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The history of Winchelsea

Power and wealth

By the time the Pipe Roll of 1204 was compiled, Old Winchelsea was a prosperous port town. In fact, it was second only to London and Southampton on the southeast coast, and considerably more important than Rye (Winchelsea paid £62 in tax, compared to Rye’s £11 and Dover’s £32). In 1264, representatives of Winchelsea were summoned to the parliament convened by Simon de Montfort and, from 1366, the town returned two members.

By the middle of the 13th century, Winchelsea appears to have achieved some degree of self-government. In 1252, presaging the later Corporation, the principal citizens of Old Winchelsea --- known, as in the other Cinque Port towns, as the barons of the town --- were instructed to elect 12 men from amongst themselves to advise the Crown on sea defences.

Unlike other ports, Winchelsea did not serve a large hinterland. Behind the town was the heavily-wooded and lightly-populated Weald, across which communication was difficult. The town’s fortunes therefore depended largely on the sea. The foundation of Winchelsea’s prosperity was its original raison d’être, fishing. Fish was a crucial element in the medieval diet. Even in 1267, almost half of the town’s revenues were derived from that source.

Of special importance to Winchelsea (and other Cinque Port towns) was the North Sea herring fishery centred on Great Yarmouth. The focal point was the Yarmouth Herring Fair held each autumn. The Cinque Ports had special privileges at the fair --- the right to occupy the shore, dry their nets, sell their catch without charge, charge other ships for the maintenance of fire beacons along the shore, and co-administer justice at the fair.

Not surprisingly, these privileges were a source of regular conflict with the men of Great Yarmouth. One famous incident occurred in 1254, as the future King Edward I was due to sail for Gascony for his wedding to Eleanor of Castile, accompanied by his mother, brother and the Archibishop of Canterbury. The men of Winchelsea, who had been preparing a vessel for the Queen, became angry when they saw the fine ship provided by the men of Yarmouth for the Prince. They attacked the ship and killed many of its crew. Even more seriously, in 1297, when Edward sailed with his army from Winchelsea to Sluys, a battle broke out at Sluys between the ships of the Cinque Ports and Yarmouth. Between 17 and 37 ships and many men were lost. Ironically, it was the appearance of a fleet from Yarmouth that foiled a French attack on Winchelsea in 1295.

Like other members of the Cinque Ports Confederation, Winchelsea’s prosperity was considerably enhanced by its strategic importance after the Norman Conquest. Old Winchelsea provided, in the form of the Camber, a large sheltered anchorage close to the shortest crossing between England and Normandy. William the Bastard is known to have crossed from Dieppe to Old Winchelsea in December 1067.

In addition to its cross-Channel role, Old Winchelsea provided a haven to ships passing up and down the Channel from Flanders and the Baltic in the north to the Bay of Biscay and beyond in the south. It also became the main port of embarkation for pilgrims going to the shrine of Santiago (Saint James) de Compostella, and a regional centre for overseas trade, particularly with Flanders, Normandy and Gascony.

Overseas trade generated a large coastal carrying trade. Imports were transhipped at Winchelsea and carried to other ports along the south coast as far as Devon, although London was the key market. Regional exports were shipped the other way. Winchelsea’s trade was mainly in bulk commodities: imports of iron, wine, salt, fish and foodstuffs; and exports of wood, fuel and fish. The trading of wine, not least from Gascony, was an especially important source of wealth. New Winchelsea was one of the ten major wine ports in England in the first half of the 14th century.

Fishing and trade fostered ancillary industries such as shipbuilding and repair, helped by proximity to the forests of the Weald. These activities also generated the ships and skilled manpower that could be harnessed for the war. Old Winchelsea not surprisingly housed royal dockyards. In the wars with France that followed the loss of Normandy in 1204 and the subsequent French attacks on English possessions in Gascony and Acquitaine, Winchelsea was a major source of ships and men for the Crown. Indeed, during the 13th century, Winchelsea often provided more ships and men than any other English port. Its harbour also made Winchelsea a major assembly point for English naval forces.

In 1247, the strategic importance of Winchelsea and Rye caused Henry III to recover the towns of Winchelsea and Rye from the powerful Benedictine Abbey of Fécamp in Normandy, to whom they, as part of the Manor of Rameslie, had been ceded by King Canute sometime between 1017 and 1030 (apparently to fulfil a promise made by Ethelred the Unready, who had found sanctuary at the Abbey from the invading Danes in 1014). It was presumably considered unwise to have two such importance ports under the control of the French. The two towns thenceforth came under the control of a royal officer called the King’s Bailiff.

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