Although evidence of prehistoric and Roman occupation has been found in the surrounding area, it was not them, but the Saxons who first developed Lewes. They called it 'Hlaew' (which means small hill) and it was built on one of their cross-country trade routes. In fact, the steep High Street, with its assortment of old buildings and ancient passageways (called 'twittens' in Sussex), is the path the traders took from the ancient port below on the River Ouse. With its naturally defensive position, the Saxons also built fortifications here and established two mints.
When the Normans came they saw the benefit of Lewes's elevated position, high on a spur of the South Downs. William de Warrene, who was given the town by William the Conqueror, built the dominating castle on the site of the old Saxon fort and the nearby Cluniac Priory, which grew to be larger than Westminster Abbey in London. Prosperity increased with ships bringing goods in through the port from other areas of England, such as wine, cloth, salt and spices. Lewes also exported local goods like timber, leather, malt, corn and wool. The sea trade continued through to the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, with wool, corn and iron becoming the main trade. A number of the old warehouses still stand, although their use has altered; many of them are now being used as craft centres or have been converted into shops.
The sixteenth century saw a great deal of religious unrest. First Henry VIII destroyed the majority of Catholic places of worship, including the great Priory at Lewes. Edward VI entrenched Protestant belief further, but when he died, the devoutly Catholic Mary I restored papal supremacy in England soon after she became Queen (Lady Jane Grey ruled for 9 days before Mary ordered her execution). It was in Lewes High Street that 17 Protestant martyrs were burned to death for their beliefs, during the Marian persecutions of 1555-7.
Today these events as well as those of the failed gunpowder plot of 1605 where Catholics attempted to blow up the Protestant King are remembered in the famous 'Lewes Bonfire Night' celebrations on November 5th each year.
Always an important market town situated at the lowest crossing point on the River Ouse, the Georgian era saw the importance of Lewes increase. It became the administrative and social centre for the county; banks sprang up along High Street, corn and livestock were traded, and fashionable visitors flocked here in large numbers. Great Georgian town houses were built and existing timber-framed buildings were given a new lease of life with new facades or the addition of 'mathematical tiles'. These were tiles that were made to look like the more fashionable brick and were so good that they can easily fool the unaware; Barbican House, to the left of the Barbican Gateway, is a good example of a building covered in such tiles. Around this time, in 1750, Dr Richard Russell of Lewes proclaimed the benefits of sea bathing, starting the rush of visitors to the coast and the eventual expansion of villages such as Brighton and Bognor.
Napoleonic Wars with France, the normal trade routes to London via the sea were under threat and a number of canals were constructed. The need for these ended during Victorian times with the coming of the railway; the Victorians also made a few other changes to the fabric of Lewes such as the addition of paved streets and lighting.
Today Lewes is the county town of East Sussex and hosts the headquarters for the health authority and the fire, ambulance and police services. Featuring a broad range of speciality shops, an array of architectural styles, plus an assortment of antique shops, Lewes is a fascinating place to come, either to browse, to buy or simply to wander.