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The history of Winchelsea

Decay (1525-1760)

The decline in Winchelsea’s fortunes appears to have accelerated at the start of the 16th century. By 1532, the town accounted for just 5% of the revenues collected from southeastern ports by customs officials based at Chichester. These had dwindled to almost nothing by 1550, by which time most of Winchelsea’s trade and fishing activity had migrated to Rye. In 1524, Winchelsea could provide only four small vessels and 15 men for ship service and in 1544, it managed just six boats. By 1561, there were no ships or boats based at Winchelsea. By 1587, there was one sailor left in Winchelsea, one William Bucston. However, the town contributed the considerable sum of £66 13s 4d towards the cost of the ship provided by Hastings, the Anne Bonaventure, to serve under Lord Seymour against the Spanish Armada in 1588. In 1601, Sir Walter Raleigh commented that “there be many havens which have been famous, and now are gone to decay as Winchelsey: Rye is of little receipt”.

Winchelsea’s decline and decay naturally affected its institutions. In 1541, the parishes of St Thomas and St Giles were amalgamated. In 1548, the Corporation sold off the bells of the ‘great cross’ and the ‘great chalice’.

The fabric of Winchelsea also deteriorated. No new houses were built between about 1525 and the mid-18th century. When Queen Elizabeth I visited in 1573 (entering the town up the northern cliff along a steep path called Spring Steps), only 60 houses were inhabited and many derelict buildings were being demolished to provide stone for new buildings in neighbouring villages. The show put on by the Mayor and Corporation prompted her to refer (sarcastically) to the town as “Little London” but, in 1586, she did confirm the right of the Corporation to properties seized by the Crown at the Dissolution and transferred the Crown’s rents, subsequently called the Queen’s Dues, which amounted to about £22. The Corporation still tries to collect these rents today.

The same year as the Queen’s visit, St Thomas’s Church was described as being in a ‘ruinous’ condition and it may have been shortly afterwards that the church was reduced to its current truncated size and the central tower demolished.

The famous diarist John Evelyn confirmed the dilapidated state of Winchelsea during a visit in 1652, when he walked over from Rye. He observed only “a few despicable hovels and cottages” amid piles of rubbish and was astonished to discover that the place still boasted a mayor. He was however fascinated by the ruins of the medieval town which, he said, included “vast caves and vaults, walls and towns, ruins and monasteries and a sumptuous church”.

The Cinque Port Confederation as a whole followed Winchelsea on its downward spiral, and tried desperately to maintain its dignity by seeking to forge a “closer union characterised by an almost officious observance of ceremony” and to develop “an elaborate system of government, for the purpose of maintaining the obsolete privileges of an otherwise purposeless association” (Murray).

Curiously, despite its impoverished state, Winchelsea in the 16th and 17th century had a disproportionate number of gentleman and esquires resident in the town. This was because of the tax exemptions and other ancient privileges that continued to be derived from the town’s status as a member of the Cinque Port Confederation. It would seem that, despite the lamentable state of the town as a whole, the houses of these residents were well-maintained and often improved.

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