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The history of Winchelsea

The years of decline (1350-1525)

The fortunes of Winchelsea started to decline in the latter half of the 14th century. By 1378, Winchelsea had been supplanted by Chichester as chief port of Sussex. By 1414, its southern and western suburbs had been abandoned.

Winchelsea’s decline has traditionally been attributed to attacks by the French and Castillians. Indeed, it is claimed that the first such raid took place in 1326 and destroyed a quarter of the town. Particularly brutal attack in 1360 by the French, and in 1380 by the French and Castilians (the latter became involved because of English support for one of the claimants of the Castillian throne and, after his death, the claim by John of Gaunt) wrought even more destruction. However, the town’s decline was probably down to a combination of factors. International conflict was certainly one factor. The Hundred Years War disrupted trade, diverted ships away from fishing and commerce into prolonged naval service and exposed Winchelsea’s fleet to the depredations of privateers.

However, the most serious problem for New Winchelsea was the silting up of the harbour due to the infilling of the upper reaches of the River Brede to create new farm land. This reduced the flow of the river and its scouring effect on the harbour. In addition, the eastward migration of shingle along the Channel --- the very force which had created and then destroyed Old Winchelsea --- had started to infill Rye Bay.

Economic forces were also at play in the decline of Winchelsea. The wine trade declined after 1337 and the start of the Hundred Years War. By the middle of the 14th century, the focus of English trade was shifting away from Flanders, Normandy and Gascony to Spain and the Mediterranean. There was also a decline in the North Sea herring fisheries, to which the Cinque Port towns had privileged access, and the opening of the competing deep sea Atlantic cod fisheries. These trends disadvantaged all the Cinque Port towns, which were unable to accommodate larger ocean-going vessels and were poorly situated compared to the western Channel ports and Bristol. The advent of the Black Death in 1348 (it hit Winchelsea in 1349) made the struggle to overcome these problems that much harder.

However, the decline of Winchelsea should not be exaggerated. There is evidence that Winchelsea recovered rapidly from French and Spanish attacks and was able to launch violent counter-attacks. By 1388, the commercial core of Winchelsea had been re-occupied. Civic expenditure increased. Among other things, the town went to the considerable expense of buying itself a civic clock. By 1404, the Pipewell Gate had been repaired. Substantial new houses continued to be built after 1350, although they were timber-framed rather than stone-built and tended to follow rural rather than urban designs. The most spectacular was a three-storeyed L-shaped timber-framed house built in 1500 on the corner of the High Street and Castle Street (now called Periteau House), which had two tiers of jetties overhanging the street.

Between 1419 and 1422, Winchelsea commissioned truly massive engineering works upstream on the River Brede to try to flush out its harbour. This involved cutting a major new channel to the sea which was 7.5km long enclosed by banks 150m apart. It allowed navigation as far as Brede.

Winchelsea’s continued sway as a naval power in the Channel is evidenced by its granting of the Winchelsea Certificate to the town of Poole in 1364, confirming the maritime jurisdiction of the mayor and burgesses of Poole over Poole Harbour. This was possibly some alliance between Winchelsea and Poole against neighbouring ports like Wareham, perhaps inspired by the value of Poole Harbour to Winchelsea ships. The event is still celebrated in Poole every year in the Beating of the Water Bounds of Poole Harbour.

Winchelsea Certificate

In 1415, Winchelsea, Sandwich and London were named as ports for the assembly of foreign ships hired and seized by Henry V to transport his huge army to France.

As late as 1433, the Camber could still accommodate ships of up to 200 tons and remained the principal port of embarkation for pilgrims to Santiago de Compostella. Foreign merchants were still active in the town in the middle of the century. In 1491, Winchelsea accounted for 65% of the customs revenues collected from southeastern ports by officials based at Chichester. In an agreement of 1394, Winchelsea undertook to contribute 10 of the 20 vessels that Hastings was obliged to provide for ship service, while Hastings and Rye were each to contribute five.

In 1415, Henry V commissioned a royal enquiry into the defences of Winchelsea which proposed a new section of wall and ditch inside the original defensive circuit to make it easier for the town to be defended following the abandonment of the western and southern suburbs. Only 21 of the original 39 quarters were to be within the new defensive circuit.

The proposed wall was to run south down the westernmost vertical street as far as Sixth Street, and then east along Sixth Street to the eastern cliff, cutting across the precinct of the Grey Friars. There was to be a new gate at the western end of Third Street (High Street) and another one in the southern wall to defend the road up from the abandoned New Gate. How much of the new defensive circuit was built is unclear. Peace with France following the Battle of Agincourt halted work.

Camber CastleThe final episode in the defence of Winchelsea was the building of Camber Castle, also known as Winchelsea Castle, although strictly-speaking it was intended to defend the harbour of Rye. The Castle was situated at the end of a spit of shingle extending northeast from Winchelsea (called Kevill or Cobble Point). Incorporating an earlier tower, built by Sir Edward Guldeford between 1512 and 1514, it was constructed between 1538 and 1543, one of the chain of coastal forts built by Henry VIII against the French. Over the next century, the relentless eastward migration of shingle filled in large parts of Rye Bay and stranded the Castle. It was decommissioned in 1637.

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Click To Enlarge the defensive plan

‘The defensive plan of 1415 for New Winchelsea (copyright Archaeology South East)