The town is called Winchelsea and it is in the ‘département’ of Sussex. How and why a French bastide came to be built on England’s south coast is a tale of wine and warfare – and proof, if needed, that Brits and their Gallic neighbours are historically two branches of the same family.
‘Old’ Winchelsea was an ancient settlement on a shingle spit in Rye Bay that was devastated by storms in the late 1200s. It had to be relocated and a nearby promontory of land seemed perfect, but it required the king’s permission to move there.
That king was Edward I, king of England and, like his Plantagenet predecessors, Duke of Aquitaine so ruler of roughly a third of modern France.
He was in the middle of establishing a string of new settlements across his French domain. These ‘bastides’ were the ‘new towns’ of the Middle Ages intended to corral the local populations and mark the border between the rival English and French crowns.
Edward agreed to the new Winchelsea, laid out à la française as a typical bastide: a gridiron of plots across the 150-acre site with broad streets and a central marketplace. After all, it worked in Aquitaine.
Winchelsea had both strategic and commercial importance for Edward. Apart from furnishing his navy with ships and sailors (its contribution to the Cinque Ports confederation), it was one of the main ports for bringing in French wine.
The Norman blood of the English ruling class may have been diluted over the generations but not their taste for Gascon Red. In the early 1300s, the equivalent of four and a half million present-day bottles were shipped each season from Bordeaux to Winchelsea.
Seven centuries later, the town today is still recognisably a bastide, despite French and Spanish attacks and even being hit by Hitler’s V-1 flying bombs during the Second World War.
Most of its surviving houses are 17th century or later, but the medieval planners’ specifications are still evident: “Thirty-nine quarters” with the main streets between them being “wide enough for two carts to pass”.
Similarities have been drawn with Monségur and Talmont in Gironde but, if Winchelsea has a natural twin, it is that most archetypical of bastides, Monpazier in Dordogne.
Apart from the distinctive urban grid, both are built on a raised plateau and protected on three sides by embankments once topped by walls and furrowed with defensive ditches. Tellingly, Edward founded Winchelsea (1288) just four years after Monpazier (1284) and visited both.
His Winchelsea visit was nearly the death of him. As he was inspecting the northern defences, his startled horse jumped the parapet. The collective gasp of horror gave way to a sigh of relief when, a minute later, horse and rider reappeared through the nearby town gate. Today the place is known as King’s Leap.
An original feature of the town, and a tourist attraction in itself, is its network of cellars – around 50 of them. Many, with their arches and vaulting, could pass for underground crypts.
Retired surgeon John Spencer, the owner of Rookery Cottage, showed me his cellar. As we entered from the street, he said it was part of a previous property dating from around 1300.
He points to the quality of the stonework but it is not known why there are so many cellars and why so ornate.
The best guess is they were foar storing the Gascon Red in a cool, constant temperature prior to distribution. It would have been a huge effort to haul the barrels up from the river port below, but the cellars, locked and below ground, would have been more secure than any dockside warehouse.
Historians suggest an additional use: marketing and tasting. The wine had to be sold on quickly. In days before sealed glass bottles, the light young ‘clairet’ (corrupted to ‘claret’ by the English) lasted barely a year and was drawn straight from barrel to jug.
Buyers could sample the wines in a tavern-like mood with an ecclesiastical twist – and, in some cases, even a deflected ray of sunshine via a light-well. Casks would be stacked at the back of the cellar with the tasting area in the front.
As I stand in John Spencer’s subtly lit undercroft, it is not hard to picture the franglais flowing between vintner and customers as freely as the wine.
But there is a sting in the tale.
Within four decades of New Winchelsea’s completion in the 1290s, the entente conviviale was shattered by the Hundred Years War. The former traders became raiders and the town was nearly wiped off the map by a succession of French attacks, with occasional help from the Spanish.
Scores of the inhabitants were butchered – an act duly reciprocated across the Channel – and their houses torched. The magnificent Church of St Thomas the Martyr still dominates the town but it is half the building it was. Conceived on a cathedral scale, its nave and transepts have vanished.
Whether the result of war, neglect, plague or plunder, nobody can be sure. But, as so often, its stones – originally from Caen in Normandy – were carted off for recycling elsewhere.
These days Winchelsea is home to around 600, with a high proportion of comfortably-off retirees. Many of the houses are second homes. The town is assiduously conserved by its own municipal corporation – which claims to be the only one in the country to have survived 19th century reforms.
Its mayors, dating back to the founding monarch Edward I, are listed in the Court Hall Museum, the new incumbent being sworn in every Easter Monday in a ceremony little changed since the 13th century.
And, for a third time, the French are back – as tourists bearing nothing more lethal than cameras. My own visit, as an English-born French resident, gave an unexpected revelation.
Looking through the 1292 Rent Roll, I found that a vanishingly distant forebear, Henry de la Haye, had been one of New Winchelsea’s founding residents. The family had crossed from Normandy in 1066.
So, nearly 1,000 years later, I stood on the site of Henry’s long-gone house on Fifth Highway in the Twenty-third Quarter, savouring the ties that bind.
This article owes much to historical research by David and Barbara Martin and Stephen Alsford