WINCHELSEA, a village in the Rye parliamentary division of Sussex, England, 9 m. N.E. by E. from Hastings by the South Eastern and Chatham railways. Pop. (1901) 670. It stands on an abrupt hill-spur rising above flat lowlands which form a southward continuation of Romney marsh. This was within historic times a great inlet of the English Channel, and Winchelsea was a famous seaport until the 15th century. Two gates, the one of the time of Edward I., the other erected early in the 15th century, overlook the marshes; a third stands at a considerable distance west of the town, its position pointing the contrast between the extent of the ancient town and that of the shrunken village of to-day. The town was laid out by Edward I. with regular streets intersecting at right angles; the form is preserved, and in a picturesque open space in the centre stands the church of St Thomas a Becket. This comprises only the chancel and aisles of a building which, if entire, would rank as one of the finest parish churches in England. As it stands it is of the highest interest, showing remarkable Decorated work, with windows of beautiful and unusual design, and a magnificent series of canopied tombs. In the grounds of the residence called the Friars stands the shell of the apsidal choir of a Decorated chapel which belonged to a Franciscan house. Of a Dominican convent and other religious foundations and churches there are no remains.
The town of which the relics have been described was not the first of its name. On a site supposed to be about 3 m. S.E., and now therefore about ij m. out in the English Channel, a seaport had grown up on a low peninsula. In 1236 and at various subsequent dates in the same century this town suffered severely from encroachments of the sea, and in 1266 it paid the penalty for its adherence to the cause of Simon de Montfort. The waves finally obliterated the site in 1288, and Edward I. thereafter planted the new town in a safe position. In the 14th and 1sth centuries Winchelsea was frequently attacked by the French, and in 1350 Edward III. defeated the Spaniards in a naval action close by.
In the time of the Confessor Winchelsea (Winchenesel, Winchelese, Wynchelse) was included in Rameslie which was granted by him to the abbey of Fecamp. The town remained under the lordship of the abbey until it was resumed by Henry III. Its early importance was due to its harbour, and by 1066 it was probably already a port of some consequence. By the reign of Henry II., if not before, Winchelsea was practically added to the Cinque Ports and shared their liberties. After the destruction of Old Winchelsea, New Winchelsea, a walled town, flourished for about a hundred years and provided a large proportion of the ships furnished by the Cinque Ports to the crown; but the ravages of the French destroyed it, its walls were broken down, and the decay of the harbour, owing to the recession of the sea, prevented any later return of its prosperity. The corporation, which in 1 298 included a mayor, barons and bailiffs, was dissolved by an act of 1883.
Winchelsea as a Cinque Port was summoned to parliament in 1264-1265 and returned two members from 1366 till 1832, when it was disfranchised. The abbot of Fecamp seems to have originally held a market. In 1792 a market was held on Saturdays and a fair on the Hth of May, but no market or fair now exists. Shipbuilding and fishing were carried on in the 13th and 14th centuries In later years Winchelsea became a great resort for smugglers, and the vaults originally constructed for the Gascon wine trade were used for storing contraband goods.
Note - this article incorporates content from Encyclopaedia Britannica, Eleventh Edition, (1910-1911)