New Winchelsea in Decline
The town suffered seven major attacks by the French in the 14th and 15th centuries and, in nearly every case, the attackers entered the town and burnt, slew and pillaged before withdrawing.
Although the houses were soon rebuilt after these attacks, the town hall and many public buildings were utterly destroyed. St Giles Church was ruined and St Thomas’ still bears witness to these French depredations.
Winchelsea was one of a chain of towns on the invasion front of England’s continental wars from the 13th to 15th centuries. The towns were seaports, frequently engaged in naval affairs, and were legitimate targets.
There were seven reported attacks on Winchelsea during this period. The townsfolk resisted desperately and, if sufficient warning was received, they called for help from any of the King’s forces available in the district. But surprise was very often complete and the town was overwhelmed before resistance could be organised. The wonder is that Winchelsea and Rye continued to exist and that England was never seriously invaded during the Hundred Years’ War.
Yet the French were not the worst enemy. Having destroyed Old Winchelsea, the sea now began to give back the land it had devoured. The new town’s greatest days came in the reign of Edward III when it provided a significant portion of the Cinque Ports’ fleet, but the sand and shingle were gathering.
Slowly a shingle bar built up above the tides, the river narrowed, and local people helped the process by building dykes – ‘inning’ here a few acres, there an arm of the sea – always lessening the flow and hastening the deposit of mud. Winchelsea’s great days were over. By the end of the 15th century it is recorded that the last merchant had left the town. Trade depended on the port, and there was no longer a port.
From then on for 300 years Winchelsea’s story was one of slow and steady decline. When Henry VIII dissolved the monasteries, the support of the religious houses was also withdrawn from the town. Travellers in the 17th and 18th centuries wrote of it as ‘Gone to decay’ (Raleigh 1601), ‘That poor skeleton of Ancient Winchelsea’ (John Wesley 1790).
Signs of Revival
The proud spirit of the Cinque Port lingered on, and visitors remarked on its Mayor and Corporation who kept the memory of former days alive. In 1573 Queen Elizabeth I visited the town and was impressed by the ‘grave Bench of a Mayor and 12 Jurats’ and ‘the city-like deportment of the people’.
From time to time efforts were made to bring prosperity back to the town. Queen Elizabeth’s visit came after an unsuccessful petition by the inhabitants for a new harbour to be built. Two hundred years later Rye Harbour Commissioners did build a new harbour, but the shingle continued to shift and it had to be abandoned almost as soon as it was opened.
Mr Nesbit MP built a manufactory for making linens in 1760, and then brought weavers across from Cambrai. Lawns, cambrics and crepe were produced and the business thrived for 30 years as did the town and its businesses. The names of emigrés from France are remembered in two of Winchelsea’s finest houses, ‘Mariteau’ and ‘Periteau’. The mulberry trees found in some of Winchelsea’s gardens may also date from this time. An influx of Wellington’s troops in 1793 continued the town’s revival.
Some of the activities of the town were not so creditable. The 18th and early 19th centuries were the heyday of smuggling, and the great cellars of Winchelsea made ideal hiding places for the ‘trade’. The magistrates were kept busy dealing with cases of possession of ‘run goods’ and other smuggling offences. As late as 1829 it was reported that 70 or 80 men went through Winchelsea at four o’clock one June morning, each man carrying two tubs of contraband.
The Mayor and Corporation (probably not above acquiring an occasional ‘tub’) were more directly concerned in the profitable activity of managing the representation of Winchelsea in Parliament. Like all the Cinque Ports, Winchelsea had the right to send two members to Parliament – a valuable right when large sums were paid to obtain a seat.
The Mayor and Corporation, who controlled the voting, enjoyed the benefit. Winchelsea became a very ‘rotten borough’, and it is not surprising that the Reform Act deprived it of its two members in 1832. For another forty-four years the town continued to be governed from the Court Hall until, in 1886, under the Municipal Corporations Act of 1883, all the local government powers of the Mayor and Corporation were swept away, in common with those of the great list of decayed medieval boroughs.
However, in recognition of its position as one of the Head Ports of the Cinque Ports, Winchelsea alone was allowed to retain its Mayor and Corporation, and still does so.
Into the Modern Era
In the 19th century Winchelsea became a favourite haunt of artists and writers. Turner and Millais painted here; Thackeray, Coventry Patmore and Conrad wrote here; Ford Maddox Ford lived here as did the great Victorian actress Ellen Terry.
Winchelsea’s historic beauty and its position as a Head Port of the Confederation of the Cinque Ports have resulted in its being honoured by a number of Royal visits. Queen Mary came in 1935. In the following year the Duke and Duchess of York (soon to be King George VI and Queen Elizabeth) brought their daughter who, as Queen Elizabeth II came again in 1966 on an official visit with the Duke of Edinburgh. In 1980 Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother made a second visit to the town, this time as Lord Warden of the Cinque Ports. She paid a third visit to the town in 1988 when the town was celebrating the 700th anniversary of its founding.
Since 1975 the charm of Winchelsea has been protected by the acquisition by the National Trust of Wickham Manor Farm with its ring of land around three sides of the town. It is now also a conservation area.