Sing a song of sixpence, a pocketful of rye…
And it was sixpence that saved Lewes Castle from ending up on the scrap heap.
What’s more it was Russian sixpences, or at least coins generated by Russians that saved the building from falling into a state of disrepair from which it could never have been restored.
As it is, the remains of Bray Castle, for such was it called originally, still dominate the Medieval town of Lewes.
The castle is quite stunning. It isn’t or wasn’t the biggest castle built by the Normans. It wasn’t the most important. But it is now unique among the castles built by the invaders in the 11th century.
Originally Saxon, the castle was built of wood and stood atop a man made mound of earth.
It didn’t take the Norman’s long to determine that marauding bands of Saxons such as those headed by Hereward the Wake understood the military principle of attacking wooden defences with lighted arrows.
Not to worry. A couple of bucketsful of water from the moat would soon dampen that down.
But therein lies the rub.
The moat in Lewes or the defence ditch as it was often called was frequently dry.
Someone kept stealing the giant plug that held the water in and the ditch lay bare and arid.
The Norman conquerors were quick to see the drawback in their defence strategy and the local Lord, William de Warenne set about building a new fortress of stone.
Hundreds of stone castles sprang up across Britain almost immediately after the Conquest of 1066. Nearly all were of the same design as Lewes Castle, Motte and Bailey.
The Motte was a man made hill, which was already in place, thanks to the Saxons.
The wooden stronghold was replaced in stone entirely by the Normans.
Perhaps because much of the labour had been done for him, de Warenne built a foundation of two linked Mottes, as far as is known, one of only two with that design in the country.
The castle was not too different in another respect, however. Like most other motte and bailey structures, it did have a moat.
My suggestion that a medieval cutthroat kept running off with the plug is a bit fanciful. I admit.
But the clay composition of the local terrain was porous, and try though they might, the denizens of the castle could not keep it full.
But even a dry ditch was useful as a defence. After all, if you had to go down a steep bank, up another a few feet ahead and were then faced with scaling a steep and mighty Motte, you also might have been dissuaded from carrying on with a raid.
In fact, the one serious attack on the castle in its long history, during the 1264 Battle of Lewes, broadly failed. The defenders only gave way after a deal had been struck between Henry III and the barons.
On the famous occasion in 1381 when the peasants revolt reached Lewes, the attackers drank the castle dry and it was the only other significant defeat the structure suffered.
The moat played a significant part in that as well.
This revolt was vicious and saw bloodshed far and wide across the country.
But when the I can do it angry mob reached Lewes, they broke into the castle and discovered hundreds of barrels of wine. Alerted by their companions that the moat was dry that day, the rebels opted for wine instead of water and drank the cellars as dry as the moat and moved on.
The second very different feature of Lewes Castle, as the Barbican wasn’t added until 1334.
It was very modern indeed for its time and only a couple of other similar structures have stood the test of history and are still standing.
The stronghold had and indeed still does have a number of holes at the top through which defenders could pour boiling oil or most likely drop rotten cabbage to deter an invader. It’s almost perfectly preserved as a fine example of a medieval Barbican.
The Russians are coming. Well actually, we brought them here. 340 Russian Naval Officers and Finnish ratings, (Finland was part of the Russian Empire), were incarcerated in Lewes Naval Prison on North Street.
19th century Britons didn’t have the packaged tours we have today so as Muhammad had brought the mountain so to speak and the railway had recently been introduced people came from all parts on a Sunday to look at the foreign prisoners. But unless you’re in love, gazing at another human being can only engage the attention for so long and other entertainment was required. ‘The castle. Let’s see the castle.’ At sixpence a time the newly formed Sussex Archaeological Society soon accumulated the cash to start renovations and the Russian prisoners had helped them do it.
Back in time and evidence that the castle was being lived in ended in the 15th century and the castle became mainly a gaol. The ditch had not only run dry but was partially filled in. Building which had started around the castle in the 1300s now proliferated and the ditch became a thoroughfare. Most of us have walked.
It’s called Castle Ditch Lane.