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The history of Winchelsea

A town planned: the churches

There were three churches in the town - St Thomas, St Giles and St Leonard’s (the latter in Iham). There had been churches dedicated to St Thomas and St Giles in Old Winchelsea.

St Thomas's ChurchSt Thomas’s was the principal church of New Winchelsea and was originally the size of a small cathedral, with a central tower and spire that would have been visible far out to sea, and a nave stretching right across the churchyard towards what is now German Street.

Images of both St Thomas’s and St Giles’ Churches are found on the Town Seal. The original architectural style is mid-Gothic Decorated.

All that remains of St Thomas’s is the chancel (which has become the nave) and the ruined transepts. Two of the great piers that supported the tower are embedded in the west wall, either side of the porch.

One puzzle about St Thomas's is the detached tower that stood on the southwest corner of the church. This was standing until 1790, when the Rector of the time, Drake Hollingberry, had it demolished. Its function is unclear. The tower may be the one depicted on the Town Seal between the churches of St Thomas and St Giles, although this has no spire. The image on the Seal --- which has a watchman holding a lamp --- has led to suggestions that the structure was a watchtower. However, the image on the seal also has figures in the ground floor chamber, prompting alternative suggestions that it was used as the Corporation treasury along the lines of similar towers in some towns on the Continent. Others suggest it was the bell tower or campanile of the church.

There has been much speculation about whether the church of St Thomas was ever finished, but it is now generally accepted that it was. The ruins of the southwest corner of the nave were shown in a drawing of 1825 (the foundations of the nave were reported in 1850 to have been dug up and sold in 1790 for use in Rye Harbour, but the Harbour closed in 1784) and a tessellated pavement was found in the early 20th century where the nave would have been. The question that then arises is who destroyed the missing nave and ruined the transepts. Conventional wisdom has it that the truncated state of St Thomas’s Church came about because of the French raid of 1360. It has been suggested that the French targeted the church because the English were supporting the Pope in Rome, while the French were supporting the Pope in Avignon. However, a map of 1572 shows that the main tower was still standing. It now seems likely that the lost sections of the church were probably demolished by the church authorities between 1572 and 1597, when a second map shows the church without a tower or nave, to reduce the burden of maintenance on the impoverished parish. The materials would have been sold off. The roof timbers of the transepts were removed only in the 1640's.

The church of St Giles was located in Quarter 21, which is on the other side of what is now the A259 in St Giles Close. It served a parish within Winchelsea that was L-shaped and included the poorer western and southern quarters. The church reputedly was the scene of a barbarous massacre by the French in 1360, which is supposed to be the origin of the name of Deadman’s Lane often given to the road running to the south of the church (originally Fifth Street and now Hogtrough Lane). The church was hit by lightning and burned down in 1413, but rectors continued to be appointed until 1500. Most of the parish of St Giles was outside a new town wall proposed in 1415. However, in 1541, the parish of St Giles was merged into that of St Thomas’s and soon afterwards the church of St Giles was decommissioned. Stone from the church was used in 1545 to repair the walls of Rye, and the last ruins were levelled in 1790, again by the Rector, Drake Hollingberry.

Little is known about the church of St Leonards. From tax records, it appears to have been quite a prosperous church at the time of New Winchelsea’s foundation but was of no consequence by the early 15th century. A length of the south wall was still standing in 1794 but was demolished within a few years to make way for a new windmill.

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Click to enlarge the location of st thomas's church

The location of St Thomas’s Church in its square (copyright Archaeology South East)

Town Seal

The Corporation Seal

 Click to enlarge the plan of st thomas's church as completed

The plan of St Thomas’s Church as completed (copyright Archaeology South East)

click to enlarge the location of the churches plan

The locations of churches, religious houses & hospitals in New Winchelsea (copyright Archaeology South East)