Medieval Rye - History and Facts | History Hit

Medieval Rye

Rye, England, United Kingdom

Peta Stamper

04 Jun 2021
Image Credit: Shutterstock

About Medieval Rye

Rye is a historic port town in East Sussex, England, that was an important member of the Cinque Port Confederation during the medieval period. The name Rye comes from ‘rie’ meaning bank or the West Saxon ‘ieg’ meaning island, as the town was once entirely surrounded by sea.

Rye’s ties to the sea have coloured its long history with shipbuilding, royal visits, thriving trade and violent smuggling. Notorious locations include a Norman church, The Mermaid Inn, The Olde Bell Inn and the Ypres Tower, all open to visitors today.

Medieval Rye history

Rye was once an island and, even before joining the mainland, has always been a port. Medieval maps illustrate that Rye originally sat within a huge bay called the Rye Camber, allowing safe anchorage and harbour for ships. The Romans likely found Rye an important place for shipping.

Trading in fish, wine, wool and other luxury goods, Rye was involved in fishing and shipbuilding as a royal dockyard and naval base for galleys. In 1189, Rye became one of the Cinque Ports, a group of towns in southern England that gave the town privileges, including protections. As a result, Ypres Tower was built in 1249, then known as ‘Baddings Tower’, to defend Rye from the French.

The town was given to the Benedictine Abbey of Fécamp in Normandy by King Aethelred, remaining so until 1247 and later gaining a charter from King Edward I in 1289. At the time, Rye was considered one of the finest Cinque Ports, continuing into the Tudor period when the port was full with as many as 360 galleons at a time.

Although this reputation had changed by the 17th century when larger ports started being used. Many traders, such as the Hawkhurst Gang, who met at The Mermaid Inn during the 1730s, turned to crime – smuggling luxury goods and were tried and hanged.

Medieval Rye today

Today, Rye is a thriving picturesque coastal town where you can find antique shops, lovely eateries (including some great fish and chips) and a rich medieval history. Visit The Mermaid Inn on the cobbled Mermaid Street, along from Henry James’ Lamb House, which was built in 1156 and still operates as a pub and bed and breakfast. The inn was connected to The Old Bell Inn by an underground smugglers’ tunnel.

Stop at the Ypres Tower, named for its owner John de Ypres, with its charming rounded corner towers, now part of the Rye Museum and open to the public 7 days a week throughout the year between 10.30am and 5pm. A highlight is definitely the Women’s Prison Tower with its small garden outside.

Getting to Medieval Rye

You can also get the high speed train from St Pancras in London to Ashford International before changing to get the Eastbourne train stopping at Rye. If driving from London, take the M20 and A21; there is plenty of parking.

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