Lewes Castle and its centuries old history Sally White

Lewes Castle and its Centuries Old History a talk from Sally White 10th October 2014

lewes castle

Lawrence Stevens introduced our speaker, Sally White to a capacity audience, telling us that she was a former custodian of the Castle, and we were pleased to receive a cheerful and upbeat appraisal of the Castle from its inception to the present day.

Having been successfully wired for sound Sally then dropped her entire set of prompt cards and promised us an interesting evening. Re-gathering herself, the early slides dispelled the myth that the castle was only the Keep, a photograph from a willing stranger’s back bedroom window, drawings and a model that is available to public view, clearly show the considerable extent of the site, and how much domesticity was probably included within the walls.

After the Norman Conquest, England was divided into Rapes, and possession and tax gathering powers bestowed upon trusted friends of the king. Step forward William De Warenne. Encouraged to build defensible structures, the first Castle is likely to have been a Mott and Bailey, of timber construction, possibly even pre-fabricated and transported from France in about 1075. It would have been erected quickly, in perhaps as little as two months. William chose the centre of Lewes, which was already a fortified town. With views down the Ouse towards the coast, this was a defendable location with navigation almost to the doors. It was noted that the moat was never a wet one, simply a dry ditch. The Towers of the Keep were built in the 12th Century and afforded excellent views over the area.

The second centre of the Castle was the Brack Mound, an imposing viewpoint, built probably on an existing mound amplified by the addition of chalk blocks. Originally, with wooden superstructure there would have been allowance for a period of settlement of the mounds before they were expected to take the pressure of stone buildings. By 1100, the Brack Mound was 20 feet higher than the Keep and truly imposing. There may have been central wells in both for a secure water supply. (A further mound shown in a drawing dated 1855, located on the current Dripping Pan, may have had a part to play in the fortification of Lewes). The Keep was the De Warenne family place of safety, and may not have been too luxurious. It would seem that the Castle was sparsely populated most of the time. De Warenne has land in 12 Counties and moved between them, the King keeping any one magnate’s property spread out to guard against the consolidation of a compact power base by his ‘friends’.

In 1077 the De Warennes (William and Gundrada) travelled to the Priory at Cluny in France, after which they decided to found the Cluniac Priory of St Pancras in Lewes. This was a massive construction site covering an area about the same as the Castle, or perhaps slightly greater, it employed huge numbers and housed a significant community. Lewes grew enormously to service the needs of the Priory and records indicating the amount of food required show the size of the undertaking. When Cromwell later had the Italian, Portinari, demolish the Priory in 1539, it was largely destroyed, but in a way is still there, since the construction stone appears to have ‘migrated’ into most of the dwellings in the town. It was later further destroyed by driving the railway line through it. Gundrada died in 1085, William 3 years later, and was buried with her, but their graves were ‘lost’ for some time. They were rediscovered in 1845 in very small leaden coffins near the high altar of the Priory church when the railway was driven through the site, and are today visible, but irreverently displayed in the south chapel of the Church of St. John.

William’s son William (what else could he have been called?) married Isobel and carried on the good work, completing the Castle and the Priory. It was still in good repair in the 13th Century. Henry 111 had the town walls rebuilt, just before Simon de Montfort defeated him at the Battle of Lewes in 1264. De Warenne, ever the King’s man, fled to France. It is estimated that 2700 men died in the battle. The conflict led to the Barons and the King agreeing to a Parliament. When, later, Simon De Montfort was defeated, John De Warenne returned and regained his family lands. The Grandson added the Barbican Gate to the Castle in the 1300s. Sally expounded a theory about the unlikeliest of pouring boiling oil down through the slots on the parapet onto assailants, apart from anything else who was going to clean up the mess? The last Earl De Warrenne died without issue in 1347, after which the castle was untenanted, and began to fall into decay.

In 1377, there was a French raid. The Prior was captured from the Priory and held to ransom. 1381 saw the Peasants Revolt, when the mob broke into the castle, destroyed documents, and consumed £100.00 worth of wine. The Castle began to decline thereafter until it was eventually sold off in sections in the 15th Century.

 In a brief rally, the armaments were significantly increased, to include cannon, at the threat of the Armada in 1588. When that was defeated it was reported that a whole barrel of gunpowder was used in letting off the cannons in celebration (no change for Lewes there then). The weapons were dispersed and buildings demolished in the 1600s and in January 1639 the bumpiest bowling-green in the country was established within the outer walls, it is still there, owned and tended by an archaeologically resistant Bowls Club.

In the 18th Century an ale house (probably one of many, this is Lewes remember), was located on the edge of the bowling green, backing into Brack Mound and boasting all sorts of mythology in order to attract customers. We saw the almost entirely hyperbolic advertisement.

By the 1800s the Castle had become a tourist attraction. Included within its boundaries by now was a plethora of buildings for various trades etc. under the ownership of Thomas Read Kemp (he of Kemp Town, Brighton). 1846 saw the foundation of the Sussex Archaeological Society who became tenants of the Castle in 1849. During their tenancy, the Society built a small museum and library in the Castle Lodge, attached to the Castle. One of their trustees, Dawson (of Piltdown man infamy), arranged to take ownership of the Lodge, and promptly ejected the  Society… nice man.

During the Crimean War, Finnish prisoners fighting for the Russians and captured at Bomarsund, were billeted in Lewes and worked at the Castle, becoming a ‘gawping at’ attraction for visitors. There is a Crimean War cannon, taken as a spoil of war and presented to, well who knows, the Castle or the Town? It is on display at the Castle as a health-and-safety risk for clambering children.

In 1943 the Observer Corps were stationed at the Castle as part of their sky watching duties. We saw pictures of the men and the then Custodian of the Castle who was an Observer Corps member.

Maintenance of the Castle is a continuous chore, old mortar loses its tenacity, and with frost and rain, bits keep falling off. In one photograph, we saw the ensuing building site after one face of the Barbican gate decided to descend. Over time, English heritage grants have dwindled to very small amounts, but much work was undertaken due to a Heritage Lottery Grant of £1.2M. Improvements are significant and for those who last visited the Castle in their distant youth, a return visit is well worth the effort of taking a new look.

The audience were appreciative in the usual way and a few questions forthcoming. Lawrence thanked Sally and the assembled party stacked the chairs and made off into what became a stormy night.

Report from Steve Sims, filtered by John Warren!

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