Medieval Musings

Some Really Horrible History!
In the “Handbook for Lewes” by M A Lower (first published 1845), the author describes a gruesome find on the site of Lewes Priory in the course of work on the creation of the new Brighton – Lewes railway line:

 “To the eastward of the (Priory) church was the common burial ground of the convent. Upwards of 100 skeletons, deposited in cists made of hewn chalk-stones, were exhumed. The practice of repeated interments in the same ground seems to have been eschewed in this establishment, and hence the cemetery must have been of large extent.

Within a few feet of the eastern end of the church a most singular discovery was made. A circular pit, 10 feet in diameter and 18 feet deep, was found to be filled to above half its depth with human remains. The stench emitted from them was so great that the excavators (certainly none of the most squeamish of beings) ran away from the spot, sick and disgusted. For 24 hours the hindmost of a train of wagons was constantly occupied with the contents of this horrible subterranean charnel-house. The bones were much crushed and broken. The number of bodies the pit had contained cannot be estimated with much precision; suffice it to say that it must have been many hundreds, and that the bones in the aggregate weighed many tons.


That the unnumbered dead thus summarily buried were the victims of the sword appears likely from the discovery in the pit of an iron spur, part of a bridle iron and a portion of a weapon. That they were among those who fell at the Battle of Lewes in 1264 is equally probable.”

In her 1994 book, “Lewes: Two Thousand Years of History”, Barbara Fleming has this to say about the casualties of the conflict: “One wonders if, at the time, the townsfolk of Lewes really felt it had all been worth it. Their houses plundered, their town half ruined and many of their numbers killed or maimed for life in the savagery. Monks and Friars tended the wounded as best they could and helped bury the dead. How many dead there were is not exactly known. But in 1810, the ground was dug into just in front of the present prison gateway for remaking the old Lewes – Brighton coach road. Three large pits of human bones were discovered, estimated to be those of around 1,500 men. Many more, no doubt, lie buried over a wide area along and across the River Ouse and Winterbourne stream and over the Downland. Some were reported to drowned in their flight or held by the swamps and mud until they were butchered. In 1769 the building of the new turnpike road at Offham turned up many more human remains thought to be those of the unfortunate Londoners fleeing before Prince Edward’s cavalry.”

A Lewes Miracle of the Fishes
L F Salzman recorded the following incident in Volume 66 of the “Sussex Archaeological Collections” published in 1925:
“This miracle is attributed to St Richard de Wyche, Bishop of Chichester 1244-1253, who was canonised in 1262.

One day, crossing the bridge of Lewes, he saw fishermen busy fishing under the supervision of the Archbishop of Canterbury’s bailiffs, who were standing on the bridge. They saluted the bishop and said: ‘My Lord, we have laboured long and taken nothing; wait now, if you please, for one more cast of the nets and bestow your blessing on it.’ The saint smiled and stood still, and raising his right hand, blessed the water and the fishers and said: ‘Cast now, in the name of the Lord’. They cast and drew, and bringing the net to land found four fish, called mullet, that are not often taken in that stream, for they are more sea than river fish. The bishop bade them take the fish to the Friars Minors, who had a convent in Lewes not far from the scene of the miracle.”

While this catch may seem unimpressive compared to the shoals of large fish caught in similar miracles by Jesus himself, the fishermen and bailiffs considered it memorable. Grey mullet can often be seen in the Ouse at Lewes, usually at low tide when they browse around the mud on the riverbanks. This is also one of the earliest references to the existence of the Franciscan Greyfriars in Lewes. It precedes their contribution to the negotiations following the 1264 Battle of Lewes when two of the Friars represented Simon de Montfort in a meeting with two senior monks from Lewes Priory who spoke on behalf of the King about the surrender terms.”
What’s in a name?
Lewes road names feature many of the participants of the Battle of Lewes. King Henry’s Road and Prince Edward’s Road lie close by each other on the Wallands Estate. Arguably they are grander thoroughfares than that named after the victor, De Montfort Road, although Simon does have the blocks of flats in the valley below his road also bearing his name. Leicester Road is also presumably named in homage to de Montford as he was the Earl of that city. Other roads linked to the Battle of Lewes include Valence and De Warrenne (though the latter is a different spelling to the Medieval one: de Warenne with just one “r”. No matter – my own address in Lewes is in St John Street as attested to by the street signs but various other sources insist it is St John’s Street).
There is also a Warren Road up near the prison in Lewes but I suspect this is named after the American, Edward Warren, who brought the controversial Rodin sculpture “The Kiss” to Lewes in 1904 (incidentally, it first went on public exhibition in the Town Hall 100 years ago in 1914). I have noticed there is a Clare Road, presumably named after the de Clare family who had a member, Gilbert, 7th Earl of Gloucester, fight alongside the Barons here in 1264. It is said that it was de Clare who took the surrender of the King of the Romans who had taken refuge in a windmill sited close by the present-day Black Horse inn. Interestingly, de Clare soon fell out with de Montfort and by the time of the Battle of Evesham in 1265 he was fighting on the side of Henry III.
While there may be a road name or two connected to the battle that I have missed, it does seem a pity that Nevill Estate, which in part must surely occupy a good deal of the Downland where fighting took place, does not have a single road with a name linked to such a momentous event. The only exception may be Mount Harry Road on the basis that the Harry in question was a reference to King Henry, though there is no proof of this being the case. It seems to me that a great opportunity to mark the importance of Medieval Lewes was lost. Perhaps the 750th anniversary would be a fitting occasion to rename the roads of Nevill in memory of participants of the battle and that period in history.
Persecution of the Jews was widespread
One of de Clare’s senior commanders was Sir John de Fitzjohn was on the side of the Barons at the Battle of Lewes. He was a senior commander in the forces of Gilbert de Clare and is also remembered in a Lewes road name. Medieval history expert Jon Gunson has said of this particular gentleman: “Sir John presumably fought heroically for the freedoms we enjoy today. However, I am afraid to say he was also a murderous anti-semite, who is said to have strangled a Jewish merchant with his bare hands.”
Hostility to the Jews was a commonplace Medieval trait that offered the ruling class the opportunity for confiscating homes and riches. It was also a way of diverting the attention of the peasants and poorer town dwellers away from their own plight at the bottom of the social hierarchy. Even Simon de Montfort was not above coming down hard on the Jews when the opportunoity presented itself. As Lord of Leicester, he expelled the small Jewish community from that city in 1231, banishing them "in my time or in the time of any of my heirs to the end of the world". The Jews moved to the eastern suburbs, which were controlled by de Montfort's great-aunt Margaret, Countess of Winchester. He justified his action as being "for the good of my soul, and for the souls of my ancestors and successors": he most likely inherited his attitude from his parents who had persecuted the Jewish community in France (where his father was known for his devout Christianity, and where his mother had apparently given the Jews of Toulouse a choice of conversion or death).
Eleanor, I think you’re swell – seven times!
Eleanor Road or Close adjoins King Henry’s Road which is befitting considering Eleanor of Leicester, youngest child of King John, was Henry III’s sister. However, it does mean she is honoured some distance away from her second husband, Simon de Montfort. Her first betrothed was William, the son of William Marshall (Regent to the young King Henry). Before the elder William died in 1219 Eleanor was promised to young William. They were married on 23 April 1224 at New Temple Church in London when William was 34 and Eleanor only nine! He died in London on 6 April 1231, a couple of weeks before their seventh wedding anniversary. They had no children. The widowed Eleanor swore a holy oath of chastity in the presence of Edmund Rich, Archbishop of Canterbury. Seven years later, she met Simon de Montfort, 6th Earl of Leicester. According to the English chronicler Matthew Paris (a monk in St Albans), Simon was attracted to Eleanor's beauty and elegance as well as her wealth and high birth. They fell in love and married secretly on 7 January 1238 at the King's Chapel in Westminster Palace. Her brother King Henry later alleged that he only allowed the marriage because Simon had seduced Eleanor. The marriage was controversial because of the oath Eleanor had sworn several years before to remain chaste. Because of this, Simon made a pilgrimage to Rome seeking papal approval for their union. The couple went on to have no fewer than seven children.


Meet the White Lion with the “amiable face of a Sussex yokel”
The passing of time has lost our town at least one distinct reference to Battle of Lewes battle victor Simon de Montfort. What today is Westgate Street was formerly known as White Lion Lane. With the White Lion being the device (emblem) of Simon it should not be a surprise that there once was an inn here of the same name abutting the town walls close by where the triumphant Barons burst through the town gates into the heart of Lewes on 14th May 1264. The existence of an inn on the site is recorded as early as in Elizabethan times but it was pulled down in a 1937 slum-clearance measure; today we can view this as nothing less than urban vandalism but way back then the future for Lewes was seen to be buildings in the ilk of the nearby YMCA.
The sign of the pub – a striking model of a white lion with one paw on a ball – was until recently raised high on a wrought iron support fixed to the wall (once upon a time the town wall) above the car park that now occupies the site of the old pub. We know it was the work of Larwill of Lewes and was made in the early 19th century at a time when the Larwill in question could claim to be “Tinplate worker for HRH The Prince of Wales”. Research shows members of a Larwill family living at 152-153 High Street at around the time the lion was created. Surely related? We also know that a wonderfully named Onesimus Larwill was born in Lewes in 1792 and died in Quebec, Canada, in 1864. After the slum clearance it seems the local council had custody of the lion until in 1954 Mayor G R Beard gave it to the Friends of Lewes who arranged for it to be mounted on the wall.
The lion is not there at present having been removed for renovation (and the provision of a replacement tail that must of fallen of at some point). Upon examination the lion turned out to be coated in copper over sheet iron. Fearing this knowledge would prove a magnet for metal rustlers, the beast currently resides in the cellars of the Town Hall. I say ‘beast’ but in fact the creature has a most friendly appearance best summed up in a description of it in a 1957 book on Sussex by Clifford Musgrave: “With his paw on a ball he is the heraldic lion of the Renaissance – a Lion of St Mark with the amiable face of a Sussex yokel.” It is hoped an inexpensive replica can be made in time for it to be in place for the Battle of Lewes commemorations. At which point the original will be retired to a safe place in a local museum.