More on Medieval Rye

More on Medieval Rye

Rye was once an island and has always been a port.

  • The Romans exported iron from Rye. Over the years it emerged as a port of increasing importance. It was involved in fishing, shipbuilding, trade:- fish, timber, wool, wine, luxury goods. . . . Rye was a royal dockyard and shipyard, the naval base for royal galleys and in 1336, together with Winchelsea, provided half of the ships and mariners of the Cinque Ports with Rye contributing the largest in the Confederation.
  • Rye was the most famous pirate port in the 13th century, with a reputation for atrocities. Its privateering was sanctioned by royalty, the Crown claiming 1/5th of the booty. Smuggling developed from the time when Edward I (1239-1307) imposed customs duties on wool. It got worse from the late 1550s because of new customs impositions.
  • For a variety of reasons — the Hundred Years War, accelerated French raids, inundation by the sea, the Black Death, problems in the fishing industry, the move to larger ships — there was a slump in the fortunes of both Rye and Winchelsea in the 14th century.  However,  Rye’s fishing industry and the town itself did recover in the 15th century so that by Tudor times one might see as many as 360 galleons in The Puddle — the area of the Camber between the long shingle spit on which Old Winchelsea stood and Rye. and there was constant movement along the Strand. Rye was the best harbour between the Isle of Wight and the Thames.
  • One item of supporting evidence is in the National Gallery. There hangs  a portrait (known as the Ditchley Portrait)   by Marcus Gheeraerts the Younger 1592-1595. It is of Queen Elizabeth I standing on a map of England. The map shows only two ports on the East Sussex coast: Chichester and Rye.

But wasn’t Winchelsea, the sister Cinque Port, more important in Medieval times?

Not always.

  • In the earliest days Old Winchelsea was much more important than Rye though both had outstripped the headport of Hastings by the early 13th century and as ‘Antient Towns’ were destined to join the original Cinque Ports on equal terms. During this century, however, a prolonged period of turbulent weather (1233-1287) caused the breakup of Old Winchelsea’s shingle bank and by 1287 it had drowned. The mouth of the River Rother was blocked at Romney and its course diverted to reach the sea at Rye. The previously protected Camber was exposed to the sea and became Rye Bay.
  • On the instructions of King Edward I in 1293, New Winchelsea was built on Iham hill. In the first decades following its foundation, New Winchelsea flourished. The fishing and trading activities that made Old Winchelsea prosperous were successfully transferred to the new town. Its naval contribution to the Crown also continued to be much greater than other English ports. The prosperity of the new town, now a river rather than a sea port, was largely based on the import of wine from Gascony as the number of large, quite elaborate stone cellars attest — 33 of them are accessible to visitors and there are regular tours. (Rye’s 11 stone cellars are in fact older but being less grand are less appealing to visitors.)
  • However the loss of Gascony, continued silting and other factors meant that Winchelsea’s prosperity was short-lived — and Rye benefitted from its decline.

For a comprehensive account of Winchelsea’s fascinating history click here.

French Connections:

  • In 1014 Aethelred II (the Unready) promised the Saxon Manor of Rameslie to the Benedictine Abbey of Fécamp in Normandy, in the domain of his brother-in-law, in return for sheltering him from the Danes. He regained the throne but died before fulfilling his promise. However, his Norman widow Emma then married his successor, Canute, and in 1017 the Manor of Rameslie, probably thanks to Emma, was indeed acquired by the Abbey . It remained in Norman hands until 1247.
  • The Manor’s area included what we now know as Rye, Winchelsea and Hastings with 5 churches and 100 salt pans (needed for preserving Rye fish).
  • The Abbot’s Rights. The Abbot of Fécamp got his share of each boat’s fishing catch. He had the right to collect taxes and customs dues, controlled elements of the shipbuilding industry and of trade such as salt and high quality tiles from the potteries. The proceeds brought wealth to Fécamp Abbey which saw that there were courts to keep law and order. The combination of Cinque Ports privileges and Fécamp Abbey’s power brought prosperity to Rye too.
  • 1066  Jo Kirkham and others believe that Rye Bay would have been a natural entry point for William had bad weather not compelled him further west. The 1066 invasion was planned by monks of Fécamp and a monk took the challenge to Harold. The Fécamp connection is likely to be a main reason that William did not rampage at Rye, part of the Manor of Rameslie, as he did at New Romney in retaliation for the killings wreaked by men of that town when two of William’s ships were blown there.

On the Medieval Rye Trail

The Strand:

  • Among those who passed through Rye in the days of its pre-eminence as a shipbuilding and trading port were Crusaders, pilgrims bound for Santiago de Compostela, armies — and the post, which moved from London, via Rye, to the continent: Dieppe, then Paris, and on to Italy or Spain. Later armies of 600 men and their equipment left from Rye.
  • The Wish Ward area of Rye, near the Strand, was its poorest and smelliest because of the adjacent fish market. The King’s Purveyors chose the best fish to go by pony with rippiers to London and the Royal Household. Leaving town by what we know as the High Street, they made the trip on muddy roads.
  • If you haven’t visited the Rye Heritage Centre (once a building for sailmakers) do! Its RyeTown Model with Sound and Light show is a must for grasping the basics of Rye’s history and appreciating what you see as you walk around the town.

Up Mermaid Street:

  • This was once Rye’s main street, called Middle Street,  with an arcaded gate at the bottom. It features in the story of Rye in all periods — and in many a film too.
  • The French attack on Rye in 1377 left most of the town burned to the ground except for buildings and gates made of stone but evidence of pre-attack buildings continues to emerge, most recently in and behind Hartshorne House (which has a long history of its own).
  • Be sure to go into the Mermaid Inn, first built in 1156 of wattle, daub, lath and plaster.  Most houses in medieval times were of wattle and daub — and therefore damp, which is one reason so many were covered with plaster, bricks or tiles to make them warmer. Its subsequent history encompasses Norman cellars, a giant Tudor fireplace, smuggling gangs — and the visits of modern day celebrity actors and actresses.

St. Mary’s Church:

The parish church is the only pre-1200 building to survive in Rye. In 1103 The Abbot of Fécamp, a famous builder who was at the time rebuilding Fécamp Abbey after a fire, planned a similar church — cruciform shape with a central tower — in Rye. Succeeding monks continued to build what became known as ‘the cathedral of East Sussex’, its long history reflected in evolving architectural styles, the move from semi-circular to widened and pointed arches being one example

Four things to do:

  • Go inside the church and walk straight ahead until you see a plan on the wall on the right which shows what parts of the existing building were built in what period. Better yet, visit the bookstall and get a copy of Rye Parish Church (Pitkin) where you will find the plan on the inside cover and much more information within to guide you as you walk around.
  • Climb the Church Tower for views of Rye, passing the bells which total nearly 5 tons in weight. Can you imagine the manoeuvring and manpower required by the French to steal them, and by the men of Rye and Winchelsea to retrieve them? These are not, in fact, the originals stolen in 1377 as they were recast in 1775, but the imagining is still valid. Before the castle was built, the Tower was the lookout point: were enemies coming?
  • Walk through the churchyard. Burials stopped in 1854 but by this time burials were 5 layers deep! Have you noticed that the churchyard is higher than the adjacent side of Church Square? The Black Death nearly halved England’s population and Sexton’s records for St Mary’s show that during the Black Death year of 1348-49 there were sometimes more than 100 deaths a week. Since 1854 burials have taken place in the cemetery at the top of Rye Hill.
  • Look at the large window on the south wall of the church. Around it you will see evidence of the large processional door which the window largely replaces. One important ceremony for which dignitaries passed through this door was the election of the mayor and jurats; the latter are first recorded in 1235, the first mayor slightly later. The ceremony took place following St. Bartholomew’s Day (August 24th) around the Saxon Cross opposite the processional door.

Market Street:

  • This was busy and important, included a butchery and stretched to the top of Mermaid Street. A series of Court buildings stood where the present Town Hall is today. The market and its transactions were carefully controlled.
  • One use of the market area was to mete out public punishments, intended to deter further miscreants; there was a time when schoolboys were brought to witness the fate of the accused.  Instruments of punishment we associate with the slave trade in the 18th century were, in fact, used in much earlier times in Rye and elsewhere: pillories and stocks, tying miscreants to a cart to be hauled around the town for whipping at various stops; women were often stripped to the waist first.
  • There were episodes of hanging, drawing and quartering at the Landgate, such as when the Mayor was accused of allowing the French in to Rye in 1377 when they burned it down and stole the church bells.

Rye’s Castle:

  • In 1247 King Henry III, with the help of the Pope, made a peaceable arrangement for Fécamp to relinquish the Manor of Rameslie in return for lands in Gloucestershire and Leicestershire; only Rye Foreign remained under the French who had now recovered most the territory previously claimed by England.
  • In 1249 King Henry, still concerned for the safety of Rye, delegated Peter of Savoy, Constable of the Cinque Ports, to build a castle to defend against possible attack. The sturdy square building with three quarter -round towers , now called Ypres Tower, was originally known as Baddings Tower. There was a Baddings Gate too, one of Rye’s original four. It and some of the 14th century town wall were long ago lost to the sea but considerable portions of the wall survive between Conduit Hill and the Landgate. (The most visible section is at the back of the Cinque Ports Street carpark.)
  • The name Ypres (which Ryers pronounce Wipers) is usually said to come from a Jean de Ypres who in 1430 bought it from the cash-strapped Corporation to live in. However, there is an earlier connection with the name. Jean de Ypres was a descendent of a William de Ypres, a Flemish adventurer who commanded the mercenaries who helped Stephen win the English throne from his rival Matilda in 1136 and who was much involved in coastal castle defences; some believe he built a small part of the castle in 1138 though conclusive evidence is lacking. Continued French threats led Jean de Ypres to sell the castle in 1451 but private ownership ceased in 1518 when the Corporation bought it back for £26.
  • The many uses to which Rye’s castle has been put in the nearly eight centuries since are described in booklets and elsewhere on this site, but the best way to start finding out more is to visit the Tower!
  • You’ve been before? Note that this year has seen not only the opening of the Women’s Tower but new displays and much additional information. It’s time to come again. For starters, you’ll be reminded of just how far the sea has gone away since early medieval times.

First posted in Invasion Coast, Rye Buildings and Defences, Rye Streets, Rye Town History on 13th October 2014
Last updated: 20th April 2017