Lewes occupies a site that, prior to modern drainage, was on a spur on firm ground jutting into the tidal wetlands of the River Ouse at the point where it flows through a gap in the Sussex Downs. Little is known about its early history although a Roman road connected to London and Chichester ran through the site. The first known settlement was a Saxon burh (fortified town) which was duly listed in the Burghal Hidage. This document dates from the early tenth century suggesting that Lewes was founded by King Alfred the Great (AD 871 - 899) and this is further supported by the grid street plan of the southern portion of the Saxon town which is similar to contemporary sites such as Wallingford. Over the next century Lewes grew into an important port with its own mint and by the reign of Edward the Confessor it had emerged as the foremost town in East Sussex.
In the immediate aftermath of the Norman invasion, William I divided Sussex into five administrative zones (known as rapes). Each of these were granted to his most trusted companions who were responsible for constructing castles to secure control of the area facilitating unhindered access with Normandy. The rape of Lewes was granted to William de Warenne, a Norman baron who had participated in the Battle of Hastings (1066) and owned substantial holdings in Varenne (Normandy) as well as Conisbrough (Yorkshire), Reigate (Surrey) and later Castle Acre (Norfolk). He commenced work on Lewes Castle around 1067 which was built to dominate and control the Saxon settlement and port. This initial castle was an earth and timber motte-and-bailey fortification. The motte itself is known today as Brack Mount and was probably built on top of a much earlier burial mound. Around 1077 William de Warenne founded Lewes Priory as an outpost of Cluny Abbey in Burgundy.
Around 1100 Lewes Castle was rebuilt in stone and a second motte was added again probably being built over an existing burial mound. This new motte supported the shell Keep, part of which remains visible today, and a similar but smaller structure (now gone) was built on top of Brack Mount. A large gatehouse was also built to replace the former timber gateway into the bailey. Further modifications were made to the castle in the thirteenth century with two (possibly three) towers being added to the main shell Keep.
In 1264 Lewes Castle was thrust into the forefront of national politics when Royal forces moved into the town in anticipation of engaging the rebel army of Simon de Montfort, Earl of Leicester. Henry III mustered his forces at Lewes Priory whilst his son, Prince Edward (later Edward I), stayed at the castle. On the 14 May 1264 Montfort approached the town and Edward, without waiting for the King’s foot soldiers, deployed from the castle to engage him. At the subsequent Battle of Lewes, Edward successfully broke part of Montfort's line but left his father in an exposed position and the result was defeat for the Royalists, the capture of the King and the elevation of Montfort to effective ruler of England. The castle, which held out for the King even after the defeat, eventually surrendered. However, Montfort's regime came to an end following Prince Edward's victory at the Battle of Evesham (1265) and Lewes Castle was restored to the Warenne family. The ease with which the Barons had secured control of Lewes after the battle probably prompted the construction of the town wall.
In 1334 a Royal grant was awarded to fund repairs to the town walls and around 1336 the castle's defences were enhanced by construction of a barbican - both enhancements made in response to threat of French raids that preceded the outbreak of the Hundred Years’ War. These were the last major upgrades added by the Warenne family for in 1347 the male line of the family failed and the castle passed to Richard FitzAlan, Earl of Arundel. However his family owned extensive properties elsewhere, not least nearby Arundel Castle, and accordingly Lewes Castle was placed under the control of a series of constables. In the 1370s this position was held by Sir Edward Dallingridge, a soldier who had served on the continent during the Hundred Years' War and been tasked with the defence of Sussex as English fortunes had waned. He built the fabulous Bodiam Castle as his own secure residence but was less successful at Lewes which was sacked by the French in 1377. A further raid occurred in 1379 when the French sailed up the River Ouse and attacked a small force raised from the town under the command of the Prior of Lewes.
The reign of Richard II (1377-99) saw considerable political strife as the feudal system came under increasing pressure from the labour shortages brought about by the Black Death. This led to civil strife in the form of the Peasants' Revolt. In Sussex the populace rose against the Earl of Arundel perhaps partly due to his failure to properly garrison Lewes Castle and thus protect the town from the French raids. The rioters attacked the castle and stole wine and stone from the fortification. Order was eventually restored but as civil strife continued Lewes Castle was effectively re-designated as a prison. Whilst short term detention had regularly taken place at the site throughout the medieval period, prisoners had previously been transferred to Guildford Castle for sentences longer than a few days. However, with that gaol full the Earl of Arundel had little choice but to use Lewes Castle for the same purpose.
By the late 1380s many of England's magnates were becoming increasingly frustrated by the tyrannical rule of Richard II. The then owner of Lewes Castle - Richard FitzAlan, Earl of Arundel - became one of the Lord Appellants, a small group of powerful magnates that stripped the King of much of his power and impeached a number of his favourites. Richard II eventually restored his powers and independence and in 1397 took his revenge. The Earl was arrested, executed and his estates seized. However the King himself was deposed in 1399 by Henry Bolingbroke (later Henry IV) and was subsequently murdered at Pontefract Castle. The FitzAlan estates, including Lewes Castle, were returned to the family.
During the fifteenth century and beyond the castle declined in importance and it was predominantly used as a warehouse for wool although the castle was periodically visited by the Earls of Arundel. The castle was allowed to drift into ruin and during the seventeenth century stone was removed from the site for use elsewhere whilst the castle precinct was divided into tenements and sold off. The Keep underwent a series of a modifications during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries with its tower refitted and the interior converted into a romantic pleasure garden. The freehold of the castle was granted to the Sussex Archaeological Society in 1920.
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Visit Official Website
Lewes Castle is a major tourist attraction consisting of the remains of the western portion of the medieval castle which includes the barbican, gatehouse and shell keep. These are well presented and the site also offers superb views over the town and surrounding area. A small museum, with some interesting exhibits from the castle, forms part of the attraction. Nearby the Brack Mount, which was the castle's first motte, is visible but not accessible. The Battle of Lewes (1264) was fought nearby.
Lewes Saxon Burh. The Saxon burh was founded by Alfred the Great on a spur of firm ground that jutted out into the floodplains of the River Ouse. The precise line of the town defences has yet to be firmly established but it probably occupied most of the promontory upon which it was built with its north-west corner shaped by the path of the Roman Road.
Brack Mount. The castle's original motte is called Brack Mount. Originally topped by a timber palisade and tower, these were replaced by a stone shell keep circa-1100. Concurrently a second motte, itself topped with a larger shell keep, was constructed. Today Brack Mount is owned by the Sussex Archaeological Society but is not assessable due to health and safety concerns.
Lewes Castle Layout. The castle was built in the north-western portion of the Saxon burh utilising Brack Mount, an existing burial mound, as a motte. It was rebuilt in stone around 1100 and the second motte was added at this time along with the Norman gatehouse. The barbican was added circa-1336.
Stone Castle. Within a few decades of being built, Lewes Castle was rebuilt in stone. The precise date this happened is unknown but the use of Herringbone Flint suggests it was circa-1100. The second motte, topped with a large shell keep, was added at this time as was the Norman gatehouse (seen right).
Division of Sussex. Sussex was critical to the Normans as it secured access to the continent and accordingly was divided into five administrative areas known as rapes (derived from the Saxon term rap which implied demarcation). Each was granted to a Norman Lord who established a castle to serve as the administrative centre. At the time of the Domesday Book (1086) these were Arundel (Roger de Montgomery), Bramber (William de Braose), Lewes (William de Warenne), Pevensey (Robert, Count of Mortain) and Hastings (Robert, Count of Eu). In the twelfth century a sixth rape, Chichester, was created by dividing the rape of Arundel. In each rape minor castles were established in the hinterland to ensure control of the area.
Gatehouse and Barbican. The gatehouse (left) was added when the castle was rebuilt in stone around 1100 and bears a resemblance to the one at Bramber Castle. The barbican (right) was built in 1336 as the castle's defences were strengthened due to the deteriorating relationship with France.
Lewes Castle was built shortly after the Norman invasion to dominate a former Saxon burh and control a critical portion of the Sussex coast. In 1264 Royal forces deployed from the castle to engage the army of Simon de Montfort but were defeated at the Battle of Lewes. Later the castle was used predominantly as a prison and warehouse.
Lewes Castle is found just off the High Street on Castle Gate Lane. There are no car parking facilities in the immediate vicinity but various pay and display options are available around the town.
Car Parking Option
North St, BN7 2PH
Off High Street, BN7 1YE
Brack Mount (No Access)