The Norman Conquest as seen from my window

I have been looking out of my window at the weirdly distinctive mound that sits behind my house.

Brack Mount, as it is called, has been here a lot longer than anything else in these parts. Possibly an Iron Age defensive position, it was definitely a fortified “motte” – or mound – in the 11th. Century when the nearby castle was built by one of William the Conqueror’s henchmen, William de Warenne. Our castle is unusual because it was designed as a motte and bailey fortress but in this case it had two mottes. Lincoln Castle is the only similar one in England.

If you want to know what a motte is, these pictures will probably explain.The second one is of Brack Mound from the other side and now springing into life with the wild plants that bedeck it until it is all cut down again in the winter. These mounds were often man-made and on their summit were some form of castle or “keep” which would have housed soldiers who had a fine look-out post over the surrounding countryside. A reminder, maybe, that William the Conqueror, was an invading Norman who had taken England by force and who, for some time, had to defend it by force too.

In the 12th. Century our present day stone built castle was constructed and there may have been a smaller stone built keep on the mound outside my window too. If so, those soldiers on sentry duty would be able to look right into this room as I sit here typing. Brack Mound is now a luxury, a small piece of open countryside right in the middle of town.

It is a grey showery April day so far and the sky over the mound looks uninviting but on a hot and sunny day last week, I was tempted out from my cell to explore this historically rich town where I am lucky enough to live.

I was thinking about those Norman conquerors even though it was tempting to just enjoy the beauty of a landscape coloured by Spring, traditional flint walls enlivened by cherry blossom and gardens competing in this year’s latest tulip varieties.

Thinking about William the Conqueror and his invasion too, I assume, were the teenagers worn out by a day’s school work as they lay languorously in the sun with their friends. It was the first real heat of the year so who could blame them for planning their homework, discussing medieval history whilst lying in groups on the grass.

Sometimes though, you set out with the best intentions and the weather, a passing mood, or, let’s admit it just a feeling of enjoyable laziness captures you and leads you astray.

Just like William de Warenne, in fact. Before joining William the Conqueror on his triumphant invasion of England, he had been a minor French nobleman who had done service as a bully boy for his friend the future King of England. He had worked hard too in the Battle of Hastings, in 1066, so he got his reward – loads of land, all over England, the chance to build a big castle and in the end a posh title – the First Earl of Surrey.

I am sure all those sun-bathing kids know all of this of course. What is less well-known, is that, in those religious days, the aristocracy not only went to church but actually built churches.

William de Warenne and his lovely, well let’s be kind, wife, Gundrada, went on a pilgrimage to Rome to say thank you God for making us so successful, rich and powerful. It was what folks did in those days, especially when they had done a bit of conquering.

They reached Burgundy, which is now France, and on a lovely day, a bit like that day last week I guess, they looked around them, saw a pretty church and decided it would be much nicer to take a little break here in the capital of good wine rather than risk all the dangers and perils of going all the way to Rome.

Well that pretty church was Cluny Abbey, the richest and most famous monastic house in Europe which was run by those most hospitable of monks, the Benedictines.

William and Gundrada were so impressed that they decided to have one themselves and this is why our town has these old ruins.

Their lives were like a Norman version of the game of Monopoly. First you build a castle then you build a monastery but they never got round to building a hotel as far as I know and they definitely didn’t go to jail – they were always on the winning side. In this case they built, in the spirit of Cluny Abbey, their very own Cluniac Priory, Lewes Priory.

Soon, like everything the Normans turned their hands to, it was very successful and it owned lands all over England as well as a church as big as a cathedral. I am sure they were very saintly, those monks, but they definitely had a very nice time too.

King Henry VIII spoiled all that in the end some four hundred years later when he had split with the Roman church because he wanted to divorce his wife and he decided, whilst he was at it, he might as well get all that money tied up in the English monasteries too. So he started, what those teenagers are probably reading about, the Dissolution of the Monasteries in 1537.

Without knowing it, King Henry VIII gave us some very pretty ruins, the stuff of Romantic dreams and whimsical imaginings. I was very happy to see them on that golden April afternoon.

I thought I hadn’t been there before but when walking round those moody remains, I remembered another sultry day when, long ago, I, like those school kids, whiled away a hot afternoon with a friend, walking in the footsteps of Medieval knights and imagining a world of adventure and excitement which, we hoped, was just opening up for us.

So thank you William the Conqueror, William de Warenne, Lady Gundrada and, of course King Henry VIII, you did all that just for me and, I hope, for those kids in the park.

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