Its status as the county town of all Sussex proved unworkable, the distance from east to west across the county being not far short of 90 miles. By the 16th century Sussex was already sliced administratively in two. In the Victorian era that division was confirmed by parliament and in the early 70s, East Sussex and Lewes lost the ‘Mid-Sussex area’ to West Sussex. Bureaucratic Blimpishness – the council turfed out Rodin’s The Kiss from the town hall as it was felt it had an unsettling effect on soldiers camped there during the First World War – could not strip Lewes of its central character: as a place, you always feel upon entering, of importance.
This is predominantly soft chalk country, and it has worn such vagaries of history well. Lewes straddles a picturesque gap in the South Downs where the Ouse descends to the sea. Daniel Defoe in the early 17th century described it as “a fine, pleasant town, well built, agreeably situated in the middle of an open champagne country”. And it largely still is – in fact the Rathfinny Wine Estate is not far away at Alfriston, where almost a quarter of a million vines will be producing some of the county’s finest sparkling wine in 2016.
The name ‘Lewes’ derives from ‘hlaew’ (‘hill’), and indicates its strategic value to the Saxons, who made it one of the capitals of the South Saxon kings. Its importance increased when William de Warenne, a powerful crony of William the Conqueror, founded the castle. Henry III built the town walls, but in 1264 was defeated by Simon de Montfort at the Battle of Lewes, fought on the slope of the Downs to the west. De Montfort took the King prisoner and came within a whisker of abolishing the monarchy altogether by setting up one of the earliest systems of parliamentary representation.
The Norman castle was built shortly after the Battle of Hastings. It’s one of only two Norman castles in the country that can boast two Mottes, at either end of an oval bailey. The ruined keep stands on a height near the middle of the town, almost blocking the pass through the Downs and still offering a fine view from the town into the surrounding countryside. Any invaders would have been spotted miles off, though nowadays invasions are confined to local Am Dram societies putting on summer productions in the grounds, and venerable old codgers honing their bowling skills in the bailey. The fine barbican is also well preserved. At the corner of Castle Gate, the Barbican House is home to the Sussex Archaeology Museum, featuring a scale model of Victorian Lewes.
Turn right from the Castle along the High Street and you’ll come to Bull House, where Thomas “The Rights of Man” Paine lived, while working as an excise officer from 1768 until 1774, the year in which he emigrated with the help of Benjamin Franklin to Philadelphia. Two years later he published his hugely influential pamphlet “Common Sense”, earning him the title of the Father of the American Revolution.
The Shelleys, further down the High Street, is a hotel in a house dating from the 16th century that was once owned by a relative of the anarchist Romantic poet. Just past St Michael’s Church, with its 12th-century round flint tower, is Keere Street, a steep, photogenic and cozily cobbled street. Here “Prinnie” the Prince Regent, later George IV, supposedly forced his coach and horses down the street at breakneck speed, giving us some idea of where Tom Paine was coming from.
The Prince could have been heading for Southover Grange at the bottom of the street. Once the childhood home of the great 17th-century diarist and gardener John Evelyn, the gardens remain one of the loveliest corners of Lewes to linger on a warm day.
Along Southover High Street you’ll find Anne of Cleve’s House Museum. The luckless “Mare of Flanders”, as Henry VIII dubbed her in unfavourable comparison to her portrait by Holbein, never actually lived here however. Just off Southover High Street is Lewes Priory, founded by the wife of William de Warenne in about 1076. The Priory of St Pancras was the most important Cluniac house in Britain until it was systematically demolished by Henry’s henchman Thomas Cromwell in 1539.
At the other end of the High Street is Harvey’s Brewery, known to sage locals as Lewes Cathedral. Fascinating tours of this proud family-run business take place on Wednesday afternoons but are often booked up months in advance, perhaps partly because they culminate in a generous beer-tasting session in the brewery’s tap room.
And very fine ale plays a central role in the event that now puts Lewes firmly in the news every November: Bonfire Night. During the reign of Mary Tudor, 17 Protestant martyrs were burnt at the stake near the present Town Hall. And ever since Guy Fawkes tried to blow up parliament in 1605, the town’s more boisterous citizens have insisted on torching effigies of the Pope, and throwing blazing tar barrels at one another. These days the event is properly policed, devoid of any sectarian feeling, and the town’s ‘Bonfire Boys’ are organized into five societies, each with its own traditions and identity.
And that fierce spirit of Lewesian independence survives in perhaps one of the most unlikely places in this 21st century – in its wonderful independent shops that have resisted the march of the high street chain.
Daniel Defoe’s judgment on Lewes almost 400 years ago certainly seems to have survived the centuries: “It lies on the bank of a little wholesome fresh river, within twelve miles of the sea, but that which adds to the character of this town is that both the town and the country adjacent is full of gentleman of good families and fortunes.” Long may Lewes prosper.