The history of Winchelsea
The years of prosperity (1288-1350)
In the first decades following its foundation, New Winchelsea flourished. The fishing and trading activities that made Old Winchelsea prosperous were successfully transferred to the new town. Its naval contribution to the Crown also continued to be head and shoulders above other English ports. For example, in the 1297 expedition to Gascony, Winchelsea provided a third of the force and many of the largest ships. One of its leading citizens and the first recorded mayor of Winchelsea, Gervase Alard junior, was appointed Admiral of the Western Fleet --- all the vessels in ship service from southern ports as far west as Cornwall --- in 1300 and is often described as England’s first admiral of the fleet (although, in fact, the title was first held by William Leybourn, previously ‘captain of the King’s sailors’ in 1295).
As in Old Winchelsea, a large measure of the prosperity of the new town was based on the import of wine from Gascony. In 1306/07 alone, 737,000 gallons of wine was shipped into Winchelsea. It also continued as the main port of embarkation for pilgrims to Santiago de Compostella (2,433 pilgrims in 1434 alone) and featured in what Cooper claimed was the earliest English sea song:
For when they [pilgrims] take the see
At Sandwyche, or at Wynchelsee,
At Brystow, or where that it bee,
Theyr herts begin to fayle.
However, New Winchelsea’s most prosperous years were destined to be relatively short-lived.
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