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The history of Winchelsea

Old Winchelsea drowned (1233-1287)

The success of Old Winchelsea was shattered by the start, in 1233, of a prolonged period of exceptionally turbulent weather (climate change?) that lasted until 1288. A long series of severe storms accelerated the eastward longshore drift of shingle in the Channel and started to break up the shingle bank on which Old Winchelsea was built. It is ironic that it was these same forces that had created the shingle bank in the first place. From 1244, Winchelsea was receiving regular grants towards its sea defences and the reclamation of the Walland Marsh ceased.

The famous medieval chronicler Holinshed described “a great tempest of wind” on 1 October 1250 that caused the sea to flow “twice without ebbing, yielding such a roaring that was heard (not without great wonder) a far distance from the shore. Moreover, the same sea appeared in the dark of night to burn, as it had been on fire… At Winchelsea, besides other hurt that was done in bridges, mills, breaks, and banks, there were 300 houses and some churches drowned…”. Another famous writer of the period, Matthew Paris, recorded another great storm, in January 1252, that “drove ships from their anchorages, raised the roofs of houses many of which were thrown down, uprooted completely the largest trees, deprived churches of their spires, made the lead to move, and did other great damage by land, and still greater by sea, and especially at the port of Winchelsea which is of such use to England and above all to the inhabitants of London”.

The description of the storm of 1250 suggests that the shingle bank on which Old Winchelsea stood may have been permanently breached. By 1258, tides were running as far inland as Appledore, a distance of some 8 miles from Old Winchelsea. By 1271, “the quay on the south side of St Thomas [had been] carried away by the floods and tempests of the sea, and a great part of the said church [had] fallen”. By 1280, the site was for the most part submerged. In November 1281,Edward I issued instructions to his steward, Ralph of Sandwich, for the town to be transferred to an alternative site.

On 4 February 1287, it was recorded that “the sea flooded so greatly…in the marsh of Romenal and all adjacent places, that all the [sea] walls were broken down and almost all the lands covered from the great [sea] wall of Appledore towards the south and the west as far as Winchelsea”. The mouth of the River Rother was blocked at Romney and its course diverted to reach the sea at Rye. The previously protected Camber was exposed to the sea and became Rye Bay. The little town of Broomhill, situated on the other side of the entrance to the Camber from Old Winchelsea was swept away. This storm also appears to have finished off what was left of Old Winchelsea, although its ruins were still visible at low tide for another five years. At this point, the town disappears from the pages of history.

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