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Castle Street, Winchelsea
Grid reference: TQ9017
Location: 50°55’30"N, 0°42’32"E
Post town: Winchelsea
Postcode: TN36
Dialling code: 01797
Local Government
Council: Rother
Hastings and Rye

Winchelsea is a small village in Sussex, sitting between the High Weald and Romney Marsh, some two miles southwest of Rye and seven miles northeast of Hastings. The village was a prosperous town in the Middle Ages, a town founded in 1288 to replace an earlier town of the same name, sometimes known as Old Winchelsea, which was lost to the sea.

Notwithstanding its modest size, Winchelsea jealously guards it status as a town. It elects a mayor and corporation as of old; the Mayor of Winchelsea is chosen each year from amongst the members of the corporation, who are known as freemen, rather than being elected by public vote. New freemen are themselves chosen by existing members of the corporation. The corporation lost its remaining civil and judicial powers in 1886 but was preserved as a charity by an Act of Parliament in order to maintain the membership of the Confederation of the Cinque Ports. The mayor and corporation in Winchelsea now have a largely ceremonial role, together with responsibility for the ongoing care and maintenance of the main listed ancient monuments in the town and the Winchelsea museum.[1]

Winchelsea is one of the towns which claim the dubious privilege of being the smallest town in Britain.


Old Winchelsea

Old Winchelsea was on a massive shingle bank that protected the confluence of the estuaries of the Rivers Brede, Rother and Tillingham and provided a sheltered anchorage called the Camber. The old town was recorded as Winceleseia in 1130 and Old Wynchchelse in 1321.

After the Norman Conquest, Winchelsea was of great importance in cross-Channel trade (acting in particular as an entrepôt for London) and as a naval base. In the 13th century, it became famous in the wine trade from Gascony.[2]

There may have been, in the 1260s, over 700 houses, two churches and over 50 inns and taverns thus implying a population of thousands of people at the time.[3] During the mid 13th Century, incursions by the sea destroyed much of the town until a massive flood completely destroyed it in 1287. The ancient town is believed to lie in Rye Bay.

"New" Winchelsea

Sea defences, near Winchelsea

Today's Winchelsea was the result of the old town's population moving to the present site, when in 1281 King Edward I ordered a planned town, based on a grid, to be built. The new town inherited the title of "Antient Town" from Old Winchelsea and retained its affiliation to the Cinque Ports confederation together with Rye and the five head-ports.

Winchelsea was greatly involved in the wine trade with Guyenne and the extensive wine cellars under the town may still be visited on open days.

The town had a tidal harbour on the River Brede. It flourished until the middle of the 14th century. It then suffered French and Spanish raids during the Hundred Years' War until the 15th century and was hit by the Black Death. In 1350, the Battle of Les Espagnols sur Mer was fought nearby. In 1360 the town was sacked and burnt by a French expeditionary force, sent in an unsuccessful attempt to retrieve their King John II of France captured at the Battle of Poitiers four years earlier.[4] The town remained prosperous, although reduced in size until the 1520s.

The silting of the harbour ultimately destroyed its prosperity. Camber Castle was built by Henry VIII in the early 16th century half way between Winchelsea and Rye to guard the approach to the Camber. Much of the stone used in its construction may have been taken from the demolition of the Franciscan monastery of Greyfriars.

Sights of the town

Winchelsea retains its mediæval setting on a hill surrounded by largely empty marsh, the original layout of the planned town and the largest collection of mediæval wine cellars in the country with the possible exception of Norwich and Southampton. It also retains three of the four town gates and several original buildings, including the parish church, which is dedicated to St Thomas the Martyr (Thomas Becket). Another church, St Leonard's, was later the site of a windmill, which was blown down in the Great Storm of 1987. Some of the original 13th/14th century fortifications can still be seen at the Strand Gate and Pipewell or Ferry Gate. The scale of the original plan for New Winchelsea can be judged by the site of the "New Gate", over half a mile outside the current town.

Across the road from the churchyard stands the Court Hall, one of Winchelsea's oldest buildings, the lower floor once being the gaol. The first floor is now a museum, full of relics of the history of Winchelsea, the Corporation, and a model of the town. Nearby is the town well, dug in 1851 to save water being carried up the hill. It is thought to be 80 feet deep.[5]

Winchelsea stands on the main south coast road, the A259. The Royal Military Canal built in the early 19th century as a defence-line against the highly anticipated invasion by Napoleon Bonaparte passes the eastern side of the town and connects to the river Brede.

The town lends its name to the nearby seaside village of Winchelsea Beach.

Outside links

("Wikimedia Commons" has material
about Winchelsea)


  1. Court Hall Museum website
  2. "Winchelsea website". Retrieved 1 April 2012. 
  3. Pratt, M (1998) Winchelsea, A Port of Stranded Pride. p.3. ISBN 0953241106
  4. Trial by Fire - The 100 years war II by Jonathan Sumption
  5. Pratt, M (1998) Winchelsea, A Port of Stranded Pride. p.61. ISBN 0953241106
The Cinque Ports
Cinque Ports Antient Towns Limbs

Hastings  • New Romney  • Hythe  • Dover  • Sandwich

Rye  • Winchelsea

Lydd  • Folkestone  • Faversham  • Margate  • Deal  • Ramsgate  • Brightlingsea  • Tenterden