May 14th 1264. The aftermath of the battle. Two thousand corpses lie strewn on the slopes and riverbanks around Lewes. Some view this as a victory; for others this is defeat. But for a large black bird who calmly watched the bloodshed from the sidelines, this scene of slaughter is an all-you-can-eat buffet. Democracy never tasted so good.
Smart birds, ravens. Way before 1264 they'd realised they needn't waste their energy killing to eat when other less intelligent species can do the dirty work for them. For centuries ravens exploited human's enthusiasm for resolving quarrels with clubs and swords. Ravenous ravens dined out at all the finest battlefields, burial grounds, gibbets and gallows.
Hanging around with corpses would get anyone a bad reputation but the ravens' reputation took on mythological proportions. Across the northern hemisphere the bird became respected and revered by many cultures as an omen of death, denizen of the afterlife, messenger of defeat. This sinister CV secured them a plethora of portentous appearances in everything from the Old Testament to Game of Thrones. The mere sight of a raven would strike fear in the heart of any man and we would dare not harm it. Today ravens feature in our folklore as the earthbound spirit of King Arthur and at the Tower of London the birds are still entrusted with the fate of the kingdom.
Yet aside from all these malevolent accolades we bestow on the raven it truly is a magnificent bird to watch. In its role as Britain's wickedest bird the raven certainly dresses the part in a costume of sleek glossy black feathers, shaggy 'beard' and stout dagger beak. In flight it commands the sky; wheeling on wide wings and uttering its guttural 'cronk cronk' call. Yet sometimes their behaviour is incongruous with their evil image. To see ravens rolling and tumbling through the air during their joyous display flight is like catching the grim reaper doing the hokey-cokey.
When not busy instilling fear in the population, ravens performed an important clean-up job ridding Britain's towns of rotting rubbish and the bird was protected by royal decree. But in the 17th century people's perceptions changed and for centuries the birds were persecuted. Ravens, and the old beliefs they represented, were exorcised from England. By 1895 they had vanished from Sussex.
Informed, tolerant attitudes have recently allowed ravens to return to Lewes. A few pairs breed on the chalk cliffs that skirt the town. In our comfortable world of surround sound and selfies there is something reassuringly sinister in watching a raven circling over Lewes High Street; a spectral souvenir of our brutal, primitive past. Lewes will never again be the site of a bloody revolutionary battle. But there's no harm in a few ravens hanging around. Just in case.
Originally posted May 2014, the 750th anniversary of the Battle of Lewes