Visiting Sussex History

Visiting Sussex History

In the footsteps of medieval monks

A group of a dozen museum members enjoyed a fascinating trip on Tuesday, 11th July, to Lewes Priory,  led by Graham Mayhew,   author of   The Monks of Saint Pancras – Lewes Priory, England’s Premier Cluniac Monastery and its Dependencies 1076-1537.

The ruins of the 11th century Priory of St Pancras are just a short walk from Lewes train station. We went through the beautiful Priory Park,  past Southover Grange. Along the way, in fact throughout Lewes, buildings and walls have been partly constructed from the destroyed priory remains. We were given a detailed talk at St John the Baptist Church, Southover, where the remains and tomb slab of the founders of the priory are now laid to rest in the 19th century specially constructed Gundrada’s Chapel.    

Originally they had been buried in the Chapter House of the Priory, but at the Dissolution of the Monasteries in 1537, the lead tomb boxes of  Gundrada (possibly the daughter of William Conquerer) and her husband  William de Varenne.were lost.  With monks from Cluny in France, the couple had had the vision and means to construct the priory but had not lived to see it completed.  However, in 1774 Gundrada’s grave slab, in almost perfect condition, was found at Isfield about 7 miles from Lewes.  Then,  only by chance, when the railway was built from Brighton to Lewes in 1845 ,  those lead tomb boxes, labelled,  were uncovered too..       

Saint Pancras,  the patron saint of keeping promises,  is of importance because King Harold had sworn on the saint’s  bones that his throne would go to William Duke of Normandy. This promise was not kept, as everyone knows from the story of The Battle of Hastings.

 Lewes Priory became one of the wealthiest monasteries in England and was populated by over 100 monks plus servants and many visitors. It was visited by all Kings of England until it was deliberately destroyed during the Reformation on orders of Henry VIII: the Dissolution of the Monasteries in 1537.  There are still extensive ruins in the park and you can see the well engineered toilet block. The infirmary is covered over but this is where monks in ill health would be well fed and treated.

Historian Graham. a fellow of the Royal Historical Society, former mayor of Lewes and for many years organising tutor in history at the Centre for Continuing Education at the University of Sussex,  is well-known to Ryers as a popular speaker in the Museum’s Talks Programme and also as the author of Tudor Rye.   He shared a lot of historical information and those who went can certainly  recommend a trip to Lewes and Priory Park. The Park’s site, framed by the South Downs, has interpretation panels to help visitors imagine how the buildings once looked and a herb garden growing plants the monks would once have used for medicinal, culinary and ceremonial purposes..   

Heather Stevenson
Museum Director

First posted in Featured, Invasion Coast, Local History Research, Past Events on 17th July 2017
Last updated: 22nd July 2017