ewes sold for 30s, lambs for 23s, and rams for 15 guineas. The fields south of Lewes and north of Rottingdean were known as ‘The Mutton Factory’ because of the prolific number of sheep grazing on them.

The Lewes Living History Model reveals the town as it once was: mansions, gardens, churches, taverns, workshops, breweries, iron foundries, timberyards, wharfs, and more. An audio-visual programme traces 1,000 years of the town's history. There were seven breweries here, and the smell of hops permeated the air. Only one Victorian brewery, Harvey’s, survived.

On November 5th Lewes goes wild with pyrotechnics at their Bonfire Festival. Torchlight processions, giant bonfires, fireworks and tar-barrel rolling are all part of the proceedings. The celebration commemorates two events: the burning of 17 Protestant martyrs in the High Street in 1557 during the reign of Queen Mary and the infamous Gunpowder Plot, when, in 1605, Guy Fawkes and his Catholic conspirators attempted to blow up the Houses of Parliament on State Opening Day.

The busy market town of Lewes, with its medley of architectural styles and fascinating history, is sure to fascinate the visitor.

Visitor Information

Tourist Information Centre
187 High Street
Tel: 01273 483448

Lewes Castle & Barbican House Museum
Barbican House
169 High Street
Lewes, Sussex BN7 1YE
Tel. 01273 486290

Anne of Cleve’s House/Lewes Folk Museum
52 Southover High St.
Tel. 01273 474610

Lewes Living History Model

This article first appeared in Heritage/Realm magazine.

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