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The Battle of Lewes and its bloody legacy on English democracy
10:35am Tuesday 4th February 2014 in News
Bloody re-enactments, a specially commissioned tapestry and schoolchildren living in a medieval encampment.
These are just three of the vast array of events set to mark the 750th anniversary of the Battle of Lewes in May.
The brutal conflict, which took place in and around the historic town on May 14, 1264, is regarded by many as having helped forge English democracy.
Simon de Montfort’s rebel troops launched a dawn attack on the King’s forces.
The resulting battle, which lasted for much of the next 24 hours, saw the town set alight and the royal troops slaughtered.
The following day, King Henry III issued the surrender and signed the Mise of Lewes, which set in motion the move towards a more democratic England.
Chairman of Lewes District Council and head of the anniversary steering group, Councillor Michael Chartier, described it as a “momentous occasion”.
He said: “Lewes is a delightful place to live, and we have fantastic heritage and history.
“We should be proud of that, and this is an opportunity to share that.
“The 750th anniversary is a significant date. The next would be the 1000th. And despite the fantastic advances in medical science I doubt I will be around for that.
“The battle was significant in that it led to the signing of the Mise of Lewes. This document helped shape the democracy we enjoy today – and that’s something to be celebrated.”
Commemorations will begin on May 3 with a festival at Landport Bottom, a key site in the battle.
De Montfort’s men charged down the steep slope from the hilltop ridge where they were met by the king’s knights.
Heavily outnumbered, few would have expected the rebels to take the upper hand. But De Montfort’s use of the geography of Landport Bottom saw him crush the royalists.
The second major event in May will see a medieval May Fayre held in the town’s Priory Park.
The town’s bonfire societies will also be involved in the celebrations, with a procession through the High Street and a pre-battle dance on May 10.
Lewes Castle, which the king’s troops held for much of the day’s fighting, will also host events.
Between May 11 and 16 the Tents in the Turrets festival will see various special events at the Sussex Archaeological Society castle.
As well as talks and a cocktail night on the ramparts, there will be the unveiling of a specially commissioned tapestry.
Edwina Livesey, from the society, said: “It’s very exciting. We first started discussing the tapestry three years ago and work started on it two years back.
“It is much like the Bayeux Tapestry in that it shows different stages of the battle. Going from left to right, the tapestry takes you from dawn to dusk.”
Some 60 local men and women have been involved in painstakingly hand-making the three-metre long work.
As well as charging knights and warring rebels, it pictures villagers caught up in the chaos and the buildings of Lewes in flames.
Designed by Tom Walker, the work will be unveiled in the castle by one of the leading academics on the period, Dr Louise Wilkinson, from Canterbury Christ Church University.
Ms Livesey added: “This was a landmark victory for democracy in which many people died for the rights of ordinary people.
“It is something we should want to commemorate and commemorate in a lively and colourful way. I think the tapestry achieves just that.
“We have a rich heritage and in particular a democratic heritage in this area and we should be proud.”
The castle will also host a special exhibition showcasing a number of the archaeological finds and bones from digs over the years.
The evening before the day of the anniversary will see a performance of a specially commissioned choral piece of music.
The as yet untitled work will be performed by the Sussex-based Everyman Ensemble.
Composer Helen Glavin, who is behind the piece, said it was an “honour” to write.
She said: “I tried to give it a medieval feel but at the same time I hope it works as a contemporary piece.
“War is war and some of the songs are as fitting today as they would have been then.
“Lots of the men were not trained soldiers. They were butchers and bakers and they would have been unfamiliar with war. I’ve tried to get that feeling across.”
Speaking about the writing process, she added: “It is difficult. I tried to do as much research as I could so I could get a feel for the time and the characters.
“I think it certainly helps living in the area. I live near Deadman Tree Hill, Cooksbridge.
“De Montfort’s men made it there before they were cut down by the king’s men. They certainly took no prisoners, it would have been brutal.
“You hear stories of ghosts of knights and horsemen in the area. I’m not sure about that, but the area is certainly atmospheric.”
Celebrated conductor John Handcorn will lead the performance at Lewes Town Hall on May 13.
The following weekend will also see a string of activities including battle re-enactments.
Battle Royal, as it is being billed, will see enthusiasts play out some of the most significant skirmishes of the day across the Saturday.
Men with bows and arrows, swords, shields and spears will firstly take to Landport Bottom before fighting it out at Lewes Castle, the West Gate car park and at Lewes Priory.
A specially commissioned play, currently in rehearsals, will also be staged at an outdoor location thought to be either Harveys Brewery of the Castle.
Bosses at Harveys have also confirmed they will be brewing a special beer for the anniversary.
A memorial is also set to be unveiled in Priory Park on May 14, and there will be a medieval camp set up and lived in by local youngsters across the weekend of May 16, 17 and 18.
Coun Chartier, chairman of the anniversary steering committee, said: “I must stress this is just a draft at the moment. We have people coming up with ideas all the time.
“There are many more events in the pipeline which we look forwards to sharing soon.
“Our aim was to put on something for everybody and for all ages.”
Baroness Kay Andrews, patron of the Battle of Lewes Project, summed up the importance of marking the date.
She said: “In 2014 we will commemorate the 750th anniversary of the Battle of Lewes.
“There are many ways in which we are celebrating the place we live, and the place the Battle of Lewes occupies in political, parliamentary and military history.
“The popular story of the Battle of Lewes has been told and retold but there are many unanswered questions. Now is the time to learn and share knowledge.
“What we do know is that the battle did open the way for what eventually became a representative democracy. The battlefield at Lewes marks that point when the world turned in a different direction.”
How the battle unfolded
The Battle of Lewes is regarded as one of the most significant of medieval England.
Thousands died as the Kings army faced off against Simon de Montfort's forces in a bloody day which would shape the future of democracy in this country.
The king at the time was Henry III. His strict autocratic style, displays of favouritism and refusal to negotiate with his Barons, made him deeply unpopular.
That anger came to ahead on May 14 1264. Simon de Montford, the then sixth Earl of Leicester, rallied other barons across the country and marched on the country town with the view of overthrowing the king.
With the royalists outnumbering the rebels by two to one, the chances of victory appeared slim.
But, regardless he moved his men to Offam Hill, a mile north-west of the town at night, in an attempt to surprise the enemy.
He launched a dawn attack which was countered by a cavalry charge by the King's men.
A section of de Montford's line broke and retreated back to Offham, with the King's cavalry in pursuit. However, the wandering horsemen left the King, who was still in the town, exposed.
An epic battle ensued with de Montford's men throwing everything they had at the stronghold. By the afternoon, the town was ablaze with the King's knights valiantly attempting to hold off the rebels
They were eventually forced down towards the castle and then the priory.
Prince Edward, one of King's right-hand men, launched a final valiant counterattack with his weary cavalrymen.
But it was too late. With most King's troops having either fled or died, the surrender was given.
King Henry III met with de Montford and signed the Mise of Lewes, which set in motion the move towards a more democratic England.
Perhaps the highlight of the celebrations will see youngsters build and then live in a medieval encampment.
The project, which is being run by Lewes Youth Theatre and Sussex Downs College, will take place across the Friday, Saturday and Sunday of May 16, 17 and 18.
With the help of local experts the youngsters will first build their camp using traditional techniques and materials.
As well as medieval style huts and community buildings there will be a central fire and cooking area.
The 16 to 25-year-olds will then invite political leaders and icons to visit them to talk about one of the themes of the celebration - democracy.
Phil Rose, from Sussex Downs College, said: “The fantastic thing about the event is that it has all been put together by the students.
“They submitted an application for heritage lottery funding and organised the whole thing.
“They will be building the camp, living and cooking in it and they will be inviting and questioning the guests.”
Lewes MP Norman Baker MP is already confirmed to take part and a host of other political and cultural leaders are expected.
Among others, the students have contacted David Cameron, to invite him to the event.
The camp will also feature a Big Brother style diary room where those taking part can air their views about their new medieval life as well as the guests they encounter.
Following the visits, there will also be a series of debates on democracy and engaging in politics.
Edwina Livesey, who sits on the event steering committee, said: “I think it sounds fantastic. There will be no Facebook or Twitter. It is set to be a genuine taste of mediaeval life.
“I think it will be a real highlight.”
Mr Rose added: “With the date getting closer we are now looking for people to take part.
“We want people not only to help build the medieval village but to take part in workshops and live in it across the three days.”
To apply to take part visit www.lewesyouththeatre.co.uk.
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