No-one’s completely sure where the name Lewes is derived from: for a while many historians believed it was probably the plural of the Anglo-Saxon word ‘hlaew’, meaning hill. Alternatively, it could be the Old English word ‘lǣw’, referring to a wound (i.e. a cut in the landscape) – or the Celtic word ‘lexowiās’ for hillsides.
Whatever the origin, the local area had been occupied for generations before it acquired its current name. In fact, there’s evidence of Stone Age activity across Sussex from around half a million years ago, when England was still connected by land to the rest of Europe.
More recent archaeological evidence shows that Offham Hill, to the north of Lewes, was occupied during Neolithic times, 3,500 years ago. And there’s evidence of people living on Mount Caburn – south-east of the town – from around 2,500 years ago, with their farm-based settlement probably being turned into a fort during the Iron Age. This appears to have been abandoned around the time of the Roman invasion.
Those Romans built a local settlement called Mutuantonis that’s often thought to be on the current site of Lewes; when they departed in 410AD, the local area was left to the resident Britons and the invading Saxons. The Saxons turned Lewes into a fort at the end of King Alfred‘s reign, digging an entrenchment that accounts for the steep drop on the south side of the High Street. Within a few decades the town had become a centre for trade, a busy port and – in the 10th century – a mint as well.
In 1066, Duke William II of Normandy – to become known as William the Conqueror – became King of England after defeating King Harold in battle near Hastings. William de Warenne, who’d fought alongside William the Conqueror, was given Lewes as a reward for his loyalty… and began another chapter in the town’s history.