Post-classical history

The Battle of Lewes

THE CASTLE at Northampton was one of the strongest in the kingdom, and the walls of the town were high and thick. To Simon de Montfort, still nursing his broken leg in London but losing no time in organizing a force of townsmen, it seemed that this midland stronghold, commanded by his cousin, Peter de Montfort of Beaudesert, and his son Simon, was an unconquerable outpost. He had not yet seen any evidence of the skill Prince Edward was acquiring in the art of war, but this he was due to discover at once.

Edward had learned one lesson from Simon himself, that battles were won by speed of movement and use of the element of surprise. On April 3 the royal army moved out of Oxford, where it had been mobilized, and struck north. The grades of the Chilterns lay east and south, and so the road to Northampton was straight and level enough. Edward led his men over the thirty-five miles in little more than one day, startling the baronial garrison by arriving suddenly under the walls the following afternoon.

The youthful impetuosity of the prince, which was responsible for this miracle, almost resulted now in throwing away the fruits of his energy. Having no sense of fatigue himself, he ordered his dusty followers to attack the city at once. They were repulsed, as might have been expected.

That night, while Edward sat gloomily under the stars, his armor beside him on the ground, there came to him the prior of the Cluniac monastery of St. Andrew which stood in a corner of the wall near the north gate. The prior was ardently royalist in sentiment and was prepared to give the same help to the prince that the woman who lived on the wall at Jericho rendered the besieging army of Israel. His monks were making an excavation under the walls through which the forces of Edward could file into the town. Dawn found the prince and his men pouring into the streets. Young Simon fought bravely to hold them back, but he was overborne and captured. The following day the castle surrendered.

William of Valence had returned to England after publication of the Mise of Amiens, on direct invitation from the jubilant Henry. He had marched under Edward’s banner and was now given the task of pillaging the country around Northampton, extending as far as the Montfort estates at Leicester. This was a task which suited perfectly the haughty and vengeful Lusignan. He went about the razing of manor houses, the burning of villages, and the slaughtering of innocent people with thoroughness and relish. In the meantime the prince was demonstrating how well he had learned his lesson by following up his victory without delay. Consuming no more than five days in the operation, he marched south with his weary but triumphant followers and captured the town of Winchelsea. Tonbridge Castle, which belonged to Gilbert of Gloucester, fell soon after.

One of the prisoners taken at Tonbridge was Gilbert’s wife, Alice of Angoulême, who was Edward’s half cousin and a special favorite with both the prince and the King. Gossip had it, in fact, that the dark-eyed and vivacious Alice was a very special favorite; that as the young wife of the prince was still in France and would be kept there until things settled down in England, Edward had been solacing himself with the company of this fair Poitevin relative. There was probably some truth in the story because Edward had not seen his child wife for some time. The countess was released with great courtesy and, perhaps, inner regret.

The strategy followed by the prince thereafter was sound, being based on the truth that whoever was master of Kent and Sussex was master of England. If the royalists could control the country south of London, they could keep communications open with France and so prepare the way for the arrival of the forces which Queen Eleanor and John Mansel were mobilizing in the ports of Normandy. The Cinque Ports being baronial in sympathy, the royalists were under the necessity of occupying the country back of them with the intention of taking them over gradually.

There were two main roads leading from the Channel ports to London, the one most frequently used running from Dover to Canterbury and then by way of Rochester to the capital. The other ran from Hastings and Battle to Lewes and Croydon, which meant that some part of it went through the Weald. The first was the preferable one for the royal army to take in any movement directed against London, but Simon de Montfort was attacking Rochester with great vigor. Still unable to sit a horse with any comfort, he had been directing his men from a curious vehicle in which he had traveled from London and which resembled a chariot with four wheels. This had not handicapped him seriously because he had already captured the town and was pressing his attack against the castle when the royal forces began to march up the more westerly road from Hastings with the object, clearly, of attacking London. Simon, who lacked strength to guard both roads at once, had to give up the siege of Rochester and take his relatively small army to Fletching, which lay nine miles north of Lewes. Here, his men concealed for the most part in the eastern approaches to the Weald, he watched and waited.


When the royal army reached Lewes, King Henry took up his quarters in the Cluniac priory of St. Pancras, which lay on the southeast, between the town and the river Ouse, while Prince Edward was lodged in a castle belonging to William de Warenne on the west. Time was on their side, and they could afford to wait until the Burgundian and Brabanter mercenaries of Queen Eleanor arrived. They knew, however, that they had a decided superiority in numbers over the army of the barons and they were eager to engage them.

Perhaps because of this discrepancy in strength the barons made a final effort to reach a peaceful settlement. The bishops of London and Worcester carried a peace offer to Henry on May 13. The barons would grant the King fifty thousand marks if he would again affirm the Provisions and swear to observe them strictly. Such a proposal, coming from a meager army skulking in the shelter of the Weald, seemed to Henry and his advisers a confession of weakness and despair and was rejected with scorn. Prince Edward is reported to have said, “Peace is forbidden to them, unless they all find themselves with halters on their necks, and bind themselves over to us for hanging or for drawing.” There was nothing for Simon to do now but fight.

That night the baronial leader moved his army from its well-concealed base at Fletching and marched through the darkness to a position beneath the ridge of the Downs immediately north of Lewes. There had been talk of attacking during the night, but this suggestion Simon had rejected as treacherous. The hours until dawn were spent instead in prayer and the hearing of confessions. After a sleepless night Earl Simon donned a plain surcoat over the chain mail which enveloped him from head to foot and buckled on his long two-edged sword. He said a silent prayer as he gazed up at Black Cap over which the sky had turned faintly gray. The day of the great test was at hand.

Each man wore the white cross of the Crusades on back and shoulder as a sign of the barons’ belief in the justice of their cause. There was a practical purpose in this as well, because they would be able to distinguish friend from foe in the heat of conflict.

Earl Simon, it should be explained at this point, was not as badly crippled as the royalists thought. He had recovered sufficiently to take to the saddle, and during the day he would demonstrate his fitness by remaining in the thick of the fighting. He had used the chariot in getting to Fletching, however, thereby convincing the enemy, who had spies everywhere, that he was incapable of active leadership. The chariot now contained the four merchants who had tried to betray Simon to the prince. The earl did not forgive treachery easily and had some drastic punishment in mind for the unhappy quartet.

North of Lewes the Downs rise to a height of about four hundred feet and then shelve off abruptly to the level of the Ouse. The escarpment above looked black and formidable when the army of the people began their ascent. Black Cap stood up against the ebony of the sky, and off to the east rose the somewhat lower hilltop called Mount Harry. There were two roads which could be used in getting to the crest: a steep incline leading up between the two peaks, and a longer but less severely graded route which wound slowly around Mount Harry on the east. The heavily armored troops and the knights on horseback took the latter way while the foot soldiers and archers in their light leather jerkins went scrambling up the sharp cut between Black Cap and the line of the hills.


Simon de Montfort rode in the van with the armed horsemen, a prey to the most intense anxiety. Would he find the passes above well guarded? If any part of the royal army had been posted behind the jagged crest of the Downs it would be impossible to gain a foothold and the upward thrust of the baronial forces would end in disaster. It was a bold gamble they were taking, but no other course had been open which held out any chance of victory. It has already been pointed out that time was on the side of the King. To win the test by battle the barons must win before the royalist strength was augmented by mercenary levies from abroad. If they could gain a foothold on the Downs, moreover, the royal forces would be placed at a severe disadvantage, compelled to fight uphill and with no facilities for retreat in case of defeat.

Simon de Montfort knew the risks he was taking and as he rode up the incline he strained his ears for any of the sounds which might betray the presence of the enemy: the neigh of a horse, a voice raised indiscreetly, the muffled tramp of feet. All was silence. Did this mean they would be allowed to seize the heights?

The knights in the van emerged cautiously from the road circling Mount Harry and found themselves on the downward grade to Lewes. Over their left shoulders they could see the sky turning to the light gray of dawn, shot with shafts of red. Under them were the lights of Lewes, where, it was said later, the royal troops in the priory had been drinking in expectation of an easy victory. The slopes immediately ahead of the debouching troops were clear, but a sound of galloping came back out of the darkness to warn them that scouts were carrying word to the town of their advance.

Simon de Montfort made his dispositions for battle. His army was small, numbering perhaps a little in excess of four thousand men. The center was given to the command of Gilbert of Gloucester with two veteran campaigners to assist him, William of Montchesni and John Fitzjohn. The right wing was entrusted to Simon’s two sons, Henry and Guy, assisted by John de Burgh and Humphrey de Bohun. The left wing was made up of a small body of knights under Nicholas de Segrave and the citizen bands from London, who were lightly armed and lacking in military experience. Little was expected of the left. They were to advance down a ridge on the east with the Ouse immediately beneath them, and so constitute a threat to the royalist right without coming into close contact. A considerable reserve was assembled on the high ground near Black Cap, and here Earl Simon set up his standard, placing it above the four-wheeled chariot so that the impression might be maintained that he himself was stationed there like Moses directing the battle of Rephidim with uplifted arms from afar.

It had been overconfidence which had led the royal leaders to post a single sentry near Black Cap (he was sound asleep in the bushes) instead of occupying the roads up to the Downs. They were sure Simon de Montfort was still suffering from his injuries, a leader so downcast by the sweep of the King’s army and so conscious of his meager strength that he had gone on the defensive by taking shelter in the Weald. They expected him to play the part of a Willikin on a much larger scale, using the Weald as a base from which to harry the royal army. It had never entered their heads, clearly, that he would have the magnificent audacity to lead his men up the steep escarpment and offer battle in the open.

Henry had never been a real soldier, and even in his civilian capacity he was indolent. Pulling himself together with commendable speed, however, the King brought his forces along Antioch Street and out into the open north of the town, where Edward was marshaling the army with furious energy. The prince seems to have performed prodigies in the small time allowed him. At any rate, the royal forces were drawn up in battle array before the army of the barons came within striking distance.

It would have been better for the royal cause if the King had stepped back and allowed his son to take full command, for Edward was filled with an explosive energy and a savage will to fight which the mild King lacked. If the prince had commanded in the center, the responsibility of holding the battle lines together would have been his and he would not have given rein to his youthful impulsiveness in following up an initial advantage.

The King refused to relinquish command. Henry never seems to have accepted the fact of his limitations in spite of a lifetime of failures. He had a blind faith in himself which caused him to stumble into impossible situations, blithely convinced that he would discover in his meager resources of mind and spirit the capacity to face and beat back the whirlwind. The command of the army must be his. Was he not the King?

Stationing himself in the center where, from the nature of the terrain and the dispositions of the enemy, the heaviest pressure would be encountered, Henry flung his gaudy dragon banner to the breeze. This banner was, perhaps, Henry’s greatest military achievement, the handsomest flag in all Christendom. He had planned it himself more than twenty years before, when the dream was still in his mind that he would lead victorious armies in the redemption of the lost Angevin empire. It was made of scarlet samite and with the head of the dragon so placed that each flutter of wind caused the tongue to ripple and spit scarlet flames and the eyes of the beast, made of rubies, to roll in a fine martial frenzy. Was anything but victory thinkable under such an inspiring banner?

The right wing, made up of cavalry, he entrusted to Edward and the left to Richard of Cornwall. As things turned out, a more ill-advised disposition could not have been made.

To understand what followed, the spirit of the two armies must be taken into account. The barons had been inspired by their belief in Simon de Montfort to sharing his sense of the sacred nature of their cause. As they marched in close formation down the ridged slope they were filled with the same confidence which had led him into taking this gamble, the assurance that God would smile on them. The sun emerged as they marched, lighting up the little town and picking out the tower of the priory in the rear. Simon called a halt at this and raised a hand in the air.

“Behold, comrades and followers!” he cried. “We are about to fight this day for the better government of the kingdom, for the honor of God and the blessed Virgin and all the saints. Let us pray to the King of all that, if our undertaking pleases Him, He will grant us strength and aid to overpower the malice of our enemies. To Him we commend body and soul.”

It might have been the eloquent tongue of the great Grosseteste which thus exhorted the baronial host to do battle in the right spirit; for it was this faith and humility which the militant bishop had taught Simon as a youth and which Adam Marsh had been preaching in all his letters. The men dropped full length on the ground and spread out their arms to form the semblance of a cross.

“Grant us, O Lord, our desires,” they intoned in unison, “and give us a mighty victory to the honor of Thy name.”

There was in this prayer a fervor, a fanaticism even, which these hard-bitten men had caught from their leader.

Henry was religious also, but he was more a lover of the outward forms. He took a sensuous delight in the beauty of fine churches, in rich vestments, in the peal of great organs and the chanting of monkish choirs. Ritual fascinated him, and he was always ready to spend long hours on his knees. It is doubtful if he shared to the same degree the deep-seated faith of the baronial leader. There was little trace, therefore, in the royal ranks of the fervor which animated the advancing ranks. The King’s men were very sure of themselves and contemptuous of the enemy. They did not seem to realize the difficulties under which they must fight.

Edward, filled with martial ardor and impatient to repeat his success at Northampton, started the clash by charging the London levies streaming down the eastern ridge with a shallow picket of mounted knights in the lead. These presumptuous traffickers in wool and fish and wine, these men of low degree, would feel the weight of his steel! William of Valence, that most chivalrous of knights, was with him and would share avidly in the sport. They opened the battle with “a terrible clang of trumpets,” charging up the ridge with a thud of horses’ hoofs and a mad rattling of accouterments.

The poor Londoners had courage but little else with which to face this onslaught They were on foot and lightly armed, and unused, moreover, to the bloody business of battle. The royal horsemen broke through the thin cover of knights and swept the citizen bands aside like chaff. The bewildered Londoners sought safety by scrambling down into the hollow between the ridges, from which they were routed out later by the foot soldiers who followed in the wake of the charging cavalry, or they threw themselves over the steep sides into the river, where they drowned in vain efforts to get to the other side.

It was said afterward that his bitter recollection of the way his mother had been treated in London caused Edward at this stage to throw military discretion to the winds. These were the men who had pelted the Queen with stones and offal from London Bridge when she was trying to escape from the city on the royal barge. He could hear above the roar of battle the loud jeers of the London mob, “Down with the witch! Drown the witch!” This whetted his appetite for revenge to such an extent that he led his troops in pursuit beyond the crest of the escarpment and for a long distance beyond, some say as far as four miles. The pursuit was so vindictively maintained, at any rate, that a large part of the London bands had been wiped out before the order was given to desist from the drive.

It was not an easy matter then for the prince to gather his scattered horsemen together into battle array and lead them back to the field, and it was early in the afternoon when they rode in some weariness up the slope which Simon de Montfort’s army had climbed in the light of early dawn. On the flat space in front of Mount Harry they found the banner of the baronial army still flying over the chariot and no guards save a few camp followers and servants. After killing all of the latter who could be laid by the heels, the tired horsemen surrounded the chariot, expecting to find the leader of the people’s army there.

“Come forth, thou devil Simon!” they shouted. “Come out, vile traitor!”

When they discovered to their great chagrin that the Earl of Leicester was not in the chariot, they did not pause to identify the unfortunate occupants. The four men whose efforts in the royal cause had placed them in this situation were killed forthwith. The victorious cavalry then turned to ride down the slope with the intention of attacking the baronial forces in the rear.

But they had come back too late. The battle was over.

The rout of the Londoners had been so sudden and devastating that nothing could be done to stem the tide on that flank. To have committed the reserves to the task of bolstering the left wing would have been a useless sacrifice. All Simon de Montfort could hope for was that the flaming exuberance of the prince and his men would lead to a protracted pursuit, and he seized the golden moment when they went thundering out of sight around Mount Harry. Ordering up all the reserves, he led the way down the slope and attacked the royalist center and right with every bit of strength he had.

Few details are available of this phase of the struggle. It was man against man, a clashing of battle-ax and mace and sword, a bloody give-and-take with the dead falling under the feet of the combatants and the wounded lying unheeded in agony while the battle swayed back and forth over them. It is said that King Henry fought well, that he had a favorite charger killed under him and called for another in order to go on with the struggle. On the left the King of the Romans did not do as well. He was a good enough soldier and had fought bravely on occasions, but when his lines sagged under the hammer blows of the baronial drive he could not rally his men to renewed efforts. They broke first and took to flight, each man racing for the one bridge over the Ouse which offered the only means of escape. The center broke soon after, but the King managed to reach the priory in safety and with enough of his men to hold its walls against attack.

Earl Simon, who had been in the thick of things, took prompt steps to assure the victory. He placed some troops on the plain north of the town to take care of Edward when the latter returned from his pursuit of the Londoners and then seized the end of the bridge, finding this a difficult operation because of the press of fugitives on the road leading to it. He isolated the priory to make sure of the King’s ultimate capture.

In the meantime the King of the Romans, who was as willing as any knight or soldier in the ranks to survive the disaster, had taken refuge in a windmill called later the Mill of the Hide. It was surrounded immediately by a company of jeering soldiers demanding that he come out. He had never been popular with the people in spite of his many good qualities. Perhaps he had been a little too successful in his moneylending and more than a little too acquisitive in all his dealings to capture the fancy of the man in a London alley or the villein on a midland mark.

“Come down, come down!” shouted the soldiers. “Come down, thou worst of millers! Come down, thou who would be called by no meaner name than Augustus!”

The King’s brother finally emerged, a crestfallen figure covered with the dust of the mill, his face black with cobwebs. His captors were delighted to catch him in such an unkingly plight and marched him into the town with the grime of the mill still on him. A song was made of this incident which was sung later with much sly delight.

Richard, tho thou be ever trichord,1

Tricken shalt thou never more.

It was at this stage that the horsemen under Edward arrived back on the scene. It required little more than a glance to convince them that the battle had been lost in their absence. The royal standard had been torn down from the walls of the town and only a limp pennant of the Earl of Surrey, floating above the castle, held out any evidence of continued resistance. Edward wanted to fight on, even though faced by the whole strength of Simon de Montfort’s army, but his closest advisers had seen as much of battle as they could stomach for one day. One by one they flitted away, seeking safety in the marshy lands west of the town and all of them getting through to Pevensey to the south. The prince succeeded in cutting his way through the frenzy of the streets and reaching the priory finally, where he found his father sitting glumly in the ashes of defeat.


A legend died at Lewes. Fulk FitzWarine was killed in the battle, fighting on the side of the King.

The name of Fulk FitzWarine had attained as much celebrity in the country as Robin Hood did later. There were four of that name in direct descent, barons of Shropshire and great fighting men, and it seems likely that the exploits of all were combined in the story of one. The second Fulk, who contributed the most to the legend, was raised at the court of Henry II. In the course of a game of chess Prince John broke the board over young Fulk’s head and the latter retaliated by kicking the future King in the stomach. The incident still rankled in John’s mind when he ascended the throne, and Fulk had the discretion to take to the woods. He remained an outlaw all through the reign of the wicked King (the records contradict this, but so runs the legend), robbing the rich, helping the poor, keeping John in a state of apoplectic rage. A master hand at disguising himself, he appeared in all manner of unexpected places in the guise of a monk, a juggler, a minstrel, a merchant, as the fancy seized him. Finally he went to the Crusades and added international luster to his fame as a champion.

It is said that in one battle on the Continent the commander of the opposing forces cried:

“Now, my lords, all at Fulk!”

The English exile answered, “And Fulk at all!”

As a figure of chivalry he takes rank just below Roland and Amadis de Gaul and on a level with Garin de Loherain. The death of the fourth Fulk at Lewes was like a personal loss to Englishmen who had been raised on the ballads. Unfortunately the last of the line did nothing in the battle to add to the legend. He was drowned in the retreat. His horse became hopelessly mired in the swamps and he was suffocated in his heavy body armor.


Peace does not return as soon as the outcome of a battle is assured. The town of Lewes was a madhouse during the early hours of the night. The streets were piled with dead bodies and the untended wounded, and a search was being made through the houses for fugitives. The discovery of hidden survivors would lead, if they did not give in at once, to a renewal of tumult, a mad outburst of shouting and cursing and the sound of blows in the dark.

The barons made one effort to scale the walls of the castle but, failing to get inside, desisted in sheer physical weariness. The garrison retaliated by shooting Greek fire into the town and setting some houses ablaze. There was fear for a time that the conflagration would spread.

Earl Simon had drawn his lines closer around the priory, but it seemed wise to him to arrange a surrender without more bloodshed. He accordingly offered a truce to discuss terms of capitulation. Henry and Edward agreed. Simon and his chief followers made their headquarters somewhere in the town, and negotiations were carried on for several hours with the trapped royalists in the priory. The intermediaries were priests, and there was a constant coming and going of men in monkish robes as the differences were slowly resolved.

The group in the priory were a dispirited lot. The King, who had been wounded slightly in the fighting, was eager enough to get matters settled if he could save a few shreds of dignity and authority. Even in his most craven moments, however, he had a tendency to chaffer and splutter and protest his rights, and this dragged the negotiations out to an interminable length.

This night was for Edward the most humiliating moment of his life. He was still young, just under twenty-five, and he had been confident he could measure his strength against the godfather from whom he had learned so much and for whom he now held a bitter hatred. The day had started so well, with confidence and high spirits and great élan; and now, as he sat in the glum group about his father, he knew himself the chief agent of defeat. Not only had he failed to match in strategic conception the experienced and cool military brain of the baronial leader, but he had thrown away all possibility of victory in the excitement of the fighting.

But make no mistake about this tall young man in bloodstained armor with a frown of concentration on his handsome face. Edward was not taking refuge in any of the excuses or illusions which weak men seek in adversity. He knew he had made grievous errors that day and was letting the lesson sink in deep.

His active and brilliant mind was concerned with the future, with the repair of the great mistakes he had made. This was apparent when he insisted on one clause in the terms of capitulation which would later serve the royal cause well, that the young men from the border country should not be held captive. They were needed, he contended, to hold the unruly Welsh in check, these devious young men, Roger de Mortimer, Roger Clifford, above all, that stormy character, Roger de Leyburn. He was so concerned in getting them their freedom that he agreed to remain as a hostage, he and his cousin, Henry of Almaine. This was shrewd, very shrewd indeed. Edward knew that his own liberty was something which could be achieved in time, that there would be continual pressure to have him freed; and in the meantime the men thus released could foster the royal cause and set on foot a nationwide intrigue against the victorious barons.

An agreement was reached during the night to which both Henry and Edward attached their seals and which became known as the Mise of Lewes. As no copy of this document is in existence, it is impossible to say how much of the final terms of capitulation it contained or whether it defined the basis on which the country was to be run while recovering from the effects of civil war.


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