Fascinating series will explore Lewes Priory history

Historians Graham Mayhew and Tony Freeman will explain how, 900 years ago, Lewes was hitched to a star.

Monday, 3rd May 2021, 6:35 am
Lewes Priory Trust - Tony Freeman with Priory carved stones at British Museum

“If you worried about the well-being of your soul – as everybody did in the 11th century – then founding a monastery was a good step”, says Tony, speaker at Lewes Priory Trust’s Zoom talks that begin on May 4.

“It was your pathway to heaven”, adds Graham, “and Lewes was gifted what would become a broad avenue, via one of the greatest monasteries in medieval England.

“William de Warenne ruled this part of Sussex from Lewes Castle. He had shed much blood fighting alongside the Conqueror at the Battle of Hastings and was richly rewarded for it. So, devout if not contrite, in around 1080 he and his wife Gundrada founded Lewes Priory.

“William and Gundrada chose to hitch themselves to the Cluniac star – the monastic order that had all the visible signs of success. They’d seen its HQ in France: vast, with a church pointedly a few feet longer than St Peter’s in Rome. It sported the finest architecture, the most exquisite music and the most delicate of wall paintings.”

“The rich and famous continued to gift land and income to Lewes Priory for another 300 years.”

It grew to be massive.

Graham is author of an equally massive 484-page book about the Priory, The Monks of Saint Pancras.

He says “Their patrons funded one of the finest Romanesque churches in England, with over 100 monks, six daughter houses, huge estates and over 160 parish churches and chapels.

“Amid its splendours it should not be forgotten that Cluniacs monks were full-time workers: not in the fields but in church, following a rigorous round of prayer, day and night, devoted to the souls of their departed donors”.

Lewes Priory Trust is telling the story on Zoom on four evenings, each containing four short colourfully-illustrated talks, at 7.30pm on Tuesday, May 4, Friday, May 7, Tuesday, May 11 and Friday, May 14.

Chairman Sy Morse-Brown said: “The talks are free to all with a line-up of expert speakers.

“We shall tell the tale of how the Cluniac monks were a huge power across Europe 150 years before they even came to Lewes.

“Then for 300 years our Priory made a huge and lasting mark on England, especially in Sussex, Yorkshire and Norfolk.

“Sadly, in 1538 on the orders of Henry VIII and Thomas Cromwell its huge buildings were unceremoniously demolished by Giovanni Portinari, an all-too-expert Italian engineer.

“We’ll tell you how he did it – and show you some of the bits of it that were re-used in masonry around the town.”

The series is rounded off on Saturday, May 15 with a guided tour of the Priory remains (subject to Covid rules) by two of the Trust’s experts.

The talks are free: email [email protected] to receive the full programme.

“Lewes is proud of its history and the Priory is a big part of it, so we welcome all Lewesians and lovers of Sussex”, says Sy.