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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. The sea has retreated and 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, who - true to his name - had been caught off guard and forced to flee from the Danes in 1014. Luckily it was the Abbey that gave him shelter. Although Ethelred died before he could bestow his gift, his widow, Queen Emma married King Canute and made him confirm the transfer of Rye and the surrounding area, to Fecamp.
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.
Back under English Rule
It was Henry III who finally restored order and in 1247 the area was returned to the English Crown from the Abbey of Fécamp, except for a small area some way inland, still known to this day as Rye Foreign. It was not taken back under English control until the Reformation.
Once back in English hands, Rye underwent a period of sustained fortification with the construction of four gates and a town wall in about 1380 under Edward III.
Today, only the Landgate, Ypres Tower (the castle) and a small section of the original town wall in Cinque Port Street remain. Sections of the wall appearing elsewhere have been rebuilt.
Rye becomes a Cinque Port
By the 13th century, the Plantagenet kings Henry III and later Edward I consolidated the defence of the realm with the Charter of the Cinque Ports, which meant towns along the coast of Kent and Sussex provided safe harbour, a quota of ships and men to sail them. In return for their support the ports, including Rye and Winchelsea, - defined as 'Antient Towns' - were granted common rights and privileges, with freedom from taxes and custom duties, trading concessions and rights to hold judicial courts.
As a result the Cinque Ports became one of the richest and most important maritime economies in Europe, laying the foundations for Britain's maritime power
The French attacked on a regular basis, testing the defences and raiding the port. Even the Spanish tried their luck in 1350, the year after the Black Death raged across the country, but Edward III and his son, the Black Prince, routed a fleet of 40 Spanish vessels in Rye Bay. In a devastating French attack in 1377, Rye was almost completely devastated by fire, and the bells of St Mary's Church stolen.
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. One of the bells was later hung in Watchbell Street to warn of subsequent French attacks and walls built where only earthen banks had defended the town.
Smugglers in Rye
Perhaps Rye's most exciting point in history was the 18th century when its prosperity depended as much on smuggling as any other trade. 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
For over 100 years Rye has been famous for its bohemian approach to life which thrives today and with only 5000 inhabitants it retains a village atmosphere and old-fashioned values.
Rye and its Writers
With such a lively history, you'd expect Rye to have been used as inspiration and a base for a host of literary figures - and rightly so. Some of these figures have become world famous literary 'heroes' such as Henry James, Conrad Aiken, Joseph Conrad, H. G. Wells, and G. K. Chesterton whereas others like John Ryan have dreamt up popular stories such as the swashbuckling adventures of Captain Pugwash.
Rye's most famous and best-loved author is probably E. F. Benson whose fictional town of Tilling is based on Rye - many locals say they can still recognise some of the characters! There is a walk around E. F. Benson's Rye during the summer on Wednesdays and some Saturdays. Enter the world where Capt Puffin and Major Benjy took the tram to play golf and Mapp spied on everyone's goings-on!
Rye's other literary celebrity Henry James, the American novelist, lived in Lamb house, a house visited by many writers including Rudyard Kipling, Joseph Conrad and HG Wells. The house, later lived in by EF Benson, is now a National Trust property and open to the public on Thursdays and Saturdays from 2 to 6pm, April to October.
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