Winchelsea Corporation and  the Court Hall Museum

Winchelsea Corporation and the Court Hall Museum

Our Sister Town and its Museum

Out latest talk (October 14) at the East Street Museum featured our sister town of Winchelsea which, like Rye, became a Head Port within the Cinque Ports Federation toward the end of the 12th century. Unlike every other ‘unreformed’ medieval Municipal Corporation in England, however, Winchelsea’s Corporation has survived. This is thanks to Parliamentary legislation,  its membership of the Confederation of the Cinque Ports, and the efforts of some who have lived there.

Our distinguished speaker was Malcolm Pratt, author of two substantial books on its history: Winchelsea: A Port of Stranded Pride (1998) and Winchelsea: The Tale of a Medieval Town (2005) both reflecting his long years of research and long service as Winchelsea’s Town Clerk. From Malcolm we learned something of the history of the Corporation and one of its main responsibilities: the Court Museum.

Malcolm briefly reviewed the exchange (legalised by Royal Charter in 1278) of services to the King in defense of the realm — providing ships and seamen for a set number of days per year and in times of trouble — for privileges for the Cinque Ports almost amounting to self-government — exemption from many taxes, trading where they wished, holding their own courts.

By the 19th century Winchelsea (and Rye) had developed as ‘rotten boroughs’, sending two patron-selected MPs each to Parliament while growing cities had none at all. The Reform Act of 1832 put a stop to this and in 1886 even Winchelsea lost its remaining civil and judicial power but exceptionally the Corporation was preserved as a charity by an Act of Parliament so that it could retain membersiip of the Cinque Ports Confederation.

While the Corporation no longer has any judicial or local government responsibilities, it must still maintain the town’s property, in particular its ancient monuments. The financial challenges presented by this duty have thus far been successfully met, in part through the Court Museum. And the Corporation must still fulfill the town’s ceremonial obligations as a head port of the Confederation of the Cinque Ports, for example by taking its turn to provide the Confederation’s Speaker. In 1988, in her capacity as Lord Warden of the Cinque Ports, Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother came to help celebrate the 700th anniversary of ‘New’ Winchelsea (built on Iham hill because Old Winchelsea had drowned by 1287).

Winchelsea Court Hall MuseumThe Museum — with its many fascinating exhibits recalling the town’s fortified past, its shipbuilding days, its glory in the time when Winchelsea was second only to London in the wine trade, its famous residents, and more — is housed in the medieval Court Hall graced by a striking 15th century roof and thanks to its team of volunteers is open from May to September.


The new Mayor is announced here every Easter Monday in a centuries-old ceremony which includes his selection of Jurats from among the freemen of the town (without interference from any national or local legislation) and the names of all known holders of the office since 1295(!) are displayed here.

Many thanks to our speaker for reminding us so ably that a/another visit to Winchelsea and its Museum would be well worthwhile!

Photos from Wikipedia and Heritage Open Days

First posted in Featured, Past Talks, Surrounding Towns and Villages on 16th October 2014
Last updated: 16th October 2014
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