Rye's history can be traced back to before the Norman Conquest, when, as a small fishing community, it was almost surrounded by water and lay within the Manor of Rameslie. Rye was once one of the busiest ports in Britain, and one of the most important. The sea that once brought heavy sea-going ships to the busy docks at the foot of the hill on which Rye is built has since retreated. Over the passage of centuries, the estuary gradually silted up and the sea now lies two miles from the town and sheep graze where the waves once broke on the beach.
The Manor of Rameslie was promised to the Abbey of Fécamp in Normandy by Ethelred the Unready. The town grew in stature as a trading port and in 1205, when King John was forced to return Normandy to the French Crown, control of this part of Sussex was confirmed as under the control of Fecamp.
Situated on the south coast of England and where the English Channel is at its narrowest, Rye was often the first port of call for an intruder sailing across from North West Europe. In 1336 Rye was named an 'Antient Town', affiliated with the Cinque Port. Cinque Ports was a loose confederation of harbour towns created by Edward the Confessor to foster coastal defences.
The French regularly attacked or raided Rye and even the Spanish did on occasion. Some attacks were worse than others; in 1377, a French assault resulted in the complete desolation of Rye town by fire. Not a town to take things lying down, the men of Rye and Winchelsea set sail in 1378 to wreak their revenge on the French coast and returned with the bells and other loot stolen the year before.
The Ypres Tower was built in the 13th century and once served as a gaol. Its name comes from a 15th-century resident, John of Ypres. It is one of the very few buildings to survive the devastating French raid of 1377. Just in front of Ypres Tower are the Gun Gardens, site of the Tudor gun emplacements that were a major part of Rye's defences. Now a fascinating museum and well worth a visit.
Rye underwent regeneration and fortification. This was begun with the building of the town wall and four gates; Landgate, Strandgate, Baddings Gate and Postern Gate. The strength of this defence was tested when the French invaded again in 1449, once more setting fire to buildings, although not causing the scale of devastation as previously. Modernisation of defence was implemented in the 15th and 16th centuries but today only one of the gates remains; the Landgate.
Smuggling was rife along the south coast and Rye, with its narrow streets and dark headlands, was an ideal place for the storage of illegal cargoes. The smuggling industry began when Edward I introduced the Customs system in the 13th Century. The response from the townspeople was to smuggle goods like wool, cloth, gold and silver out of the country. Smugglers' hoards were stored in the old vaulted cellars and they crept around Rye through secret tunnels and passages. You can still see some of these 'haunts' (often complete with ghost) on a Blue Badge Guide tour of the town.
Perched on a hill, the medieval town of Rye is the sort of place you thought existed only in your imagination. Almost suspended in time, Rye’s unhurried atmosphere and enchanting streets draw visitors with their warm welcome. It’s small enough to make you feel at home almost straight away but holds enough secret treasures to entice you to stay much longer.