Lewes Priory was founded by William de Warenne and his wife Gundrada between 1078 and 1082 on the site of a Saxon church dedicated, as was the Priory, to St Pancras. William de Warenne was a leading Norman baron with extensive lands in Sussex and elsewhere in England. It was the first Priory in England in the reformed Benedictine Order of Cluny, based in France. It became one of the wealthiest monasteries in England, but despite its wealth, it played little role in national affairs, except in the Battle of Lewes in 1264 when the troops of King Henry III occupied it.
The Cluny Connection
The Priory of St Pancras had one of the largest monastic churches in the country. It was set within an extensive walled and gated precinct and was laid out in a commanding location fronting the tidal shoreline at the head of the Ouse valley to the south of Lewes. The Priory was endowed with churches and extensive holdings throughout England. In Lewes, it had hospitia (hospices) dedicated to St James and to St Nicholas.
The central church was built after 1140 AD. The west towers were recorded as unfinished in 1268 AD, but today, nothing survives above ground level. The design of the church was based upon that of its mother church at Cluny, then the largest church in the world. The church had an internal length of 420 feet from the west door to the chancel apse, with an internal vault height of 93 feet at the altar and 105 feet at the crossing. It was the largest church in Sussex, longer than Chichester Cathedral including its Lady Chapel, and comparable to the original form of Ely Cathedral or the surviving form of Lichfield Cathedral.
The Role of William de Warenne
Lewes Priory was founded by William de Warenne, and his wife Gundrada, probably in 1081, after their visit to the Priory of Cluny in Burgundy in 1077. The dedication of the new Priory to St Pancras followed from the presence of a pre-existing Saxon shrine to that saint on the site.
The cult of St Pancras was a strong link between Saxon England and Rome, having been introduced by Augustine in 597 AD at the behest of Gregory the Great. William de Warenne was acting under the auspices of a Cluniac Pope, Gregory VII.
Dissolution of the Monasteries
The Priory is a nationally important historical site but an almost lost monument of medieval England, as the buildings were systematically demolished after the Dissolution of the Monasteries in the reign of Henry VIII. Today, some parts of the lesser buildings survive above ground, fenced off within a public park.
The Priory was surrendered to the Crown on 16th November 1537, and its destruction was carried out at the direction of Thomas Cromwell, who appointed a specialist demolition team to undertake the destruction with exceptional thoroughness. In 1538, the manor of Southover and the site of the dissolved monastery were granted to Thomas Cromwell until his fall from grace.
The Site and Structure
The precinct comprises a rough quadrilateral of land about 16.1 hectares in area, bounded along the north side by today’s Southover High Street and Priory Street. The Priory buildings were constructed in the western half, the major church and sacred buildings being in the north-west quadrant.
The precinct was terraced in section, stepping down to the south with the buildings set at different levels. The north-east quadrant has an embankment and wall enclosing its southern side that is of medieval date with semicircular buttresses along its eastern extent. This southern wall is a remarkable feature of a defensive, military character. This quadrant is a triple square on plan, the eastern half centres on the conical ‘Mount’, 150 feet in diameter and 50 feet high aligned on a sunken field to its east with banks on all sides known as the ‘Dripping Pan’. The ages and original functions of these two man-made features are not certain but may have been constructed as a salt works on an earlier, enclosed and elevated plot.
The ruins have been designated a Grade I listed building.
Lewes Priory cross view
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The most extensive surviving medieval structures are the precinct walls along the north (140 metres) and east (170 metres) sides of the Dripping Pan. Lengths also survive down Cockshut Road bounding the west side of the precinct. Significant secondary walls within the great precinct sub-divide the land, notably the south wall of the Dripping Pan. The precinct walls have otherwise generally been removed for housing development, the railway and a car park near the Mount.
Fragments of the Great Gate (circa. 1200 AD) exist in a rearranged form adjacent to the east end of St John’s Church.
The Railway and Excavations
In 1845, the Brighton Lewes and Hastings Railway (subsequently renamed the London Brighton and South Coast Railway) drove a new line through the site, digging down to a track-bed level to meet the new railway station at Lewes and constructing a line of railway cottages at the east end of Priory Street.
The line bisected the foundations of the chapter house and church apse, exposing the foundations and burials, including those of William de Warenne and Gundrada. The destruction and collateral damage to the remains of the Priory was significant. The site was split in two, but the railway work triggered an archaeological investigation.
Elements of the fabric and finds are held by the Sussex Archaeological Society in their two Lewes museums and by the British Museum.
Modern understanding of the layout and development of the Priory comes mainly from the archaeological excavations carried out since the 1840s, most extensively by George Somers Clarke. The accepted plan of the Priory was drawn by archaeologist and antiquary Sir William Henry St. John Hope and architect Sir Harold Brakspear in 1906 based upon archaeology, documented accounts and hypothesis.
The structural bay division shown of the nave is probably wrong, being elongated in a way inconsistent with Romanesque planning modules and different from that of the choir, the Lady Chapel is missing and certain lay buildings are also not shown. Nonetheless, this is the best guide available.
The buildings accommodated around 50 monks at any one time throughout the 12th and 13th centuries and lay incumbents and visitors. The precinct buildings were built for sacred and temporal functions and were of ashlar stone-faced chalk and flint core construction.
Quarr limestone shipped from the Saxon quarries on the Isle of Wight was used in the first phase of construction. Caen limestone, imported from Normandy, was used with Sussex marble details for the second phase, including the construction of the great church.
The Priory had its own masons’ yard. It manufactured decorated glazed floor tiles and had a school of sacred painting that worked throughout Sussex. The calibre of surviving figurative carvings displayed at the British Museum is of a highly sophisticated order.
Hospitia, now St John the Baptist, Southover
This church incorporates the original hospitia. The 12th century nave arcade, with short drum piers and un-moulded arches, probably divided the men’s from the women’s ward. The neo-Norman south chapel of 1847 houses the bones of William and Gundrada de Warenne – they were unearthed in two lead cists by railway workers in 1845 during the construction of the Brighton to Lewes railway through the site of the Priory chapter house.
Of the two thousand books once kept in the Priory, only one survives. The others were torn apart and destroyed on the orders of King Henry VIII when the Priory was supressed in 1537. The book that survived is known as the Lewes Breviary.
The book is a working document and contains all the services and music from the Priory. It is unclear how it escaped the destruction of the 1530s, but it turned up in France in 1589, perhaps taken by one of the monks who returned to the Abbey in Cluny after the destruction of the Priory. The book is now held at the Fitzwilliam Museum, University of Cambridge.
House Of Cluniac Monks: The Priory Of Lewes EXTRACT
“William de Warenne and Gundrada his wife within ten years of the Conquest, to which they owed their possession of the rape and town of Lewes, determined to found a monastery in that town, and while the idea was still in their minds set out on a pilgrimage to Rome, but when they came into Burgundy they found that travelling was unsafe on account of the war between the pope and the emperor. They therefore turned aside to the great abbey of St. Peter and St. Paul at Cluny, and were so struck with the high standard of religious life maintained there that they determined to put their proposed foundation under Cluny, and accordingly desired the abbot to send three or four of his monks to begin the monastery. He, however, would not at first consent—fearing that at so great a distance from their mother-house they would become undisciplined. At last, after the king himself had added his entreaties to the founder’s, the abbot sent Lanzo and three other monks to England in 1076. To the small community thus introduced William de Warenne gave the church of St. Pancras in, or rather outside, Lewes, which he had lately rebuilt in stone, with the land surrounding it called ‘the island,’ and land at Falmer and Balmer and his Norfolk manor of Walton, and other gifts sufficient to support twelve monks. Prior Lanzo, however, was recalled to Cluny and remained there so long that William had serious thoughts of transferring his Lewes foundation to Marmoutier; but at last he obtained from the abbot both the return of Lanzo and the promise that in future the abbey would elect one of their best monks to the post of prior of Lewes.”
Sources and Further Reading
- Book: The Priory of St Pancras, Lewes: Priory Park: https://www.amazon.co.uk/Priory-St-Pancras-Lewes-Park/dp/0953083926
Panorama photograph of remains of Lewes Priory, East Sussex, England, 30th August 2012.
Attribution: JohnArmagh (Author), CC BY-SA 3.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0>, via Wikimedia Commons
- The term ‘medieval’ refers to the Middle Ages, a period of European history which is broken into three subdivisions: Early Middle Ages (5th century – 10th century), High Middle Ages (10th century – 13th century) and Late Middle Ages (13th century – 15th century). ↑
- Quarr limestone was used in the late 11th century to build Canterbury and Chichester cathedrals. Ironically the modern Benedictine Quarr Abbey is built entirely in brick. Its Cistercian predecessor was founded in 1131and was built in stone from the local quarries, as was Carisbrooke Castle. Source: https://www.aditnow.co.uk/Mines/Quarr-Limestone-Quarry_15072/ ↑
- Source: Lewes Prior Trust at https://www.lewespriory.org.uk/lewes-breviary ↑
- Source: Wikipedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lewes_Priory ↑
- Source: https://www.british-history.ac.uk/vch/sussex/vol2/pp64-71 ↑