The Battle of Lewes fought on 14th May 1264 didn’t see the end of fighting between the victorious army of rebel barons led by Simon de Montfort and forces that remained loyal to King Henry III.
One of the king’s supporters who did not surrender was John de Warenne, Lord of Lewes. Having held out in Lewes Castle when the rebels entered the town, he later fled eastwards with a band of around 200 mounted soldiers. They made for the sanctuary of imposing Pevensey Castle, a stronghold held in the name of the king by a garrison determined to resist the rebels.
After a short stay in Pevensey de Warrenne and several fellow noblemen were able to board a ship that took them to France. It was directly from these exiles that the French King Louis IX received the news of the shock defeat of the English royals at Lewes. Louis was married to a sister of Henry’s wife Queen Eleanor (of Provence).
In July 1264 Simon de Montfort ordered the Sheriff of Sussex, John D’Abernon, to take control of Pevensey Castle but the garrison refused to surrender. Instead they made several sorties into the neighbouring countryside, plundering villages for food and livestock to augment their supplies in the castle.
An alarmed Simon de Montfort ordered preparations for a siege of Pevensey; these began with the digging of a large ditch around the landward side of the castle to prevent the garrison from mounting any more raids. In November 1264 de Montfort’s son, also called Simon, was put in command of the besieging forces.
When King Louis learnt of the investment of Pevensey he mustered a relief force that was to set sail as soon as possible. The castle’s location on the coast means that it could be easily supplied with men and munitions by sea. Despite it being winter with the accompanying risk of storms, in December substantial reinforcements safely arrived from France and the fortunes of the garrison took a major turn for the better.
For the next three or four months the siege continued. Simon de Montfort the Younger had a number of huge catapults called “trebuchets” brought up. He used these to batter away at the immensely thick walls of Pevensey Castle, an edifice that dates back to Roman times. Despite being struck by hundreds of large stone balls, the castle walls were damaged but not breached. Around 80 years ago Pevensey’s moat was dredged and hundreds of catapult balls were recovered. Many can be seen on display in the castle today.
The defenders must have had their own catapults because we know that grievous damage was done to the churches of St Nicolas and St Mary’s that were outside the castle in the village of Pevensey and at nearby Westham. They were targets most likely because de Montfort’s men used them as siege castles. Peter Harrison, Curator of Pevensey’s Court House Museum says there is still a catapult ball lodged in the nave of St Nicolas Church that dates from the time of the siege.
As the siege went on, de Montfort’s father found his political fortunes waning. Though he had established a parliament he had not abolished the monarchy and both King Henry III and his ambitious and vengeful son Prince Edward remained alive but under what we might call “house arrest”. Meanwhile, some of de Montfort’s allies felt that their leader was becoming more and more autocratic and king-like.
In June 1265 de Montfort’s second-in-command, Gilbert de Red, deserted him and allied himself with Prince Edward. The pair set about raising an army to challenge de Montfort. Soon after this it is assumed that de Montfort summoned his son to bring his army to join him in the Midlands. The siege of Pevensey Castle was ended.
History blames the younger de Montfort for subsequently allowing the fall of his father’s key stronghold, Kenilworth Castle, to Prince Edward. The latter had been very successful in amassing a huge force that greatly outnumbered anything the de Montforts could call on. The two sides met in battle at Evesham on 2nd August 1265. Prince Edward prevailed and Simon de Montfort was killed and his body mutilated. It is said his head and body parts were put on display at various places around the country as a warning of what happened to those who rebelled against their king. De Montfort’s son survived and lived until 1271.
In 1268 Pevensey Castle was granted to Queen Eleanor. There is a fascinating footnote to the siege of the castle. Records show that the two damaged churches of St Nicolas and St Mary were restored by a local royalist landowner, Lady Denise de Pevensey. It has now come to light that Eleanor also made a contribution to the cost, albeit over 20 years after the siege.
This fact was discovered just recently by Christopher Whittock (Senior Archivist at The Keep) when he provided the first full translation of a document preserved since the 13th century. It is the Account of Luke de la Gare, Steward of the Honour of Pevensey in 1287 -1288. Under the heading “Allowances” part of the document reads: “…of which allowed to him £7 which he paid to Lady Denise de Pevensey by the Queen’s order, which £7 the Queen promised to her long since for the repair of the churches of Pevensey which were demolished in the time of war, because the said Denise repaired the aforesaid churches at her own expense.”