Highways and Byways in Sussex/Chapter 26

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On the Ouse above Lewes.png

On the Ouse above Lewes.


CHAPTER XXVI


LEWES


The Museum of Sussex—The riches of Lewes—Her leisure and antiquity—A plea from Idlehurst—Old Lewes disabilities—The Norman Conquest—Lewes Castle—Sussex curiosities—Lewes among her hills—The Battle of Lewes—The Cluniac Priory—Repellers of the French—A comprehender of Earthquakes—The author of The Rights of Man—A game of bowls—"Clio" Rickman and Thomas Tipper—Famous Lewes men—The Fifth of November—The Sussex martyrs.


Apart from the circumstance that the curiosities collected by the county's Archæological Society are preserved in the castle, Lewes is the museum of Sussex; for she has managed to compress into small compass more objects of antiquarian interest than any town I know. Chichester, which is compact enough, sprawls by comparison.

The traveller arriving by train no sooner alights from his carriage than he is on the site of the kitchens of the Cluniac Priory of St. Pancras, some of the walls of which almost scrape the train on its way to Brighton. That a priory eight hundred years old must be disturbed before a railway station can be built is a melancholy circumstance; but in the present case the vandalism had its compensation in the discovery by the excavating navvies of the coffins of William de Warenne and his wife Gundrada (the Conqueror's daughter), the founders of the priory, which otherwise would probably have been lost evermore.

The castle, which dominates the oldest part of the town, is but a few minutes' stiff climb from the station; Lewes's several ancient churches are within hailing distance of each other; the field of her battle, where Simon de Montfort defeated Henry III., is in view from her north-west slopes; while the new martyrs' memorial on the turf above the precipitous escarpment of the Cliffe (once the scene of a fatal avalanche) reminds one of what horrors were possible in the name of religion in these streets less than four hundred years ago.

Here are riches enough; yet Lewes adds to such mementoes of an historic past two gaols—one civil and one naval—a racecourse, and a river, and she is an assize town to boot. Once, indeed, Lewes was still better off, for she had a theatre, which for some years was under the management of Jack Palmer, of whom Charles Lamb wrote with such gusto. Added to these possessions, she has, in Keere Street, the narrowest and steepest thoroughfare down which a king (George IV.) ever drove a coach and four, and a row of comfortable and serene residences (on the way to St. Ann's) more luxuriantly and beautifully covered with leaves than any I ever saw. (Much of Lewes in September is scarlet with Virginia creeper.)

Although less than half an hour from Brighton by train, and an hour by road, Lewes is yet a full quarter of a century behind it. She would do well jealously to maintain this interval. Lewes was old and grey before Brighton was thought of (indeed, it was, as we have seen, a Lewes man that discovered Brighton—Dr. Russell, who lies in his grave in South Malling church); let her cling to her seniority. As a town "in the movement," as a contemporary of the "Queen of Watering Places," she would cut a poor figure. But it is amusing to think of the old address of a visitor to Brighton, "at Brighthelmstone, near Lewes," and to read the county paper, The Sussex Weekly Advertiser; or, Lewes Journal, of a century ago, with its columns of Lewes news and paragraphs

High Street, Southover.png

High Street, Southover.

of Brighton correspondence. Lewes will cease to have charm the moment she modernises. In the words of the author of Idlehurst, as he looked down on the huddling little settlement from the Cliffe Hill: "Let us keep a country town or two as preserves for clean atmospheres of body and soul, for the almost lost secret of sitting still. … I find myself tangled in half-dreams of a devolution by which, when national amity shall have become mentionable besides personal pence, London shall attract to herself all the small vice, as she does already most of the great, from the country, all the thrusters after gain, the vulgar, heavy-fingered intellects, the Progressive spouters, the Bileses, the speculating brigandage, and shall give us back from the foggy world of clubs and cab-ranks and geniuses, the poets and painters, all the nice and witty and pretty people, to make towns such as this, conserved and purified, into country-side Athenses; to form distinct schools of letters and art, individual growths, not that universal Cockney mind, smoke-ingrained, stage-ridden, convention-throttled, which now masquerades under the forms of every clime and dialect within reach of a tourist ticket."

The customs of Lewes at the end of the Saxon rule and the beginning of the Norman, as recorded in the pages of the Domesday Book, show that residence in the town in those days was not unmixed delight, except, perhaps, for murderers, for whom much seems to have been done. Thus: "If the king wished to send an armament to guard the seas, without his personal attendance, twenty shillings were collected from all the inhabitants, without exception or respect to particular tenure, and these were paid to the men-at-arms in the ships.

"The seller of a horse, within the borough, pays one penny to the mayor (sheriff?) and the purchaser another; of an ox, a half-penny; of a man, fourpence, in whatsoever place he may be brought within the rape.

"A murderer forfeits seven shillings and fourpence; a ravisher forfeits eight shillings and fourpence; an adulterer eight shillings and fourpence; an adultress the same. The king has the adulterer, the bishop the adulteress."

With the Conquest new life came into the town, as into South Sussex generally. The rule of the de Braoses, who dominated so much of the country through which we have been passing, is here no more, the great lord of this district being William de Warenne, who had claims upon William the Conqueror, not only for services rendered in the Conquest but as a son-in-law. When, therefore, the contest was over, some of the richest prizes fell to Earl de Warenne. Among them was the township of Lewes, whose situation so pleased the Earl that he decided to make his home there. His first action, then, was to graft upon the existing fortress a new stronghold, the remains of which still stand.

Ten years after the victory at Hastings the memory of the blood of the sturdy Saxons whom he had hacked down at Battle began so to weigh upon de Warenne's conscience that he set out with Gundrada upon an expiatory pilgrimage to Rome. Sheltering on the way in the monastery of St. Per, at Cluny, they were so hospitably received that on returning to Lewes William and Gundrada built a Priory, partly as a form of gratitude, and partly as a safeguard for the life to come. In 1078, it was formally founded on a magnificent scale. Thus Lewes obtained her castle and her priory, both now in ruins, in the one of which William de Warenne might sin with a clear mind, knowing that just below him, on the edge of the water-brooks, was (in the other) so tangible an expiation.

The date of the formation of the priory spoils the pleasant legend which tells how Harold, only badly wounded, was carried hither from Battle, and how, recovering, he lived quietly with the brothers until his natural death some years later. A variant of the same story takes the English king to a cell near St. John's-under-the-Castle, also in Lewes, and establishes him there as an anchorite. But (although, as we shall see when we come to Battle, the facts were otherwise) all true Englishmen prefer to think of Harold fighting in the midst of his army, killed by a chance arrow shot into the zenith, and lying there until the eyes of Editha of the Swan-neck lighted upon his dear corpse amid the hundreds of the slain.

The de Warennes held Lewes Castle until the fourteenth century; the Sussex Archæological Society now have it in their fostering care. Architecturally it is of no great interest, although it was once unique in England by the possession of two keeps; nor has it romantic associations, like Kenilworth or even Carisbrooke. The crumbling masonry was assisted in its decay by no siege or bombardment; the castle has been never the scene of human struggle. Visitors, therefore, must take pleasure chiefly in the curiosities collected in the museum and in the views from the roof. A few little rooms hold the treasures amassed by the Archæological Society; amassed, it may be said, with little difficulty, for the soil of the district is fertile in relics. From Ringmer come rusty shield bosses and the mouldering skull of an Anglo-Saxon; from the old Lewes gaol come a lock and a key strong enough to hold Jack Sheppard; and from Horsham Gaol a complete set of fetters for ankles and wrists, once used to cramp the movements of female malefactors. Here, in a case, is a tiny bronze thimble that tipped the pretty finger of a Roman seamstress—one only among scores of tokens of the Roman occupation of the county. Flint arrow heads and celts in profusion take us back to remoter times. A Pyecombe crook hangs on one wall, and relics of the Sussex ironworks are plentiful. The highest room contains rubbings of our best brasses. Outside is an early Sussex plough. In a corner is a beadle's staff that once struck terror into the hearts of Sabbath-breaking boys; and near one of the windows is a little brass crucifix from St. Pancras' Priory. But nothing, the custodian tells me, so pleases visitors to this very catholic collection as the mummied hand of a murderess.

Looking down and around from the roof of the keep, you are immediately struck by the wide shallow hollow in which Lewes lies. It is something the shape of a dairy basin, the gap to the north-west, between Malling Hill and Offham, serving for the lip. Nothing could be flatter than the smiling meadows, streaked with tiny streams, stretching between Lewes and the coast line to the south-east (with the exception of one symmetrical hillock just out of the town). Among them curls the lazy Ouse; just beneath you Lewes sleeps, red-roofed as an Italian town, sending up no hum of activity, listless and immovable save for a few spirals of silent smoke. The surrounding hills are very fine: Firle Beacon in the far east; Mount Caburn, a noble cone, in the near east; Mount Harry to the west, on whose slopes Henry III., assisted by the fiery Prince Edward, fought the Barons. So fiery, indeed, was this lad that he forgot all about his father, and gave chase to a small detachment of the enemy, catching them up, and hewing them down with the keenest enjoyment, while the unhappy Henry was being completely worsted by de Montfort. It was a bloody battle, made up, as old Fabian wrote, of embittered men, with hearts full of hatred, "eyther desyrous to bring the other out of lyfe." Great fun was made by the humorists of the time, after the battle, over the fact that Richard, King of the Romans, Henry's brother, was captured in a windmill in which he had taken refuge. This mill stood near the site of the Black Horse inn. In The Barons' Wars, by Mr. Blaauw, the Sussex antiquary, the whole story is told.

Lewes has played but a small part in history since that battle; but, as we saw when we were at Rottingdean, it was one of her Cluniac priors that repulsed the French in 1377, and her son, Sir Nicholas Pelham, who performed a similar service in 1545, at Seaford. As the verses on his monument in St. Michael's Church run:—

What time the French sought to have sackt Sea-Foord,
This Pelham did repel-em back aboord.

The Cluniac priory of St. Pancras was dissolved by Henry VIII. in 1537, Thomas Cromwell, that execrable vandal, not only abolishing the monks but destroying the buildings, which covered, with their gardens and fish ponds, forty acres. The ruins that remain give some idea of the extent of this wonderful priory, another relic being the adjacent mound on which the Calvary stood, probably constructed of the earth removed for the purpose from the Dripping Pan, as the hollow circular space is called where Lewes now plays cricket. One very pretty possession of the monks was allowed to stand until quite recent times—the Columbarium, which was as large as a church and contained homes for 3,228 birds. It has now vanished; but an idea of what it was may be gained from the pigeon house at Alciston, a few miles distant, which belonged to Battle Abbey.

Ann of Cleves' House, Southover.png

Ann of Cleves' House, Southover.

The priory's possessions were granted to Cromwell by Henry VIII., who, tradition asserts (somewhat directly in the face of historical evidence), murdered one of his wives on a winding stair in the building, and may therefore have been glad to see its demolition. Which wife it was, is not stated, but when Cromwell went the way of all this king's favourites, the property was transferred to Ann of Cleves, who is supposed to have lived in the most picturesque of the old houses on the right hand side of Southover's street as you leave Lewes for the Ouse valley.

Southover church, in itself a beautiful structure of the grave red type, with a square ivied tower and the most delicate vane in Sussex, is rendered the more interesting by the possession of the leaden caskets of William de Warenne and Gundrada and the superb tomb removed from Isfield church and very ingeniously restored. These relics repose in a charming little chapel built in their honour.

A notable man who had association with Lewes was Tom Paine, author of The Rights of Man. He settled there as an exciseman in 1768, married Elizabeth Ollive of the same town at St. Michael's Church in 1771, and succeeded to her father's business as a tobacconist and grocer. Paine was more successful as a debater than a business man. As a member of the White Hart evening club he was more often than any other the winner of the Headstrong Book—an old Greek Homer despatched the next morning to the most obstinate haranguer of the preceding night. It was at Lewes that Tom Paine's thoughts were first turned to the question of government. He used thus to tell the story. One evening after playing bowls, all the party retired to drink punch; when, in the conversation that ensued, Mr. Verril (it should be Verrall) "observed, alluding to the wars of Frederick, that the King of Prussia was the best fellow in the world for a king, he had so much of the devil in him. This, striking me with great force, occasioned the reflection, that if it were necessary for a king to have so much of the devil in him, kings might very beneficially be dispensed with."

I thought of that historic game of bowls as I watched four Lewes gentlemen playing this otherwise discreetest of games in the meadow by the castle gate on a fine September evening. Surely (after the historic Plymouth Hoe) a lawn in the shadow of a Norman castle is the ideal spot for this leisurely but exciting pastime. The four Lewes gentlemen played uncommonly well, with bowls of peculiar splendour in which a setting of silver glistened as they sped over the turf. After each game one little boy bearing a cloth wiped the bowls while another registered the score. And now I feel that no one can really be said to have seen Lewes unless he has watched the progress of such a game: it remains in my mind as intimate a part of the town and the town's spirit as the ruins of the Priory, or Keere Street, or the Castle itself.

The house of Tom Paine, just off the High Street, almost opposite the circular tower of St. Michael's, has a tablet commemorating its illustrious owner. It also has a very curious red carved demon which otherwise distinguishes it. Lewes was not always proud of Tom Paine; but Cuckfield went farther. In 1793, I learn from the Sussex Advertiser for that year, Cuckfield emphasised its loyalty to the constitution by singing "God save the King" in the streets and burning Paine in effigy.

Mention of Tom Paine naturally calls to mind his friend and biographer (and my thrice great uncle), Thomas "Clio" Rickman, the Citizen of the World, who was born at Lewes in 1760. Rickman began life as a Quaker, and therefore without his pagan middle name, which he first adopted as the signature to epigrams and scraps of verse in the local paper, and afterwards incorporated in his signature. Rickman's connection with Tom Paine and his own revolutionary habits were a source of distress to his Quaker relatives at Lewes, so much so that there is a story in the family of the Citizen being refused admission to a house in the neighbourhood where he had eight impressionable nieces, and, when he would visit their father, being entertained instead at the Bear. His Bible, with sceptical marginal notes, is still preserved, with the bad pages pasted together by a subsequent owner.

After roving about in Spain and other countries he settled as a bookseller in London, and it was in his house and at his table that The Rights of Man was written. "This table," says an article on Rickman in the Wonderful Museum, "is prized by him very highly at this time; and no doubt will be deemed a rich relic by some of our irreligious connoisseurs." It was shown at the Tom Paine exhibition a few years ago. Rickman escaped prosecution, but he once had his papers seized.

According to his portrait Clio wore a hat like a beehive, and he invented a trumpet to increase the sound of a signal gun. His verse is exceedingly poor, his finest poetical achievement being the epitaph on Thomas Tipper in Newhaven churchyard. Tipper was the brewer of the ale that was known as "Newhaven Tipper"; but he was other things too:

Honest he was, ingenuous, blunt and kind,
And dared what few dare do, to speak his mind.
Philosophy and history well he knew,
Was versed in Physic and in surgery too,
The best old Stingo he both brewed and sold,
Nor did one knavish act to get his gold.
He played through life a varied comic part,
And knew immortal Hudibras by heart.

Charles Lamb greatly admired the end of this epitaph. Clio Rickman died in 1834.

Among other men of note who have lived in Lewes or have had association with it, was John Evelyn the diarist, who had some of his education at Southover grammar school: Mark Antony Lower, the Sussex antiquary, to whom all writers on the county are indebted; the Rev. T. W. Horsfield, the historian of Sussex, without whose work we should also often be in difficulties; and the Rev. Gideon Mantell, the Sussex geologist, whose collection of Sussex fossils is preserved in the British Museum.

In St. Ann's church on the hill lie the bones of a remarkable man who died at Lewes (in the tenth climacteric) in 1613—no less a person than Thomas Twyne, M.D. In addition to the principles of physic he "comprehended earthquakes" and wrote a book about them. He also wrote a survey of the world. I quote Horsfield's translation of the florid Latin inscription to his memory: "Hippocrates saw Twyne lifeless and his bones slightly covered with earth. Some of his sacred dust (says he) will be of use to me in removing diseases; for the dead, when converted into medicine, will expel human maladies, and ashes prevail against ashes. Now the physician is absent, disease extends itself on every side, and exults its enemy is no more. Alas! here lies our preserver Twyne; the flower and ornament of his age. Sussex deprived of her physician, languished, and is ready to sink along with him. Believe me, no future age will produce so good a physician and so renowned a man as this has. He died at Lewes in 1613, on the 1st of August, in the tenth climacteric, (viz. 70)."

Dr. Johnson was once in Lewes, on a day's visit to the Shelleys, at the house which bears their name at the south end of the town. One of the little girls becoming rather a nuisance with her questions, the Doctor lifted her into a cherry tree and walked off. At dinner, some time later, the child was missed, and a search party was about to set out when the Doctor exclaimed, "Oh, I left her in a tree!" For many years the tree was known as "Dr. Johnson's cherry tree."

Lewes is ordinarily still and leisurely, with no bustle in her steep streets save on market days: an abode of rest and unhastening feet. But on one night of the year she lays aside her grey mantle and her quiet tones and emerges a Bacchante robed in flame. Lewes on the 5th of November is an incredible sight; probably no other town in the United Kingdom offers such a contrast to its ordinary life. I have never heard that Lewes is notably Protestant on other days in the year, that any

St. Ann's Church, Southover.png

St. Ann's Church, Southover.

intolerance is meted out to Roman Catholics on November 4th or November 6th; but on November 5th she appears to believe that the honour of the reformed church is wholly in her hands, and that unless her voice is heard declaiming against the tyrannies and treacheries of Rome all the spiritual labours of the eighth Henry will have been in vain.

No fewer than eight Bonfire Societies flourish in the town, all in a strong financial position. Each of these has its bonfire blazing or smouldering at a street corner, from dusk to midnight, and each, at a certain stage in the evening, forms into procession, and approaching its own fire by devious routes, burns an effigy of the Pope, together with whatever miscreant most fills the public eye at the moment—such as General Booth or Mr. Kruger, both of whom I have seen incinerated amid cheers and detonations.

The figures are not lightly cast upon the flames, but are conducted thither ceremoniously, the "Bishop" of the society having first passed sentence upon them in a speech bristling with local allusions. These speeches serve the function of a revue of the year and are sometimes quite clever, but it is not until they are printed in the next morning's paper that one can take their many points. The principal among the many distractions is the "rouser," a squib peculiar to Lewes, to which the bonfire boys (who are, by the way, in great part boys only in name, like the postboys of the past and the cowboys of the present) have given laborious nights throughout the preceding October. The rouser is much larger and heavier than the ordinary squib; it is propelled through the air like a rocket by the force of its escaping sparks; and it bursts with a terrible report. In order to protect themselves from the ravages of the rouser the people in the streets wear spectacles of wire netting, while the householders board up their windows and lay damp straw on their gratings. Ordinary squibs and crackers are also continuously ignited, while now and then one of the sky rockets discharged in flights from a procession, elects to take a horizontal course, and hurtles head-high down the crowded street.

So the carnival proceeds until midnight, when the firemen, who have been on the alert all the evening, extinguish the fires. The Bonfire Societies subsequently collect information as to any damage done and make it good: a wise course, to which they owe in part the sanction to renew the orgie next year. Other towns in Sussex keep up the glorious Fifth with some spirit, but nowhere in England is there anything to compare with the thoroughness of Lewes.

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The Ouse at South Street, Lewes.

To some extent Lewes may consider that she has reason for the display, for on June 22, 1557, ten men and women were tied to the stake and burned to death in the High Street for professing a faith obnoxious to Queen Mary. Chief of these courageous enthusiasts were Richard Woodman and Derrick Carver. Woodman, a native of Buxted, had settled at Warbleton, where he was a prosperous iron master. All went well until Mary's accession to the throne, when the rector of Warbleton, who had been a Protestant under Edward VI., turned, in Foxe's words, "head to tayle" and preached "clean contrary to that which he had before taught." Woodman's protests carried him to imprisonment and the stake. Altogether, Lewes saw the death of sixteen martyrs.