Nestled in the county town of east Sussex and near to Brighton, Lewes is charming and certainly worth visiting if you like your history. Our stop today is at the priory of saint Pancras. Although unfortunately not much is physically left here due to Henry VIII and Thomas Cromwell, with their dominating downfall of the monasteries in the mid-16th century, but its remains and history still survive and tell the story today. The priory was founded by William de Warren and his wife towards the end of the 11th century where he installed the first order of the Cluniac monks, they built smartly and were very efficient that much that this priory became one of the wealthiest monasteries in all of England, the only downside is how much of this magnificent place has since disappeared, considering how it would have been back in its day.

William was a leading Norman baron with extensive lands in Sussex and elsewhere in England. He also founded Castle Acre Priory in Norfolk. However, with its wealth it played a little role in national affairs, except at the time of the Battle of Lewes in 1264 when it was occupied by the troops of King Henry III. Over the centuries the Priory developed and expanded and there were as many as 100 monks living here during the 12th and 13th centuries but this had declined to only 24 monks in 1537. The main duties of the Cluniac monks were prayer and contemplation. They attended eight church services and masses and processions held during the day and night.

Many other people worked in the Priory precinct. The water mill ground  up grain and this was sent as payment from the estates owned by the Priory. The flour was used to bake bread in the bakery. Ale was brewed in the brewery as water was too contaminated to drink, so it was safer for the monks to drink ale and wine. The ale was made from grain, water and yeast. Food was provided from the gardens, orchards, fish-ponds and pigeon house. It may be hard to imagine but this whole area would have been bustling with the activity needed to sustain such an important institution.

If you were standing here in the early 16th century, the Great Church would be towering up in front of you. The Church was longer than Chichester Cathedral and gorgeously decorated with elaborate stone carvings, tiling and wall paintings. The monks sang their services in plain song – a special form of singing that is not accompanied by musical instruments. The church was built of cream stone which came from France, all of those pieces were cut by hand by the stonemasons in their workshop on site. They were always busy, constantly restoring not only the great church but the other buildings in the priory.

The Cluniac order gave great importance to worship and beauty. It was renowned for long and elaborate services, singing and ornate decorations. The monks spent much of the day and night attending services or processing through the Priory. The monks entered the refectory after washing their hands in a black marble basin in the cloister. They sat on benches, with the most important monks sitting on a raised platform. The rule of silence was maintained here and the monks communicated by hand signs.

The monks slept in their clothes on straw mattresses. They did, however, change their shoes for warmer night shoes lined with fur. In this way they were ready for the church services they had to attend during the night. The Rule of St Benedict required that a lamp be kept burning in the dormitory throughout the night but no fire was allowed here. Stairs from the dormitory led to the church via the cloister and a bridge connected the dormitory to the toilet block. All the monks, including the Prior, initially slept here and the dormitory would have been one large room when it was first built. The monks had very few possessions and even less privacy. Later on the monks probably had their own cubicles and the Prior slept in his own lodgings.

Underneath the original dormitory (to the north) was the warming house. Here the monks could warm themselves. This was the only room in the Priory, apart from the infirmary and the kitchen, where a fire was allowed.

The Priory’s 11th century monks’ toilet block (reredorter) may well be the first example of a layout that came to be used in most monasteries. The toilets were built over a sewer. Chutes led down from each toilet to the sewer, which channelled away the waste. It is possible to see the sewer under the far wall in front of you. There were 10 cubicles here but no doors seem to have been provided so the monks did not have much privacy. The three large windows (to your left) provided light and ventilation. A later raising of the the ground level has now blocked them off completely. There was probably a bath house at the west end of the building.

By the end of the 12th century a new, larger toilet block was built to accommodate the growing number of monks. A longer dormitory was then built over the older toilet block. The toilet block is the largest surviving part of the Priory, escaping demolition when it was converted into a malt house. Nothing remains of the large infirmary above ground level. The outer walls are marked out where they would have been. Elderly monks ended their days here and sick monks were cared for. Herbs from the Priory’s herb garden were often used to make medicines.

The herb garden on the site today represents aspects of a typical medieval monastic herb garden. Lewes Priory originally had many gardens and orchards. Unfortunately we no longer know what they looked like or how they were laid out. Beds 4 and 8 contain culinary herbs that can be used in cooking and the remaining beds have herbs that would have had household or ceremonial uses.

The Battle of Lewes on 14 May 1264 was one of the two main battles of the Second Barons’ War. Fought between the forces of King Henry III and the barons led by Simon de Montfort, it resulted in the defeat of the king and the signing of the Mise of Lewes. Tired of bad government and royal extravagance, the barons wanted the country to be governed by a council rather than by the king. The king’s army camped here on 12th May, the eve of the feast of St Pancras, an important religious celebration for the Priory. The soldiers’ presence caused much disruption for the monks.

The battle was fought to the north of Lewes and gave victory to Simon de Montfort. The king’s army retreated to the Priory with de Montfort’s forces in pursuit, their blazing arrows causing considerable damage to thatched roofs. The conflict divided the monks of the Priory and some were sent back to Cluny, others were punished at Lewes. During excavations to lay the railway line in 1845, a large burial ground was discovered at the Priory containing hundreds of bodies from the battle.

Its worth taking the time to look and marvel at the battle of Lewes memorial statue.  Scenes from the Battle of Lewes encircle the helm on a bronze chaplet with a quotation from the Song of Lewes, its truly wonderful to see and important to remember. The entire complex sprawled over around 39 acres and included everything from a vast 2,700-metre-square church with five chapels to a water mill, forge, brew house and granary.

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Till Next Time!