On Wednesday, May 8, 1901, my great grandfather Ebenezer Roberts climbed to the top of Cliffe Hill overlooking Lewes to witness the unveiling of a monument to commemorate the Martyrs Memorial.
Ebenezer was a staunch Protestant and this is witnessed by his speeches as the head of the Eastbourne Bonfire Society. (which I am lucky to have).
He was vehemently anti-Catholic and after the unveiling wrote a poem to commemorate the occasion starting “This stoney tablet, Lord we raise – To those who died in bygone days” and ending “Great God who sits upon the throne, keeps our Empire free from Rome”.
In 1895, Lewes Town Council rejected a request to place a memorial on the town hall to commemorate the 17 protestants who were burnt at the stake in front of the building in the 16th century.
Solicitor Isaac Vinall then gave a plot of his land on Cliffe Hill for a more prominent memorial to be built. Originally, the obelisk was to be made of Portland Stone, but so much money was donated by 850 people that it was eventually built of Aberdeen granite standing 35 feet tall and weighing no less than 230 tons.
A committee was established which included Mr JB Morris a descendant of Margery Morris, one of the original Lewes martyrs.
On the Sunday, special services were held at seven churches across Lewes followed by the unveiling on the Wednesday.
The people of Lewes would have seen the granite obelisk being built above the town for several months (the foundation was laid in October 1899) but at 3pm a large crowd estimated at some 5,812 people, (including my great grandfather) gathered under leaden skies.
As the memorial was in the grounds of Mr Vinall’s enclosed Cuilfail estate, every single person was counted.
The first speaker to mount the red baize dais was Arthur Morris who had been the main instigator of the memorial.
He said that the memorial was a ‘sermon in stone which would warn future generation of Lewes children of the dangers of Popery’ As he spoke the heavens opened and the rest of the ceremony was conducted to a sea of opened umbrellas.
The Mayor of Lewes Councillor Holman then introduced Beatrice, the Countess of Portsmouth, who unveiled the memorial to applause. There were then a series of stirring speeches, mainly anti-catholic in nature and a request for more donations as a further £90 was still owing for the memorial.
The Earl of Portsmouth, (a grand title for someone whose real name was Newton Wallop!) spoke about the need for Government to listen to the protestants. The crowd then returned to the town centre where 800 people took a sixpenny tea at the Corn Exchange. As they were drying out they were entertained by more speeches.
At 7pm there was yet another meeting. It was chaired by the Earl of Portsmouth and there were more speakers including the Rt Hon John Mellor, a Yorkshire MP. The earl took the role of chairman and regaled the one person who was conspicuously absent from the proceedings; the local Bishop, Ernest Wilberforce, (grandson of the great William Wilberforce). Wilberforce was Bishop of Chichester (the title, ‘Bishop of Lewes was not created until 1909) and and although he was not ‘High Church’, he did much to bring together different parts of the Christian Church. The event certainly did not seek to reconcile the Anglican Church with the Church of Rome, which is why the good bishop probably made his excuses.
The following day the Town Hall was packed with 800 local children who were given a lecture about the Lewes Martyrs illustrated with fifty ‘lime-light’ pictures thrown onto a screen. Last month, the Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby (who by the way was educated at St Peter’s school in Seaford) had his second meeting with Pope Francis in Rome. There was talk of reconciliation and working together. My great grandfather would certainly have not approved!
If you are interested in the history of Lewes why not join me for a 90-minute guided tour around the town on Sunday. Meet me at the front of Lewes Station at 2pm. Tickets are £5, available from the Lewes Tourist Information Centre or on the day.