Lewes Castle, located in the south-eastern region of England, towers over the surrounding Saxon town of Lewes, the river Ouse, and the forest of East Sussex.
It rests on an artificial mound with blocks of native chalk at its core and, like many castles in Britain, particularly those of motte and bailey construction, it dates back to the Norman Conquest of 1066. The original fortification was named Bray Castle.
Today, the oval shaped bailey has been partially built upon as town development encroaches the castle boundary and damage and decay over the centuries and looting of the castle for building material has left many of the original buildings in ruins. However, evidence does remain of the castle’s two mottes, quite unusual in England. In fact, the only one other example of a double-motte castle to be found in England is Lincoln Castle.
The smaller motte, Brack’s Mount, is though to be the first constructed. It is at the north east end of the bailey and only fragments remain. The larger, in the south west, is mostly intact. The best-preserved part of the castle is the magnificent barbican, one of the best in England.
Lewes Castle History
Construction on Lewes (Bray) Castle was begun by William de Warenne in 1087. The brother-in-law of William the Conqueror, he had been granted the title of 1st Earl of Surrey and awarded a substantial amount of land in the area. In addition to building the castle, he started Lewes priory nearby. The castle originally consisted of a wooden keep; a wooden tower with a palisade (fence of wood often used with earthworks). It was surrounded by a moat for extra defence.
In the late 12th century, Hamelin de Warenne (Plantagenet), 5th Earl of Surrey, built a circular shell keep from flint rubble. It is located on the south-western motte and is approximately 110 feet by 100 feet.
A shell keep has a strong wall built on top of the motte; buildings are added against the wall, forming a central courtyard. This type of keep does not have a tower for retaliation during attacks, but is primarily a defensive enclosure. Fragments of knapped flint set in herringbone masonry still remain, reflecting Norman masonry techniques.
Battle of Lewes
Lewes Castle played an important part in the Battle of Lewes, one of the main battles in the Second Barons’ War. As a result of this battle on May 14, 1264, Simon de Montfort, 6th Earl of Leicester, became the ‘uncrowned King of England’.
The conflict came about when Henry III refused to honour the Provisions of Oxford, which he had signed with the Barons in 1258. In preparation for the battle, the King was at nearby St. Pancras Priory with the infantry, while his son Prince Edward (who later became Edward I) camped at Lewes castle with the cavalry.
Montfort surprised Edward during the night, taking the high ground of Sussex Downs. Edward successfully commanded the cavalry against Montfort’s troops, but he made the mistake of pursuing a retreating force, allowing Montfort to defeat the rest of the King’s army. Both King and Prince were imprisoned, establishing Montfort as de facto ruler.
In order to be released from prison, the King was forced to sign the Mise or Settlement of Lewes. This document, now lost, set up a council of knights and citizens, often viewed as the first House of Commons. Prince Edward remained captive until he escaped and defeated Montfort in 1265, thus returning full power to the King.
During the latter 13th century, two semi-octagonal towers were added to the shell keep, as well as other buildings inside the shell wall. A gate tower added at this time is almost gone now.
The early 14th century saw the construction of the impressive barbican, with its tall gatehouse and narrow arched entrance, by the 8th Earl of Surrey, John de Warenne. He died without an heir in 1347, and the Castle went to the Earls of Arundel, who left it to decay. Forty years later, a riot further damaged the Castle, and for many years portions of the structure were used by the local citizens as construction material.
In 1620, many of the buildings that remained were demolished. The Keep was spared, however, and was given to Thomas Friend in 1733. It was renovated as a summer house in 1774. Currently, the Castle is the property of Sussex County Historical Society.