May 2020 will mark the 756th anniversary of the Battle of Lewes, a confrontation between the forces of the autocratic King Henry III and a rebel army made up of disparate factions from all over the country, united only in their desire to bring about changes in the relationship between the King and his subjects, most notably the Barons, landowners, skilled tradesmen and the burgeoning merchant classes in towns and cities.
So far as the rural peasants were concerned, the split with the Crown was of little interest. England remained very much a Feudal society with the peasants being bound for their lifetime to the land of their lord. The best they could hope for was to avoid being swept up into an army or having their local livestock and crops stolen by a passing band of hungry soldiery.
The rebellion was led by seasoned fighter Simon de Montfort and a band of Barons. They commanded a core of experienced foot soldiers and cavalry many of whom would have gained military experience on the Continent in the endless skirmishing between the French and English hierarchies. There were also men from Wales and Scotland and even Ireland. A large part of the rebel army comprised a contingent of relatively well-off Londoners and students from Oxford, all set firmly against the King but lacking knowledge of the art of medieval warfare.
Down from London!
Though the participants at the time may not have realized the significance of the battle, apart from ending up on the side of the victors or the vanquished, viewed from 756 years later it can be seen that what happened in and around Lewes on 14th May 1264 probably did more to establish the roots of “Englishness” than anything that had happened in the previous two centuries since the Norman Conquest of 1066.
Interestingly, the first language of both the King and de Montfort was French and the latter had spent a great deal of time engaged in fighting in France, the country of his birth. He was also brother-in-law to Henry, having married the King’s sister. Henry had been crowned King at the age of just nine. He was fortunate to escape the stigma of being the son of King John, the unpopular and wasteful monarch who was forced to sign the famous Magna Carta in 1215. This document reined in the autocratic rights of the King in favour of dispensing power to a group of 25 powerful Barons.
When King John quickly made it clear he had no intention of honouring the agreement, fighting broke out in what is known to history as the First Barons’ War. The French King Louis joined in on the side of the Barons and for a while it looked as though he might end up as King of England. However, when John died in October 1216, the principal cause of the civil war was removed. Rather than be ruled by Louis, a growing number of Barons came out in favour of putting young Henry on the throne, no doubt expecting it would be easier to influence a child monarch than a successful and confident Louis.
Louis ambushed near Lewes
Once Henry was crowned King, Louis decided to fight for his claim to the throne and a violent struggle followed. Henry’s Regent, William Marshal, proved an able commander. He also enlisted the help of the Pope who had already excommunicated Louis. By early 1217 Louis had to return to France to gather reinforcements and it is recorded that he passed through Lewes and was caught in an ambush near to the town. Louis was lucky to escape with his life and was pursued by loyalist forces all the way to the port of Winchelsea from whence he fled to France.
Louis made one more failed attempt to wrest the English crown away from Henry but following a string of reversals he conceded victory to William Marshal, confirming Henry III as the rightful King of England in the Treaty of Lambeth signed in September 1217.
Opponents changed sides
The following year, 1259, the Barons forced Henry to agree to hold hearings in every county, in which abuses by county sheriffs and other royal officials were investigated. As a result of these hearings the Provisions of Westminster was drawn up. This document changed aspects of common law to give greater protection to the rights of free men. Henry signed the provisions under obvious duress.
The King then appealed to Rome for dispensation to repudiate the two agreements and the Pope duly obliged; in 1262 Henry renounced his oaths. The Barons were outraged and fearful of their ire, Henry appointed King Louis IX of France as mediator between the two sides. Louis' judgment made in January 1264 came in the form of the Mise of Amiens. In it, surprise, surprise, the absolute monarch Louis found entirely for Henry. De Montfort repudiated the Mise of Amiens without delay; the gulf between the two sides was never wider. War became inevitable.
John de Warenne at Rochester
It was Henry who made the opening gambit. Early in April 1264 he raised his dragon standard at Oxford and gathered an army around him. Several towns in the Midlands quickly fell to the King. Simon de Montfort decided to invest the key fortress of Rochester and quickly took possession of the town and the outer defences of the castle. The Keep, however, remained firmly in the hands of the Royalist garrison commanded by the Earl John de Warenne.
When Henry’s army moved on London, de Montfort largely abandoned the siege of Rochester to march on the capital. The two sides then somehow missed each other as Henry moved into Kent, relieving Rochester before occupying Tonbridge and Winchelsea while all the time enlarging his army. Earl Warenne had joined the King and it was probably no coincidence that their next destination would be Lewes for the town’s imposing castle was the Earl’s ancestral home. Lewes was also the site of a powerful Cluniac priory where Henry would garner religious support for his cause.
The King’s army of around 10,000 men arrived just in time to enjoy the priory’s biggest feast-day of the year, the Feast of St Pancras. The town and priory would have been full of people from all around and it couldn’t have been easy finding space to accommodate the vast influx of soldiers and horses in the King’s entourage.
Meanwhile de Montfort had surmised or gotten word of the royal movements and was advancing south from London. He was in a hurry as he knew he needed to bring the King to battle before even more men arrived to swell the royalist host.
De Montfort had an estate around the village of Fletching, some 10 miles north of Lewes and it is believed he arrived there a day or two before 13th May and halted to allow his men recuperation after their 40-mile march. Even now there was a chance of a bloodless outcome to the confrontation; both de Montfort and the King were close to 60 years of age and most likely would have avoided battle if they could, especially as the hierarchies of the two armies were so often related by blood or marriage.
Prince Edward spoiling for a fight
De Montfort sent two bishops to Lewes Priory to explore any options for peace with the King. It seems, however, that the King’s oldest son, Edward, aged 27, and his own brother, the hot-headed “King of the Romans” Richard, were spoiling for a fight. Persuaded that their superior forces would easily carry the day, Henry declined the olive branch.
It is most likely that de Montfort’s army moved towards Lewes in daylight on the afternoon / evening of 13th May. We surmise this because it is generally agreed that his men appeared at the top of the Downs above the present-day village of Offham at dawn on 14th May 1264. Moving thousands of men seven or so miles from Fletching to the battlefield (it’s a couple of miles from the centre of Lewes) in unfamiliar terrain in darkness would have been well nigh impossible especially as the different formations would need to maintain their integrity and command structure. Having traversed the steep escarpment to reach the top of the Downs, the rebel army would need to form up in a cohesive line along a frontage that would have been anything from 1000 to 2000 yards long. If the Barons did indeed move off from Fletching by the faintest light of dawn on the 14th then the battle could not have been joined until midday at the earliest.
Part of the nearest we have to a contemporary account of the battle is reproduced on this website (see link) and as you will read it tells of the Barons moving off from Fletching in the pre-dawn light but yet being in position seven or so miles away at dawn that same morning. to attack a number of Royalist guards who were out foraging. It’s a fascinating tale but doesn’t do anything to solve the mystery of precisely when de Montfort’s army approached the battlefield. Was it the previous evening or sometime late that morning?
So far as the battlefield’s position goes, a majority opinion has it that Simon de Montfort’s army lined up across the stretch of Downland that is today defined by the Offham chalkpit on the east right up until the site of the Racecourse Grandstand (now converted into dwellings and stables) on the west. This seems logical as beyond the old finishing straight of the racecourse (now training gallops), the ground drops away quite sharply.
King Henry caught napping
Whatever the issue of the timings, it also seems clear that Henry and his commanders were caught napping by the sudden appearance of the 5000-strong Baronial army. Though they had superior numbers, it seems as if the Royalists entered into battle in a piecemeal fashion, something that played straight into de Montfort’s hands. Henry’s son, Edward, commanded the main force of cavalry and had been quartered in the vicinity of the castle. Being on horseback and being the nearest in distance to de Montfort, it seems the cavalry were first to arrive up on the Race Hill.
A true warrior by deed and reputation, the Prince went straight onto the offensive, charging directly at the Londoners who were on the left of de Montfort’s line, most likely on the sloping ground we know as Landport Bottom (although confusingly the location is almost at the top of a hill!). Unseasoned foot soldiers, the Londoners could not stand against the horsemen and quickly broke to flee in disarray back along the escarpment and down towards Offham . Impetuous Edward, already over-confident of victory, chased after the panicking city dwellers.
A factor in his desire to utterly destroy them may be that his mother had recently been grievously insulted (and made the object of a bombardment of dung) by a throng of Londoners while she was traversing the River Thames in a boat. She escaped even worse indignities only by taking sanctuary in St Paul’s Cathedral. Whatever his motive, the Prince made a grave error in leaving the battlefield to hunt down the Londoners. If he had maintained discipline and wheeled to his left he would have had a good chance of getting behind de Montfort’s main force and rolling up the entire line.
The rest of Henry’s army arrived on the battlefield in varying degrees of preparedness. No doubt they were already tired from the long and generally uphill slog from as far away as the Priory; perhaps many were hung-over from the copious quantities of mead drunk the day before in the course of the St Pancras Feast. Seeing how the King’s cavalry had disappeared, it is probable that de Montfort recognised his big chance had arrived and ordered a general charge at the enemy. His men had the advantage of going downhill and were arranged in solid formations able to swiftly overwhelm the Royalists even as they struggled to form up. The momentum was with de Montfort; no doubt tremendous slaughter ensued but it’s likely the majority of Henry’s men broke and ran back down towards the heart of Lewes.
Hostilities end quickly
With de Montfort’s forces no doubt pumped up with the scent of a great victory, one imagines fearful damage was wrought on the town that, rightly or wrongly, must have been viewed as giving support to the King. Wooden houses would have been easily set alight once the work of plunder was done. There must have been loss of civilian life but there is no record of systematic destruction or summary executions. Indeed, with the eventual return of Prince Edward and his largely intact cavalry to the town there’s evidence that the Barons became anxious to end hostilities as quickly as possible. After all, Edward had not been present to witness his father’s total defeat; for the Prince the day had been a victorious one.
The King delegated two senior monks from the Priory to negotiate a settlement with de Montfort. Significantly, the latter did not demand the abdication of Henry. Instead, the Mise of Lewes came about, a document that led to the inauguration of a Parliament in 1265, in which for the first time ever, not only Bishops and Barons presided but also two Knights from the Shires and two Burgesses from each of the Boroughs who had given their support to Simon de Montfort.
The Battle of Lewes is regarded by many as a landmark in the political evolution of the English monarchy. Historians have heled Simon de Montfort as a pioneering champion of Parliament who limited the excesses of a King determined to run the country as he liked.
In the aftermath of the battle, de Montfort governed England in the name of an ungrateful Henry III for some 15 months. Unfortunatley, to get things accomplished Simon had to act in the manner of a military dictator. He was unable to hold on to popular backing for his dream of achieving government by consent through Parliament. Progress towards reform was always hampered and held back by the military effort needed to guard against the a rising by the King's supporters and against intervention in England's affairs by other nations, notably France. Persistent trouble with the Welsh added to his problems. De Montfort simply did not have enough support to make the most of the power he gained upon winning at Lewes.
Edward delivers crushing defeat
Not that he was a failure in the context of the history of democracy. After Lewes absolute royal authority was never quite the same again. In winning the Battle of Lewes and putting an intransigent King in his place, albeit temporarily, Simon had showed that a monarch out of touch with the wishes of the people risked incurring the wrath of those people. Future monarchs could ignore this fact at their peril – which indeed is what King Charles I would discover for himself some four centuries hence.
For Simon de Montfort Lewes was an unqualified military victory. But with the King and his highly capable and ambitious son, Edward, allowed to remain alive in what amounted to “house arrest” it would turn out not to have been a decisive engagement. Important Barons wavered in their support for de Montfort, believing that his reforming zeal had perhaps gone too far. When Edward escaped captivity, he quickly gathered wide support not least from some who had been his enemy at Lewes. The military prowess and regal bearing that was to earn him the monicker “Longshanks” now came to the fore. The Prince confronted Simon de Montfort at Evesham on 4th August 1265 where the tables were turned and the army of the Barons was crushed. Simon de Montfort perished in the fight and his body was horribly mutilated in a fit or royal revenge.