Tudor and Stuart Times: 1485-1714
by Jo Kirkham
With grateful acknowledgement to Dr. Graham Mayhew whose study of Rye provided much of the information.
Rye in Tudor Times
In Tudor Times, the traditional Cinque Ports Service of troop carrying was not as important as it had been previously, but it still went on, as did impressment for soldiers.
But the greatest wartime expenses in the Town Records until the 1580’s had to do with maintaining the town walls and town ditch, building barriers and barricades and booms in the harbour and placing and maintaining guns.
Most of the means to pay for these defences was obtained from ransoms paid for the return of French prisoners. For example, in 1549/50. ten captains captured 226 prisoners and in 1557/8 thirty-two captains took 465 prisoners.
The Camber was the main refuge for shipping for the whole of the eastern English Channel . It is said that up to 300 or even 400 ships could anchor in safety here. The sea could still surround the town to a depth of 20-30 feet at some tides, except for the narrow stretch of land from the Landgate and the inhabitants were very worried about the danger of enemy ships getting near the town. More guns were bought; ten or eleven were ready to defend the town. Some of these were stored in the Castle.
Some illustrative details of this period:
Many other ships were built along the Rother and at Rye itself. Ships for the Crown were built from at least 1410 to the 1550’s.
Rye’s town ditch was scoured, walls were repaired, fences covered with thorns were built, cliffs were steepened and a ‘sege hous’ was built to defend the Strand. At this period when large guns were rare, Rye had a least three.
Henry VII and his army were transported by Portsmen to fight in France.
A third of Rye’s entire town expenditure was on war preparations during this time.
Rye was regarded as a potential landing point for Perkin Warbeck as he had some supporters in the town. Five men were found guilty of treason and hung, drawn and quartered.
Rye (with Dover) was the chief embarkation port for Henry VIII and his army when they went to France to fight in the Battle of the Spurs.
Every man that goeth in the navy of the Portes shal have a cote of white cotyn with a red cross and the armes of the Portes undernethe, that is to say the halfe lyon and the half shippe.
Rye ships were among those which escorted Henry VIII across the Channel to meet Francis I of France at ‘The Field of the Cloth of Gold’. Sir Edward Guldeford was Lord Warden and Marshal of Calais and had to organise the supplies for the month long event.
War with France again and Rye was ordered to send twelve soldiers. Rye again had to make expensive preparations and repairs to the town fortifications. There were great guns on the Strand, on the Landgate and on a platform on the cliff. There is the first reference to a paid gunner in the town.
Cinque Ports Ship Service was demanded again.
At Camber alone 1210 men were employed in these works.
A Captain and twenty-five soldiers were garrisoned at Camber by the end of 1540. Its men and armour were similar to those in Dover and Portsmouth, an indication of its importance.
Rye was again the main embarkation point for Henry VIII’s troops to France for the Boulogne expedition and the town had to send twenty soldiers as well as provide Ship Service of three ships. The invasion scares and this expedition again cost the town a great deal of money, as it made expensive preparations with new town defences. These were much more ambitious than those of 1491, 1513 and 1522.
Royal Commissioners took charge and more than forty-seven men (including twelve masons) were employed making the walls fit to hold ordnance, developing the Gun Garden and the new ”fortresse” at the Strand which involved demolishing old shops. The work was urgent as they worked all night and on Sundays too, and used French prisoners-of-war.
French galleys (‘Galleys and Franche shippes’) appeared off Rye and the people joined the soldiers in defending it. Extra bows, arrows, pikes, arquebuses and shot were bought in the following years and eventually the north Chancel of the Church was taken over as an arms store. The town even owned suits of armour.
Mary I demanded ‘Ship Service’ and two Rye fishing boats were employed to watch the French coast.
Mary I’s war with France needed great defence preparations as well as men and ships. Eighty of its mariners were ‘pressed’ for the Queen’s ships and two ships were demanded for Cinque Ports service (called here ‘dolling’). Rye’s Mayor spent time in prison in London because he refused to levy more taxes on Rye people for the war at this time.
A new jetty was built at Budgwell and covered with thorns. Landgate was narrowed and defended. Eighteen masons were employed on the wall and fifty-one men were employed digging out the ditch. New portcullises were installed in Landgate and Strandgate. Men had the job of making hail shot.
Mary I lost Calais. Many Rye ships and men became redundant and had to find other trade.
The expense was made worse when Elizabeth refused to make a general licence for privateers at this time, from which Rye had raised much of its money. However the town had a large arsenal of weaponry.
Rye had an ‘invasion’ of 1500 Huguenots religious refugees at this time.
At least one sailor from Rye, accompanying Sir Francis Drake, completed the second ever circumnavigation of the world.
Camber Castle had further modifications to take the larger guns needed to defend against the Spanish threat.
Rye ships and men were part of Queen Elizabeth I’s fleet which fought the Spanish Armada. One plan of the Duc de Guise was to land troops from France and Flanders in the Camber. Among the fleet of five ships and a pinnace was the ‘Towne Shippe of Warre of Rye’, the William, 60 tons.
Under the control of Lord Henry Seymour, this Rye fleet took a full part in the fire-ships attack and subsequent dispersal of the Spanish Fleet off Calais.
Once again the town fortifications were improved, at great expense. These included cutting 240 tons of timber to restore the platform at the Gungarden, maintaining the great guns there and at Landgate and Strandgate; and rebuilding the bridge over the ditch at the Postern Gate. At every ‘scare’ great attention was given to water supply of the townsfolk.
Rye was chosen as the rendezvous for ships from London, Dover and Portsmouth for transporting the English troops sent to Dieppe to help Henry IV of France. The town was ordered to provide three ships, but eventually two served.
The Cinque Ports allocation to the Queen’s fleet for the Cadiz expedition was again five ships and a pinnace; the Hercules of Rye, 100 tons, was one of them. Rye was the embarkation point for all of Sussex’s troops.
A list of weapons in private hands is written in the Muster Rolls of 1597/8. It shows that bows and arrows have practically disappeared – but, in order of amount, the townsfolk had calivers (an early form of hand gun), muskets, pikes, bills, swords, halberds and daggers. They possessed armour: skulls, Spanish murrions, corselets, cuirasses, caps and headpieces.
During the last decade of the century, Elizabeth was trying to get the Cinque Ports included in the shire defences.
The town walls were intact, except on the east side where the river and cliffs replaced the lost part of the wall. The battery at the Gun Garden and the bulwark on the Strand still had some guns and the Watchbell was kept in good repair. Camber Castle was still garrisoned.
War was declared on France and Rye was put on alert again. It still paid one gunner.
Rye ships captured at least one French ship and took prisoners.
1642-1651 The Civil War
The Civil War dd not affect Rye directly as the Corporation had been controlled by the Puritans since 1631, but they had to billet Parliamentarian troops on many occasions.
Camber Castle was abandoned. The Mayor and Jurats of Rye were given £200 from the monies made from the sale of lead from the Castle, to use on the defences of the town.
The Royal party had a naval force under Prince Rupert and these ships patrolled the Channel from 1648, before the death of King Charles I. One Rye ship was captured by them. This opposition ended in 1552.
The Commonwealth Period 1651-59
During the Commonwealth there was very strict control over travellers going to and from the town, by land and sea, and reasons for movement had to be sent to the Clerk to the Council in Whitehall.
1652 – 54 :The First Dutch War
There were a great many skirmishes between the Dutch fleet and the Commonwealth Navy, under the command of Admiral Blake, including one off Dungeness. Ships and men from Rye were in the navy. Troops were stationed in the town.
Two Companies of foot soldiers from Colonel Robert Gibbon’s Regiment were quartered in Rye.
These soldiers were eventually sent to Dunkirk and the Mayor was instructed to enlist townsmen and set watches for the defence of the town. He did have 120 men on patrol, but soldiers were still billeted on the town.
A party of the County Horse and 100 foot from Kent were sent to the town under Captain Heath.
Charles II reclaimed the throne.
The Civil War (1642-1651) did not affect Rye directly as the Corporation had been controlled by the Puritans since 1631, but they had to billet Parliamentarian troops on many occasions.
The Mayor of Rye applied to the Tower of London for some gunpowder saying that the town had more great guns mounted than any other of the ports with the exception of Dover, but they were having difficulty in finding money for the ammunition. They needed it for ornament upon festival and other public occasions; for the stopping of vessels, which might otherwise steal out of the harbour without paying their dues; for keeping the peace when foreign ships of war, with their prizes, were in the harbour together; and for the safety of the town.
1664 – 74
In the Second Dutch War (1664-67) and the Third Dutch War (1672-74). Rye was put on alert, but no fighting took place here after the Four Days Battle in the eastern Channel even though the fleets sailed past on many occasions and Dutch privateers did prowl the coast.
The French were supposed to be our ally in this Third War but when they didn’t give the support expected they once more became our ‘rival’. The ‘peace’ virtually prohibited imports from Northern France and so inaugurated a long period of smuggling across the channel for brandy, silks and linens.
The two fleets involved in the Glorious Revolution sailed down the Channel. That of William Prince of Orange, sailing on behalf of his wife, Mary, passed Rye on Nov. 3. That representing James II followed it on Nov. 4th.
Thirty-two men and a boy were sent to Chatham on the King’s service to man the King’s ships.
When the war with France was renewed their navy was very strong and threatened to invade our south coast. Our navy was weak as most shops were away on other duties.
The great town gates and the postern gate were repaired and turnpikes were made to stop horses going through them without permission. The three guns at the Castle point were brought into the fort and the gun lying at the Gun Garden. Rocks was brought up the hill. Sufficient tamkins and aprons were provided to preserve the guns; planks were put under the wheels, and the carriage of the great gun in the fort was mended.
The warship Anne was beached off Pett Level after fighting the French in the Battle of Beachy Head on 30 June . It is still there in the sand. The crew were paid off in Rye. The great ‘Scare’ had mobilised the town for a possible invasion.
Nominally the English had the control of the Channel but French privateers attacked ships and threatened places on the south coast. Rye was on the alert again. This situation went on throughout Queen Anne’s reign, that is, until 1713.
First posted in Invasion Coast, Rye Town History on 10th September 2009
Last updated: 3rd December 2012
Tags: Cinque Ports, Commonwealth period, Dutch wars, Rye ships, Ships service, Spanish Armada, Tudor weapons