Norman and Medieval Times: 1066-1485

By Jo Kirkham


King Edward the Confessor died on 5 January 1066 and Harold was crowned King on 6 January 1066. William the Conqueror landed at Pevensey with 400 large and 1000 small ships on 28th September 1066. This area of coast between Rye and Hastings and inland to include Brede (the Manor of Rameslie), was a good place to land as it already belonged to the Norman Abbey of Fécamp and was relatively safe for William.

Harold was in York fighting an invasion by Harold Hardrada of Norway and his own exiled younger brother Tostig. The ships from Hastings, Romney, Hythe, Dover, Sandwich and several smaller ports, were accompanying his army and were in the North Sea. After Harold’s successful battle against the Danes at Stamford Bridge outside York, on 24 September, he force-marched his troops south on hearing of William’s landing on 1 October. He sent his ships south also, to block off William’s escape route to Normandy. It was a monk of Fecamp who carried William’s challenge to Harold; the reply resulted in the Battle of Hastings at Senlac Ridge on October 14 1066.

After his defeat of Harold, William then went through what he considered the Norman-owned lands of Rameslie to Romney where he proceeded to slaughter the populace. Two of his ships had accidentally landed too far East and the Romney people had dealt harshly with the crew. This served as a great warning to Dover, for the custodians of the Castle there handed it to him without a fight. William then went on to Canterbury and London where he was crowned King of England on Christmas Day 1066.

Cinque Port Power

For the next 200 years, until 1247, our coast, including Rye, became one of the most important routeways to the ‘French’ parts of the kingdom–Normandy, Aquitaine and Gascony. Winchelsea and Rye were the northern arm of the wine trade from Gascony. The Channel was an Anglo- Norman stretch of water.

The Cinque Ports rose to great power at this time. They were the key to any sea travel by the monarch– both to trade or to go to war, and ships from Rye and Winchelsea went to fight against Ireland, Scotland, France, Spain and the Low Countries. They also went ‘on Crusade’ against the Infidel– in Spain and in the Holy Land.

One third of the monarch’s ships came from the Cinque Ports. They were the professional nucleus of his navy.

The Violent Century

The 13th century was known as the ‘Violent Century’. It became impossible to keep these superb seamen of the Cinque Ports in check; violence, quarrels, piracy and wrecking on the high seas have all been laid at their door! They occupied their ‘off duty’ time by preying on much traffic in the Channel and dealing in a lucrative ‘ransom’ business.

The loss of Normandy in 1204 made the problem worse, because the former allies were now enemies! The friendly ‘lake’ with the same monarch all round its shores now had opponents on each side. The Channel became a moat of defence, which the Cinque Ports defended. Many privileges were given to the Cinque Ports towns, including Rye, at this time, in return for their support.

Rye ships were in the fleet which destroyed Dieppe and French ships in the Seine.

Later in the same year they helped to defeat the French at the Battle of Damme. Some 200 French ships were captured.

The Cinque Ports Fleet (including Rye ships) relieved the siege of Dover Castle and defeated the French.

The French took Rye in January and left it occupied when the Dauphin escaped to France. Ryers recaptured it in March and the Cinque Ports fleet joined other English ships to finally defeat the French at a sea battle off Sandwich on 24th August. This removed the threat of a French invasion for several years.

Cinque Ports piracy was rife at this time and Rye’s ships had been taking a very full part. Portsmen seized and plundered French ships when not at war– and threw the crews overboard!

Henry III failed to defeat France. He ordered Portsmen to attack the French coast which they did very successfully until the French ports, unusually, united to retaliate.

Anglo-French truce.

Rye, which had been owned by the French/Norman Abbey of Fécamp, was taken back into English ownership by Henry III, for, as the French and English were at war, it was inconvenient, to say the least, to have part of England owned by the enemy. (Fécamp Abbey was given lands further away from the coast in compensation.)

King, Henry III, as part of the defence against these raids, gave permission for the building of a castle in Rye.This very building, Ypres Tower, is now one of the sites of the Rye Castle Museum!

The ‘Barons War’ involved many land and sea attacks and the Portsmen supported Simon de Montfort (Henry III’s brother-in-law) who had rebelled. Twenty-eight Portsmen, representatives from the towns, served in his Parliament – the very first one.

During Henry III’s reign the first known general Charter of the Cinque Ports was issued.

The Portsmen’s ships were worn out in the conflict and Simon de Montfort showed his approval of the Ports actions by levying a tax of 1/10th on the Church to pay for new ships to continue patrolling the Channel for him

In this year the first known detailed joint Charter was issued by the King to the seven Head Ports.

Portsmen joined the King on his Welsh expedition and captured Anglesey.

Portsmen joined the King on his Scottish expedition. Both these expeditions were difficult, as they were also keeping the Channel patrols, as well as fishing, and going on trading voyages and defending the Ports.

Portsmen defied the King in order to try and settle the problems in the Channel. The Irish, Dutch, and Gascon ships joined the Portsmen against the Normans, Genoese and Flemish in the Battle of Mahe, which the Portsmen won decisively.

The next 150 years saw war with France and the King appointed a Captain of the Ports, so that he could ensure control of them.

Gervaise Alard of Winchelsea was appointed Captain and Admiral of the Cinque Ports Fleet.

The King led a campaign against the French at Swyn and, within his Fleet, the Portsmen attacked the Yarmouth men, destroying 20 of their ships and killing many of their crews. The rival groups were kept apart after this!

Portsmen attacked Scotland with King Edward I and this war went on to the next century

The Ports’ ships conveyed King Edward II and his Court to France for his marriage to French Princess Isabella in Boulogne.

There was an inquiry into the Ports’ piracy against Flanders.

Scottish campaigns ended and France allied with Scotland. The balance of power for the Portsmen changed.

The Queen and her Court were carried to France by Portsmen. This actually led to civil war and the murder of King Edward II in 1327.

Rye received the first of a series of murage grants for the building of walls and a ditch with three large gates of which the Landgate is the only one left.

The Hundred Years War 1337-1453

As part of The Hundred Years War (1337-1453), many mutual raids involving burning and pillaging took place; the danger of invasion was ever present and the Ports bore brunt of attack. The Portsmen could be relied upon to fight to the death and to massacre the crews of the French ‘quicker than it takes to eat a biscuit’. However, they could not be relied upon to make careful discrimination between friend or foe!

French Fleets improved dramatically and now the small ships of the Ports had to be joined by large ships from elsewhere to fight them. The Ports themselves were attacked by the French: Hastings, Rye, Folkestone, Winchelsea, Dover, Romney and Hythe.

The Portsmen assembled a small fleet of 21 small ships to retaliate, with 9 from the Thames. They beat off French ships attacking Rye and Hastings and chased them to Boulogne causing great damage. Seventy more English ships, with King Edward III, then arrived and the main French Fleet was defeated in the Battle of Sluys.

This action began a change in sea warfare tactics, from small raids to large sea battles. The small Ports’ ships with crews of 20/21 men and limited days of Sea Service, became only a part of larger forces in future.

Rye ships ferried over men, horses and supplies for the Battle of Crecy.

The siege of Calais had 700 ships fighting, but only a quarter were Portsmen. The vital role of the Ports’ ships then became surprise raids, repelling and chasing pirates and raiding parties,

The Black Death: ‘‘That time fell great dethe of men in all the worlde wyde’. It is estimated that the epidemic killed one third of the European population, with devastating consequences. Whole villages on Romney Marsh disappeared, for example.

Edward III and the Black Prince fought the Spanish in Rye Bay with 50 ‘good ships and pinnaces’ against 40 much larger ones. Fourteen Spanish ships were sunk and the rest fled. The Queen watched from Udimore.

Seven French raids against Winchelsea.  There were many tit for tat raids across the Channel, for example:

Rye was destroyed by the French five days after Richard II came to the throne. They sacked and burnt until only the four stone buildings of the Church, the Monastery, the Rye Castle and the Friars of the Sack were left standing within the town. The Church bells were stolen and citizens killed.

Rye and Winchelsea retaliated and burned French towns. They found the stolen church bells. One of them was not returned to the Church, but erected at the end of Watchbell Street, to be rung in warning if the town was attacked.

Bodiam Castle was built on the Rother as part of the coastal defences.

Rye men were involved in transporting King Richard II and his men to Ireland.

Rye men were involved in transporting the King and his men to Calais.

Rye ships and men went to Wales with Henry IV to help put down the rebellion of Owain Glyndower.

Henry V on his accession revived the Hundred Years War. Rye ships carried men, horses, supplies etc. to the English armies fighting on the Continent.

Rye ships ferried troops and supplies to Agincourt.

Portsmen, including Rye’s, were called out by Henry V to defend Calais. He had made piracy high treason.

Portsmen transported Henry V’s body back to England from France.

Tenterden became a Corporate Limb of Rye in the Cinque Ports after years of association.

The end of the Hundred Years War. England lost all its possessions in France, except Calais.

The Wars of the Roses

Rye’s ships continued to provide vital supplies to Calais.

The ‘Wars of the Roses’ began. Henry VI’s wife, Margaret of Anjou, gained the support of France (and Scotland) for the Red Rose side, and the possibility of invasion was present until Edward IV secured truces with both countries in 1463.

Edward’s sister Margaret married Charles of Burgundy, who was based in the Low Countries and much trade was secured – especially for cloth and wool. Large quantities went out through Rye. France looked enviously at this trade and there was an uneasy peace along the Channel coast.

The French again supported Margaret when she and Warwick (The Kingmaker, who had changed his allegiance to HenryVI) invaded and took back the throne . The ‘Readeption’ of Henry VI only lasted a few months, as Burgundy came out on the side of Edward IV of York, and he was back on the throne in 1471.

Edward IV assembled a huge army to invade France, estimated to be 30,000 to join the Duke of Burgundy, 10,000 to go to Normandy and 6,000 to Gascony, The English contingent actually got to France; they were transported across our coast. The King eventually negotiated a Treaty and got a huge pension from the King of France – for not fighting!

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