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The history of Winchelsea

An Antient Town

Old Winchelsea rapidly developed into a major port and was soon recruited into the Confederation of Cinque Ports (pronounced ‘sink’ --- in the Norman French fashion --- and originally written as cinq). This was the alliance of Sussex and Kent ports that was formed in Saxon times to provide ships and men to the Crown in time of war (up to 56 ships and men for up to 15 days a year). Merchant vessels of the time could be readily converted to warships by the erection of castles on the forecastle and stern, as seen on the seals of Winchelsea and other Cinque Ports. In exchange for this ship service, the ports received privileges such as their own courts, exemption from many royal taxes, the right to tax goods passing through their ports, and the right to wrecks and salvage.

At first, Winchelsea and Rye were subsidiaries or limbs of the Cinque Port of Hastings, which was a Head Port of the Confederation (one of the original five). Hastings was the first to suffer from the problem that has subsequently faced all the Cinque Port towns: the gradual eastward shift of shingle in the Channel.

This material had been deposited in the Channel by the erosion of the chalk Downs in Dorset and Hampshore by seasonal melt-water rivers running with great force off the glaciers down to the much lower seabed during the last Ice Age. More shingle may have been blasted down into the Channel from the North Sea when the chalk land bridge between England and France cataclysmically fractured in about 6100 BC. With the rise in sea level following the end of the last Ice Age, the shingle has been gradually swept by the prevailing current eastwards, back towards the North Sea, in a process know as longshore drift. Initially, this created the shingle bank or barrier beach behind which Romney Marsh was formed. Subsequently, it formed the massive shingle bank on which Old Winchelsea was built and began to block the harbour of Hastings to the benefit of the new settlement. As its harbour began to fail, Hastings had to recruit neighbouring Winchelsea and Rye to meet its ship service obligations and help preserve its privileges. Soon Winchelsea was contributing more ships than Hastings.

By 1190, the status of Winchelsea and Rye in the Cinque Ports Confederation had been elevated to the Two Ancient Towns (sometimes misspelt Antient Towns, which means worthy of veneration), equivalent in standing to the original five Head Ports.

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a neff


A neff. The principal type of vessel that would have been seen at New Winchelsea at the time of its foundation. A ship represented on the Town Seal is a neff.