Lewes has a much more important place in history than burning martyrs and anti-Catholic feeling.

This month marks the 750th anniversary of a battle on the outskirts of the town, which began the long road away from the King’s absolute power and towards parliamentary democracy.

The Company is set to celebrate by recreating the four-mile night-time march conducted by 4,000 troops led by the rebellious baron Simon de Montfort over the Downs to surprise King Henry III’s Royalist forces encamped below Blackcap.

A total of six actors will lead 97-strong audiences across what is thought to be the route of the march to recreate the experiences of The Londoners division in the battle.

“I wanted to look at what it would be like for the footsoldiers,” says writer Suzi Hopkins, who has developed the project with director Stephen Israel.

“Would they have known what they were fighting for and what difference this battle was going to make to their lives? Would they get more freedom?”

The battle, which took place on May 14, 1264, was part of the Second Barons’ War, which was launched after Henry III refused to adhere to the Provisions Of Oxford – a 1258 reform which took absolute power out of the hands of the monarch to a council of 24 barons, whose performance would be monitored by a parliament every three years.

“Simon de Montfort was the King’s brother-in-law,” says Hopkins, adding the French-born 6th Earl Of Leicester had been a close friend of Henry at first.

“He was quite honourable, so when the King didn’t keep to his oath he started his own group against him.”

“Simon’s father led a crusade,” adds Israel, who lives in East Chiltington, within sight of where the soliders would have marched. “There is a feeling Simon was on a crusade himself. He wanted more money, but he did believe in the Provisions Of Oxford and how power should be shared between more people – although not necessarily the poor.”

Despite his French origins De Montfort had used xenophobia against foreigners to help galvanise support for his crusade against the King.

“Looking at the First World War there are a lot of parallels,” admits Hopkins.

“There was a huge amount of xenophobia at that time – the country had come out of a famine two years before.”

Even though De Montfort was battling against the King, he still held respect for his former friend – imprisoning him once the battle was over and giving him back his title and authority as King although decisions and approval rested with De Montfort’s council and ultimately Parliament.

In contrast, when the King wrested back control at the Battle Of Evesham the following year, De Montfort’s body was brutally mutilated by the Royalists and scattered across the country to his enemies.

Hopkins has worked closely with Professor David Carpenter from King’s College London and PhD student Ian Stone to find out more about The Londoners, with two of the six characters in the piece representing real people from the time.

“Anything from that period of time is going to have to be pieced together,” says Hopkins. “We have different accounts of the battle saying different things – people aren’t totally sure where the battle took place although we have more of an idea now. That is what makes it so fascinating.”

That said, Montfort’s March is not going to be a dusty history lesson but a theatrical experience, supported by funding from Lewes District and Town Councils, South Downs National Park, Arts Council England, town businesses and even the Houses of Parliament.

With four miles of walking, both the actors and audience will be put through their paces. Israel even had to buy his actors specially reinforced medieval-style footwear to ensure they last the run.

“It’s about people and personal journeys,” says Hopkins.

“I didn’t want to put too many historical facts in there – that’s not theatre. Hopefully there’s enough in there so people understand what’s going on without realising they are being told history.”

  • Montfort's March, from the A275 bus stop by Neville Crescent, Lewes, Saturday, May 3, to Sunday, May 18
  • Performances take place at 2pm from Saturday, May 3, to Monday, May 5, on Saturday, May 10, Sunday, May 11, Saturday, May 17, and Sunday, May 18, and at 6pm on Wednesday, May 14, tickets £10/£6. Call 01273 917272.