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The history of Winchelsea

A town planned: the religious houses

The ruins of the chancel of the chapel of the Grey Friars monasteryThere were several religious houses in New Winchelsea, most notably, the monastery of the Grey Friars (Franciscans). The Grey Friars moved from Old Winchelsea, where they had been since 1252. Their monastery appears to have been badly damaged by the storms that hit Old Winchelsea and, in 1284, they were granted a 4-acre site by John Bone of Wickham to allow them to relocate. The new monastery therefore predated the Crown’s acquisition of land for New Winchelsea and the irregular shape of the plot may have disrupted the symmetry of news town's the quarters. The monastery was dissolved in 1538 and the site was sold off by the Crown in 1545. The surviving buildings were converted into a private residence but this was demolished in 1819 to make way for the current house. All that remains of the monastery, apart from its buried foundations, is part of the monastery church. This is a spectacular ruin. Pevsner thought it one of the most impressive Franciscan remains in England. The walls of the choir stand to almost their original height and the arch that connected with the nave remains in place. There is a small tower to one side of the arch, containing stairs thought to lead to the now missing dormitory. This was used as a watchtower by customs officers in the early 19th century.

The monastery of the Black Friars (Dominicans) was located in what is now Pipewell Field on the opposite side of the A259 to the Ferry or Pipewell Gate. At the foundation of New Winchelsea, the barons asked that the only religious house in the town should be the Grey Friars. The Black Friars (a preaching order, later associated with the Inquisition) were not popular and there are records of fights between monks and townsfolk. The Black Friars did not get into the town until Edward II granted them a site in 1318, but they had to be content with Kings Green at the southern end by the New Gate. This proved unsatisfactory as few people came to visit the monastery or give alms. In 1339, the Black Friars moved to a new site on reclaimed marshland on the north side of Iham hill, outside the town walls. In 1342, the monks complained to the Pope that the site was at risk of flooding. He ordered the Bishop of Chichester to move them into the town. This was only achieved in 1357, when Edward III needed the support of the Pope for his invasion of France, and the site by the Ferry Gate was found. However, by the time of the Dissolution in 1538, the monastery was in ruins. Its stone was removed to help rebuild Camber Castle.

There were four hospitals in Winchelsea: St John, Holy Cross, St Bartholomew and St Anthony. They were not hospitals in the modern sense but almshouses and, despite their religious names, they were all civic facilities. Of the four, the only visible remains are the gable wall of St John’s which stands today at the end of Monks Walk. St John’s was the most important of the four hospitals and had been present in Old Winchelsea. It was controlled by the Mayor and was in use until the late 1560’s. The Holy Cross hospital was located south of St John’s, near the New Gate. Its plot became known as Holy Rood Field. Holy Cross had also been present in Old Winchelsea. It was closed in the early 16th century. St Bartholomew’s Hospital may or may not have been present in the old town. Like St John’s, it was under the control of the Mayor. It was located immediately to the south of Holy Rood, hard by the New Gate. St Bartholomew’s had been merged with St John’s by the 16th century. The fourth hospital was St Anthony’s. This was also referred to as a hermitage. It existed in Old Winchelsea and maintained a light at the harbour entrance. It was presumably lost with the inundation of Old Winchelsea and a new site was found at the end of the shingle spit which protected the harbour of the new town and on which Camber Castle was subsequently built. In 1536, it was burnt by the Admiral of Sluys.

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Click To Enlarge the plan of the ruined chapel

The plan of the ruined chapel of the Grey Friars (copyright Archaeology South East)

Click to enlarge the elevation of the ruin chapel diagram

The western and southern elevation of the ruined chapel of the Grey Friars (copyright Archaeology South East)