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Winchelsea at war

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Picturesque Winchelsea, which claims to be the smallest town in England, sits on top of a hill overlooking marshes near Rye, East Sussex. It is the epitome of tranquillity, bypassed by the main road and, it seems, by centuries. But it has claim, leaving aside the World War Two blitz, of being the most war-ravaged town in Britain.

On 15 March 1360 it was the scene of unimaginable horrors. Up to 2,000 French foot soldiers, bowmen, sailors and mercenaries fell upon the townspeople, many of whom took refuge in the stone church. They were butchered. No mercy was shown. The young women were raped before they were killed ‘or exposed to even more hideous atrocities’. And the scenes of brutality were repeated along the coastline of England’s south-east. They were reciprocated many times by English forces on the other side of the Channel. The bloodletting was relentless in what later became known, inaccurately, as the Hundred Years’ War.

Winchelsea was on the ‘invasion front’. Although Hastings, Rye, Folkestone, Rottingdean and the Isle of Wight were all ravaged, it suffered no less than seven attacks.

The original ancient town lies under Rye Bay, having been swamped by storms in the thirteenth century. The new Winchelsea, rebuilt on a steep peninsula by Edward I, was an important port, a popular embarkation point for the royal family, and one of the chain of Cinque Ports. The French regarded them as legitimate targets.

In 1360 Winchelsea’s defences were in a sorry state. Two years earlier the town was reported to have been partially ‘waste and uninhabited’ due to pestilence. Able-bodied men who had survived the Black Death were either with Edward in France as part of the Cinque Ports support fleet, or deployed at the mouth of the Thames following faulty intelligence that London was the main French target.

The French walked up the hill to the town, meeting little resistance. Popular tradition has it that the inhabitants were surprised while at mass. That is unlikely given that warning bells had been rung across southern England. More likely is that the few fit defenders used the thick, crenellated walls of St Giles as a defensive position.

The defenders were hopelessly outnumbered. In accordance with the custom of medieval warfare, men, women and children were butchered and the church torched. The invaders looted in a leisurely fashion, burning several ships in the harbour. They were in no hurry to leave.That allowed time for the Abbot of Battle, Hamo of Offingham, to gather around 300 horsemen from the county levies for a counter-attack.

The booty-laden French were in no mood for a real battle. They began to withdraw under bow-fire, their stragglers surrounded and killed. Most of the reported 300 casualties fell while trying to board their ships.

The revenge taken on the French was poor consolation for Winchelsea. Three years later, despite the efforts of men returned from military service overseas, 409 properties were reported to be still in ruins. The ships burnt in the harbour were another hammer-blow to a community that relied on maritime trade.

There were French further attacks in 1366, 1377, and 1418, but the worst devastation was caused by a Casillian raid in 1388 which all but wiped out the town. It was partially rebuilt but its trade importance fell and the sea receded, leaving it the land-locked backwater it is today.

By Ian Hernon

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