On the way to Windsor on Sunday we stopped for the afternoon at the medieval town of Lewes, about half an hour from Brighton. Our stop in Lewes was the Anne of Cleves House, where we were met by Emma O’Connor, curator of the Sussex Archaeological Society, who care for the site.
Emma gave us an incredibly interesting talk on the history of the society, the history of the house, and the house in a modern museological context and the challenges she faces in her role. She took us on a tour through the house and imparted pieces of information along the way that we wouldn’t have discovered otherwise, before leaving us to wander the house and garden on our own. We were also treated to a delicious afternoon tea of scones with clotted cream and raspberry jam, slices of Victoria sponge and cups of tea, enjoyed outside under an enormous sun umbrella in the garden. I should also mention that the weather was hot and perfect, not necessarily a given during an English summer!
The house itself was built in the 12th or 13th century, but there is a barrel vaulted cellar under the house dating to the 11th century that indicates a small building or storehouse may have stood on the site originally. Some Elizabethan additions were also made in later years. It’s thought the house was probably rented out to visitors to Lewes, possibly those that were making the journey to Canterbury Cathedral. It was owned by the Lewes Priory, at one point home to at least 300 monks. It was then given to Thomas Cromwell during the Reformation under Henry VIII and the Priory was destroyed. An Italian man was given the task of destroying the Priory and, ironically, they sent away to Rome for more explosives to finish the very anti-Roman Catholic task.
Cromwell was executed after Henry’s long awaited marriage to Anne Boleyn didn’t go how he liked, and eventually this building was given to Anne of Cleves as part of her divorce settlement from Henry, when she was also given the official title of the King’s ‘sister’. In reality, Anne probably never visited her house, it was not grand enough for someone of her standing, although she would have collected the rents from it.
The Sussex Archaeological Society was formed by a group of Victorian gentlemen in 1846 after the discovery the previous year of Norman skeletons when a railway was being built. The remains were those of Gundrada de Warenne and her husband William, wealthy landowners who founded Lewes Priory in the 11th century. The society, typical of gentlemen of their time (a time when a mummy could be acquired by mail-order from Egypt), collected voraciously. As well as archaeological material they acquired other types of objects such as archives and fine art.
They came into the possession of the Anne of Cleves house in the 1920s. Apparently during this time it was common for people to ‘offload’ historical English country houses as they were a nightmare to look after. The National Trust acquired a lot of properties around this time also.
So, the house has been a museum for more than 90 years.
I loved every inch of this building, particularly the exposed wooden ceiling beams and leaning door frames and worn staircases and dark Tudor furniture (ok I loved all of it I have to stop there). But a definite highlight was a room upstairs above the kitchen that had display cases of strange miscellaneous objects, rather than being set up like a room of a house. There was a small wax figure, used to bring harm to someone; old fireworks and safety goggles that looked like a pair of tea strainers; and a shoebox-sized display case holding a mummified rat and a silver spoon. The story with this last object was that a serving girl in Lewes had been thrown out on the street after a silver spoon went missing at her workplace, although she claimed to be innocent. Years later, workers found the mummified rat in part of the house with the spoon alongside it.
Back to the fireworks: we learned from Emma that Lewes has very strong traditions associated with Guy Fawkes night. Everyone in the town belongs to one of the Bonfire Societies, like football clubs, that wear different jerseys around Bonfire Night. Around the town there are 8 specific bonfire sites, named on maps of the town. A huge procession of floats/guys to be burnt goes through the town to celebrate the event too. No points for guessing which lovely lady may have featured in 2016. This all comes from the tradition of remembering the 12 martyrs from Lewes that were burnt at the stake by Queen Mary, Henry VIII’s daughter, for being Protestant.
As I mentioned earlier, Emma shared some great stories with us about objects around the house that we might have otherwise overlooked. One was a stone table in the kitchen, not particularly attractive to look at, but said to have once been at Malling House, where the knights who killed Thomas Beckett stayed after committing the murder when they were on the way to Europe. The story goes that their bloodied gauntlets were placed on the table, which threw them off not once but twice! What a good and godly table. Furthermore, the table was owned by Gideon Mantell, whose wife Mary Ann is said to have found the first iguanadon fossil/tooth (Gideon later decided to say it was “found by me”, and was given the official title of Victorian Gentleman Douchebag). Clearly this piece of unassuming kitchen furniture is a winning example of how important the provenance of an object is!