A History of Lewes

By Tim Lambert

Early Lewes

Lewes began as a Saxon village. The Saxons invaded East Sussex in the 5th century. Lewes was probably founded in the 6th century. (The name Lewes is probably derived from a Saxon word, ‘hluews’ which meant slopes or hills). Later the Saxons made Lewes a town. In the late 9th century King Alfred made a network of fortified settlements across his kingdom called burhs.

By the early 10th century Lewes was made a burh. In the event of a Danish attack, all the men in the area would gather in Lewes to fight. Saxon Lewes was protected by a ditch and an earth rampart probably with a wooden stockade on top. (In the Middle Ages stone walls were erected around the town).

However, Saxon Lewes was more than a fortress. It was also a busy little town. Lewes had weekly markets. In the 10th century, it also had 2 mints, showing it was a place of some importance. However, to us, Lewes would seem tiny. At the time of the Norman Conquest in 1066 Lewes probably had less than 2,000 inhabitants. Nevertheless, by Medieval standards, Lewes was a fair-sized town.

The Normans built a castle to guard Lewes. At first, it was made of wood but later it was rebuilt in stone. The Normans also founded the priory (small abbey) of St Pancras in Lewes.

In the 13th century, Franciscan friars arrived in Lewes. Friars were like monks but instead of withdrawing from the world, they went out to preach. Franciscan friars were called grey friars because of the colour of their costumes.

In 1148 King Stephen granted Lewes a charter (a document granting the townspeople certain rights). In the Middle Ages Lewes was a busy little river port. Grain and wool from Sussex were exported from there.

In 1264 the Battle of Lewes was fought between King Henry III and some rebellious barons led by Simon de Montfort. The barons won a decisive victory and the king was captured.

In 1512 a Free Grammar School was founded in Lewes. However, in 1537 Henry VIII dissolved the Priory. Later Caen stone from its buildings was used to make Southover Grange. In 1540 Henry gave Anne of Cleves House to his wife after their divorce. (Although Anne never actually lived there).

Like all towns in those days, Lewes suffered from outbreaks of plague. It struck in 1538. Furthermore, during the reign of Mary 1553-1558, 17 Protestants from Sussex were martyred in Lewes.

In the 18th century, Lewes was a busy little port and the principal town of Sussex.

The famous radical, Tom Paine, lived in Lewes from 1768 to 1774. He worked as an exciseman but was sacked after writing an article arguing that excise men should be better paid!

The famous paleontologist Gideon Mantell was born in Lewes.

Modern Lewes

At the beginning of the 19th century, Lewes was a fair-sized town. It grew rapidly in the early 19th century. However, in the late 19th century growth slowed and Lewes became less important.

During the 19th century, there were several improvements to Lewes. In 1806 an Act of Parliament formed a body of men called Improvement Commissioners with powers to pave, clean, and light the streets of Lewes. The town gained gas lights in 1822. Lewes gained an electricity supply in 1901.

However, in 1836 8 people were killed by a snow avalanche in Lewes.

The railway reached Lewes in 1846. The railway meant the end of Lewes as a port as it was now easier to transport goods by train than by water.

Lewes was made a borough in 1881. A new Town Hall was built in 1893. Victoria Hospital was built in 1910. In 1920 Wynne Baxter gave the Pells to the town of Lewes.

By 1901 Lewes was a prosperous market town with a population of 11,000. by 1951 the population was 13,000. Today Lewes remains an attractive market town.

A new Magistrates Court was built in 1986. The Thebes Gallery opened in Lewes in 2000. In 2022 the population of Lewes was 16,000