Rye Castle, a three storied monument to the ascendancy of the Angevin monarchs stands in East Sussex. Built from iron-stained sandstone, the castle has the iconic square plan with rounded corner towers that was the typical design of the 13th century. Also known as Ypres Tower, it is defended on its North side by a portcullis, a staple of medieval castle design, whilst towering over old Cinque Port of Rye. The Castle itself sits around 15 miles from the historic Battle of Hastings site, and is testament to the transformative regime that the Anglo-Norman Era ushered into Britain.
The History of Rye Castle
The tower itself is subject to historical discussion and debate around its exact construction, with the town being mentioned as a potential castle site in documents in both 1226 and 1249 – though it is accepted to have been constructed in the late 1240s. Rye was to play a small but crucial role in the history of Britain, involved in both defence against, and trade with, the neighbouring French.
The Early History of Rye and Rye Castle
The town of Rye was granted a charter as a Cinque Port in 1189, allowing the town to flourish commercially, before defying John Lackland in 1216, opening its gates to Prince Louis of France in his advance across the realm. This made Rye a strategic port, which necessitated greater protection because of this threat from continental Europe, but also due to the ire that piracy and smuggling was bringing upon the town – as pirates plundered French ships without hesitation, and throughout the 1230s, as they plundered French coastal towns.
The town itself was a part of the French domain until 1247, as a part of the endowment of the Franco-Norman Abbey of Fécamp. The pious king Henry III took the town into the English domain, recompensing the Abbey for lands lost with lands in less strategic locations, away from the coast. In true Angevin style, Henry almost immediately gave permission for the building of a castle in Rye. ‘Baddings Tower’ was built in 1249 in order to defend the town from the French, though was later renamed after its owner, John de Iprys, creating Ypres Tower.
The port continued to flourish with this newfound protection, the Portsmen supporting Simon De Montfort in his rebellion in the Second ‘Barons War’ (1264-67) – sending twenty-eight men to serve in his parliament. Portsmen continued to play a role in England, in the conquests of Edward I into Scotland, continuing piracy against France and Flanders, patrolling the Channel, and helping incite Civil War and the murder of King Edward II in 1327, by virtue of carrying the Queen and her Court to France.
The Hundred Years’ War
Rye’s burgeoning Portsmen population played a significant role in the Hundred Years’ War, taking the fight to France whilst being influential in a number of crucial battles – to tip the war in England’s favour.
Rye’s port and castle were attacked by the newly improved French Fleet in the early stages of the war, 1337-39, though little damage was sustained. A year later, the Portsmen assembled a small fleet of 21 ships to retaliate, beating off further French attacks against Rye, before joining the action in the Battle of Sluys.
Rye’s Portsmen continued, supplying men, horses and supplies for the Battle of Crécy – the hero of which, the Black Prince who ‘earned his spurs,’ would go on to defeat the Spanish within Rye Bay itself, with 50 small ships against significantly larger and better equipped Spaniards. Fourteen of the forty Spanish ships were sunk.
Despite this heroism, the town was sacked and burnt in 1377 by the French, with only the four stone buildings of the town – the Monastery, the Church, the Friars of the Sack and of course, Rye Castle left standing. The French ruthlessly stole the Church bells and pillaged the town to its knees. After all was said and done, Rye continued to be a thorn in the French side, continuously ferrying troops and supplies to English armies fighting on the continent, including to those at that most famous of English victories, at Agincourt in 1415.
Redundancy and Reuse
As the town’s proud pirating history was in its swansong at the beginning of the 15th century, with Henry V’s declaration of piracy against France and French territories as an illegal act, the town’s maritime industry faltered. Furthermore, by 1430, after numerous high-profile failures to provide protection to the town, Rye Castle was deemed surplus to requirements, and sold to John de Iprys, who converted it into a private home, simultaneously granting its other alias, Ypres Tower.
The Tower remained firmly in private hands until 1494, when it was re-leased to the town and repurposed as a prison. This arrangement was made permanent in 1518, after the Rye Corporation acquired it, being used as dual prison and courthouse, complete with a full-time gaoler by 1796 – continuing the Castle’s heritage as a prison well into the 19th century.
The infamous case of John Breads’ murder of Allen Grebell on March 16th 1743 was concluded at Rye Castle. Breads had intended to murder James Lamb, the then-mayor of the town, at a dinner to celebrate his son’s appointment to the customs service. Lamb asked his brother-in-law to attend in his place, and on his return home, Grebell was attacked and stabbed by Breads in the churchyard – though he staggered home mortally wounded, he later died in his home.
When Breads was arrested, the best defence he could come up with was that he had intended to kill Lamb, rather than Grebell! As mayor, Lamb’s substantial influence kept Breads’ trial firmly within Rye, as he simultaneously acted as prosecutor and judge in a grand jury trial. Therefore ultimately, despite Breads’ plea of insanity, he was sentenced to death by hanging after a short incarceration in Rye Castle. Breads was brutally hung on the gallows within a gibbet, his body allowed to rot for 20 years.
Even though an exercise yard was added to the North West of the tower in 1819 (partially converted to soup kitchens in the mid-19th century) and a women’s prison was added by 1837 alongside a further exercise yard, the prison was to succumb to higher standards than that of the lock-up prison it had become. It was discontinued in 1891, despite the attempts of local corporations to improve prison provisions, as the exercise yard’s were converted into gardens.
War and Legacy
After its disuse as a prison, Rye Castle and Ypres Tower were used by the town as morgue, Rye castle was badly damaged during a German air raid in 1942, which obliterated the roof of the Ypres Tower and that of the Women’s Tower. Repair works took place on Ypres Tower in the 1950s so that by 1954 Rye Castle Museum was able to take over the first and ground floors, adding a basement in 1959.
Rye Castle Museum is open to this day and tells the history of Rye from pre-roman history up until the modern day. The Museum is open 7 days a week throughout the year and is a hub of tourist activity. The Tower underwent structural work in 1996-7 and had further repairs and alterations in 2005-7 – to maintain the character and resplendence of this iconic piece of English Heritage so that it can be enjoyed and understood by future generations. You can find more information on the Castle, and the surrounding area’s history from the Museum’s website.
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