Battle of Lewes in its 750th anniversary year

Lewes Castle

Lewes Castle - Credit: Getty Images/Hemera

In 1264 Lewes played host to a war that would change the nature of democracy in this country forever. In this 750th anniversary year, Michael Montagu takes up the tale…

This year is the 750th anniversary of the Battle of Lewes, one of two main battles in the Second Barons’ War. Its cause was the unpopularity of the autocratic King Henry III and his refusal to negotiate over the division of power. The Barons forced him to submit. Henry was supported by King Louis IX of France, who agreed to arbitrate between the sides, but supported Henry, and Pope Alexander IV, who issued a Papal Bull freeing him from the oaths that he had sworn when forced to submit. Furious, the Barons, led by Simon de Montfort, rebelled against Henry, leading to war.

Initially it was a war in name only, with both sides gathering their supporters. Then in May 1264 Henry was in Lewes, camped at St. Pancras Priory and awaiting reinforcements. His son, the Prince of Wales, was at Lewes Castle with the cavalry. De Montfort headed out from Fletching towards King Henry to force him to either negotiate or fight. Henry would not negotiate, so de Montfort’s army moved under cover of darkness, taking up defensive positions at Offham Hill, a little to the north-west of Lewes, on 14 May.

The King’s army was twice the size of the Barons’, but the Barons held the high ground. The Baronial army made a surprise attack at dawn on the King’s forward troops. In retaliation, Edward, Prince of Wales and his cavalry attacked the Baronial left flank, and chased them for four miles to Offham. The King, without cavalry support, was forced to attack uphill, straight into the enemy front line. One Royal group wavered, another fought bravely, suffering many casualties, until they were forced downhill by de Montfort’s reserves.

The Royal forces headed for Lewes Castle and St. Pancras Priory, pursued by the Baronial army, who set light to the town. The Prince of Wales arrived back too late and the Royal party was unable to leave safely; Henry was forced to negotiate. One Royal leader, the Earl of Cornwall, had hidden in a windmill. He was captured after being jeered at – “Come down, come down, thou wicked miller!”

Henry signed the Mise of Lewes, agreeing to share power; as a guarantee the Prince of Wales was held hostage. De Montfort controlled the country until his defeat at the Battle of Leicester in 1265.

Part of the battle site is now covered by housing, part is accessible by footpaths. Rumours abound, however, of ghosts from the battle being seen around the castle and landport.