Lewes Castle - Towers

Lewes Castle Towers

Lewes Castle - Barbican

Lewes Castle Barbican

Lewes Castle stands at the highest point of Lewes, East Sussex on an artificial mound constructed with chalk blocks. It was originally called Bray Castle. Construction of the castle at Lewes commenced in 1067 on behalf of William de Warenne, Lord of Lewes. The castle was one of five designed to control the coast of Sussex; the area had been divided into five rapes each controlled by a castle. The Normans divided Sussex into six areas known as Rapes each protected and controlled by a castle. From west to east: - Chichester: Roger de Montgomery; Arundel: Roger de Montgomery; Bramber: William de Braose; Lewes: William de Warenne; Pevensey: Robert, Count of Mortain; Hastings: Robert, Count of Eu. Initially a timber motte-and-bailey castle, the first mound was that known today as ‘Brack Mount’ and is situated close to the river. The second motte, slightly taller, was added less than 50 years later and the shell keeps on both mounds were rebuilt in stone around this time. The impressive Barbican was added in the early fourteenth century.


Only two castles in the UK have two mottes: Lewes and Lincoln. A third motte – locally named the ‘Tump’ – can be found directly adjacent to the Priory. It is 45 feet high but its purpose and builders are unknown. It might have been generated when the Priory was built and/or it could have served the facility in someway. Alternatively it could be Bronze or Iron Age constructions; perhaps part of a religious site. If the latter it is possible that the two mottes of Lewes Castle pre-dated the Normans considerably and were just modified to suit the needs of the castle; this would certainly explain the unusual design.


In 1264 the Battle of Lewes was fought in the vicinity of the castle. Henry III had mustered his forces at the Lewes Priory whilst his son, Prince Edward (later Edward I), was at the castle with the heavy cavalry. Edward deployed to attack Simon de Montfort's army without waiting for the King’s foot soldiers and successfully charged uphill breaking his left flank. Edward’s forces pursued and routed the fleeing troops but he had left his father in an impossible position. The remaining sections of Montfort's force had held and Henry III was forced to move his larger army uphill to attack them; the result was defeat for the Royalists, the capture of the King and the elevation of Montfort to effectively ruler of England. The castle, which had held out for the King even after the defeat, was then placed under Baron approved Keepers. It would take Edward's victory at the Battle of Evesham (1265) before Montfort was killed and Royal power restored both nationally and at the castle.


In 1347, after the male line of the de Warenne family died out, the castle passed to the Earls of Arundel. It was however a Sir Edward Dallingridge who was tasked with the defence of Sussex when the Hundred Years War turned against the English in the 1370s. Sir Edward Dallingridge was the builder of Bodiam Castle. He was only partially successful as Lewes was sacked by the French in 1377 causing some damage to the castle. In June 1381 Lewes was officially used as a prison. Whilst short term detention had regularly taken place here throughout the Middle Ages, prisoners were normally transferred to Guildford for sentences longer than a few days. However the Peasants Revolt had filled that gaol and resulted in the Earl of Arundel being required to keep prisoners longer term at Lewes. The castle itself suffered at the hands of rioters however; the same year locals broke in and stole wine and stone from the fortification. In 1397 the castle was seized by Richard II following the trial and execution of Richard FitzAlan, Earl of Arundel for his opposition to the King. However Richard didn’t last much longer; he was deposed by Henry Bolingbroke (later Henry IV) in 1399 and murdered at Pontefract Castle. Thomas FitzAlan was restored to his father's titles and honours including the restoration of Lewes Castle. During the fifteenth century and beyond the castle declined in importance and was predominantly used as a warehouse for wool although the castle was periodically visited by the Earls of Arundel. In 1439 the castle and the rape were split further reducing it's importance.


That the earls used Lewes castle as a residence is shown by the numbers of letters thence addressed, especially in the 14th century. On the ending of the direct line in 1347 the pre-eminent position of the castle was gradually lost, but there is no proof that immediately 'the antiquated pile was suffered to moulder piece-meal'. Letters were issued there by Richard, Earl of Arundel, then Lord of Lewes, in 1364, although he doubtless more often lived at Arundel; and again by Thomas Mowbray Duke of Norfolk, in 1397, although the castle had been seriously damaged in 1381, when buildings, gates, windows, and records were destroyed. It was used by Richard, Earl of Arundel, as a storehouse for wool, and had an armament of at any rate four guns, and a military equipment of 17 basinets. There is, however, no evidence of the castle being used as a residence after the beginning of the 15th century. In 1620 some of the buildings were being pulled down and the flints were sold. The castle green was used in later times for public meetings, as, for example, in 1658 when a meeting of Quakers was dispersed by the mob. Defoe noted about 1725 that 'the castle is lately repaired and there are now several handsome rooms in it', and the Kemps fitted up the keep as a sort of summerhouse. Since 1850 it has been in the occupation of the Sussex Archaeological Society, at first as tenants and since 1920 as owners.


Lewes Castle has the usual Early Norman motteand-bailey plan, with the unusual addition of a second mound. The fortified enclosure lies just north of the High Street, from which it is approached by Castle Gate. It forms a rough oval some 450 ft. × 380 ft., excluding the mounds, which lie to the south-west and north-east. On the south it is defended by a bank and dry moat, now largely filled in, and on the north by the natural escarpment of the hill on which the town is built. Some sections of the curtain wall still stand on the top of the bank overlooking Castle Ditch, chiefly consisting of the chalk core, with a certain amount of later flint facing. A section west of Castle Gate overlooking 'the gun garden' retains its original flint facing laid in courses and in herringbone fashion. No part of the northern wall remains above ground except a small portion, part of Castle Precincts House, on which probably one of the domestic buildings of the castle abutted, since there is a barrel vault still existing beneath the house. A considerable fragment of the Early Norman Gateway is preserved and includes its southern wall and archway and most of its eastern wall projecting northwards from the curtain. The walls of the Gatehouse are 8 ft. thick, and from a recent excavation its internal dimensions were found to be 32 ft. from north to south and 22 ft. from east to west. There are two arches, each of two orders with semicircular rings of Caen stone to the outer and inner face, the latter being higher than the former owing to the slope of the ground. The southern external angles are quoined in Caen stone, and part of the internal quoining on both sides of the northern face remains. The rest of the facing is in large coursed flintwork laid in the rough herringbone manner of the late 11th century. There is a small chamber below the roadway on the site of the Gatehouse, but its walls are modern. There are signs that an outbuilding with a span roof stood against the south wall towards the moat, to the east of the entrance, when the Barbican was built in the 14th century.


Of the two mounds the eastern, known as Brack Mount may have been the earlier, and its position was no doubt chosen to command the river valley. It now has no building upon it save a fragment of fallen masonry faced with flint, but the 1620 plan of Lewes shows the remains of a shell keep. The ditch between it and the Bailey has been filled in. The western mound is 65 ft. above the level of the High Street at Castle Gate, and about 20 ft. higher than Brack Mount. On its summit is a shell keep, roughly elliptical in shape, the internal diameters measuring about 85 and 75 ft. The wall, of which the south-western part is tolerably complete, has a marked batter at the foot on the outside, being about 7 ft. thick above the batter and 10 ft. at floor level. The parapet platform is 22 ft. above the ground level, and above this the walls of the battlements are irregular, having been robbed of their ashlar coping, and give an uncertain indication of where the merlons stood. The external flint facing of the Keep is of the same herringbone courses of large flints noticed in the Gateway, and can scarcely be later than the very beginning of the 12th century. It is probable that at Lewes it was intended from the first to defend both mounds with masonry, since, where they have been excavated, the core of the mounds themselves appears to have been built up of large squared blocks of chalk


Attached to the south and west sides of the Keep are semi-octangular towers, of 13th-century date. Externally they are flint-faced with stone quoins to the angles and three stone set-offs, one below present groundlevel, one midway between this and the parapet, and the third midway between the other two; beneath the lowest set-off the tower walls are widely battered as they descend the slope of the mound. These towers have suffered a good deal of alteration, and the entrances to both are modern. Originally the centre of each face near the internal ground level was pierced by an arrow loop. The splays from these loops met at the internal angles of the towers and the openings had two-centred inner arches, which for the most part remain. The splays, however, have been cut back to allow for modern windows, and although the stones of the loops are preserved in part on the outside, below the windows, only one is to be seen from within (the south loop in the west tower) and this is partly restored. Above the springing of the internal arches in the west tower are stone corbels, which probably carried the ribs of a vault occupying the central portion of each tower and supporting the floor, which afforded access to the upper line of loops high up in the walls. These loops are pierced in the external angles of each octagon, the halves of the rear-arch of each embrasure being thus in adjacent walls and not in the same plane. The floors that served these defences were very little above the fighting platform of the main parapet, with which they communicated by doorways. The south tower had a vice in its eastern wall which led up to the roof, but only traces of this are visible. The present newel stair and the porch are modern. The original parapets to the towers have also been altered.


The wall of the Keep has a row of corbels on its inner face which no doubt supported the plate carrying a pent roof. There are also indications of two large fire-places, one (opened up) west of the south tower, and the other to the east. There is no sure indication of the entrance to the Keep, but an L-shaped block of masonry within its eastern limit may be part of the foundations of an entrance tower. The short arm of the L is in line with the foundations of a wall built on a chord to the NE. segment of the Keep, discovered and recorded in 1884. A large fragment of the Keep wall at the NE. point retains the western reveal of a postern door, whence steps descended on to the top of the wall, which was no doubt built on the Keep mound to connect the Keep with the northern curtain of the Bailey. The present ascent to the Keep has no ancient features, but there must have been a stone stair, protected by a wall to the southern curtain, and at the point where it would have joined the parapet are the remains of a square stone tower, about midway between the Keep and the main Gatehouse. Parts of the northern and western walls remain and the inner quoins of the eastern angle. The southern wall has disappeared, but from the marks of re-building in the curtain wall at this point it seems clear that the towers projected south of the curtain, being possibly carried on a strong corbel table overhanging the moat.


he Barbican or Outer Gatehouse was built in the first part of the 14th century by John seventh Earl Warenne, who died in 1347. The lower part is roughly rectangular in plan with two square projecting towers flanking the south entrance and a circular stair or vice at its north-west angle. The turret in which the stair is placed continues down to the Moat, but the steps begin at the level of the parapet to the curtain wall. The passage through the Barbican enters under a two-centred arch of two moulded orders, the same mouldings being carried down the jambs. The arches are struck from centres below the springing, so that the arch and jamb mouldings have to mitre. The passage emerges on the north under a similar arch of more elaborately moulded orders, at a rather higher level to allow of the rise in the roadway. The mouldings die into the west side of this opening, but apparently continued down the east jamb. Immediately to the south of this arch are the vertical grooves for the portcullis, and 4 ft. south of this are grooves for another portcullis that descended between twin arches, moulded on the outer sides. The space between the south entrance and the portcullis arches was originally vaulted with wall and diagonal ribs, the two south springers being still in position. On the first floor the square towers on either side of the entrance are overhung by circular bartizans which are carried on a bold series of circular corbel-tables. The west wall is carried obliquely by a pointed arch from the centre of the south-west turret to corbels adjoining the stair. The east turret, of which only a fragment remains some 14 ft. above the corbelling, is separated by a wall from the room over the gateway and at the angle of junction between the turret and main building an arch is thrown across to form a garde-robe partly recessed in the wall. Half the entrance door to this chamber remains, and the space for discharge is visible. Part of the east wall north of the garde-robe is carried on corbels, and the remainder shows where it was built against the outwork of the Norman gateway.


The room on the first floor is modernized; it retains an original single-light window on the north with trefoil head, and has a modern light to the west. In the east wall is a recess for a window, since blocked. There are two cruciform loops, with moulded external openings to the south wall and three in each turret, those looking north being unmoulded. The room on the second floor has a similar window to that below on the north and also on the south front, and a modern light to the west. There are no loops at this level, but a recess inside the west turret suggests that there was an opening at one time. The facing of the south front between the turrets and above the archway is of squared and knapped flint work. The parapet is brought forward on bold machicolations carried on arched stones over seven triple corbels, and side corbels on the turrets. The parapet is embattled, but is largely restored. The west turret was rebuilt in 1894. The bowling green within the castle precincts is said to have been in continuous use for some three centuries.


Barbican House Museum is owned and operated by the Sussex Archaeological Society. The building has been a museum since the early twentieth century and houses the Society's archaeology and fine art collections. There are permanent galleries, a temporary exhibition gallery and an audio-visual presentation on the history of Lewes from the prehistoric period through to the mid-twentieth century. The museum also has a significant photographic collection recording both East and West Sussex from the mid-nineteenth century. As well as the public galleries, the building is home to the Society's library. This is an exceptional resource and collection. Material covers archaeology and local history and it also includes working papers from some of the county's most noted historians and archaeologists.


The castle: due to the historic nature of the site access is limited to ground level for anyone who has difficulty walking. There is an accessible pavilion in the Gun Garden with panels depicting the panorama visible from the top of the keep. Assistance dogs are welcome and some interpretation panels are in braille. The museum: there is a small flight of steps down to the ground floor galleries and another, larger, flight up to those on the first floor. Due to the historic nature of the building there is no lift. Some large print information plus activities for children and EFL students is available in the entrance foyer. The galleries have family activity baskets. Toilets. There are free toilets in the shop area. There is an accessible toilet with baby changing facilities in the Education Resource Centre, but availability is limited.


Location : Barbican House Museum, 169, High Street, Lewes, BN7 1YE

Transport : Lewes (National Rail) then 6 minutes. Bus Routes : 121, 122, 123, 128, 129 and 132 Town and Downs stop close by.

Opening Times : November to February: 10:00 to 15:45.  March to October: 10:00 to 17:30.  Sundays and Mondays open at 11:00

Tickets : Adults £7.40;   Seniors/Students £6.80;   Children (5 - 16)/Disabled/Carer £4.00

Tel. : 01273 486290