As you approach Lewes by foot from the south you see the intriguing ruins of Lewes Priory. They feel slightly at odds with their surroundings, sitting as they are, against a backdrop of sports fields, the A27 and the railway. And if you’re in the town centre, distracted as you may be by the beautiful castle and other historic buildings, you could be forgiven for missing the ruins altogether. But make Lewes Priory a must-visit, because the ruins are evocative, important and strangely beautiful.
The story of Lewes Priory
Lewes Priory was founded by William de Warenne and his wife Gundrada between 1078 and 1082. William was a big name in Norman England. He fought at the Battle of Hastings and his name pops up often if you’re exploring Sussex as well as elsewhere as he owned land across 13 counties. Lewes Priory belonged to the Benedictine Order of Cluny in France. It was a wealthy and substantial monastery set within walled and gated grounds, close to the River Ouse and the Ouse Valley. Later it was occupied by the troops of King Henry III during the Battle of Lewes in 1264.
A visit to the Priory
Before any visit, it’s worth having a look at the Lewes Priory Trust website which has an excellent image of how the Priory might have looked. There are also lots of useful information boards on site as well that help bring the ruins to life. The main buildings were built in the Romanesque style and at one point the Priory held over 20,000 acres and would have been home to 100 or so monks. There was also a huge church, with a 432 feet long nave, with impressive spires! Apart from the church, there was also a refectory, infirmary, chapter house, dormitory, kitchens and cloisters.
The Priory survived for 450 years until the Dissolution of the Monasteries in 1537. Sadly, much of what was left of the church was destroyed by the building of the railway in the 19th century but the caskets of William and his wife were found in 1845 and are now in the Gundrada Chapel in St John the Baptist Church, Southover. The Priory remains are a Scheduled Ancient Monument and on the Statutory List of Buildings of Special Architectural or Historic Interest Grade I.
Life in Lewes
Follow the information boards around the site to learn more about life at the Priory as a monk. There’s a recreated Herb Garden growing the plants that would have been used for medicinal, culinary and ceremonial purposes. And learn about the monks’ toilet habits … there were 59 toilet cubicles! Visit the remains of the infirmary which would have been both hospital, retirement home and bleeding centre and learn about the sign language the monks used when they were eating … because they weren’t allowed to talk.
The Battle of Lewes
The Battle of Lewis was fought on 14th May 1264, between the forces of a number of rebel Barons led by Simon de Montfort, Earl of Leicester, and the army of King Henry III on the Downs to the north-west of the town of Lewes. The royal army suffered significant casualties and the King and Prince Edward were forced into a retreat all the way back to Lewes Priory and the Castle. King Henry and Prince Edward were held by de Montfort who governed in their name, as the “uncrowned King of England”. Edward eventually escaped and later defeated Montfort at the Battle of Evesham in August 1265.
If you happen to be visiting Lewes and the Priory this weekend, there is a town-wide re-enactment. It is free and includes the mustering of the two armies at The Gallups near Lewes Prison (Saturday) and the Battle at the Priory on Sunday.
Full details can be found in the itinerary below or here: Battle of Lewes.
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