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The Weston Brothers: Highwaymen of Repute
Following the dissolution of the friary, the Greyfriars the site passed through many hands...
At one time the house was reputed to have been used as a farmhouse and the chapel as a barn.
However, from the sixteenth to the early nineteenth the property passed though many hands, the owners often playing a leading part in Winchelsea affairs. Of note is Samuel Newman (1713-1731) who leased the land for a windmill an in 1738 the house was leased to Nathaniel Pigram.
At this time, the chapel tower was often used by customs officers on the lookout for smugglers and the whole chapel was almost lost when the head gardener asked to turn it into a greenhouse. Fortunately for us the recommendation was not followed.
In the early 1780s the house was leased to two gentlemen known as William Johnson and Samuel Watson, who were in fact the notorious highwaymen.
George and Joseph Weston, come to Winchelsea on the run from a life of crime. So well did they ingratiate themselves with the local community that George was even appointed churchwarden of St. Thomas’s.
However, the law soon caught up with them and they fled to London, but after large rewards were offered, were quickly captured and put on trial for robbing the Bath and Bristol mail of the enormous sum of £15,000, a record for a highway robbery at the time.
After another attempted escape they finally went on trial in 1782 and were hanged at Tyburn to the scandalised astonishment of the people of Winchelsea.
Their tale was immortalised by the novelist Thackeray (who lived in Winchelsea) in his book ‘Denis Duval’.
An Indian Nabob in Control of a Rotten Borough
A character almost as dubious as the Westons was Richard Barwell, one of the most notorious of Warren Hastings’ Indian Nabobs, who acquired Greyfriars in 1797...
The purchase gave him control of Winchelsea’s two Parliamentary seats and the opportunity to profit from the sale of Greyfriars in 1803 to his partner in the patronage, the Earl of Darlington, a much more enlightened character.
He controlled in all six seats in so-called ‘rotten boroughs’, including Winchelsea’s, and in 1832 his liberal influence led all six of his members to vote for the Reform Act which abolished their seats. An opponent of Barwell’s on the local council described him as ‘cruel, cunning, rapacious, tyrannical and profligate’, a reputation to which he later lived up.
Shortly after, Greyfriars passed into the ownership of Richard Stileman, who had long relished the idea of acquiring a grand home. His particular boyhood memory of the Friars was of the solitary figure of a beautiful eagle perched in the friary ruins, who ‘added a real terror to the awe which invested the precincts of the chapel’ especially when ‘from a position of perfect stillness he thrust his head forward, spread his wings and uttered a shrill cry [that] made one’s young heart leap.’
Stileman achieved his ambition in 1813 and the following year married Sarah Curteis Croughton. They and their family of four sons and six daughters peopled Greyfriars for the next ninety years.
The Rise and Fall Of the Greyfriars of Winchelsea
From the building of New Winchelsea in the late thirteenth century until the dissolution of the monasteries in the sixteenth the site on which the house ‘Greyfriars’ now stands was occupied by the Franciscan Order of Friars Minor also known as the Grey Friars...
Founded by St Francis of Assisi in approximately 1206 the Franciscan Order demanded absolute poverty and good works as well as preaching the gospel. A small group of them reached England in 1224 from Fécamp in northern France. Fécamp Abbey was then in control of the Manor of Rameslie, in which Old Winchelsea lay. The friars were well established there by 1245 when they benefited from the will of St Richard of Chichester.
After the subsequent erosion of Old Winchelsea’s shingle foundations and King Edward I’s decision that the town be moved to higher ground, the Franciscans purchased four acres of land on the proposed site of the new town having won the concession that theirs should be the only religious house there.
This purchase, made in 1285 in advance of the main acquisition distorted the regular layout of New Winchelsea.
Having firmly established themselves near the centre of the new town, the Greyfriars flourished and built both a monastery and a chapel, and the ruins of the choir survive as one of the most impressive Franciscan remains in England with an unusual three-sided apse.
Although roofless, the walls still stand to their full height, the surviving ruins measuring 69 feet long with a clear span of nearly 27 feet. In dry weather, parch marks clearly show the outline of the chapel complex, which was arranged around a cloister approximately 30 yards square.
Although described as being among ‘the poor houses of these friars,’ the order continued to be well supported by donations and legacies. In 1413, for example, a member of the leading Winchelsea family made a grant to the Franciscans to provide that ‘a mass [be] said for Vincent Finch and his wife Isabella on their death and their names [to] be written in the gift book of the covenant among the chief benefactors.’
Following devastating French raids, the ravages of the Black Death and the economic decline resulting from the silting of its harbour, Winchelsea was by now already in decline. As a result of a decision that the southern part of the town could no longer be adequately defended, part of the Greyfriars estate was requisitioned for the construction of a new town wall, the official enquiry concluding that ‘There remain to them of their first building such as churches, houses and gardens, three and three-eighth acres and fifteen yards which are enough for their dwelling and pleasure.’
After the Reformation
Support from the Winchelsea community and reciprocal almsgiving continued on a smaller scale until the Reformation. In 1521 the will of James Marshall provided for ‘a taper to be kept before St. Barbara in the Friars Minors’ for a year after his death, and five years later Gregory Wyngate required the warden, Thomas Man, to ‘sing for my soul and for my father and mother in the chapel of St Barbara for the space of one whole year.’ The warden was rewarded with the not inconsiderable sum of £6.12s 4d and as late as 1530, the then warden, Thomas Benyngton, received a legacy of 20 shillings from Sir Goddard Oxenbridge of Brede ‘for the reparations of the church and house of Greyfriars at Winchelsea.’
Only eight years later, the situation had greatly deteriorated. By 1538, Thomas Cromwell was driving through Henry VIII’s plans to close the smaller monasteries and use the land for the monarch’s benefit, Greyfriars included. The Bishop of Dover was despatched to accept the surrender of the land, telling Cromwell he had ‘sold the stuff’ – that is the ornaments and furniture. ‘The house is at the king’s command and yours,’ he reported to Cromwell. The generally beneficial influence of the Greyfriars for the Winchelsea community was at an end. No record survives of what happened to the few remaining monks.
Following the dissolution of the friary, the site was leased to the Captain of Camber Castle, Philip Chowte, who was only interested in making what he could out of the buildings. As he was also tenant of the Blackfriars’ site near the Pipewell Gate, he found it more convenient to take the stone from there down the adjoining Ferry Hill and move it to Camber Castle by barge than to dismantle Greyfriars. To this accident of geography we probably owe the survival of so much of the Greyfriars’ chapel.