The Battle of Lewes

The Battle of Lewes took place in May 1264 when the armies of King Henry III and rebel baron Simon de Montfort clashed just outside the town’s walls.

The king was defeated. After the battle de Montfort summoned England’s first representative Parliament.

On the eve of May 14,  King Henry’s followers were enjoying a holiday, the Feast of St Pancras. The king himself was settled in the comfortable surroundings of Lewes Priory, while his son Edward was entertained at Lewes Castle by John de Warenne. Their armies were billeted in the town or camped in tents outside the town walls. Unseen, Simon de Montfort’s men marched quietly uphill from Warningore Wood and around Black Cap to Mount Harry.  From there they had an excellent view of the town they intended to attack.

Come daybreak, the king’s army struggled up Winterbourne Hollow to meet de Montfort’s troops, roughly around the area of Lewes Prison, the old race course and Landport Bottom. De Montfort was heavily outnumbered. However, formal battles like this were rare and almost no-one on the battlefield that day had fought in one. Edward easily overpowered de Montfort’s inexperienced left flank, known as ‘the Londoners’ and mainly apprentices and journeymen. They fled for their lives but Edward chased them on a killing spree as far as Offham chalk pits. Many drowned trying to escape across the River Ouse. But when Edward returned to the field, he found the battle lost and de Montfort victorious.

King Henry was “much beaten with swords and maces.” His brother, Richard of Cornwall, had taken refuge in a windmill where he was taunted by soldiers and eventually taken hostage. A poem was later written about the battle. Its mocking refrain plays on Richard’s name.

By the afternoon the fighting spilled over into what is now Lewes High Street and School Hill. Soldiers in the castle fired flaming arrows into the thatched roofs of the houses below in order to stop de Montfort’s troops taking up positions there. One chronicler wrote of the horror of “the town on fire, and its streets filled with objects of indiscriminate slaughter.”

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