Church of St Thomas the MartyrHastings
East Sussex TN36 4EB
In the heart of Winchelsea can be found the 13th century parish church of St Thomas the Martyr. Like its predecessor in submerged Old Winchelsea, it is dedicated to the local saint, Archbishop Thomas Becket of Canterbury.
In 1287 the flourishing port of Old Winchelsea finally succumbed to flooding high tides and ferocious storms, and was destroyed (Camber Sands now covers the old town). So important was Winchelsea as a seaport that King Edward I wasted no time in finding a new and safer site for the town on Iham hill.
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In 1298 work started on a magnificent Gothic church that would have extended across the churchyard, almost to German Street, more like a small cathedral. It had a chancel and choir, two side chapels, a central tower and spire, transepts and a great nave.
During the 14th century Winchelsea sustained several devastating attacks from the French supported by a Castillian navy. In 1349 the population was decimated by the Plague. The pre-eminence of the port started to decline.
The fortunes of the church were inextricably linked with the decline of Winchelsea as a port. The nave was destroyed by fire and many of the splendid features were allowed to decay or were demolished. However, the church today still retains its medieval choir (now the nave), the side aisles and the ruins of the transepts.
A Medieval Treasure Trove 
Inside there is a treasure trove of medieval tombs, chantries and modern stained glass. On the north wall are three canopied tombs with polished marble effigies of a knight in armour, a lady and a youth. They date from the early years of New Winchelsea and are thought to be of members of the Alard family.
The knight has his legs crossed in the manner of a crusader and is thought to be Robert Alard, the lady is probably his wife Isabel, and the youth could be Robert’s young brother, Henry.
Examination of the wall behind the lady’s effigy reveals a painted angel, the only remnant left of the original brightly coloured decorations that once covered the monuments, effigies and canopies. During the 16th century Reformation such colourful decoration, images and icons were removed from the churches.
On the south wall are the canopied tombs (chantries) of two more knights each with stone carved effigies. The first was endowed in 1312 by Stephen Alard and contains an effigy of a man in full armour with hands raised to enclose a heart with a lion crouching at the feet. Two large angels support the double cushion on which the head rests.
The delicately carved arch of the recessed canopy springs from the heads of King Edward I and his second wife, Margaret. Edward’s head is said to be a true likeness of the king.
This tomb was used as the background for a painting by Pre-Raphaelite painter; Sir John Millais, called L’Enfant due Regiment (The Random Shot).
The second monument is of a later date, with the canopy arch springing from the heads of King Edward II and Queen Isabella, sometimes known as ‘the she-wolf of France. The monument is reputed to be the tomb of Stephen Alard himself, who became Admiral of the Cinque Ports and the Western Fleet.
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Green Man
The centre of each canopy is surmounted by the head of a Green Man, a prominent pagan figure, associated with tree worship from at least as early as 500 BC.
All around the church are other carved heads, many assumed to be images of the men who built the church. Others are less explicable. For example, under the right-hand side of the canopy over the effigy of the young man in the north aisle is a grotesque head with the ears of a bat.
Stained Glass War Memorial
The glorious stained glass windows are a war memorial and the work of Dr Douglas Strachan (1875-1950). The windows are dedicated to ‘the men of the Cinque Ports and the ancient towns of Rye and Winchelsea, who whether on sea, land or in the air, gave their lives in the War, 1914- 1918, and in thanksgiving for those who returned safe to their homes.’ The three windows in the south aisle are dedicated to the themes of Land, Air and Fire, and Sea.
Above the tombs on the north wall is another beautiful stained glass window commemorating the tragic loss of the lifeboat Mary Stanford and her crew of 17 local men, on 15 November 1928.
Comedian - Spike Milligan
Buried in Winchelsea churchyard is Irish comedian, jazz musician, entertainer and author ‘Spike’ Milligan. Born Terence Alan Patrick Seán Milligan he spent the latter years of his life in Rye.
When he died his coffin was draped with the flag of the Republic of Ireland. He had requested the epitaph on his memorial stone should read “I told you I was ill”.
The Chichester Diocese would not allow this epitaph so a compromise was reached. The grave is marked with a Celtic cross on which the epithet is inscribed in Gaelic "Dúirt mé leat go raibh mé breoite", and additionally in English, "Love, light, peace".
Visitors are very welcome to visit the church. Open 09:00 to dusk.
Contact & Further Information
Website  Church of St Thomas the Martyr    External Link
Getting There
Follow the instructions for getting to Winchelsea on this website.
Google Maps - Church of St Thomas the Martyr

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