Ypres Tower is one of two sites of Rye Castle Museum and is a grade I listed building. The Ypres Tower is thought to have been built in the early 14th century as part of the town’s defences and is the second oldest building open to the public in Rye. (The oldest is St Mary’s church.) The Tower has had a chequered history and as you look round the inside you can see some of those changes in the blocked windows and doorways. From the balcony you can look over what was once one of the largest and most important harbours in the country. In the C16th it was England’s seventh busiest port; now there is farmland where once there was sea. There are good views from the balcony in all directions, and guides to tell you what you are seeing. In the Tower are various exhibits. The newest is a replica of the gibbet with skull of John Breads whose story is told here. Other recent additions are a new model of the changes in the local shoreline and the Ypres Tower Embroidery, created by a team of stitchers over a period of several years and depicting the Tower’s roles through nine centuries of history — as defence, private home, prison, mortuary, museum . . . . What it must have been like to stay in a dark cell with only bread and beer for sustenance is hard to imagine. Would you like to spend your life here? Another cell is now a Still Room showing the uses made of herbs and other plants now being grown in the Tower’s Medieval Garden. In still another cell there is medieval pottery made in Rye, which was very fine in comparison with pottery of a similar date made elsewhere. This probably reflects the prosperity of the town and also the skills brought from France, when the town was part of the lands belonging to the Abbey of Fecamp in Normandy.
Among the Tower’s specially prized objects is a very rare smuggler’s spout lantern, which allowed smugglers to signal to ships, without being seen by the Excisemen ashore. Up the winding and deliberately uneven stairs to the first floor you will find a brand new relief model which shows the development of the coastline over the last thousand years and how the Romans were able to sail over the area now known as the Romney Marsh at high tide and how, by Elizabethan times, the navigable area was far smaller and limited to Rye. There are buttons to push so you can see how the shoreline has changed over the years. Compare what you have learned from the model with the views from the balcony today. Nearby is a fascinating map showing the southeast shoreline dense with shipwrecks. There wasn’t room to name them all! The exhibitions in the basement appeal to children of all ages: There are examples of swords, armour and chainmail to view and also helmets and costumes you can wear and then be photographed if you or your parents have a camera with you. The ground floor of the Tower has now been made accessible to those with a physical disability, but unfortunately the ancient nature of the building means that the basement and first floor are not accessible to those who find stairs difficult. Outside there is normally a re-creation of a medieval herb garden in what was the exercise yard with, on some days, a gardener in medieval costume to show you around. The garden can also be viewed from the balcony. The plants there are ones medieval ladies would have grown and then taken to the Still Room where they would be dried and prepared for medicinal, culinary and laundry purposes.
The Museum at 3 East Street is the main exhibition area for Museum artifacts illustrating different aspects of Rye’s long history. This building was once a butchery and then a bottling factory for the local brewery, and it was attached to the shop that is now Help the Aged, in the High Street. The Museum bought the old bottling factory in 1995 and with the help of a grant from the Heritage Lottery Fund, converted it into a Museum in 1998/9, opening it to the public at Easter 1999. The long entrance to the Museum features not only the second hand bookstall but a pair of ever-so-high stilts used in hop picking, objects from Rye potteries, a vegetable garden and a series of displays on Rye fishing. One of the prime exhibits is Rye’s Old fire engine, built in 1745 and in use until 1865. That’s 120 years! It is one of the few surviving from that period and could hold 60 gallons of water. With its leather hoses and battered lead-lined water buckets, it is quite complete. Originally it was on a sledge, which enabled it to travel more quickly over the cobbled streets, but it needed a team of strong men to pull it along as it weighs about 56 cwt (2.8 Imperial tons). Another especially popular exhibit is the penny farthing , the first machine to be called a bicycle. Can you imagine getting on it and off it, and riding it over Rye’s cobbles?
There is another display on the changes to the coastline over the last thousand years and how this has affected Rye, bringing prosperity and then taking it away. The retreat of the sea, the silt brought down by the rivers, the changes in trade and size of ships all caused the harbour and its trade to decline from the Elizabethan high point. This display also looks at the project known as the Western Solution, or Smeaton’s Harbour, which was supposed to revive the fortunes of the harbour by taking it to what is now Winchelsea Beach, and how after almost sixty years of work, it failed within six months. The remains are just about still visible at Winchelsea Beach today. Fortunately, Rye’s shipbuilding industry did revive to thrive between about 1840 and 1918. In other displays you can see many of the tools used and models of ships built such as the handsome clipper schooner Marian Zagury built in 1843 for the fruit trade. There are several paintings showing the changes in Rye, its rivers and harbour over the past few centuries. Younger visitors always enjoy the Captain Pugwash Treasure Hunt as well as the Captain Pugwash display. A prize is given each month to the young contestant who has followed the Treasure Hunt clues most successfully. The Museum also has exhibits of toys and games which grandparents and great-grandparents remember from their childhoods as well as some furniture and equipment from bygone nurseries – such as the Georgian Horse.
As for education in Rye, there are photos and even old exam papers. Could you answer the questions? Rye Museum is the proud owner of seals from the days of Queen Mary (just acquired), Queen Elizabeth I, the Commonwealth(Oliver Cromwell) and Queen Victoria, another whole case is devoted to Victorian Rye and still another to the Jubilee celebrations in Rye for both Queen Victoria and Queen Elizabeth II. See how much has changed in the last 150 years! Many of the visitors are especially interested in the wooden mosaic pieces, the tobacco pipes and the various kinds of pottery made in Rye for which the town was famous. The Sussex pigs that ‘won’t be druv’ are an example. Even quite recently excavations and building work have unearthed new finds. In addition to the displays on this site, some older pottery finds are on display in a cell of the Tower.
In John Nash’s scheme George IV’s suite was relocated from the upper floor to the ground floor. The move provided easy access for the king (who by now was overweight and suffering from gout) to his private and public rooms. These Apartments are in a more restrained decorative style. The décor and the mixture of French and English furniture combine to create an atmosphere of quiet elegance. The original green dragon wallpaper has been replaced by a hand-painted copy. On long-term loan from HM The Queen, King George IVs State Bed was made not for the Royal Pavilion but for Windsor Castle. It has a tipping mechanism so that the King, grossly overweight and gout-ridden, could get out of bed more easily. The King’s Apartments we see today consist of bedroom, library and anteroom. The King’s bathroom led off the bedroom and had housed the latest luxurious bathing equipment. It was unfortunately demolished later in the 19th century. George IV’s favoured wallpaper design of dragons, phoenixes and birds of paradise was used to decorate the apartments of his brothers, the Duke of York and Duke of Clarence. Using the new and vigorous colour of chrome yellow gave the rooms their name – the Yellow Bow Rooms. The vivid chrome yellow dramatically sets off the rich colouring of the Chinese oil paintings and watercolours, and contrasts impressively with the ‘red vase and flower’ chintz of the bed and window fabrics. Queen Victoria first visited the Royal Pavilion in 1837 and felt it was a ‘strange, odd, Chinese looking place, both outside and inside’. She returned for a longer stay with her husband Albert and two children in 1842 and the upstairs chamber floor was adapted to accommodate the Queen and her family. Victoria held a tight rein on the crown’s purse strings and wanted to distance herself (and the monarchy) from the extravagance and indulgence of the Regency era. The Royal Pavilion failed to provide her with sufficient space and privacy, so in 1850 she sold the palace to the town of Brighton. Her three rooms – the Queen’s bedroom, the Maid’s room and the closet – have now been restored to reflect their appearance between 1837 and 1845. Queen Victoria’s bedroom is decorated with an exquisite hand-painted chinoiserie wallpaper, based on original Chinese wallpapers. These wallpapers were produced in sets that, when hung, formed a continuous non-repeating scene. The mahogany four-poster bed (furnished with six mattresses of straw, hair and feathers) is copied from an original 1830s bed at Stratfield Saye, the family seat of the Duke of Wellington. The Maid’s Room is decorated with a reproduction of the original wallpaper supplied by courtesy of Brunschwig et Fils. The Closet was used as a servant’s room during George IV’s reign and was converted into a water closet, either for King William IV or Queen Victoria.
King Edward the Confessor died on 5 January 1066 and Harold was crowned King on 6 January 1066. William the Conqueror landed at Pevensey with 400 large and 1000 small ships on 28th September 1066. This area of coast between Rye and Hastings and inland to include Brede (the Manor of Rameslie), was a good place to land as it already belonged to the Norman Abbey of Fécamp and was relatively safe for William. Harold was in York fighting an invasion by Harold Hardrada of Norway and his own exiled younger brother Tostig. The ships from Hastings, Romney, Hythe, Dover, Sandwich and several smaller ports, were accompanying his army and were in the North Sea. After Harold’s successful battle against the Danes at Stamford Bridge outside York, on 24 September, he force-marched his troops south on hearing of William’s landing on 1 October. He sent his ships south also, to block off William’s escape route to Normandy. It was a monk of Fecamp who carried William’s challenge to Harold; the reply resulted in the Battle of Hastings at Senlac Ridge on October 14 1066.
After his defeat of Harold, William then went through what he considered the Norman-owned lands of Rameslie to Romney where he proceeded to slaughter the populace. Two of his ships had accidentally landed too far East and the Romney people had dealt harshly with the crew. This served as a great warning to Dover, for the custodians of the Castle there handed it to him without a fight. William then went on to Canterbury and London where he was crowned King of England on Christmas Day 1066. For the next 200 years, until 1247, this coast, including Rye, became one of the most important routeways to the ‘French’ parts of the kingdom–Normandy, Aquitaine and Gascony. Winchelsea and Rye were the northern arm of the wine trade from Gascony. The Channel was an Anglo- Norman stretch of water. The Cinque Ports rose to great power at this time. They were the key to any sea travel by the monarch– both to trade or to go to war, and ships from Rye and Winchelsea went to fight against Ireland, Scotland, France, Spain and the Low Countries. They also went ‘on Crusade’ against the Infidel – in Spain and in the Holy Land. One third of the monarch’s ships came from the Cinque Ports. They were the professional nucleus of his navy.
The 13th century was known as the ‘Violent Century’. It became impossible to keep these superb seamen of the Cinque Ports in check; violence, quarrels, piracy and wrecking on the high seas have all been laid at their door! They occupied their ‘off duty’ time by preying on much traffic in the Channel and dealing in a lucrative ‘ransom’ business. The loss of Normandy in 1204 made the problem worse, because the former allies were now enemies! The friendly ‘lake’ with the same monarch all round its shores now had opponents on each side. The Channel became a moat of defence, which the Cinque Ports defended. Many privileges were given to the Cinque Ports towns, including Rye, at this time, in return for their support. In 1213 Rye ships were in the fleet which destroyed Dieppe and French ships in the Seine. Later in the same year they helped to defeat the French at the Battle of Damme. Some 200 French ships were captured. In 1216 The Cinque Ports Fleet (including Rye ships) relieved the siege of Dover Castle and defeated the French. The next year the French took Rye in January and left it occupied when the Dauphin escaped to France. Ryers recaptured it in March and the Cinque Ports fleet joined other English ships to finally defeat the French at a sea battle off Sandwich on 24th August. This removed the threat of a French invasion for several years. By 1235 Cinque Ports piracy was rife and Rye’s ships had been taking a very full part. Portsmen seized and plundered French ships when not at war– and threw the crews overboard! In 1242 Henry III failed to defeat France. He ordered Portsmen to attack the French coast which they did very successfully until the French ports, unusually, united to retaliate. The next year there was a truce. Rye, which had been owned by the French/Norman Abbey of Fécamp, was taken back into English ownership by Henry III, for, as the French and English were at war, it was inconvenient, to say the least, to have part of England owned by the enemy. (Fécamp Abbey was given lands further away from the coast in compensation.) In 1249 King, Henry III, as part of the defence against these raids, gave permission for the building of a castle in Rye.
The ‘Barons War’, 1258-65, involved many land and sea attacks and the Portsmen supported Simon de Montfort (Henry III’s brother-in-law) who had rebelled. Twenty-eight Portsmen, representatives from the towns, served in his Parliament – the very first one. During Henry III’s reign the first known general Charter of the Cinque Ports was issued. The Portsmen’s ships were worn out in the conflict and Simon de Montfort showed his approval of the Ports actions by levying a tax of 1/10th on the Church to pay for new ships to continue patrolling the Channel for him. In 1278 the first known detailed joint Charter was issued by the King to the seven Head Ports. 1282 Portsmen joined the King on his Welsh expedition and captured Anglesey. In 1290 Portsmen joined the King on his Scottish expedition. Both these expeditions were difficult, as they were also keeping the Channel patrols, as well as fishing, and going on trading voyages and defending the Ports. In 1293 Portsmen defied the King in order to try and settle the problems in the Channel. The Irish, Dutch, and Gascon ships joined the Portsmen against the Normans, Genoese and Flemish in the Battle of Mahe, which the Portsmen won decisively. Next year Gervaise Alard of Winchelsea was appointed Captain and Admiral of the Cinque Ports Fleet. In 1310 There was an inquiry into the Ports’ piracy against Flanders. By 1323 Scottish campaigns ended and France allied with Scotland. The balance of power for the Portsmen changed. 1325 and The Queen and her Court were carried to France by Portsmen. This actually led to civil war and the murder of King Edward II in 1327. Rye received the first of a series of murage grants for the building of walls and a ditch with three large gates of which the Landgate is the only one left.
As part of The Hundred Years War (1337-1453), many mutual raids involving burning and pillaging took place; the danger of invasion was ever present and the Ports bore brunt of attack. The Portsmen could be relied upon to fight to the death and to massacre the crews of the French ‘quicker than it takes to eat a biscuit’. However, they could not be relied upon to make careful discrimination between friend or foe! French Fleets improved dramatically and now the small ships of the Ports had to be joined by large ships from elsewhere to fight them. The Ports themselves were attacked by the French: Hastings, Rye, Folkestone, Winchelsea, Dover, Romney and Hythe. The Portsmen assembled a small fleet of 21 small ships to retaliate, with 9 from the Thames. They beat off French ships attacking Rye and Hastings and chased them to Boulogne causing great damage. Seventy more English ships, with King Edward III, then arrived and the main French Fleet was defeated in the Battle of Sluys. This action began a change in sea warfare tactics, from small raids to large sea battles. The small Ports’ ships with crews of 20/21 men and limited days of Sea Service, became only a part of larger forces in future. In 1347 the siege of Calais had 700 ships fighting, but only a quarter were Portsmen. The vital role of the Ports’ ships then became surprise raids, repelling and chasing pirates and raiding parties. Rye was destroyed by the French five days after Richard II came to the throne in 1377. They sacked and burnt until only the four stone buildings of the Church, the Monastery, the Rye Castle and the Friars of the Sack were left standing within the town. The Church bells were stolen and citizens killed. Rye and Winchelsea retaliated and burned French towns. They found the stolen church bells. One of them was not returned to the Church, but erected at the end of Watchbell Street, to be rung in warning if the town was attacked. Henry V on his accession in 1385, revived the Hundred Years War. Rye ships carried men, horses, supplies etc. to the English armies fighting on the Continent. In 1422 Portsmen transported Henry V’s body back to England from France. In 1475 Edward IV assembled a huge army to invade France, estimated to be 30,000 to join the Duke of Burgundy, 10,000 to go to Normandy and 6,000 to Gascony, The English contingent actually got to France; they were transported across from Rye. The King eventually negotiated a Treaty and got a huge pension from the King of France – for not fighting!
The East Street branch of the museum is fully wheelchair accessible. Assisatnce dogs are welcome. Ramp/Level Access. Toilets for Disabled Visitors
Location : Rye Castle Museum, 3 East Street, Rye, East Sussex TN31 7JY
Transport : Rye (National Rail) then 5 minutes. Bus Routes : 292, 293, 312, 313, 326 and 342 stop close by.
Opening Times Ypres Tower: Daily November through March 10.30 to 15.30; April to October 10:30 to 17:30
Opening Times East Street : Reopens at Easter
Tickets Ypres Tower : Adults £4.00; Concessions £3.00; Children ( - 15) Free
Tickets East Street : Adults £2.50; Concessions £2.00; Children ( - 15) Free
Tickets Joint Admission: Adults £5.00; Concessions £4.00; Children ( - 15) Free
Tel. : 01797 226728