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The Mayor and Corporation of Winchelsea

Mayor, Jurats and guests at the 2018 Mayoring

The mayoring ceremony takes place annually on Easter Monday.  Between 1665 and 2019 it was held in the Upper Court Hall. Since 2022 it takes place in the larger and more accessible space of Winchelsea Church.

The ceremony recognises the continuing existence of the last surviving unreformed Corporation of England and Wales, and comprises an ‘Assembly of the Freemen of Winchelsea’ followed by the ‘Annual Sitting of the Hundred’, the principal business of which is to receive a report from the Mayor of the previous year and to install the Mayor for the coming year. The ‘Assembly and Hundred’ bring into effect the appointments voted on at the AGM of the Charity which is held in March.

Winchelsea Corporation – Some Background

As part of this exercise it abolished the old Corporations, their judicial powers and their special rights, such as the raising of local taxes. A special clause was added to this Act in order to preserve Winchelsea.

The Corporation continues to exercise, through the office of the Mayor, its responsibilities as a Head Port of the Confederation of the Cinque Ports. In addition, the Mayor and Jurats, acting as an executive board and as charity trustees exercise responsibility for the care and maintenance of properties in their charge and to run the Town Museum for the public benefit.

The Corporation of Winchelsea is a Registered Charity – 1192506

Winchelsea Corporation History

By 1292 Edward had granted the town the right to its own Mayor and Corporation.

Later Winchelsea was also accorded the status of Head Port as one of the two ‘Ancient Towns’ within the Confederation of the Cinque Ports. The Mayor was elected annually on Easter Monday by Winchelsea’s Freemen, from among whom he appointed Jurats to help administer the town.

In the mid-14th Century Edward III granted all seven members of the Cinque Ports, including Winchelsea, the right to elect two members of Parliament. These members were elected by the Freemen, a system that later led to corruption and eventually to the town’s status as a ‘rotten borough’.

The 1832 Reform Act deprived Winchelsea of its two MPs. Its status as a Municipal Corporation remained intact until the 1883 Municipal Corporations Act. This Act abolished all Municipal Corporations (about two hundred of them) with the single exception of Winchelsea. This happened because the local MP, Frederick Inderwick, Freeman, Jurat and six times Mayor of Winchelsea, persuaded his Parliamentary colleagues that it was unthinkable that the Confederation of the Cinque Ports should lose one of its Head Ports.

As a result a special clause was written into the Act which allowed Winchelsea Corporation to remain in existence, while removing its judicial and local government functions and all its responsibilities save for the care and maintenance of a group of the town’s historic buildings, and the fulfilling of Winchelsea’s function as a Head Port of the Confederation of Cinque Ports.

The clause in the 1883 Act states, ‘Saving as to Winchelsea. … the property of the Corporation of Winchelsea shall continue to be held, managed and enjoyed as heretofore… and for that purpose the Corporation of Winchelsea shall continue undissolved … and Winchelsea shall continue to be entitled an Ancient Town of the Cinque Ports.’

Winchelsea Corporation and the Museum

It is located in the Upper Court Hall and was founded in 1950. Its collections and displays offer a unique insight into Winchelsea’s life and history. It is run on a totally voluntary basis, managed on a day-to-day basis by a committee chaired by a Curator, who is also a volunteer appointed by the Corporation. Click here to find out more about the Museum.

Money Matters

By then it was in serious decline due to the silting up of the harbour and the loss of its function as a port. Accordingly, the Queen passed to the Corporation the Town Gates, along with the revenue from their use, as well as the right to charge ground rent on certain land and properties in the Town, known as the King’s Dues.

Unfortunately, inflation was not allowed for, road tax and a bypass eliminated income from the Gates, and Council Tax rather took over from the Dues. Today the latter are collected on a totally voluntary basis and the Corporation benefits by about £30 per annum.

Over the years, the Corporation has built up a small invested fund, income from which covers normal running costs, while admission charges from the Museum and revenue from its shop covers the Museum and its upkeep. However, there is clearly inadequate funding to finance major projects, such as repairs to the historic buildings in its charge. The Corporation attempts to bridge the gap through fundraising and bids to grant giving authorities.

The Corporation contributes to the cost of the Mayoring ceremony, with other Mayoral expenses being borne by the Mayor. It also pays a small honorarium to the Town Clerk, Chamberlain and Sergeant-at-Mace.

Winchelsea Corporation and its Friends

As a Registered Charity it is dedicated to helping the Corporation fulfil its duties by raising funds. Chiefly this money supports the care of the three Town Gates and the Court Hall. Click here for more about FOAM.

In 1999, The Millennium Artefacts Society was founded, with a similar remit to raise funds for the maintenance of the three artefacts in the charge of the Corporation, namely the Town Sign, the Beacon and the Millennium Tapestry.

The generosity and assistance of these friends has played a significant role in funding the maintenance of the Corporation’s property. In addition, the Corporation has, from time to time, received grants and support from Winchelsea’s local authorities, as well as a number of private donations to support various projects.

In 2008 the Corporation applied for and received a substantial grant from English Heritage for 50% of the cost of restoring the Strand Gate. The total cost of the works carried out was approximately £48,000 with the remaining 50% being raised through a major fund-raising campaign by FOAM. However, an application to the Heritage Lottery Fund in 2016 for the Pipewell Gate was not successful and so restoration work was funded by FOAM, the Corporation and the local community.

Annual Mayoring Ceremony

They run the business of the Corporation, as an executive Board and as Trustees of the charity for the year ahead. Any new Freemen are also introduced and take an oath of office at the Mayoring.

There are four volunteer office holders, namely a Town Clerk, a Chamberlain, a Sergeant-at-Mace and a Chaplain.

Photo: KT Bruce

Winchelsea Corpration and its Jurats

‘Jurat’ is from legal French – ‘someone who has taken an oath’ – and in the Cinque Ports corresponds to the old English office of alderman. Freemen are invited to join the Corporation in anticipation of the contribution they can make to the present and future work of the charity. Mayors select Jurats from among the Freemen to help them with their responsibilities and functions within the town.  The Jurats, in consultation with past Mayors, select one of their number to be Mayor for the coming year.

Photo: KT Bruce

Members of Winchelsea Corporation

Mayor of Winchelsea 
Peter Cosstick

Deputy Mayor 
Stephen King

Freemen and Jurats 
Michael Melvin, John Rodley, David Page, David Merrifield, Berenice Scott, Rosemarie Roberts, John Clarke, Ian Kingham, Alison Casey, Christopher Chappell, Jonathan Murphy

John McKendrick, Josephine Turner, Philip Mack

Freemen and Past Jurats
Donald Cameron-Clarke, Anthony Moore, Roger Neaves, John Dunk, Melvyn Pett, John Spencer, Michael de Smith, Cynthia Feast, Carol Scoines, Robert Holland, Gillian Alexander, Deborah Upton.

Honorary Freemen
Stephen Rumsey OBE, Philip Laverton, Neil Clephane-Cameron, Peter Turner, Angela Hill.

Town Clerk
Jennifer Sutherland

Chaplain to the Mayor
Revd Jonathan Meyer

Neil Clephane-Cameron Chamberlain
Jo Melvin Sergeant-at-Mace

Mayor’s Cadet
Theo Burton

Winchelsea Corporation and the Local Authorities

These are provided by East Sussex County Council, Rother District Council, Icklesham Parish Council and Highways England.

Photo: KT Bruce

Winchelsea and the Cinque Ports

In this sense the Ports were a step in the evolution of the Royal Navy. The Head Ports are Sandwich, Dover, Hythe, New Romney and Hastings, together with the two ‘Ancient Towns’ of Rye and Winchelsea. Other local towns joined the Confederation of the Cinque Ports to assist the Head Ports in fulfilling their duties and were known as ‘Limbs’ of the Head Ports. Today they comprise of the Towns of Deal, Faversham, Folkestone, Lydd, Margate, Ramsgate and Tenterden.

Today the Mayor is responsible for representing Winchelsea at meetings of the Confederation of Cinque Ports. The seven Head Ports each in turn provide the Confederation’s Speaker, an office taken on additionally by the Mayor for the time being in that town. The Mayor of Winchelsea took over as Speaker from the Mayor of Hastings in May 2019 and held the post until May 2020 when it was handed on to the Mayor of Rye.  Winchelsea will next hold the Speakership from 2026 to 2027.

In 2023, following a tradition that goes back to 1135, the Mayor was present as a Baron of the Cinque Ports at the Coronation of King Charles III in Westminster Abbey.

Click here to go to the official Cinque Ports website.

The Seal of Winchelsea

The Corporation still has the matrices of the seal which dates from the early part of the reign of Edward I (1272-1307).

The front of the seal shows an ancient ship with a poop and embattled forecastle and the royal arms three lions passant. The translation of the legend is ‘The seal of the Barons of our Lord the King of England of Winchelsea’.

The counter seal (lost in the 18th century and recovered in 1907) shows parts of three public buildings of the town – the church of St Giles and a representation of St Giles, a tower, possibly the Town Hall with a warden holding a lantern and representations of the Annunciation and the Virgin Mary, and the church of St. Thomas with a representation of the martyrdom of St Thomas. At the base are representations of the religious houses of the town and of the sea. The surrounding legend is an invocation to Saint Giles and Saint Thomas for their protection although the precise meaning is not clear.

It is affixed to a document in the archives at Ghent in Belgium and probably dates from the 1250s or 60s.

The Corporation of Winchelsea
Registered Charity No. 1192506