The Battle of Lewes fought on the 14th May 1264 was the opening engagement of the Barons' War, a civil war fought between the loyalist forces of Henry III and the baronial rebels led by Simon de Montfort.
Why the battle was fought
The Baronial Revolt, a dispute between Henry III and some of his leading barons, had been simmering since 1258 finally broke out into civil war in the spring of 1264. Simon de Montfort, Earl of Leicester and Gilbert de Clare, Earl of Gloucester had emerged as the leaders of this particular revolt which was centred in the city of London and the towns of Northampton, Leicester and Nottingham.
In response to the revolt, king Henry III had summoned the feudal host to gather at Oxford and decided to strike first against the Baronial opposition in the Midlands. He achieved a string of rapid successes as
Northampton and Leicester were captured and Nottingham surrendered on the 13th April. Having cleared the eastern Midlands of enemies and captured many of the leaders of the opposition including most notably Simon the Younger, the second son of the aforementioned Earl of Leicester.
In London the Baronial forces directed their energies against the Royalist stronghold of Rochester, where they stormed the bridge, captured the town, and confined the Royalist defenders within the castle. Although the outer walls of the castle soon fell to the besiegers, the castle keep held out under the command of John de Warenne, Earl of Surrey.
Hearing of the plight of Rochester, Henry marched around London, crossing the Thames at Kingston, and then down through Surrey by way of Croydon, covering a total of a hundred and fifty miles in five days. As soon as news of the king's approach reached Rochester the baronial forces abandoned the siege on the 26th April, two days prior to the arrival of the king on the 28th. With Rochester soon secured Henry next moved against de Clares's castle at Tunbridge which surrendered without much resistance on the 1st May, before moving on to the south coast.
Having secured the Cinque Ports the royal army then moved to the west, past Battle and Hurstmonceaux and onwards to the town of Lewes. Enroute the army was harassed by small groups of baronial supporters, in particular by a detachment of Welsh archers sent by Montfort from London but nevertheless managed to arrive at Lewes relatively unscathed.
Some commentators such as Charles Oman in his account of the battle, are particularly scathing regarding Henry's strategy, repeatedly insisting that he "should undoubtedly have risked all other objects, and thrown himself upon London." (In common with many others he does not appear to have had a very high opinion of the king, whom he refers to as the "imbecile Henry Plantagenet".) Others have however granted the king more latitude and argued that Henry was primarily concerned at securing his lines of communication with the continent and denying his opponents the possibility of any assistance from that quarter.
In any event, Henry's reluctance to lay siege to his own capital is understandable and he may well have believed (with a great deal of justification) that once he had secured the rest of the country that London would have been forced to accept the inevitable and come to terms.
It is very likely that this point was well understood by Simon de Montfort and his allies as he surveyed the situation at the beginning of May 1264. The baronial forces in the midlands had been crushed, the south coast and its ports securely in royal hands. Their cause would inevitably be lost unless they could force Henry to battle, defeat him, and force their terms upon him. Therefore despite the fact that their strength had seriously damaged by the losses in the Midlands, de Montfort and de Clare assembled every available man in London and marched across Surrey towards Lewes and reached the village of Fletching some nine miles north of Lewes on the 10th May.
There the Baronial leaders made efforts to reach an accommodation with the king. They sent the Bishops of Worcester and London to make one last final effort to avoid conflict, offering to pay £30,000 in compensation for any damages caused the by the rebels if only Henry would accept the Provisions of Oxford. But their efforts were in vain as king Henry "was eager for war with all his heart". After one final exchange of letters the barons formally withdrew their homage and oaths of fealty to Henry III and prepared for battle.
How the battle begun
From its source in the Ashdown Forest the river Ouse cuts through the South Downs until it reaches the English Channel at Seaford1. On its way it passes by the slopes of Mount Caburn, and there on the opposite and western side of the river is a stretch of flat ground, extending for a mile and a half before the ground rises towards the downs once more.
On this plain lies the town of Lewes, which at that time was flanked to the north by Lewes Castle, and to the south by the Priory of St Pancras. In the 13th century the river Ouse was still tidal at this point, and therefore to the south of the town and the priory lay a tidal marsh, which became flooded at high water and was otherwise a treacherous and impassable bog. Any defending army based at Lewes would therefore find itself protected to the north and east by the river Ouse itself and from the south by this tidal marsh, leaving the only open route lying to the west.
Accordingly, all the defenders needed to do was maintain adequate patrols and lookouts over the approaches from the west to forewarn them of any approaching enemy. As it turned out, much was to hinge on the fact that Henry failed to do just that. Although on the night of the 13th May a small detachment of men had been sent to a vantage point on the Downs to keep watch, they had all slipped back into Lewes for the night, leaving but a single man on guard.
The timing was unfortunate as during the night of the 13th/14th May, Simon de Montfort roused his men from their sleep and marched them across the downs towards Lewes. On their way they captured Henry's solitary watchman fast asleep under a gorse-bush and were therefore able to occupy the high ground to the west of Lewes entirely unmolested and unnoticed by the Royalist forces still sleeping in the town.
At around 4.00 am on the morning of the 14th May Simon de Montfort drew up his men on Offham Hill above Lewes where he made "a speech of great persuasiveness". There he divided his army not into the usual three divisions, but into four2. The right wing was placed under the command of Humphrey de Bohun3, and with him were John de Burgh and two of Simons' sons Henry and Guy. In the centre was Gilbert de Clare, with John Fitzjohn and William de Montchensy, whilst the left wing was largely composed of the London infantry together with a group of knights including Nicholas de Segrave, Henry de Hastings, John Giffard, and Hervey of Borham.
The fourth battle, or division was commanded by de Montfort himself, and placed in reserve behind the centre. This consisted of the Earl of Leciester's own personal followers and a contingent of Londoners under alderman Thomas of Pevelsdon.
Having made their confession beforehand, and made the sign of the cross on their shoulders and breasts, they then marched down the hill towards Lewes. They left behind their baggage, including the Earl of Leicester's carriage to which was fixed the Earl's banner,on top of the hill together with a small party of men under William le Blound, primarily to guard a handful of pro-royalist Londoners locked up in the carriage.
The first to catch sight of Montfort's army where a few grooms out grazing their masters' horses on the downs, who ran back into the town to raise the alarm. The appearance of this baronial army came as a complete surprise to Henry who hurriedly began organising their forces into some semblance of battle order.
His right division was placed under the command of his son the Lord Edward, accompanied by his half-uncles, William de Valence and Guy de Lusignan, and also by the Earl of Warenne and the Justiciar Hugh Bigod. The centre was led by Henry's brother Richard of Cornwall, with him was the king's younger son Edmund, and three Anglo-Scottish barons, Robert de Bruce, John Baliol, and John Comyn, together with John Fitzalan and Henry de Percy.
In terms of numbers, the Royalist army had the clear advantage with some 1,500 cavalry and 6,000 or so foot soldiers against the Baronial totals of 500 mounted knights and 5,000 infantry. Therefore despite being somewhat discomforted by the sudden appearance of his enemies, king Henry remained confident of victory.
The Battle of Lewes
There was no preliminary skirmishing as the baronial army simply came down the hill and engaged their enemies; "And thus the two armies encountered one another, with fierce blows and horrid noises".
The first clash was on the northern flank where the Lord Edward's cavalry charged and soon overwhelmed the small body of knights at the front of the London infantry. Giffard was taken prisoner and Hastings ran away throwing the infantry into disorder. The whole of the Baronial left wing rapidly disintegrated under the impact of the Royalist cavalry charge as;
Edward got among the forces of the Londoners, and pursued them when flying, and letting the nobles escape, he followed them, as it is said, for a distance of about four miles, inflicting on them a most lamentable slaughter.
Which is to say that Edward quite forgot about the rest of the battle and chased down the fleeing Londoners, killing them as he could catch up with them4. However once he had exhausted the available supply of fleeing Londoners and having driven his cavalry quite out of sight of Lewes, Edward then rallied his troops and set forth to return to their main body. On their way back they caught sight of the baronial baggage and "thirsting for the spoils, and booty, and plunder of the baggage which was on the hills" they the baggage-guard. William le Blound and his small rearguard were soon overwhelmed and Edward's men, believing that Montfort himself was hiding within his carriage, dragged out those they found there and "hewed to pieces the unhappy hostages". (Who, as we have noted above, were really pro-royalist Londoners being held prisoner.)
Whilst Edward was running around the countryside, the fighting had continued on the main battlefield before Lewes. It was to de Montfort's credit that he did not waver or panic even as a quarter of his army disappeared before his eyes; but as one source explained;
But that earl, and Gilbert de Clare, and the other barons, acting with more sagacity, put forth all their strength to effect the capture of the king of England, and the king of Germany, and the rest of the chiefs.
The Earl of Gloucester succeeded in breaking through in the centre and captured most of the Royalist leaders, including Percy, Baliol, Comyn, and Bruce and forced Richard of Cornwall to take refuge in a windmill where he barricaded himself in for the remainder of the conflict. As the centre had now collapsed and Henry was now isolated on the northern flank, Montford threw his reserve into battle and the Royalist left soon broke up as well. Henry's horse was killed under him and the injured king was dragged off to the safety of the nearby priory.
With the three principal royalist leaders now absent for various reasons from the battlefield, it was no surprise to find that the remaining royalist troops decided to follow their example. Many of them made their escape through the streets of Lewes, some fled to the safety of Lewes Castle, some joined the king at the priory, but most surrendered on the battlefield. A few tried to escape south across the marsh, only to find themselves sucked into the muddy ground and trapped by the rising tide. Many were found the next day drowned in their saddles, together with their horses that had become stuck fast in the marsh.
With the battle clearly lost, Richard of Cornwall came out of the windmill and surrendered himself to a young knight named John Beaves.
The return of the Lord Edward
This therefore was the scene that greeted the Lord Edward when he returned to the main battlefield at about two o'clock in the afternoon. Expecting to find the baronial army destroyed he was somewhat dismayed to find that the reverse was the case, and that the battle appeared lost.
Edward's inclination was to continue the fight but he was badly let down as "the noblest of the knights and esquires, to the number of about three hundred, lost all courage, and turning their backs, fled to the castle of Peneneselli"5. Thus William de Valence, Earl of Pembroke, his brother Guy de Lusignan, the Earl of Warenne and the Justiciar Hugh Bigod all made a run for it and later caught the first ship to France.
Edward was left with only a few faithful followers, men such as Roger Mortimer, James Audley and Roger Leyburne who were longstanding friends of his youth, and together they managed to hack their way the priory to join the king. There they stubbornly defended their position as de Montfort's forces set fire to a large part of Lewes and continued to assault the priory.
The friars of St Pancras made themselves useful scurrying backwards and forwards between the two sides, but after a restless night the defenders in the priory decided to accept terms. Henry and his son Edward formally surrendered after accepting the settlement enshrined in the document known as the Mise of Lewes.
The Aftermath of the Battle
As medieval battles ago the battle of Lewes was not a particularly bloody affair; estimates of the losses run from around two to four thousand. On the royal side only two men of note were killed, being William de Wilton and Fulk Fitzwarren (the latter being one of those drowned in the marsh).It was a similar story on the baronial side with Ralph Heringot, and William le Blound, the commander of the baggage-guard being the only significant casualties.
It is also worth noting that despite the fact that sources identify that both sides possessed archers that neither side employed archers to any effect whatsoever in the battle. This was still an age where cavalry ruled supreme, as no one as yet had worked out how to deploy archery in an effective manner.
The battle was won by Simon de Montfort because he took control of the high ground and had the advantage of surprise and could force battle before his opponent could organise his troops properly6. Indeed it was very much de Montfort's victory; he was both the inspiration and the architect of the triumph at Lewes and it propelled him to a leading position amongst the barons. After the battle there was no doubt who was in charge; the battle of Lewes left England under the effective control of one man named Simon de Montfort.
In 1964, on the 700th anniversary of the battle a monument was erected at Lewes marking the point of retreat of King Henry III on that day in 1264.
1 Or it did in the 13th century until the harbour at Seaford later silted up and the course of the river was altered.
2 Although no source is specific on this matter this can be inferred from accounts of the subsequent battle.
3 Humphrey de Bohun, was the eldest son of the Earl of Hereford, who oddly enough was a supporter of the king and was to found fighting on the opposite side.
4 Edward may well have held against the Londoners, due to the manner in which they had insulted his mother in the previous year.
5 That is Pevensey, although other sources but the number who fled at 500.
6 Somehat ironically De Montfort was to later lose the Battle of Evesham (and his life) precisely because his opponent had the advantage of surprise and took control of the high ground.
Note that all the quotations cited above are from the account of Matthew of Westminster noted below.
- Sir Charles Oman, Battle of Lewes, May 14, 1264 from The Art of War in the Middle Ages (Greenhill Books, 1991 Originally Methuen, 1898) Reproduced at http://www.wargames.co.uk/Library/ArticlesH/Lewes.html
together with a useful map of the battlefield.
- Andy Goddard The Battle of Lewes 1997 at http://www.bumply.com/Medieval/lewes.htm
which is based on material from Dr David Carpenter The Battle of Lewes and Evesham 1264/65 (Mercia Publications Ltd., 1987)
- The account of the battle by Matthew of Westminstertaken from the Medieval Sourcebook at http://www.fordham.edu/halsall/source/matt-west1.html citing The Flowers of History, collected by Matthew of Westminster, trans. C. D. Yonge II (London: Henry G. Bohn, 1853; George Bell and Sons), pp. 414-17 and 436-38, repr. in Archibald R. Lewis, ed., The High Middle Ages, 814-1300, (Englewood Cliffs NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1970)
- Maurice Powicke The Thirteenth Century (OUP, 1962)
- Alexander Rose Kings in the North (Phoenix, 2003)
- Charles Arnold Baker The Companion to British History (Longcross Press, 1996)