The town name of Lewes in East Sussex is currently something of a mystery: no-one’s exactly sure how the word originated.
Over two hundred years ago, William Lee addressed the same question in the first few pages of his 1795 book, which was entitled Ancient and Modern History of Lewes and Brighthelmston: In which are compressed the most interesting events of the county at large, under the Regnian, Roman, Saxon and Norman settlements.
Ultimately he comes to a similar conclusion: no-one knows. Or, as he puts it, “the discerning reader is left to judge for himself”.
Here’s how he addresses the topic…
LEWES, a considerable market and borough town in Sussex, is situate on the eastern extremity of one of those bold and fertile eminences called the South-downs, and so justly celebrated in the topography of that county. It lies in about 50 deg. 56 min. north latitude, about 2 min. east longitude; 50 miles south from London, and about six miles from the nearest part of the British Channel.
Scarce a town in Europe can boast a more beautiful situation, or a more profitable and picturesque variety of soil in its vicinity. The adjacent downs feed numerous flocks, which greatly enliven the landscape on the acclivity of those delightful hills: The Brookes or marshlands which chieﬂy compose its northern and southern boundaries, are equally productive to the grazier, and ornamental in perspective. And in the intermediate lands nature seems almost inexhaustible, the farmer, for a succession of many autumns, reaping unimpaired crops from the same field.
Mr. Camden, in allusion to those territorial advantages, derives Lewes from the Saxon LESWA, or more properly LESWES, pastures. Mr. Noel, with more local and verbal analogy, forms it from HLÆWE, which, in the same language, signifies a hill not too steep to be cultivated: But Lewes, if derived from that root, would have been pronounced as a monosyllable. Mr. Rowe, (of whom more hereafter) supposed it came from Le Ewe or L’ewe, the old Norman French for water; and in support of his opinion, quotes Domesday, (in Norfolk) where Lewes is miscalled De laquis or Laquæ, by the illiterate pedantry of a Norman Commissioner, or his clerk. In the same survey of that county, and even in the same folio, it is also called Laes, Laues, Lauues, and Lawes, which proves the great inaccuracy of that ancient record, with regard to the names of places. Besides it is certain, that the town was called Lewes, for some centuries at least, before the Norman dialect or dominion disgraced this land. It is most probable, indeed, that this name is coeval with the first settlement of the Regni on the southern coasts of Britain. Cæsar, in his account of this island, very judiciously supposes that those coasts were peopled from the opposite parts of the continent, and that the colonists named their new settlements from the places of their nativity, or from others in the mother country, which resembled those settlements in soil or situation, as the European adventures have done since in America. Those early emigrants came from the Belgic shore. The inhabitants of the Isle of Wight, Somersetshire, Wiltshire, and the interior parts of Hampshire, retained their original name. Those that settled on the south-eastern extremity of the island, were called Cantii, perhaps from the Scoto-Celtic can, a head, as a peninsula of Scotland is called Cantire, from that word compounded with tire, a country, in the same language. The co-temporary inhabitants of Sussex, were named Regni and Renci, probably from the celtic verb, rein, to divide, because they at first were separated from the other colonists by Coid Andred, a deep forest which the Romans afterwards called Lucus Andates, the Saxons Andradfwald, and their modem descendants the Weald, corruptly the Wild.
Lewes therefore might have been so called by the Belgic settlers from Lewes in Brabant, which, like the former town, is nearly surrounded with lakes and marshes formed by the inundation of the river Geet: And Mr. Baxter, one of the most intelligent of our Antiquaries, traces this word to the Celtic Lau or Lav, an arm, and Isca, water, the town having been built on an elevated arm of land which projected into a large lake formed by a very extensive overﬂow of the Ouse before the bed of that river was widened, and its most prominent angles cut off. The largest of the Hebrides, a long and narrow island, being likewise called Lewes, gives further probability to the opinion of this learned writer; for the same island was anciently called Clauinnis, which also is interpreted from a dialect of the Celtic, insula brachialis, the island like an arm. But amidst this variety of etymological conjecture the discerning reader is left to judge for himself.