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The history of Winchelsea

Piracy

A lucrative sideline for Winchelsea’s mariners was privateering in wartime against foreign ships, and piracy in peacetime against both foreign and other English ships. Privateering was a legitimate activity (the Crown took one-fifth of the booty). Piracy was not, but it was difficult for the Crown to stop this acitivity, given that the ‘pirates’ provided much of the navy in time of war.

The piratical activities of the men of Winchelsea were often outrageous. In 1290, when the Jews were expelled from England, Winchelsea ships attacked and robbed them in mid-Channel and stranded one party on a sandbank to drown as the tide submerged it. In 1321, ships from Winchelsea attacked Southampton. The piratical reputation of the men of Winchelsea was such, it was claimed, that hatchets would be held up to ships from Winchelsea entering western Channel ports.

Piracy was not the preserve of the criminal class. Members of the illustrious Alard family (which included the first recorded mayor of New Winchelsea) were frequently accused of piracy during the 13th and 14th centuries.

During the Barons War (1263-67), Winchelsea took sides against Henry III. In 1264, the town surrendered to Henry III and Prince Edward, but rebelled again after the Battle of Lewes. It was to Winchelsea that Simon de Montfort, son of the Earl of Leicester, fled after the defeat of his father at Evesham in 1266. Shortly after, Prince Edward joined the royal army in its campaign against the Cinque Ports which was concluded in a combined land and sea assault on Winchelsea. Some report that the chief inhabitants were executed by Edward, not just for rebellion but for the piracy that had flourished during the lawless years of the rebellion. An order was issued that the men of Winchelsea should “abstain from the piracies that they had before greatly used”. However, other reports state that the rebels were treated with moderation in a peace concluded on 30 May 1266 in return for promises of loyalty and obedient service. Edward became Constable of Dover Castle and Warden of the Cinque Ports.

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