Lewes Castle was one of the very first fortresses to be built in England, directly following the Norman conquest of 1066.
It’s a brilliant example of a Motte and Bailey castle – probably one of the best examples in the whole of the UK.
It also contains one of England’s best examples of a very cool defensive feature – machicolations.
All in all, it’s a very impressive little castle, at the heart of the town. Lewes itself is a photogenic little spot in Sussex, one of the southern counties of England.
The Battle of 1066, and the Norman Invasion of Sussex
The story of Lewes Castle is intimately linked to the story of the conquest of England, back in 1066.
William the Conqueror’s troops eventually emerged victorious from battle, and they set about consolidating their power over the Anglo-Saxons of England.
The Normans were experts at maintaining control.
To do this, William the Conqueror effectively split Sussex into five different chunks – each called a ‘rape’.
At the heart of each rape, you’d encounter a castle. Lewes Castle was at the centre of the rape of Lewes. The other rapes were called Arundel, Bramber, Pevensey and Hastings.
Each of these districts had a castle at their heart. (You can still visit all these castles today, although Arundel is in much better shape than Bramber!).
Later on, a sixth district – Chichester – was also established. This too had its own castle.
Power radiated out from each castle, all through the surrounding land. Each castle controlled military affairs, as well as local trade and agriculture.
One baron controlled the castle, and thus the district surrounding it.
William granted these deeds to his most dedicated followers, who’d supported his conquest of England.
As a result, Lewes was in the hands of a Norman called William de Warenne. This was a fertile, wealthy area – even before the Normans arrived. Indeed, the riches of Lewes made William one of the richest men in the whole of England.
Controlling Lewes: Building a Motte and Bailey Castle
The Normans invented the Motte and Bailey castle, and this blueprint was deployed with ease in Lewes. They began to build the castle in 1067 – barely a year after the conquest.
The motte was a steep, man-made mound on which the Normans built a tower.
In Lewes, the Normans first raised a tall motte called Brack Mount.
Adjacent to it, there’s a large, flat-topped section of raised land, called the bailey. This would have been surrounded by jagged fencing, and formed the bulk of the Norman castle.
People would have lived on the bailey, and it would have been a hive of activity – for blacksmiths, traders, bakers and ne’er-do-wells.
You can still see the bailey of Lewes castle today. It has bowling green on it – a good use for a large patch of flat land! You’ll also notice some modern housing.
Lewes Castle is unusual, however, because the Normans actually made two mottes. In about 1100, for reasons unknown, they raised a second motte directly opposite the first.
The surviving castle ruins are on top of this second, more modern motte. Brack Mount – the original motte – has nothing really remaining on top of it. It just looks like a small hill.
Both mottes enjoyed excellent views across the surrounding countryside. Even today, the panorama is incredible – you can see a lot of the countryside from up here!
A Dramatic Demonstration of Power
A tall Norman motte was designed to see and be seen.
Back in the 1110s, it’s quite likely that the motte would have been whitewashed. The steep sides would have been a brilliant reflective white colour, which would have stood out for miles.
This was designed to make an impression.
Like a beacon, this bright white, man-made monster would have glared out across the Sussex countryside (rather like the eye of Sauron). It would have reminded the Anglo-Saxons that the Normans were in control – and resistance was futile.
Defending Lewes Castle: The Medieval Barbican
In the 1100s, access to the castle was via a simple Norman gatehouse.
During the 1300s, however, the vogue was to beef-up a castle and make it into something a touch more threatening. This was particularly important after 1264, when the castle had been attacked during the Baron’s War, and swathes of Lewes had been burned to the ground.
As a result, John de Warenne (a distant grandchild of William, who had first owned the castle) lavished money on a state-of-the-art barbican.
A barbican is effectively a grand, defensive obstacle, designed to make it really tricky to get to the castle gatehouse and enter the castle.
You can see the barbican today, and, when it comes to defence, it really boasts the full works. It likely had a portcullis, thick doors, and even a drawbridge, I reckon.
But its coolest feature is little-seen in England – a series of machicolations.
These machicolations hang over the entrance to the castle. They’re like an over-hanging balcony – except there are great holes in the floor.
Anyone defending the castle could drop rocks, stones, or anything unpleasant at hand down onto those below.
To be totally honest with you, I wouldn’t particularly have wanted to try and attack the castle, given what could have been thrown down on me from above. Would you?!
Go Explore For Yourself: Visiting the Castle Today
What I especially like about the Lewes castle is that it’s cared for by Sussex Past, a local archaeological trust who clearly adore the place.
The lavish the castle – and the gardens within – with untold care and attention. As a result, Lewes Castle is a real joy to visit.
In addition, it’s fun to explore to see in the surrounding town of Lewes. If you like antique shops, slightly kooky flea-markets and little local cafes, it’s a great place to visit.
It’s a wealthy spot, but has enough independent shops to keep things interesting.
If you’re in the market for an English afternoon tea, there’s an independent bake-shop just up the road from the castle, which offers a fiesta of eight helpings of cake, plus two English scones and two pots of loose-leaf tea, all for a bargain price.
While you’re in Sussex, you should definitely also stop by Bodiam Castle – almost certainly the most photographed fortress in the whole of Britain.
I’d also urge you to visit Battle – the place was 1066 was fought, and where the age of British castle building began.