Reiver by David Pilling

Tuesday, 16 July 2013

The Battle of Lewes, 1264

Today I'm going to talk about the famous Battle of Lewes, fought on the 14th of May 1264. The battle forms back of the backstory to my next book, Nowhere Was There Peace, shortly to be released by Fireship Press.

Much has been written about Lewes, but I want to concentrate on the fate of the unfortunate Londoners who supported Simon de Montfort against the army of King Henry III. Below is a rather good map of the battle and how it went down:


The causes of it are complex, but can be summarised thus: Henry III was something of an autocrat, and the favouritism he showed his wife's foreign relatives, refusal to compromise with his Barons and general political and military incompetence all came to a head in the 1260s. The French nobleman and Earl of Leicester, Simon de Montfort, put himself at the head of a coalition of baronial rebels. After much argument and grave wagging of beards, both sides started to gather armies in the spring of 1264.

The seal of Simon de Montfort (c.1208-1265)

By May the King's forces had arrived at Lewes in Sussex, where they camped to allow time for reinforcements to join them. Henry based his troops near Saint Pancras Priory, while his eldest son, the hard-nosed Lord Edward, commanded a force of mounted knights and men-at-arms at Lewes Castle, to the north of his father's position.

There had been no wars in England since the reign of King John, Henry's father, and the preparations for the battle seem to have been pretty messy, with both sides gathering men where they could. De Montfort only had about five thousand men, about half the number of the royalists. His army was split into four divisions: one led by himself (though he had broken his leg in an accident and had to lead from the back in a litter), one by his son Henry, another by Gilbert de Clare, and the fourth by Nicholas de Segrave.

This last division consisted of what might be fairly described as a rabble of volunteers, ill-armed London citizens who had flocked to join de Montfort's army. The King and his family were particularly unpopular in London, thanks to the severe taxes Henry imposed on the citizens and the perceived tyranny of his Queen, Eleanor of Provence, and her foreign relatives. Some time prior to the battle, the citizens had expressed their dislike of Eleanor by pelting her barge with mud and stones as it floated down the Thames. Her son Edward had never forgotten the insult dealt to his mother, and waited impatiently for his chance of revenge. At Lewes he got it.
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Tomb of Henry III

Knowing that he was outnumbered, de Montfort tried to avoid a battle by opening negotiations with the King, who refused them. De Montfort responded by making a sudden night march from his camp at Fletching to Offam Hill, just a mile from Lewes. The royalists were surprised by this maneuver, and even more surprised when de Montfort launched a surprise attack in the early hours of the morning, attacking and routing a group of royalist troops sent out to forage for supplies.

The royal army now heaved into life. Edward moved the quickest, and led his knights in a charge straight at Segrave's Londoners, still performing an excellent impression of a hopeless rabble. Unsurprisingly, they broke and ran like rabbits before the onrushing steel-clad monsters on enormous horses, and were slaughtered as they ran. The merciless pursuit continued for several miles - Edward had allowed his savage temper and desire for revenge to get the better of him, and had left his father's left flank exposed.

Royalists and rebels get stuck into each other at the Battle of Lewes

In the absence of Edward's cavalry, the King was obliged to order his centre and right flank to advance up Uffham hill and engage the baronial forces waiting for them. Many of the royalist soldiers had no experience of warfare, and had to endure an arrow-storm as they struggled up the slope towards a line of dismounted knights and men-at-arms, all bristling with various killing tools.

Neither the King or his brother, the Earl of Cornwall, possessed much in the way of military ability. Cornwall's division was the first to crumple, his men succumbing to panic shortly after the first blows were exchanged and streaming back down the hillside. Henry's men stubbornly fought on for a while longer, but broke when they were attacked in flank and rear by de Montfort's reserves.

By now, Edward had managed to regather his knights and lead them back to the battlefield. There they witnessed the royalists in full retreat back to the castle and priory, closely harried and pursued by the rebels. Edward was all for launching a death-or-glory counterattack, but first tracked down his father, who persuaded him that it was better to surrender and accept de Montfort's terms. His uncle, the luckless Cornwall, was found hiding in a windmill and dragged out to taunts of "Come out, come out, you wicked miller!"

The verdict of battle was reversed in the most emphatic fashion at Evesham, over a year later, but the slaughter of the Londoners at Lewes is significant to my tale. One young stonemason's son in particular manages to escape from the field, slung over the back of a packhorse and bleeding from wounds inflicted by the swords of Edward's knights. Who is he? Wait for the book to find out...

2 comments:

  1. It should be a interesting read, perhaps you may attract other historical fiction readers.

    Hopefully you will change your cover picture though as the plate gorget was not is use at Lewes, this will break faith with those who just judge a book by its cover.......fearing what may be inside .........

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    1. Thanks Bluewillow :) The cover was not my choice, unfortunately, though it does look striking.

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