The Battle of Lewes: The Urban Battlefield

Today Lewes spreads far beyond its medieval boundaries, so while Landport Bottom is the official battlefield site, the slope where much of the fighting really took place is now hidden by houses. Apart from buildings on the road out of town in the area then known as Westout, open downland extended right up to the town walls which, on the north west side, included the wall of the castle itself (see image).

In particular, chroniclers mention the area between what is now known as the Spital Road triangle (the site in 1264 of St Nicholas Hospital) and St Anne’s Church in Western Road. There was a windmill here, in which the king’s brother took refuge from the fight.

There was also heavy fighting in the modern day High Street. Houses below the castle were set on fire by the king’s soldiers, firing flaming arrows.

The aftermath of the battle would have been horrific, with about 2,000 dead. It is thought many also drowned as they tried to flee across the River Ouse. The great bulk were probably footsoldiers and their corpses were thrown into mass graves near what is now Lewes Prison. In 1810, three pits were discovered there containing, according to reports at the time, about 500 bodies in each. In 1846 another mass grave was found by railway excavators in the grounds of Lewes Priory. The bones were dug into the railway embankment.

It is possible a few soldiers may have sought sanctuary at St Nicholas Hospital, founded as an infirmary for the poor under the control of Lewes Priory, but described in a contemporary  account of the battle as a leperhouse. As part of the 750 celebrations, Sussex Archaeological Society sent a skeleton found at the St Nicholas site in 1994 to the University of York, where it was studied by battlefield archaeology experts Tim Sutherland and Malin Holst.

However, their analysis showed  ‘Skeleton 180’, whose skull has evidence of massive blows to the head, did not meet his end during the Battle of Lewes. Tests showed up something much more intriguing and unexpected- he died round about the time of the Norman Conquest.

It is a measure of the amount of looting that went on after the battle that, despite all the recent building work in this area, almost no artefacts from the Battle of Lewes have been found.

A recent metal detector survey of the official site at Landport Bottom, led by the archaeological society’s Research Officer Luke Barber and Finds Liaison Officer Stephanie Smith, also found no hard archaeological evidence.

Suggested reading for information on medieval weapons trauma: Blood Red Roses: The archaeology of a mass grave from the Battle of Towton, AD 1461, edited by Veronica Fiorato, Anthea Boylston, and Christopher Knusel ((Oxbow, 2007).

Learn more:

Skeleton 180: Latest news

Battlefield survey 2013: BBC film

The medieval hospital of St Nicholas, Lewes. Excavations 1994: Sussex Archaeological Collections (2010)

Snelling’s Mill

Burial pits: an account by Lewes palaeontologist Gideon Mantell

Lewes: Norman Town Walk