Rye is a small town in East Sussex, England, which stands approximately two miles from the open sea and is at the confluence of three rivers: the Rother, the Tillingham and the Brede. In medieval times, however, as an important member of the Cinque Ports confederation, it was at the head of an embayment of the English Channel and almost entirely surrounded by the sea.
Rye is officially a civil parish but with its historic roots has the status of a town; at the 2001 census it had a population of 4009. During its history its association with the sea has included providing ships for the service of the King in time of war, and being involved with smuggling gangs of the 18th and 19th centuries such as the notorious Hawkhurst Gang who used its inns such as The Mermaid Inn and The Olde Bell Inn, connected by secret passage way.
Those historic roots and its charm make it a tourist destination, and much of its economy is based on that: there are a number of hotels, guest houses, B&B’s, tea rooms and restaurants, as well as other attractions, catering for the visitor. There is a small fishing fleet, and Rye Harbour has facilities for yachts and other vessels.
The name of Rye is believed to come from Norman French rie meaning a bank[dubious – discuss]. Medieval maps show that Rye was originally located on a huge embayment of the English Channel called the Rye Camber, which provided a safe anchorage and harbour. Probably as early as Roman times, Rye was important as a place of shipment and storage of iron from the Wealden Iron Industry. The Mermaid Inn originally dates to 1156.
Rye, as part of the Saxon Manor of Rameslie, was given to the Benedictine Abbey of Fécamp in Normandy by King (Æthelred); it was to remain in Norman hands until 1247.
As one of the two “Antient Townes” (Winchelsea being the other), Rye was to become a limb of the Cinque Ports Confederation by 1189, and subsequently a full member. The protection of the town as one of the Cinque Ports was very important, due to the commerce that trading brought. One of the oldest buildings in Rye is Ypres Tower, which was built in 1249 as “Baddings Tower”, to defend the town from the French, and was later named after its owner John de Ypres. It is now part of the Rye Museum. Rye received its charter from King Edward I in 1289, and acquired privileges and tax exemptions in return for ship-service for the crown. The “Landgate” (the only surviving one of four original fortified entrances to Rye) dates from 1329 in the early years of the reign of King Edward III. It is still the only vehicular route into the medieval centre of Rye and is suitable only for light vehicles.
The River Rother originally took an easterly course to flow into the sea near what is now New Romney. However, the violent storms in the 13th century (particularly in 1250 and 1287) cut the town off from the sea, destroyed Old Winchelsea and changed the course of the Rother. Then the sea and the river combined in about 1375 to destroy the eastern part of the town and ships began use the current area (the Strand) to unload their cargoes. Two years later the town was sacked and burnt by the French, and it was ordered that the town walls be completed as a defence against foreign raiders.
Rye was considered one of the finest of the Cinque Ports even though constant work had to be done to stop the gradual silting-up of the river and the harbour. There was also a conflict of interest between the maritime interests and the landowners, who gradually “inned” or reclaimed land from the sea on Romney and Walland Marsh and thus reduced the tidal-flows that were supposed to keep the harbour free of silt. Acts of Parliament had to be passed to enable the Rother to be kept navigable at all.
With the coming of bigger ships and larger deepwater ports, Rye’s economy began to decline, and fishing and particularly smuggling (including owling, the smuggling of wool) became more important. Imposition of taxes on goods had encouraged smuggling since 1301, but by the end of the 17th century it became widespread throughout Kent and Sussex, with wool being the largest commodity. When luxury goods were also added, smuggling became a criminal pursuit, and groups – such as the Hawkhurst Gang who met in The Mermaid Inn in Rye – turned to murder and were subsequently hanged.
Since 1803 there have been lifeboats stationed at Rye although the lifeboat station is now at Rye Harbour approx 2 miles (3.2 km) down-river from the town.The worst disaster in its history occurred in 1928, when the Mary Stanford Lifeboat sank with all hands. The incident is recorded by a tablet at Winchelsea church,by the imposing memorial at Rye Harbour Church and by the folk-song The Mary Stanford of Rye. A new RNLB Mary Stanford was commissioned by the RNLI two years later and stationed at Ballycotton on the coast of Ireland.
Between 1696 and 1948 there have been six ships of the Royal Navy to bear the name HMS Rye.
During the 1803-1805 Napoleonic invasion threat, Rye, Dover and Chatham were regarded as the three most likely Invasion Ports and Rye became the western Command centre for the Royal Military Canal. The canal was planned from Pett Level to Hythe as a defence against a possible French invasion. How a 20-metre ditch was supposed to have stopped the finest army in Europe, which had already crossed all of Europe’s great rivers at one time or another, was not clear. In the event, the canal was not completed until long after the need for it had passed.
From 1838-1889 Rye had their own Borough Police force. The Borough Police force was a small force, often with just two officers. Rye police frequently had difficulties on Bonfire night (5 November) and special constables were recruited to help deal with the problems bonfire gangs caused. After amalgamation with the County Force in 1889 a new police station was provided in Church Square. In 1892 the strength of the town police, now amalgamated, was one sergeant and three constables.
In May 1940, during the darkest days of World War II, the Rye fishing fleet was invited to participate in Operation Dynamo, the seaborne rescue of the stranded British Expeditionary Force at Dunkirk, but refused to do so.
Paul Monod’s book The Murder of Mr Grebell: Madness and Civility in an English Town (2003) begins with the murder of a justice of the peace in Rye in 1743, considering its background as far back as the Reformation, then looks at events in the town over the next two hundred years.
Walking Tour of Rye, the most beautiful town in England, by Jonathan Copeland, ISBN 9781301139996, describes every important building, explains it and puts it into historical context. Many photographs illustrate the book.
Rye, being part of the Cinque Ports Confederation and a bastion against invasion on the Channel Coast, has always had close links with the crown. It was King Edward III and the Black Prince who defeated the Spanish in Rye Bay in 1350 in the battle of Les Espagnols sur Mer. But it was Queen Elizabeth I who gave the town the right to use the title “Rye Royal” following a visit in 1573. King Charles I described Rye as “The cheapest sea-towne for the provision of fish for our house”. George I whilst returning from visiting his continental possessions in 1726 was grounded on Camber Sands and spent the next four days in Rye, being accommodated at Lamb House.
Historically Rye was an independent Borough granted rights of governance under its charter of 1289, with its own appointed Mayor and chosen Jurats (magistrates). These independent powers were terminated by the Local Government Act of 1973 and, although officially considered to be a civil parish, Rye’s governing body – because of its history – is that of a Town Council. That Council has one electoral ward, electing 16 members, one of whom then is elected Mayor of Rye. In the Town hall there is an unbroken list of the Mayors of Rye going back to the 13th century. There are also two gruesome relics of Rye’s violent past: the gibbet cage which was famously used to display the hanged body of the murderer John Breads in 1742, and the pillory last used in 1813 in the case of a local publican who assisted the escape of the French General Phillipon.
Since 1983 Rye has been part of the parliamentary constituency of Hastings and Rye, prior to which it had its own seat. The current Member of Parliament is Amber Rudd of the Conservative Party.
Rye stands at the point where the sandstone high land of the Weald reaches the coast. The medieval coastline (see map above), with its large bay, enabled ships to come up to the port. The original course of the River Rother (Eastern) then reached the sea at Romney to the northeast. Storms in the English Channel in the thirteenth century, coupled with reclamation of the bay, brought huge quantities of gravel through longshore drift along the coast, blocking the port entrance. The course of the river has also changed over the centuries so that Rye now stands on the river at the point of its confluence with the River Tillingham and the River Brede. The Rivers Brede and Rother also form part of the Royal Military Canal between Winchelsea and Iden Lock. The town is part of the remotest and least populated area of southeastern England, on the edge of Romney Marsh and within three kilometres of the coast.
The river itself, now flowing southward into Rye Bay, and the environs of Rye Harbour, are managed and maintained by the Environment Agency.
A part of the town, but only a minority of the housing stock, lies on the original rocky heights (the Citadel) and contains the historic buildings including St Mary’s parish church, the Ypres Tower (part of the Town Wall), Lamb House and many of the houses on Mermaid Street, Watchbell Street, and Church Square. The main road skirts the town to the south after crossing the river; Winchelsea Road leads to New Winchelsea Road, formerly Royal Military Road, which runs parallel to the River Brede before leaving the town boundary. The houses along New Winchelsea Road date from the 1930s, built on the excavations from the Royal Military Canal. The gardens run down to the river, with fishing and boating rights. Most of Rye’s inhabitants live outside the Citadel area.