The officially designated battlefield site sits just above the town of Lewes at Landport Bottom. Here pastures slope downwards from a hilltop ridge with spectacular views. De Montfort’s soldiers charged down this steep slope as the king’s men charged up to meet them from the bottom of the town. The fight then spilled into the streets.
At the beginning of the battle, both armies lined up to face each other. Henry’s army was far larger and more experienced and, stationed at Lewes Castle and the nearby Cluniac priory of St Pancras, might have been thought more likely to win. However de Montfort brilliantly used the geography of Landport Bottom to help him overcome these odds in three decisive ways.
The first was the advantage of height. Henry was on the lower ground by accident – he had been enjoying the Feast of St Pancras at the priory and de Montfort’s arrival took him completely by surprise. It is much easier to charge downhill from high ground than to charge upwards, probably with little water and struggling with your horses and weapons.
However, the landscape also helped de Montfort in subtler ways.The crest of Landport Bottom is marginally higher than the castle. This meant that de Montfort’s advancing army, on the shallow western side of the hill, was completely hidden from the castle guards. Neither could they see, once the army appeared on the hillside, that de Montfort had kept an extra group of his best men just behind it, giving him the benefit of surprise.
Finally, the landscape helped de Montfort because its undulating character made it impossible for commanders in different parts of the battlefield to see what others were doing and change tactics accordingly. As a result, Henry’s son Edward, the future Edward I, ordered his section of the army to leave the battlefield completely to chase after a group of London craftsmen fleeing in terror towards Offham. By the time Edward returned from this slaughter, the battle was all but over and Henry had barricaded himself inside the undefended priory.
The use of cavalry and lances also played a decisive role in de Montfort’s victory according to historian Mike Loades. He discusses the impact of both, as well as the brutal reality of medieval combat, in the Channel 4 documentary series Weapons that made Britain.
While Landport Bottom is the official battlefield site, much of the fighting took place close to what is now the Black Horse pub on Western Road, an urban area now covered with houses. There was also heavy fighting on the High Street. After the battle, corpses were mostly thrown into mass graves near Lewes Prison.
Landport Bottom is owned jointly by Lewes District Council and Lewes Town Council and is part of the South Downs Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty. As well as being the official site of the Battle of Lewes it also contains Bronze Age barrows. There are numerous footpaths across the site and the Battlefield Walk is well worth the effort.
- Landport Bottom Exhibiton, 2011
- Battlefield Walk
- The Urban Battlefield
- Weapons that made Britain: The Lance
- Armour in the 13th century