Lewes, Sussex: Anne of Cleves House and Lewes Priory

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Anne of Cleves was the fourth wife of the famously oft-married Henry VIII, and, in many ways, she was probably his luckiest wife.  For one reason or another, although Henry was enchanted with this German princess’s portrait, when presented with the real article he found himself unable to perform (I’d be inclined to blame his extreme obesity, and revolting weeping leg ulcer, rather than poor old Anne – I also imagine Henry would have happily had me beheaded for my sass).  He quickly had the marriage annulled (because the main point of marriage for him was to sire another legitimate male heir), and since Anne was smart enough to go along with this without putting up a fight, she was given a favoured position in court as Henry’s “sister,” and a number of properties, which brings us to Anne of Cleves House, in Lewes.  For, although the house bears her name, she never actually lived here; she merely owned it and collected the rents.

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It is quite a nice house nonetheless, all timber framed and Tudory, having been built primarily in the late 1400s.  Admission to the house is £4.90, assuming you haven’t bought that combined ticket with Lewes Castle I was talking about in the last post, or don’t have English Heritage membership, as this is another property that gives you half-off (if you bring it up).  We were advised to start our visit in the bedroom, which was very large indeed; probably bigger than my whole flat – this was some luxe Tudor living.

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I was delighted to find an entire clothes-rail full of Tudor costumes, and since no one else was there, I grabbed the best dress for myself and pretended to be a hopefully sweeter-smelling version of Anne of Cleves, sans headdress, as I didn’t see any there.  I actually went as Anne Boleyn for Halloween about 7 years ago (proof shown on right above), at least, Anne Boleyn if she had her head sewn back on after decapitation, and was wearing a not very historically accurate dress, so it was nice to pretend to be another of Henry’s wives (though in reality I wouldn’t have wanted to be any of them, though if I had to pick I’d go with either Anne of Cleves or Catherine of Aragon because then at least Henry would be young and semi-attractive, I just wouldn’t have put up a fight when he wanted to get with Anne Boleyn (and would have told my stupid nephew to keep his huge Hapsburg jaw out of it), and would probably have been treated reasonably well).

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The rest of the bedroom was just random pieces of Tudor furniture, but a sign helpfully suggested that I might enjoy putting on the costumes and posing with various items of furniture (well yes, obviously I did enjoy that!).  We then headed downstairs, which proved to be unexpectedly large, starting with the obligatory Tudor kitchen (wow, spits, and mortars and pestles, and a buncha iron pots, woot), but I actually shouldn’t badmouth the kitchen, because it held a “magic” table.

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This table was mentioned at Lewes Castle, so I was very much looking forward to seeing it, and insisted on referring to it as a “magic table,” even though I think it was supposed to be more like a religious thing, so maybe “miraculous table” is more what they’re going for.  At any rate, if you haven’t already read the caption above, the deal with the table is that after the knights killed Thomas a Becket in Canterbury, they rode back to a house near Lewes, and threw their swords on the table, but the table threw them back.  I guess it’s impressive just that a table from the 12th century is still around, regardless of whether or not it possesses magical properties, but clearly I’m thrilled by the whole story.

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I was pleasantly surprised to see that they had a small ironmongers’ museum in a back room, which was absolutely rife with authentic smells (for real authentic ones).  In addition to some tools of the trade, it was mostly a collection of firebacks, basically, the things that go at the back of fireplaces (I might have my terminology wrong here because I was still too thrilled by the magic table to read things properly).  I thought it was delightfully ironic that they had one with the image of the Lewes Martyrs burning at the stake on it, as I believe the job of the fireback was actually to keep the fire from spreading and burning down the house (and by extension, whoever was inside at the time).

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There were also some cannons and things, and a lengthy description of the moulding process in the long-winded style of a very old-fashioned museum, which is obviously the sort of thing I love, even if I wasn’t quite in the mood to give it my full attention.

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This was because I’d spotted a local history room upstairs, and my god do I love a bunch of dusty cases full of local history (I’m not sure if most visitors even come back there, as we didn’t see anyone else the entire time, and it kind of had an air of being undisturbed).  One case in particular stood out, as it contained “relics” meant to be from Gundrada, the wife of William de Warenne, who died in childbirth (William de Warenne being the guy who built Lewes Castle, and many other fortresses), in the form of a couple nasty yellowed teeth, roots and all; a mummified rat and silver spoon that was apparently responsible for having a servant girl thrown out on the street (where she presumably starved to death; actually, I’m surprised she wasn’t just hanged, as I’d imagine a silver spoon is worth more than a couple shillings or whatever the cutoff was for a capital offence (6 shillings?  2 shillings?  I can’t quite remember, even though I was just reading about it the other day)), when it was the rat that really took the spoon; and a bunch of toys carved by French prisoners during the Napoleonic Wars, like the ones that were recently featured on Antiques Roadshow.  All of this appealed very much to my inner nerd.

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They had loads of other awesome things, like a “liberty cap,” which is really just a iron thing shaped like a hat on a stick, which I guess ties back to Thomas Paine and all that (who lived in Lewes, in case you missed my last post.  Yep, still excited about Thomas Paine), and some stuff from Harvey’s Brewery back in the early days, when they had competition from other local breweries.  I was kind of disturbed by the painting on the wall of an early Victorian Bonfire Night in Lewes, which validated my decision to not attend it, because it looked just as creepy as I’d imagined.  There was also a painting of another disturbing event in Lewes, where a giant wall of snow collapsed and killed a handful of people because they refused to move even after they were warned that a huge snowbank was about to squish their homes (this happened in the Victorian era; I highly doubt Lewes gets that much snow in this day and age); there’s now a pub called the Snowdrop to commemorate it, which is perhaps a bit glib, but I can dig it (another pun?).

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Also in regard to Bonfire Night (because they’re REALLY into it), there were a couple interesting advertisements about it; one from a year when it was going on in full force, with the schedule of events (which seemed to include much loud singing of “God Save the Queen,” the Queen at the time being Victoria), and then another year (1874) when it had to be cancelled due to disease in the town (typhoid, apparently, i.e. the same thing that allegedly killed Prince Albert 13 years earlier, assuming he didn’t actually die of stomach cancer as some medical historians have claimed).

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There was one more room of the Tudor house, a parlour, which contained similar furniture to the bedroom, and was nowhere near as enthralling as the local history room, but was still quite nice.  Our visit ended up taking much longer than we’d thought it would, since we didn’t know there would be so many extra history rooms, and we almost had to run out and buy another parking ticket.  For the money, I think this was much more enjoyable than Lewes Castle (though Lewes Castle is still probably worth seeing, because it’s a castle, I just prefer the time periods covered in Anne of Cleves House, in case you couldn’t tell from all the historical tidbits I’ve been throwing in).  4/5.

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In Anne of Cleves house, they had a few posters up about Lewes Priory (also built by William de Warenne, the guy got around); it’s now in ruins that have been turned into a park.  It was just down the road from Anne of Cleves House, down the hilariously named Cockshut Road, so we decided to go quickly check it out.  This too was much larger than I was expecting, and had lots of helpful informational signs up everywhere.

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The best part for me, because I have the same sense of humour as a 12 year old boy, apparently, was the fact that most of the surviving bits were the monks’ toilets – not just one set of toilets, but toilets through the centuries, with three time periods represented.  The priory had 59 toilets at one time, so that none of the monks had to queue in between the lengthy masses and prayer sessions, though there were of course, no doors or anything else for privacy.

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They also had a sculpture thing that commemorated the Battle of Lewes (yet again) with scenes from the battle engraved in bronze along the sides of a big rock.  I preferred the ruins themselves though.  This was a lovely park, and I think it’s well worth popping over to see it on your visit to Anne of Cleves House – you can probably even have a picnic by the old toilets, as I would have done if I wasn’t so vehemently opposed to al fresco dining (I was attacked by an aggressive ladybug when wandering the ruins, and I don’t even mind ladybugs, so I’d hate to get on the bad side of bugs that freak me out, like butterflies and spiders).  So I guess my conclusion is that Lewes makes for a varied and entertaining day out, I’d recommend it.  Especially the raspberry friands from that bakery, they really were super delicious and I can’t stop thinking about them.

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