Winchelsea Urban Survey
Project type: Documentary Reseach
Amongst English towns Winchelsea is special. As a major planned royal port, the town flourished for half a century from the date of its refoundation in the 1280s following severe coastal erosion of its original site. During this period of wealth, Winchelsea can claim to have been one of the principal international ports of the realm - its ships ruled the Channel, challenging foreign and English vessels alike. Yet, for a variety of reasons, from the middle years of the 14th century it suffered decline, and during the 16th century all but failed. By the 17th century it had shrunk to the size of a village.
During the last quarter of the 20th century a considerable amount of research - including archaeological excavations, landscape surveys, geo-physical investigations, standing-building interpretations and documentary analysis - was undertaken regarding the past fabric of this town with its exceptional planned grid-system. But, with one exception, because of the methods of past funding, none of this work was carried through to publication with the result that, even amongst academics, few people were aware of this research, let alone able to benefit from its results. Works of synthesis published during that time, academic and popular overviews alike, have included outdated and inaccurate statements concerning the town.
The work carried out during the late 20th century has shown that rather than a catastrophic, 'single-event‘ failure of the town during the middle years of the 14th century, its decline occurred in stages. During the late 14th century and throughout the 15th century Winchelsea was still considered to be an urban centre of local importance. Houses within the town underwent complex sequences of expansion and reconstruction, and this continued into the early 16th century. The new research has considerably augmented that of earlier scholars. Whilst confirming many of their conclusions, newly available data have made it possible to correct some fundamental errors regarding the original layout of the town. It is, for instance, now known that Winchelsea's main market occupied a large, purposely designed square rather than a widening in the street. Of all the recent discoveries, perhaps the most surprising was the realization in 1994 that a substantial section of the early-15th-century town defences, complete with bastions, still stands as a retaining wall up to one-and-a-half metres high skirting the cliff top on the eastern side of the town. Incredible as it may seem, these remains, located upon land owned by the National Trust, only came to light during the compilation of an Archaeological and Historic Landscape Survey for the Trust in 1994. It had been missed by earlier archaeological surveys.
The non-publication of so much new data concerning the town has long been seen as an embarrassment to those who had undertaken the research. Furthermore, it was becoming increasingly clear that those responsible for managing the future of this important heritage site could not carry out their duties adequately without full up-to-date data. Equally, neither academics nor the wider public were able to benefit from the discoveries of the past quarter century. In 1998 the Winchelsea Re-assessment Project was set up with the specific aim of addressing these concerns. The project was funded principally by English Heritage, but partnership funding was obtained from the National Trust, both as a principal landowner within the town, and as the organization which had commissioned two of the principal unpublished excavations, from East Sussex County Council and The Friends of the Ancient Monuments and Museum of Winchelsea. The project was completed in 2004.
The results of the work are made available through four documents:
- New Winchelsea, Sussex: A Medieval Port Town, by David and Barbara Martin et al. It is this volume which is intended to make the results of the research accessible to a wider audience.
- Excavations in Winchelsea, Sussex, 1974-2000, edited by David Martin and David Rudling.
- A detailed Quarter-by-Quarter analysis of the town, drawing together all the known data in a topographical format, in order to make this information easily available to the residents, to planners and to academics alike. In addition to the copies of this document which have been lodged with English Heritage, The National Trust, East Sussex County Council, and the Friends of the Ancient Monuments and Museum of Winchelsea, a copy has been lodged at the East Sussex Record Office in Lewes to make the information accessible to the public.
- An overview of the town in the form of an Extensive Urban Survey. This is intended to be used by those professionals charged with the care of our heritage, to enhance the East Sussex Sites and Monuments Record and to draft future planning policies for the town.
The precincts of the Grey Friars reconstructed using a combination of data from documentary, parchmark, earthwork and standing building sources.
Project Officer: David Martin
Client: English Heritage
Project type: Documentary Reseach