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History of Lewes in East Sussex

Lewes history booksLewes has a history as varied and murky as any town in England. This condensed history of Lewes is a basic guide to the town’s historical and architectural past. Using contemporary photographs we've tried to show what has become of our ancestors legacy by making it a ‘virtual walk’. This has enabled us to cover the town’s past in a way that no actual walk could.

Please note that the photographs will be added as soon as possible.

WALKING THE HISTORY OF LEWES

The history of Lewes offers a fascinating scrapbook of our past. Journey down its twittens and lanes and you can find evidence of the many important periods in our country’s colourful, successful and often violent past.

We begin by taking you back to prehistory, the time of Celtic farmers and Saxon Kings. A time when Lewes was both a strategic military position and powerful trading town.

It’s hard to imagine prehistoric farmers ploughing the terraces on Cliffe Hill as you wander through the town. But they did, and the place-name Lewes derives either from a Celtic word meaning ‘slopes’ or the Saxon word hlaew, meaning an artificial mound.

Venture into Keere Street and Westgate Lane and you will see evidence of a massive entrenchment which was dug by the Saxons to guard the town against pillaging Danes during the reign of Alfred (871 – 99).

Athelstan (925 – 40) and subsequent kings minted coins in Lewes, which is testimony to the importance and status of the town at the time.

Meander along the River Ouse and envisage the king’s battle-ready warships. The Ouse being navigable, made the town a useful port and by Edward the Confessors reign (1042 – 66) the townsfolk (Lewesians) collectively paid 20 shillings for military equipment and stores, which indicates a thriving and busy coastal trade with a healthy religious contingent.

For many centuries the Ouse was a major transport route for Lewes’s businesses. In the 19th century the waterway thronged with barges laden with corn, timber, chalk, lime, iron, coal, textiles and wine. In 1846 when the railway arrived, its banks were overrun with wharfs, warehouses, granaries, ironworks, breweries, a gasworks, papermill and soap factory.

Returning now to the heart of Lewes, circuit the landmark castle and observe a tide of change. William the Conqueror (1027 – 87) had defeated the Saxons (1066) and divided Sussex. The town and surrounding area was gifted to William Warenne (later Earl of Surrey). He decided to control his Honour (or Rape) from Lewes and built the castle to strengthen its perimeter. The shell keep (part of – c1080) and barbican (14thC) are still well preserved today. The area is mentioned in the Domesday Book as ‘59 houses or holdings’, presumably in Cliffe.

Entering into Castle Precinct, note Castle Lodge (1860). Charles Dawson, solicitor and respected amateur geologist, who unearthed Piltdown Man (Eoanthropus dawsoni) lived here. Unfortunately, in 1953 scientists examining his find, uncovered a crude forgery. The ‘missing link’ was actually a medieval skull with an orang-utan jaw! Although it can never be admitted, as Dawson died in 1916, the finger of forgery pointed straight at him.

Back now in the Southover area of the town, little remains of the once great Priory (c1100). You can find the remaining ruins if you stroll along Southover High Street and Priory Street. Larger than Chichester Cathedral and adorned with the best sculpture of its time, it boasted double transepts and apsidal chapels.

Lewes was now a prosperous and thriving market town. You could buy fish from Brighton, textiles from London and even wine from Aquitaine. But as feudal unrest grew, the economy slowed and a rebel army under Simon de Montfort clashed with Henry III at the Battle of Lewes (1264). Henry was defeated and a treaty, the Mise of Lewes, forced Henry to assemble a council comprising knights and burgesses (citizen, freeman or inhabitant of a borough). This council is often seen as the first House of Commons.

Just off Keere Street and opposite Eastport Lane you will find the chapel of St James’s Hospital. Notice it still retains its 14th century windows, for it was this century that saw the country devastated by the bubonic plagues commencing with the Black Death in 1349. Other disruptions to Lewes’s progress included coastal landings by the French in the Hundred Years War (1337 – 1453) and the Peasant’s Revolt (1381).

This medieval world, Catholic and feudal, vanished under the Tudors. The 1530s saw private houses fashioned. One example on Southover High Street being the now named Anne of Cleves Museum. Its core is an early-16th century timber-framed Wealden hall-house above a medieval barrel-vaulted cellar. Anne (1515 – 57) was the fourth wife of Henry VIII (1491 – 1547). Anne was ‘recommended’ to Henry by Thomas Cromwell, Earl of Essex, who sought an alliance (via the marriage between Henry and Anne) with the German Protestant princes against France and the Holy Empire. But Henry found Anne unattractive and after only six months of marriage, they divorced. Cromwell, for his role as ‘matchmaker,’ fared rather worse – he was accused of treason and lost his head!

Housed in Anne’s Museum is a nude Bacchus (Greek and roman god of fertility and wine) astride a barrel hung with grapes. Appropriate for a town which saw Victorian professionals, artisans and rustics all patronise the 70 plus public houses, probably serviced by Harveys Brewery (rebuilt in 1880 by William Bradford), situated off Cliffe High Street. Elsewhere in the town the growing success of Lewes attracted the professions, with lawyers, physicians and surgeons all coming to practice.

Move now to the junction of Keere Street and Southover Road and you’ll find yourself in the 16th century. The Grange (1572), stands on the corner and is a fine example of Elizabethan architecture. The house was built for William Newton, the Earl of Dorset and is now used as a registry office and children’s nursery, amongst other things.

Lewes was not spared the turmoil that beset Stuart England, but the religious unrest founded a town tradition which is still celebrated today.

The Civil War (1642 – 1651) saw the town’s puritan (protestant) majority rally to Parliament (Roundheads) and in 1643 they repelled the (catholic) Royalists (Cavaliers) at Bramber. Lewes MP, Colonel Anthony Stapley of Framfield, signed the king’s death warrant in 1649.

The tradition centres mainly around three sectarian events but most prominently Guy Fawkes and the failed Gunpowder Plot (1605) to destroy Parliament. Each year on November 5th, Lewes burns brightly with the parade of Bonfire Boys (and girls) with their tar barrels and effigies of ‘NO POPERY.’ The town has six Bonfire Societies; Cliffe, Commercial Square, Lewes Borough, Nevill Juvenile, South Street and Waterloo.

Although originally a Protestant celebration against the rule of the Catholic church in Britain, the main act of remembrance today is for those who lost their lives during the two World Wars. Each Society lays a wreath at the War Memorial and though the Societies still pay homage to the old traditions and beliefs, it is a anniversary for everyone to enjoy.

If you’re still in a religious mood, seek out the Old Meeting House (1741) in Eastport Lane. Built for General Baptists and later used by Bible Christians and the Salvation Army. For something a little quirkier, ‘catch’ the basking shark, an unusual copper weather-vane (1813) which can be seen on top of St John’s Church, situated between Priory Crescent and Cockshut Road.

Georgian England regained economic prosperity and Lewes sparkled with fashion and society. Popular pursuits included theatre, prize fights and gossiping in the many coffee houses. From the 1780s three decades of rapid growth in manufacturing and farming gave rise to wealthy locals, flourishing markets, fairs and a new breed of sheep, the world famous Southdowns.

In 1768 Thomas Paine, a radical propagandist and voice of the common man, arrived in Lewes from London. He worked here as an excise officer but was dismissed for having ‘absented himself from his post without leave’. This started him on his literary career. He then travelled to America in October 1774 but returned in 1787 to pen his most influential work, The Rights of Man. In it he attacked hereditary government, recommended family allowances, old age pensions and maternity grants. The pamphlet was banned and he was charged with libel.

Paine then fled to France and became a French citizen in 1792 and narrowly missed the guillotine by opposing the execution of Louis XVI. In gaol, he wrote The Age of Reason which questioned Christianity and criticised the Old Testament. On release, he returned to America but his last years were marked by poverty, poor health and alcoholism. When he died in New York on June 8, 1809, Paine was virtually an outcast and since he could not be buried in consecrated ground, he was laid to rest in a corner of his small farm in New Rochelle.

Walking along Albion Street (1822) and Priory Crescent (1836 – 52) you can see the designs of a new, successful town developer and architect, Amon Henry Wilds. He was the son of successful builder, Amon Wilds, and the pair are well known for their grand designs in nearby Brighton.

In the nearby High Street, Lewes House (c1812) was the home of millionaire and collector, Edward Perry Warren. In 1914 he gave the Borough Council, The Kiss by Rodin, which they placed in the assembly room. Prudishly, it was returned amid fears that its nudity and pose would over-excite the convalescent war-wounded. It has since returned to Lewes in a temporary exhibition, held in Town Hall.

Entering the Crescents of St Annes and Wallands (1865) you are greeted with examples of austere Italianate. But these streets came after nearly 30 years of virtually no new dwellings. Lewes, though affluent, was also in decay. Population growth slowed and house building almost ceased from the mid-1830s.

During the 1840s Lewes became a major railway junction fostering a host of family firms, managed and owned by local residents. Manufacturing enterprises, breweries, a shipyard and printing works all saved the town from decline as shopkeepers faced stiff competition from Brighton, Hastings and Tunbridge Wells. The household brand name, Russell and Bromley (Albion Russell and G.F. Bromley) was founded in Lewes at this time and gave rise to the now famous chain of shoe shops.

The Victorians were responsible for many new buildings and shaped much of Lewes with their love of culture, religion, politics and institution. Notably the Venetian-Gothic Freemasons Hall (1868) and the School of Science and Art in Albion Street. Humbler terraces spread along Priory Street and Western Road and due to high crime rates a new prison opened in 1853. It’s still in use today!

Heading back to the High Street, stop for a moment outside the Crown Courts (built 1812) and be transported to 1949 when the acid-bath murderer, John George Haig, was sentenced to hang.

The 20th century, with its housing estates and supermarkets did little to alter the face or character of Lewes and the town has never really forgotten its roots. In true Lewesian style, an obelisk was erected in 1901 ‘in loving memory’ of the Protestant martyrs and can be seen standing above the modern Cuilfail Tunnel in the Cliffe area of the town.

Visit Lewes today and you will find a cosmopolitan mix of restaurants and bars, shops old and new and a town where history and the present are at ease. The streets and lanes will take you to bygone ages where the buildings boast a rich heritage. Peek into workshops and galleries and you’ll still see artisans at work. Venture into public houses and you’ll still meet Lewesians enjoying local beer, brewed in the town. Lewes has always stood apart, and it is no different today.

The words for this brief history were put together using the local guide book – Historic Lewes and Its Buildings (Revised Edition), with kind permission of the author and local historian, Colin Brent. Copies of the book and the actual walks it contains, are available from the Lewes Museum bookshop, priced approx. £3.50.

With many thanks

The lewesonline team

Virtual Walk concept by Phil Crouch-Baker

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