When the French set Lewes ablaze

Navigable: The floods of 2000 show how close the water comes to Lewes Priory in the Southover area
Navigable: The floods of 2000 show how close the water comes to Lewes Priory in the Southover area

Details of an obscure but significant page from history were revealed on Saturday.

Local historian Graham Mayhew spoke about the two Battles of Lewes to more than 60 students at the WEA Day School at St Thomas’s Church Hall.

The 750th anniversary of the battle of 1264 is fast approaching, but few have heard of the second which took place more than 100 years later.

Dr Mayhew gave an account of the French raid of 1377 – a little-known incident in the Hundred Years War between England and France, the details of which survive only in French sources, based on eyewitness accounts from some of those involved.

A combined French and Castilian fleet sailed along the south coast, raiding communities from Plymouth to Folkestone. The defence of the coast was left to local forces hastily raised to repel the invaders and in the Ouse Valley it was in the hands of John de Charlieu, Prior of Lewes.

Early on August 27 a diversionary force from the French fleet landed at Rottingdean and burnt the village – the church tower still shows the characteristic pink tinge from the heat of the blaze when the church caught fire. Rottingdean was a Lewes Priory rectory and an important source of income and agricultural produce to the priory and Prior Charlieu led a force there from Lewes to defend it.

Meanwhile the rest of the fleet sailed up the River Ouse, sacking Seaford and shoreline villages on the way. The full account is in Froissart’s Chronicles, said Dr Mayhew.

Anchoring just south of Lewes Priory’s walls in the “marsh ... as close to land as possible”, they heavily outnumbered the English. In fierce fighting on the open space just east of the priory’s walls (roughly where the former Lewes County Grammar School for Boys stands in Mountfield Road) “many French were wounded with arrows”.

More than 200 English “who defended themselves very well considering their numbers, for they were few compared to the French” were killed and Lewes, described as “a prosperous small town on the sea” was sacked and burnt, “together with several marshland villages nearby” although the priory itself seems to have been successfully defended.

The Prior and two knights, Sir John Falvesley and Sir Thomas Cheyne, were among those captured and taken back to the French ships, which had to wait for the incoming tide before they could sail away. The Prior was held captive in France for more than a year until the priory had raised a ransom of 7,000 French nobles (£2,333 6s 8d), equivalent to two years’ revenues of the priory’s lands and leaving it with a huge debt which took years to clear.


As a postscript to his lecture, Dr Mayhew noted that during the Peasants’ Revolt in 1381 when Lewes Castle was sacked by the rebels, Lewes Priory was left unharmed – almost certainly as a result of the goodwill created by Prior Charlieu’s heroic leadership four years earlier and his subsequent captivity in France.


By contrast the castle was shown no mercy. Richard Earl of Arundel, son of the hero of the Battle of Crecy, had refused the request of Lewes townspeople to send his men to garrison the castle and help defend the town from the French invaders!