The Creation of New Winchelsea
The 13th century was a period of coastal erosion, and the shingle spit on which the old town stood was steadily eaten away.
Old Winchelsea’s first petition to the king for help was made in 1236 but nothing was done until a commission was sent down in 1282 to examine the situation. The commissioners, who included the king’s treasurer and the mayor of London, reported that Winchelsea was indeed in a parlous state. A large part had already been destroyed and the rest in imminent danger.
The town was of great strategic value to the realm and the commissioners recommended that it should be rebuilt on a safer site. King Edward I acted. A new site for the town was selected, plans were drawn up and work put in hand for roads, wharves, cellars and public buildings.
The king took a direct and personal interest in the venture and paid frequent visits during its construction but the building advanced more slowly than the sea. In 1287 a storm of extraordinary fury further wrecked the old town and washed away more buildings. Worse still, it was probably this storm which breached the shingle spit so that, at least at high tides, Old Winchelsea was an island. In 1288 the new site was handed over to the burgesses of the town and by 1292 the men of Old Winchelsea had moved to their new town on Iham Hill.
The site selected for New Winchelsea was a peninsula jutting out into the levels. The hilly site may have sheltered a small port in Roman times. In the 13th century, a village called Iham was on its western slopes and the flat top was probably farmland. The northern slopes were washed by the River Brede, wider than it is now and with good access to the sea.
Winchelsea had a considerable trade in wine from France in the 1300s and was also a fishing port. Many of its inhabitants spoke French. The king, an inveterate town planner, may well have taken a hand in the design, which resembles the town of Monségur in southwest France, then a part of his kingdom. The streets were laid out to cross each other more or less at right angles and, within the squares, plots were laid out for each householder.
The important merchants were concentrated towards the northern end and, in addition to their ground plots, were given wharves on the Brede, built out from the shore and again allocated by name. Some of them were also provided with cellars built into their plots. The sites of nearly fifty cellars are known and recorded. You will see entrances to these cellars almost at road level outside houses in the northern part of the town. The cellars were finely constructed with vaulted roofs dressed with Caen stone. Sizes vary but many are as much as 30′ long and 15′ wide. These cellars kept the wine at just the right temperature, and some cellars still do!
It is improbable that the king built any private houses, but he was certainly concerned with the public buildings – the churches, the town hall, the gates and the walls. The king decreed a perpetual rent on the town in return for his expenditure. At £14.11s.5d per annum this was not excessive even in the 13th century. It has been collected, in addition to later rates and taxes, ever since. The model of the town in the Court Hall Museum, constructed from information taken from the Rent Roll of 1292, provides a very good bird’s eye view of the town as it might then have looked.
The marsh between Winchelsea and Rye consisted of saltings and mudflats, entirely covered at high spring tides. The Brede was larger and flowed more or less in the present direction but in a winding channel with nothing between it and the sea except mud and the remnants of the overwhelmed shingle bank. Towards Rye it opened out into the main port with an outlet to the sea for both towns. Then, as the Wainway, it continued onwards to where Camber now stands. To the east of the peninsula and westward up the Brede valley a great deal of the marsh was already enclosed.
Within the town, most of the houses were dwarfed by the great churches, and the whole town as far south as the present Hastings road was thick with houses facing the roadways round their squares. Even south of this the suburbs were fairly well tenanted. It is said that the population was then 6,000. The encircling walls, probably earth or wood – but at the danger points stone – partly survive in the gardens of ‘Pipewell’ and ‘Mill Farm’.