A lost castle at Winchelsea

A beautiful sunrise over the beacon at Winchelsea

Non-intrusive archaeological surveys in New Winchelsea have revealed the East Sussex coastal countryside’s 700-year-old royal connections.

Two recent geophysical surveys, by the Hastings Area Archaeological Research Group (HAARG) and SUMO Survey, with Trust archaeologist Nathalie Cohen, have uncovered the town’s hidden archaeology.

Using magnetometry and ground penetrating radar (GPR), they have mapped features of New Winchelsea’s medieval and post-medieval settlement, together with evidence for the earlier village of Iham. These surveys have shone a light on over seven hundred years of history buried below the surface.

The discoveries include windmill mounds, tenement plots, the foundations of St Leonard’s Church – and the site of a castle, possibly founded by King Edward I.

A town fit for a king

The town and port of Old Winchelsea was built on a shingle bar, which made it particularly susceptible to coastal erosion. After devastating storms in the late 13th century, King Edward I decided to refound the town on higher ground at the Hill of Iham. The hill already held a small settlement, including the church of St Leonard, but Edward had grander ideas.

Member of the team carries out the GPR survey
A man sits on a quad bike carrying out a ground survey at Winchelsea
Member of the team carries out the GPR survey

“The modest medieval hamlet was not enough for Edward” says Nathalie. “He instructed his best men to plan a new town fit for the great Plantagenet king.”

Three men, Stephen de Pencester, Henry le Waleys and Gregory de Rokesle, were instructed to design streets and lanes, a market place and sites for two churches. Altogether Edward took 149½ medieval acres, retaining 12 acres for himself. 

To this day, the site is known as New Winchelsea. 

Digging deeper

Though New Winchelsea’s history is well-documented, and extensive surveys of standing buildings have previously been undertaken, only limited investigation of below-ground heritage has taken place. The National Trust decided to carry out these geophysical surveys to see the true extent of its archaeological treasure trove.

HAARG used a Bartington 601-2 twin probe fluxgate magnetometer. It measured magnetic fields across 5.6 hectares of New Winchelsea. SUMO Survey used MALA MIRA High Density Array Radar over approximately 1.4ha.

Hastings Area Archaeological Research Group (HAARG) in action at Winchelsea
Members of an archaeological research group carry out work at Winchelsea
Hastings Area Archaeological Research Group (HAARG) in action at Winchelsea

Kevin Cornwell, HAARG Field Officer, who worked on the magnetometry project, explains, “The results clearly show the boundary wall or fence for St Leonard’s church.  You can also see medieval tenement plots including houses, barns and gardens.” The GPR survey has also revealed more details about the location of the church walls.

Results of the GPR survey at Winchelsea which show the foundations of St Leonard’s church (in yellow) and the windmill (in red)
The results of a ground penetrating radar showing a lost castle
Results of the GPR survey at Winchelsea which show the foundations of St Leonard’s church (in yellow) and the windmill (in red)

Uncovering a lost castle

For centuries, a field to the north-west corner of New Winchelsea has been known as Castle Field.

Here, the HAARG survey uncovered a 40m diameter circular ditch and bank enclosed within a large ditched enclosure. With the help of experts at the University of Exeter, the team was able to identify these as the remains of a castle’s earthworks: King Edward I’s castle. 

Lynn Cornwell, another of HAARG’s Field Officers, says “We can tell from the magnetometer readings that the castle was constructed of ditches and earthen banks. There was probably a wooden tower in the inner circular feature, which would have been a raised mound.”

Beyond the boundaries

The map reveals more about life after Edward too. The town ditch, constructed around 1415AD, can be seen to push Quarters 5 and 11 outside of the town - in effect sacrificing its inhabitants to French raids.  A post medieval windmill (postmill) was highlighted via a circular anomaly containing an X. To the east, a clear curved feature is the remains of a medieval stone-built windmill.