COUNTY YARNS - Hereby hangs a tail of life with the lions

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Reader Colin Brent wrote to comment on the White Lion inn sign I featured in County Yarns of 7th March: “I saw with interest your reference to the White Lion. An inn of that name flourished from at least 1552 when John Awood’s house at the sign of the White Lion was mentioned in a local will.

“It occupied the site of present-day 34-37 High Street, with a large garden to the south, between St Nicholas and Walwers lanes. As for any earlier history before 1552, arguably it might go back to Saxon times as an inn conveniently sited outside the East Gate of the burgh. I am not a great heraldry expert but I understand that a silver lion was the emblem of John Mowbray, Duke of Norfolk and a Lord of Lewes Rape.

Like the Bull Inn, it closed soon after the death of John Oliver, their affluent owner in 1686. I give this and some additional information in my 2004 book ‘Pre-Georgian Lewes c890-1714’ (pages 278,342-3). Also details of its owners and occupiers will become available in my ‘Lewes House Histories’ that will be deposited at the East Sussex Record Office, at the Keep, and at the library of the Sussex Archaeological Society at Barbican House.

The first reference I have found to the White Lion in Westgate Lane comes in 1812 when Thomas Woollgar in his manuscript ‘Directory’ records the owner as Lewes brewer R C Cooper and the occupier as Joseph Ticehurst.”

Hmmm. Colin Brent throws a spanner in the works as to whether the White Lion in question was named in honour of Simon de Montfort who had a white lion as his device. I deferred to medieval emblem expert Jon Gunson; he told me that it had certainly been mooted that the White Lion was named in honour of the rebel baron. However, de Montfort’s animal was “queue forchee” – ie: had a forked tail. Though the tail has disappeared we know from old photos that the Westgate White Lion had a tail with a spear-like tip. At the end of the day it probably doesn’t matter very mucb because Mowbray for certain had forebears who fought at Lewes. On the side of the King!

I was amused to receive another communication from a reader who wished to inform me that I was wrong about the White Lion sign being the work of Lewes tinplate workers, Larwell. No, this particular gentleman (who shall remain anonymous) is adamant that the beast is the work of little-known local sculptor Claude Ball. After that one it’s surely time to paws for thought!