A brief history of religion and politics in Lewes

Religion and politics have shaped the history of Lewes, nowhere more obviously than at the now-ruined Priory of St Pancras in Southover.

The Priory was founded in the late 11th century by William de Warenne and his wife Gundrada.

William de Warenne was also responsible for the building the Norman castle in the heart of town. He’d fought alongside William the Conqueror at the Battle of Hastings in 1066 and had been given a large chunk of Sussex as part of his reward.

Two hundred years later, the priory was still at the centre of local events. In 1264, the army of Henry the Third fought the rebel alliance of Simon de Montfort in the Battle of Lewes. The king ended up retreating to the Priory grounds – and his defeat led to the creation of our current parliamentary system.

There were some even more dramatic events in store for the priory during the reign of Henry the Eighth. Henry disbanded monasteries and priories in order to acquire their money – and in 1537 actually sent an engineer to Lewes to make sure the priory building here was demolished properly. Some of the stone was reused a few years later to build Southover Grange, which is now the town’s registry office.

Talking of marriage, King Henry divorced Anne of Cleves just four years after that demolition and gave her a nice little house over the road from the priory ruins. It’s now known as Anne of Cleves house, although (as many people will delight in telling you) she didn’t ever live there.

Religious conflict returned to Lewes between 1555 and 1557, when Queen Mary’s introduction of heresy laws led to seventeen people being burned at the stake in the centre of town. This is remembered in the town’s Bonfire celebrations every November, by a memorial on the hill overlooking Lewes and by a stone tablet on the town hall.

While the deaths of the Lewes martyrs is seen as one of the town’s darkest times, the arrival of Thomas Paine is generally seen as one of its highlights. Norfolk-born Pain (who added a final ‘e’ to his name) came here to work in 1768, lived on the first floor of Bull House and wrote his first political publication whilst in the town. In 1774 he emigrated to America, where his writing inspired many of those fighting for independence.

Thomas Paine would certainly have been familiar with many of the Lewes buildings we see today. However, the town was transformed again in Victorian times with the arrival of the railway in 1846. In fact, excavation for the railway line caused damage to the old priory site – but it also prompted a fair bit of archaeological work, so this wasn’t all bad news. The remains of William de Warenne and Gundrada were discovered during the excavations and moved to nearby Southover church.

And that pretty much brings us back to where we started, almost a thousand years ago. Today, the priory site is open to the public – and sometimes you can still hear the sounds of battle, as Lewes Football Club play their home games alongside the ruins in the ‘Dripping Pan’, which was once priory land.