Grey Friars, Winchelsea


Heritage Category:
Scheduled Monument
List Entry Number:
Date first listed:
Date of most recent amendment:
Location Description:
Statutory Address:
Grey Friars, Winchelsea, East Sussex


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Statutory Address:
Grey Friars, Winchelsea, East Sussex

The building or site itself may lie within the boundary of more than one authority.

Location Description:
East Sussex
Rother (District Authority)
National Grid Reference:


Franciscan friary relocated to this site from Winchelsea Old Town c1285, surviving as upstanding and buried remains.

Reasons for Designation

Grey Friars, Winchelsea, is scheduled for the following principal reasons:

* Survival: for the exceptional survival of the church ruins, one of the most impressive examples of Franciscan architecture in England, and for the presence of significant buried structural remains of the cloister and attached structures; * Potential: the upstanding and buried structural remains will inform our understanding of the development of the friary, its plan and architectural detail, while archaeological information in the form of pre and post-Dissolution artefacts relating to the site may provide valuable evidence for domestic and economic activity. Organic material may also be preserved, with the potential for evidence of environment and land management within the friary precinct, as well as human burials;

* Documentation: our understanding of the friary is enhanced by documentary sources relating to its refounding in Winchelsea New Town, and its post-Dissolution development as a private residence;

* Group value: the scheduled monument has a close relationship with the Grade II listed Greyfriars House, whose associated boundary walls incorporate reused (and possibly in situ) medieval fabric and perpetuate, in part, the friary precinct boundary. Grey Friars was a major component of the planned new town of Winchelsea, a site of outstanding historic interest, which is extensively scheduled and has many listed buildings and structures dating from the medieval period.


Old Winchelsea gained prominence after the Norman Conquest, earning inclusion in the Confederation of Cinque Ports of Sussex and Kent. The town was built on a shingle bank and suffered relentless erosion from the sea, and in 1280 Edward I ordered that it be relocated to the hilltop site of Iham, a scheme that would entail the compulsory acquisition of the entire site and adjacent manorial lands. The new town was built on a planned grid of streets divided into 39 insulae or ‘quarters’ with a central market, on similar principles to the bastide towns of south-west France founded by Edward I as Duke of Aquitaine. The first rent roll was drawn up in 1292, by which time the old town had finally succumbed to the sea in a great storm of 1287.

The order of Friars Minor (Grey Friars), founded c1206 by St Francis of Assisi, arrived in England in 1224. As a mendicant order, friars were dependent on the benevolence of the laity, and their houses were by necessity located within or close to towns. A Franciscan house had been established in old Winchelsea before 1242 and in c1285, John Bone of Wickham granted them four of the 28 acres that he (still) owned on Iham Hill, on the eastern side of the emerging new town. Although the barons of Winchelsea had stipulated that the town should have only one religious house - ie. that of the Grey Friars - a Dominican house (Black Friars) was established in 1318 whose precinct was built c1358 at the north-west of the town. Documentary references to the friars of Winchelsea are scant until the Dissolution.

While precipitated by natural forces, the relocation of Grey Friars Winchelsea coincided with a phase of Fransciscan rebuilding in Britain, which often entailed an aggrandisement of their sites, particularly the churches. This is perhaps less reflective of a departure from the Order’s original code of simplicity than the need to accommodate a large congregation for preaching, an activity central to the friars’ evangelical mission, as well as burials of wealthier citizenry within the church.

As a major planned royal port, New Winchelsea initially flourished, but began to decline after the mid-C14; this process rapidly accelerated c 1500, by which time the town had contracted considerably to the north-east. In July 1538, the Bishop of Dover, who was visiting Winchelsea to receive the friaries’ surrender to the Crown, wrote to Thomas Cromwell that the Grey Friars were ‘very poor and not able to continue…the warden would have given it up if had been at home,' while the Black Friars was reported to be ‘falling down’. Grey Friars was leased by Philip Chute, later captain of Camber Castle, and while several sources state that its materials were pillaged for the construction of Camber Castle nearby, it appears that Black Friars (which Chute also leased) suffered much more in this respect, being more conveniently located near the Pipewell Gate. In 1542 the site was leased to George Clifford and Michael Welbore, who are reputed to have used the chapel as a barn. As was common practice in former monastic sites, the west cloister range, the former lodging house, was converted into a residence, which survived until 1819 when Greyfriars House was built by Richard Stileman in the Gothick manner. The site was acquired by Sussex County Council in 1949 for use as a care home, and was sold in 1995 to the Wetlands Trust which operates the house as a conference centre.

INVESTIGATION HISTORY Maps and other documentary sources suggest that there has been no substantial intervention in the claustral area, which appears to have been a lawn since the late C18. However, a ground penetrating radar (GPR) survey in 2006 has provided valuable evidence, in conjunction with the analysis of parch marks visible on aerial photographs, of the survival of significant components of the cloister and its ranges as buried remains.


PRINCIPAL ELEMENTS Franciscan friary relocated to this site from Winchelsea Old Town c1285, surviving as upstanding and buried remains. The upstanding remains comprise the partial ruins of the friary church.

DESCRIPTION The precinct's irregular wedge-shaped boundary may perpetuate that of the original plot granted c1285, and seems to have skewed the town’s planned grid. It was bounded by streets to the north and south and east side, the eastern boundary running parallel with the town wall, and on the west by tenements lining the east side of the market. The church stood to the north of the site, with the cloister abutting the nave on its southern side; the land sloping down to the east and south. The cloister followed the typical friary plan of ranges placed around a central courtyard, and a concentric walkway or cloister garth. The west range usually comprised (as in this instance) the prior’s lodging and guest house; the upper floors of the south and east ranges respectively the frater (refectory) and dorter (dormitory), with ancillary rooms on the ground floors. The chapter house was often located within the east range. There is evidence (from the GPR survey and aerial photographs) of a further building, subdivided into small rooms, attached to the rear of the east range.

An engraving of 1737 by Samuel and Nathaniel Buck depicts the choir ruins very much as they exist today, plus the converted west cloister range, and the remains of the east and south ranges, the latter incorporating a square tower, possibly for a stair serving a refectory pulpit. The south and east claustral remains do not appear in SH Grimm’s view of 1784, and nothing of them survives above ground level. A view from the east published in ‘The Antiquarian Itinerary’ (JS Storer, 1816) shows the west range with what appears to be the cloister arcade incorporated into its ground floor. By this time the cloister area was an open lawn and a ha-ha had been constructed along its eastern side.

There are no records of archaeological excavations within the friary precinct. The presence of claustral remains is consistently evident from aerial photographs, resistivity surveys and parchmarks; this has been considerably enhanced by a ground penetrating radar (GPR) survey of part of the claustral area undertaken in 2006 by Arrow Geophysics which indicated substantial survival of masonry footings of the east and south ranges and walks at a depth of 400mm plus, including cross-walls, corner buttressing, and the building abutting the east range which has a canted projection on its east side. Also visible is a wall running southwards from the line of the east range, and a section of wall running east-west to the south of the south range. The site of the west cloister range is beneath the terrace of Greyfriars House, the north cloister walk lies beneath a pathway, and was not included in the GPR survey but may retain buried masonry.

The church, in the early Decorated style, is orientated slightly to the SE. It is built in local ragstone with ashlar dressings and followed the near-ubiquitous friary plan of an aisled nave, here of six bays, and a choir. Between the choir and nave was a one-bay passage or ‘walking place’ connecting with the east cloister range, separated from the choir on its east side by a structural wall with a large arch. The passage would have been screened from the preaching nave on its west side and may have been ceiled over to provide a loft or pulpitum. A bell tower was usually located above this space; the choir arch’s great span strongly suggests that this would have been of timber, as was usual in C13 friary churches. The roof too was probably timber as there is no evidence of the springing of vaults. The choir’s apsidal termination is unique in a British friary.

The standing remains consist of the choir, which stands almost full height; the lower section of the north wall of the passage bay and its arched entrance; a section of the north aisle’s east wall, and a long section of the south aisle wall. The four-bay choir terminates in a canted three-bay apse, each bay lit by a two-centred arch window of two-lights with hood moulds, the larger east window was of three lights. Sufficient fragments survive to show that tracery consisted of pointed trefoil heads inset with cusped quatrefoils. Between each bay are off-set buttresses whose surfaces have lost their masonry and dressings to varying degrees. In the central bay of the south wall is a doorway; corbels and sections of weathering indicate that it had a lean-to or porch. Opposite, on the north wall, is a later, possibly C17 doorway. In the re-entrant angle of the south choir wall and walking bay adjunct is a semi-octagonal turret with a tile roof, containing a stone newel stair. Above the (altered) entrance on its west side is a carved stone relief of a trefoiled cross on a stepped base. About 2.4. metres up the stair is a south-facing doorway with a two-centred arch which connected with the upper floor of the east cloister range (presumably dorter), perhaps doubling as a ‘night stair’. The east face has a small quatrefoiled window, at the top on the north face is a small doorway which would have led to the bell tower.

At the choir's west end is an exceptionally large two-centred arch of two moulded orders supported on clustered shafts; both faces have hood moulds terminating in stops carved with human heads. The windows have deep splayed reveals and hollow-chamfer arches whose hood moulds continue as a string-course; there is a further string-course at cill level. At the east end is a raised, grassed-over platform whose date and construction are unclear, which may have formed part of an C18 landscaping scheme, possibly a look-out to take advantage of the site's elevated position; an engraving by Grimm of 1784 shows it being used for this purpose.

The higher western section of the south aisle wall retains part of a corbel table and weathering associated with the pentice roof of the north cloister walk. At the west end is a stone respond of a doorway with (modern) steps indicating that the cloister was at a lower level to accommodate the slope of the land. The boundary walls of the grounds of Greyfriars House incorporate reused (and possibly some in-situ) medieval masonry.

EXTENT OF SCHEDULING The scheduling aims to protect the standing and buried remains of the friary church and the land immediately surrounding it, and the buried remains of the claustral ranges and attached structures. The maximum extent of the monument is about 128m N-S and 82m E-W.

EXCLUSIONS The following are excluded from the scheduling: boundary and internal garden walls; garden buildings; retaining walls to the terrace and ha-ha; gates and gatepiers; steps; paving and path surfacing; garden furniture and ornaments; all servicing and plant. However, the ground beneath all these features is included in the scheduling.


The contents of this record have been generated from a legacy data system.

Legacy System number:
ES 7
Legacy System:


Books and journals
Martin, A R, Franciscan Architecture in England, (1937)
Martin, D, Martin, B, New Winchelsea Sussex: a Medieval Port Town, (2004)
Victoria County History, , A History of the County of Sussex, (1973), 96
Arrow Geophysics, Ground Penetrating Rada Survey at Greyfriars, Winchelsea, September 2006,
Royal Commission on the Historical Monuments of England, NMR Complete Monument Report 419227,


This monument is scheduled under the Ancient Monuments and Archaeological Areas Act 1979 as amended as it appears to the Secretary of State to be of national importance. This entry is a copy, the original is held by the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport.

End of official listing

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