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Though not the seat of a bishop, its central position made Lewes the county town, as it still is of East Sussex. Before the Conquest it had a thriving market with the largest mint in the county. Afterwards, the construction of the castle by William de Warrenne demonstrated its position at the head of one of the rapes of Sussex.
The origins of Lewes are obscure, but it was near a Roman crossroads, though little confirms the belief of early antiquarians that it was then an important settlement. Vanished mounds near the St John-sub-Castro may have had a ritual significance in early Saxon times and possibly the church, which though rebuilt, incorporates pre-Conquest work, was founded before the town plan was fixed. There is evidence that it was seen as first among the churches of the town as late as the C14 (ibid p29).
The plan is probably late C9 (ibid pI), when Lewes is mentioned as one of King Alfred’s burhs. It centres on the High Street, which runs east-west down a ridge towards the crossing of the Ouse. To the north, the area around St John’s may not have been wholly built up and most people lived in roughly parallel lanes on the south slope down to the Winterbourne, a tributary of the Ouse. By the mid-C11 there were ten churches within the town (ibid p26) with a pattern of small parishes that recalls Chichester. Of these, apart from St John-sub-Castro, St Michael and All Saints remain. Others are recalled by St Martin’s Lane, St Andrew’s Lane, St Nicholas Lane, and St Mary’s Lane (now Station Street (Godfrey, History, p35)); part of St Mary survived as a house in Horsfield’s time. Three, Holy Trinity, St Sepulchre and St Peter-the-Less, have left no trace. These churches disappeared after the dissolution of the priory, which had held most advowsons and which passed to Thomas Cromwell. Even then, the revenues of each church were modest, so it was hard in the late C17 to find clergy capable of countering the strong dissenting sympathies of the town (ibid p262).
After the Conquest, Lewes remained pre-eminent in trade and commerce, though as elsewhere, it suffered a check between 1300 and the later C15. This was symbolised by the death of the last de Warrenne in 1347 and the subsequent neglect of the castle. There was also an effect on the church and in 1337 the Bishop proposed in vain the suppression of the seven lesser churches (ibid p167).
Of the churches within the walls, All Saints, at the bottom of the southern slope, combines C15, Georgian and Victorian elements in a picturesque churchyard; like St Michael it is more curious than beautiful, though the round tower of the latter is in Sussex limited to the Ouse Valley and it has fine C18 squared flintwork.
De Warrenne founded the priory in 1077 on the site of an earlier church south of the town, already dedicated to St Pancras. It became the second component of the post-Conquest new order and was the leading Cluniac house in England. Its church, probably complete by the early C13, must have had one of the largest groups of masons in the south of England. Little is known of their work, which extended to nearby parish churches, particularly in the Lower Ouse valley towards Newhaven, but remnants of the priory church like the carved capitals in various museums are of high quality. A settlement developed around its gate, known as Southover. Though the priory ruins are scanty, Southover is one of the most attractive parts of Lewes. A church for Southover, ante portas [outside the gates], was converted from the monastic hospitium or guesthouse. A further suburb outside the walls called Westout, on the road towards Brighton, has what today is the most interesting church in the town, St Anne (formerly St Mary). It is the survivor of two churches, which were consolidated in the C16. Its work of c1200 is closely related to the priory and other churches in the area. The other, St Peter was pulled down, though a drawing in the Burrell Collection shows what may be the base of its tower with C15 detail.
A third suburb, Cliffe, lies along a causeway east of the Ouse, originally in the parish of Malling, north west of the town. It is in the Rape of Pevensey and had 59 houses in Domesday Book (12.1). Land at Malling was granted to the Archbishop of Canterbury, possibly in 838, and there was a college of canons by the C11. In the later mediaeval period this exercised the archbishop’s jurisdiction. The archbishops encouraged the development of Cliffe as a separate centre of trade with a chapelry of St Thomas-à-Becket, which later became a parish. Malling was linked to Lewes only after World War II and its early C17 parish church is built from older materials.
The town had a population estimated at 2000 in the late C17 (2 p1) and more churches than usual retain work of the period before the 1830s. Such work is evidence of the prosperity of the town, not least because the Ouse made Lewes a port as it was navigable as far as a point well upstream. It was an administrative centre and a market town for the surrounding area, relying on commodities, both locally produced such as corn and other agricultural products, and those brought by water, including coal and even wine from abroad. The survival of C18 and early C19 work in churches in the town can in part at least be explained by the strong and continuing dissenting tradition in the town, which made it harder in the later C19 to raise funds for work on churches.
Lewes has kept most of the parish churches that survived the changes of the C16. Unlike Chichester, where no mediaeval church remains in use, only All Saints has gone and is now a cultural centre. Its viability was questioned as early as 1805, when its reconstruction was opposed unsuccessfully at two meetings of the vestry (WSRO Ep II/27/25). This provides further evidence of the the strong Puritan and later dissenter sympathies in the town, which still survive in the Bonfire celebrations on 5 November.
- C Brent: Pre-Georgian Lewes c890-1714: the Emergence of a County Town, Lewes 2002.
- : Georgian Lewes 1714-1830, The Heyday of a County Town, Lewes 1993
- W H Godfrey: A History of Lewes, Lewes, revised edition 1971
- : The Parish Churches of Lewes in the 14th Century, SAC 68 (1927) pp171-77
- T W Horsfield: The History and Antiquities of Lewes, Lewes (2 vols) 1824 and 1827
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Lewes – All Saints, Friars WalkRead more
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Lewes – St John the Baptist, Southover High StreetRead more
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Lewes – St Michael, South MallingRead more
Lewes – St Thomas-à-Becket, CliffeRead more
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