1264 And All That

Posted: 16 May 2014

“Calamus velociter scribe sic scribentis”

The Battle of Lewes Memorial presented to Priory Park in 1964
The Battle of Lewes Memorial presented to Priory Park in 1964

“Speed on my pen, to write what is to come… The English army rode the heavy storm, Of mighty war, at Lewes Castle walls… For mighty was the sword; virtue prevailed, And evil men took to their heels and fled” – The Song of Lewes 1264/65.

This week marked the 750th Anniversary of one of the defining battles in English history. On that day (Wednesday), was bathed in glorious sunshine and the temperature was encouragingly higher than it has been the last few days. Even so, stepping off the train, there was a markedly quiet and subdued atmosphere – no festival mood here.

The “Dawn March” – a group of volunteer walkers – arrived at Lewes Castle at midday, while a specially commissioned “Battle of Lewes Tapestry” was revealed as the main attraction at an exhibition opened in the castle, but other than that, it was not very special. Maybe because it was a weekday, but so few people had turned up. (Most notably, this bunny was easily the the youngest attendee)


“The main engagement must have been short and bloody. Hand to hand fighting with spiked maces and the savage battle-axes… and the vicious swing of a heavy broad-bladed sword. Soon the green turf was littered with dead and dying”  – Tufton Beamish.

In the field of Landport Bottom, to the northwest of Lewes, Simon de Montfort led his rebel army against the royal forces of King Henry III (1216-72) who had arrived at the Priory of St Pancras, then one of the largest religious houses in the kingdom, to honour the feast of that saint.

Having stubbornly refuted all calls for constitutional reform, Henry had inadvertantly set off what is known as the “Second Baronial War.” The crucial moment came when the Royalists scattered a contingent of London volunteers; the pursuit followed the banks of the river Ouse, into which it has been estimated that up to 60 rebels may have drowned.

With the Royal army broken up, de Montfort initiated a devastating counteroffensive culminating in Richard, King of the Romans (and Henry’s brother), taking refuge in a windmill and Henry himself fleeing back to the Priory…


“And now it is all gone – like an unsubstantial pageant faded; and between us and the old English there lies a gulf of mystery which the prose of the historian will never adequately bridge” – Froude.

The Priory of St Pancras – from 1100 up until the mid-16th century – was the leading Cluniac House in England. This “splendid edifice” was founded by William and Gundrada de Warenne,with construction commencing in 1077. At its prime during the 12th century, it was startlingly huge, with up to 100 monks residing here.

Without a doubt, its most trying time came in May 1264; not only did the monks have to provide food and supplies for all the King’s men and their horses, but the Battle reached the Priory gates – the church was hit by flaming arrows but damage was minimal. Henry III was defeated and had to surrender his sword at the Priory. In Annals, written by a resident monk, it is said that “2,700 more or less” perished that day, although the actual tally is still debated.

The next day,  the king agreed to a settlement known as the “Mise of Lewes,” which led to the first recorded elected parliament held that following year. The system of governance today at Westminster, London, stemmed from the drama which unfolded at that Priory 750 years ago.

Unfortunately, the opulent grandeur of this extensive site did not escape the Dissolution of the Monasteries instigated by Henry VIII. Portinari, an Italian engineer, was dispatched in 1538 by Thomas Cromwell, the King’s chief minister, to destroy the building.

The ruined fragments still standing are suitably impressive and inspirational; it would be quite a tranquil place if it wasn’t for the fact that the train to/from Brighton races through the middle of what was once the Great Hall.  A memorial was installed on this ground to mark the 700th Anniversary.

Hopefully, the people of Lewes will turn out for the costumed procession scheduled for tomorrow. Are they proud of living adjacent to one of English history’s most important battlefields? Or do they not wish to dwell on the fact that so many died gruesome deaths fighting for the right to have a fairer system?