Hear local historian Dr Anthony Freeman talk about the history of the buildings and the surrounding park with its reconstructed medieval herb garden. You can pause and play the audio guide as desired or download it to your computer or mobile device. The board numbers correspond to those shown on the information panel location map. This audio guide was recorded for Lewes Priory Trust by Lewes in Focus. Art work © Andy Gammon.
Download the MP3 file by clicking the Download button in SoundCloud
The Priory of St Pancras was founded between 1078 and 1082. The first church was built in the 11th century by the first Prior, Lanzo, who came over from Cluny in France with 3 monks.
Over the centuries the Priory developed and expanded. The reconstruction drawing shows how the Priory might have looked just before it was demolished in 1538. There were as many as 100 monks living here in the 12th and 13th centuries but this had declined to only 24 monks in 1537. The main duties of the Cluniac monks were prayer and contemplation. They attended eight church services and masses and processions held during the day and night.
Many other people worked in the Priory precinct. The water mill ground grain sent as payment from the estates owned by the Priory. The flour was used to bake bread in the bakery. Ale was brewed in the brewery as water was too contaminated to drink. Food was provided from the gardens, orchards, fish-ponds and pigeon house. It may be hard to imagine but this whole area would have been bustling with the activity needed to sustain such an important institution.
Herbs, vegetables and fruit were cultivated in different areas of the site. A herb garden was probably located here, close to the infirmary. Infirmary gardens provided medicinal herbs. Orchard and kitchen gardens provided fruit, vegetables and herbs used in preparing meals. However, the garden today grows examples of both medicinal and culinary herbs that would have been used in the Priory.
It is modelled on the garden of the monastery of St Gallen in Switzerland. The garden includes examples of wattle fencing, timber, flintwork and Tudor brickwork that would have enclosed the soil in the raised beds.
Nothing remains of the large infirmary above ground level.The outer walls are marked out where they would have been. Elderly monks ended their days here and sick monks were cared for. Herbs from the Priory’s herb garden were often used to make medicines. Monks had to follow a strict set of Priory rules (based on the Rule of St Benedict) and these allowed better food, including meat, to be provided in the infirmary. If they were able, the sick and elderly monks attended services in the nearby Infirmary Chapel (formerly the First Church).
The infirmary had its own kitchen, toilet and small garden. It was also one of the few buildings in the Priory with fireplaces to provide heat. Monks in the infirmary slept in beds along the walls, but later individual cubicles were added. The Keeper of the Infirmary had a separate room.
Healthy monks were regularly bled in the infirmary or in the warming room below the dormitory. It was believed that blood letting purged the body of impurities and maintained health. Afterwards the monks were allowed to rest and eat the better food
There was already a small Saxon religious building made of wood here which William and Gundrada de Warenne rebuilt in stone. The first monks, under Prior Lanzo, extended it as an impressive church. The walls were decorated with beautiful frescoes and the floors covered with fine glazed tiles. While this first monastic church was being used the Great Church was under construction. Building took many years and once it was completed the First Church may have been used as the Infirmary Chapel.
If you were standing here in the early 16th century, the Great Church would be towering up in front of you. The Church was longer than Chichester Cathedral and gorgeously decorated with elaborate stone carvings, tiling and wall paintings.
The Cluniac order gave great importance to worship and beauty. It was renowned for long and elaborate services, singing and ornate decorations. The monks spent much of the day and night attending services or processing through the Priory.
The Priory’s 11th century monks’ toilet block (reredorter) may well be the first example of a layout that came to be used in most monasteries. The toilets were built over a sewer. Chutes led down from each toilet to the sewer, which channelled away the waste. It is possible to see the sewer under the far wall in front of you.
There were 10 cubicles here but no doors seem to have been provided so the monks did not have much privacy. The three large windows (to your left) provided light and ventilation. A later raising of the the ground level has now blocked them off completely. There was probably a bath house at the west end of the building.
By the end of the 12th century a new, larger toilet block was built to accommodate the growing number of monks. A longer dormitory was then built over the older toilet block.
The monks entered the refectory after washing their hands in a black marble basin in the cloister. They sat on benches, with the most important monks sitting on a raised platform. The rule of silence was maintained here and the monks communicated by hand signs.
However, one monk read aloud to them from the scriptures, a religious book or the Rule of St Benedict.
The Rule required that the monks had a simple diet of vegetables, fish and poultry. In later years rules were not always strictly observed and meat was consumed. The monks drank ale brewed at the Priory.
The monks ate at mid-day throughout most of the year, except in summer when they ate in the evening. The food was prepared in their nearby kitchen and cooked in a massive oven over 5 metres wide. This oven survived until 1845. The Prior had his own lodgings where he entertained important guests.
From here you can see what remains of the monks’ dormitory (dorter). Like many of the Priory buildings, the dormitory was extended as the number of monks increased.
The monks slept in their clothes on straw mattresses. They did, however, change their shoes for warmer night shoes lined with fur. In this way they were ready for the church services they had to attend during the night. The Rule of St Benedict required that a lamp be kept burning in the dormitory throughout the night but no fire was allowed here. Stairs from the dormitory led to the church via the cloister and a bridge connected the dormitory to the toilet block. All the monks, including the Prior, initially slept here and the dormitory would have been one large room when it was first built. The monks had very few possessions and even less privacy. Later on the monks probably had their own cubicles and the Prior slept in his own lodgings.
Underneath the original dormitory (to the north) was the warming house. Here the monks could warm themselves. This was the only room in the Priory, apart from the infirmary and the kitchen, where a fire was allowed.
This toilet block was built to meet the needs of the increased number of monks in the second half of the 12th century. There were at least 59 cubicles. For a time there may have been up to a hundred monks at the Priory.
The toilets were on the first floor above a sewer running along the base of the south wall. You can still see where the sewer would have been. The archway at ground level on the south-eastern end of the outside wall shows where the waste was channelled away. Rectangular vents in the outside wall would have provided some welcome ventilation.
A spine wall separated the sewer from a large ground floor room. This may have been used as a laundry or for storage.
The toilet block is the largest surviving part of the Priory, escaping demolition when it was converted into a malt house.
The Battle of Lewes was fought on 14th May 1264 between the forces of King Henry III, and barons led by Simon de Montfort. Tired of bad government and royal extravagance, the barons wanted the country to be governed by a council rather than by the king.
The king’s army camped here on 12th May, the eve of the feast of St Pancras, an important religious celebration for the Priory. The soldiers’ presence caused much disruption for the monks.
The battle was fought to the north of Lewes and gave victory to Simon de Montfort. The king’s army retreated to the Priory with de Montfort’s forces in pursuit, their blazing arrows causing considerable damage to thatched roofs.
The king’s defeat led to the Mise of Lewes (no copies of which have survived), a treaty which restricted the authority of the king. The conflict divided the monks of the Priory and some were sent back to Cluny, others were punished at Lewes.
During excavations to lay the railway line in 1845, a large burial ground was discovered at the Priory containing hundreds of bodies from the battle.