The Great Storm of 1287

Watching #StormErik pounding my garden makes me think of stories of a February day in 1287 when The Great Storm hit the coastline from Kent to East Sussex with such force that whole areas of coastline were changed for ever.  Important ports that made their living from their vicinity to the sea found their harbours blocked by silt and shingle and even parts of the cliff, complete with fortifications. Old Winchelsea, a thriving port, was completely destroyed to be rebuilt in around 1292, a few miles inland, in the grid system (then typically used in Aquitaine) on the orders of King Edward 1.

Why would the King himself be so interested in the fate of these small towns/ports ? – Well before King Henry V111 established the beginnings of a Royal Navy, it fell to just 5 towns along the south coast to work in the service of the King, for short periods of time each year, in exchange for freedom from paying taxes, and other privileges. If they were needed for longer (which they usually were) a handsome fee would be paid.  These towns were Dover, Sandwich, Hythe, Romney and Hastings. They were assisted by the two ‘Antient Towns’ of Rye and Winchelsea.  The King recognised their strategic importance in the defence of his realm and in facilitating trade across ‘The Narrow Sea’, as the English Channel was described.

Probably the most dramatic change was wrought to the two towns of New Romney and Rye.  New Romney had been an important port, with the wide and deep flowing River Rother passing through it into the English Channel.  The storm was so severe that it served to completely silt up New Romney’s harbour and change the course of the River Rother bringing it to the town of Rye. So within just a few hours, New Romney found itself to be landlocked and a good mile from the sea, whilst Rye awoke to find itself with a brand-new River and a harbour!

It must have been terrifying, firstly having to deal with saving lives, and ships and property, but in the calm of the following days those villagers knew that they would have much work ahead in order to re-invent themselves or find a way of carrying on.  However, history shows us that they survived and the Cinque Ports carried on with their important role until well into the 16th century. Indeed, throughout Kent and East Sussex evidence of our past heritage survives today with due ceremony and pageantry, and town signs will still proudly tell you that this is a Cinque Port.

Discover the Cinque Ports and their fascinating and fun history on a guided tour with Yvonne Leach :

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