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MARKET TOWNS OF SUSSEX (from SDUK Penny Cyclopedia)

Winchelsea in 1842

Winchelsea is locally situated in the hundred of Guestling and rape of Hastings, 67 miles from London. According to the editor of ‘Magna Britannia,’ the name is derived from the Saxon wincel, an angle or corner, and sea, or ea, island : this explanation well suits the situation of Old Winchelsea, which, before the reign of Henry III, was washed by the waters of the Channel on the south and east, and by the Rother on the north. Of its early history little is known, except that it was of some importance in Saxon times, and that, like its neighbour Rye, it was granted by Edward the Confessor to the abbot and monks of Fescamp in Normandy, which grant was confirmed by William I and Henry I ; but Henry III, in the 31st year of his reign (1247), resumed possession of it for the better defence of his kingdom, exchanging for it other manors in Gloucestershire.

The town is not mentioned by name in ‘Domesday,’ where the possessions of the abbey were entered under the manor of Rameslie ; Winchelsea is probably the new borough there noticed. At the Conquest it did not form part of the Cinque Ports, but was added before the reign of John. In 1067 William landed here from Normandy, and by his sudden arrival defeated the measures taken in England to shake off the Norman yoke : here also Henry II landed in 1188, on his return from Normandy : hither Simon de Montford repaired after the defeat of his father at Evesham, intending to bring over foreign troops ; and hither he was followed by Prince Edward, who, in 1266, stormed and took the town, putting to the sword the chief inhabitants, who had warmly espoused the cause of the barons. Soon after the exchange with the abbey, the old town began to suffer much from the influx of the sea. More than 300 houses were destroyed by the overflow of the sea in 1250. The sea continued its ravages, and had done so much injury, that the inhabitants petitioned Edward I for a site whereon to build a new town ; and the king, in the 8th year of his reign, issued a commission to Ralph of Sandwich, his steward, authorising the purchase of a rising hill or piece of ground containing 150 acres, which was then a rabbit-warren, called Iham, within the parish of Icklesham. The purchase was completed, an arrangement was made with the vicar to pay him £10 in lieu of tithes, and the ‘inhabitants of Old Winchelsea took to it by little and little and builded it.’ The ground was divided into 40 squares, containing about 2 acres each, of which 39 may still be traced; and the spacious streets intersected each other at right angles. The new town was walled in by the king, and in six or seven years it was ‘metely well finished.’ Very soon afterwards the calamity, against which the inhabitants had provided, happened. ‘In the year of our Lord 1287, in the even of St. Agath, the virgin, was the towne of Winchelsea drowned, and all the lands between Clivesend (Cliff’s End, Pett) and the vocher of Hithe.’ The new town continued to increase and flourish ; its relative importance may be known from the large proportion of ships furnished to Edward I. Hastings and its members, with the two ancient towns, had to furnish the king with 21 ships, and in the apportionment no less than 10 were assigned to Winchelsea, 5 being required from Rye, and only 3 from Hastings. It soon became the place of import for French wines, for which massive crypts were built. The harbour was little injured by the overflow that destroyed the town, and in the time of Henry VI Winchelsea was one of the principal ports of embarkation for the Continent.

The new settlement did not escape without the ordinary calamities of towns along the southern coast : it was pillaged and partially burnt by the French in 1360, and received much more serious injury from the Spaniards twenty years afterwards. The town was subsequently repaired. Henry VIII raised for its defence the castle of Camber, the ruins of which are still standing : it consisted of a large round tower, which served as a keep, surrounded by several smaller ones connected by short curtains. The sea, which had been the constant enemy of Winchelsea, began once more to cause its ruin by deserting the new town ; the inlet and harbour became choked up with sand and beach, and although Queen Elizabeth, who visited it in one of her progresses in 1573, manifested her sense of its importance by calling it Little London, the trade was soon entirely lost, and Winchelsea fell into decay. It is now little more than a village ; the houses round two sides of the principal square and one small square with a few houses alone remain.

In the middle of the last century an attempt was made to establish here a manufactory of cambric, for which an act was obtained (4 George III, c.37), but the attempt failed. A manufactory of Italian crape succeeded, till it was transferred to Norwich. At present there is no manufacture and vary little trade : the population, in 1831, was reduced to 772, inhabiting 143 houses.

Winchelsea has never received a charter : it is a corporation by prescription, and was not included in the act of 5 & 6 William IV, c.76. The corporation consists of a mayor and jurats, of whom there ought to be twelve ; the style is ‘the mayor, jurats, and commonalty of the ancient town of Winchelsea.’ The mayor and jurats hold courts of session and general gaol delivery, and their jurisdiction extends to capital felonies. This town returned two members to parliament from 42nd Edward III. till the 2nd William IV, c.45, when Winchelsea found a place in Schedule A, since which it has been added to the electoral district of Rye, and joins in the return of one member.

Of the ancient glory of Winchelsea few traces remain. Three of the four gateways are still standing, viz. the Landgate on the north-east, the Strandgate on the south, and Newgate to the south-west, but in a very ruinous condition. Of the three churches, St. Giles, St. Leonard’s, and St. Thomas the Apostle, a portion of the last alone exists. It was a large cruciform structure, but the nave has long since disappeared ; the north and south transepts are in ruins, and the chancel with two aisles is the only part used for public worship. Three lofty Gothic arches of clustered columns, formed partly of Sussex marble polished, separate the aisles ; the walls are fretted with arches and columns, and the windows are in the pointed style.

In this church are three altar-monuments, of the time of Edward I, of secular warriors in mail armour, with their legs crossed in token that they had assumed the cross and marched to the defence of the Christian faith in Palestine. They resemble the tombs in the Temple church, London, and, like them, have been erroneously supposed to be monuments of the Knights Templars. The Templars were always buried in the habit of their order, and are represented in it on their tombs. This habit was a long white mantle, with a red cross over the left breast ; it had a short cape and a hood behind, and fell down to the feet unconfined by any girdle. By the arms on the shield of one knight, it appears to be the tomb of a member of the family of Oxenbridge, and another probably belonged to Gervase Alard, both distinguished families in the town or neighbourhood in the time of the last crusade.

Besides the churches, Winchelsea had a convent of Grey Friars, founded by William de Buckingham, of whose edifice the choir with beautiful arches and fine Gothic windows yet stands. Here was also a convent of Black Friars or Dominicans, and a preceptory of St. Anthony : of these all traces are lost. The living is a discharged rectory, within the archdeaconry of Lewes, of the average net value of £278 per annum. Robert de Winchelsea, made archbishop of Canterbury in 1291, and celebrated for his learning, his charity, and his firmness, was a native of Winchelsea.