Rye’s Harbour in Tudor Times

Rye’s Harbour in Tudor Times

Note:  this series of articles are about the old port of Rye at the confluence of the Rother, Tillingham and Brede Rivers.  Rye Harbour is a separate community nearer the sea developed in the 19th century.

A Port of 300 Ships

By Tudor Times (1485-1603), Rye had a large estuary and harbour. At its peak, over 300 ships could be seen sheltering in the Wainway, a large creek formed on the Marsh, protected by a shingle head.  The period was a time of change with the opening up of new foreign trade routes and newly designed warships using cannons.

Rye remained important although its influence in the sphere of international commerce and warfare declined.  It was a notable harbour of refuge from storms and valuable timber was exported from Rye, mostly by foreign ships.  Fishing was the main living of Rye seamen and Henry VIII ordered supplies of fresh fish regularly for his Court.

John Fletcher of Rye, a privateer and possible secret agent in France (not to be confused with John Fletcher the playwright!), is said to have been responsible for introducing the ‘fore’ and ‘aft’ rigs in ships to Henry VIII’s naval architects. Henry’s demand for ordnance and more cannons for his ships meant Rye became a storage and shipping port for the iron from the Weald.

The silting of the harbour tended to be a problem which was difficult to solve during Tudor times. Large sums of money were spent on jetties, quays, cranes and storehouses at Strand Quay. By 1570 there were complaints about silt causing fishing boats to become stranded and having to wait for a high tide to refloat them.

1580 saw two groynes built at Strand Quay, known in Tudor times as ’Rye Cryke’, forming the harbour arms. The narrow opening between them helped scour the channel and stir up silt so that vessels could navigate the river.

At this date Rye was the home to 1200 tons of shipping of varying tonnage. The port was one of the most important towns in the country and the largest and most prosperous town in Sussex.

Rye ships carried coal from Newcastle, but most ships went to France and Northern Spain for wine and salt and to French and Flemish ports for timber and cloth.

There was a cross-channel service from Rye to Dieppe and Rye was a transit port for the Royal Mail.  Rye was still expected to provide ships for the navy, but this was difficult because of the navigational problems within the Harbour.

Throughout the period there was constant feuding between landowners and those using the harbour. Increased ’innings’, reclaiming the marsh and silting caused navigational problems within the harbour. To reduce siltation, engineers built timber sluice gates and embankments within the tideway. This was achieved with the ‘help’ of the people of Rye.

Rye was divided into Wards and townspeople were forced to help build the sluices and embankments. This was known as ’forced works’. All householders of ability from one or two Wards a day were ordered to build or pay 6 pence per person in default. The penalty was subsequently raised to 12 pence. Townspeople were called to work by the beating of a drum.

At the end of the Tudor period, Rye still possessed a genuine port and harbour despite the silting problems.

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