Standing secure on its hill, modern Winchelsea is the second settlement to bear the name.
Old Winchelsea, devastated in 1287 by the worst of a century of storms, lay somewhere in what is now Rye Bay and has long since been lost. It was originally called Gwent-chesel-ey, or the Shingle Isle on the Level – a clear reference to the vulnerability of its position.
New Winchelsea, built on the nearby hill of Iham from 1288 onwards, naturally took the name of its predecessor. The first thing that strikes visitors is the grid pattern of the street layout. Unlike most towns and villages in England, Winchelsea is laid out in regular squares and it is this pattern that picks it out as a New Town, even though it dates from the 13th century and not from the modern era of town planning.
When Edward I ordered the creation of New Winchelsea, this was the accepted design for new towns, notably the bastide towns of Gascony in France, of which Monségur, founded in 1285, is the most akin to Winchelsea. Underneath New Winchelsea lies a large network of cellars, the majority of which were built at the time of the construction of the town. These cellars, many of which can be accessed and visited to this day, provide testimony to the town’s importance to the wine trade in the 14th century, when the equivalent of four million bottles a year passed this way.
With a combination of royal patronage and its membership of the Confederation of Cinque Ports, the new town of Winchelsea thrived and became, during the 14th century, one of the primary ports of the realm. Shipping and shipbuilding, travel and trading, fishing and – some say – wrecking and piracy, all contributed to the common good of the town and its people. The Corporation of Winchelsea maintains the historical traditions of the town and is also responsible for the upkeep of its ancient monuments and museum.
You will find details of books about the town’s history here, together with downloadable materials on its archaeology.