The small, sedate village of Winchelsea is the offspring of what was once a significant port and essential component of the line of ports defending the south coast of England against invasions by the French and Spanish. They were identified as the Cinque Ports. Although Rye and Winchelsea were not included in the original five, they became Associate Ports of Hastings to strengthen that port’s resistance.
But during the thirteenth century disaster struck, twice. In 1250 Old Winchelsea was partly submerged by excessively high tides and in 1287 the town was totally destroyed by further flooding, probably due to subterranean subsidence. At the same time the estuary silted up. Winchelsea’s days were done.
But King Edward I wasted no time in rebuilding Winchelsea, this time on higher ground a mile or so inland. The king ordered plans to be drawn using a grid lay-out, similar to that of the bastides in France. At the heart there would be a splendid church, built to the highest standards of Gothic design and craftsmanship. Work on the church began in 1288.
It is obvious from these pictures that the church as it is now is not as it was originally planned. Three theories have gained support: (i) that the church was never completed (although excavations in the twentieth century indicate that a nave did once exist); (ii) that part of the church was deliberately demolished because of the cost of maintenance and upkeep; (iii) that the destruction was caused by the invading French in 1360 and then, twenty years later, by the Spanish. Local legend prefers the last of these three explanations although there is little evidence to confirm the belief.
Footnote The comedian ‘Spike’ Milligan is buried in this churchyard. He had once quipped that on his gravestone he wanted the epitaph ‘I told you I was ill!’ Sadly, the diocese officials felt that this was inappropriate. But a compromise was reached. It was translated into Gaelic, accompanied by the English words ‘Love, Light and Peace.’!!