Stark horrors of burial pit in Lewes for hundreds of men revealed

Lewes news
Lewes news

The grim reality of the Battle of Lewes in 1264 has been highlighted by local historian Dr Graham Mayhew.

He has gone back to the 19th century when a burial pit for victims was discovered during the construction of the railway at the site of Lewes Priory.

The “horrible subterranean charnel house” contained the remains of “many hundreds” of men. Dr Mayhew said the story of the find is told in the third edition of Mark Anthony Lower’s Handbook for Lewes (c1846).

Lower recorded: “Within a few feet of the eastern end of the church a most singular discovery was made. A circular pit, ten feet in diameter, and eighteen feet deep, was found to be filled to above half its depth with human remains.

“The stench emitted from them was so great, that the “navvies” (certainly none of the most squeamish of beings) ran away from the spot, sick and disgusted. For twenty-four hours the hindmost of a train of wagons was constantly occupied with the contents of this horrible subterranean charnel-house. The bones were much crushed and broken. The number of bodies the pit had contained cannot be estimated with much precision; suffice it to say, that it must have been many hundreds, and that the bones in the aggregate weighed many tons. That the numbered dead thus summarily buried were the victims of the sword appears likely from the discovery in the pit of an iron spur, part of a bridle-iron and a portion of a weapon. That they were among those who fell at the Battle of Lewes in 1264 is equally probable.”

Dr Mayhew said: “Lower, a prominent Sussex antiquarian who ran a school in Lewes, was present at the excavations so would have seen this for himself. His disgust at the violation of the site by having a railway running right across it motivated him to help found the Sussex Archaeological Society the following year.

“His account is the only reference I have found to military items being in the pit but it does seem to confirm that several hundred victims of the fighting were buried in the priory itself, including some of those who had been wounded and brought there for medical treatment by the monks but who had subsequently died.

“The priory was of course Henry III’s headquarters before the battle and the place of refuge for his defeated troops afterwards. In the hours leading up to his surrender we know fighting took place between its defenders and de Montfort’s forces and the roof of the priory church was set on fire, although quickly put out. Any casualties would have been buried within the priory precinct, so this discovery is valuable confirmatory evidence of the location of part of the fighting.”