‘Lost Fleet’ discovered in medieval cellar

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A project to clear rubbish from a cellar in the English village of Winchelsea has led to the discovery of a series of medieval graffiti inscriptions that are being hailed as being nationally significant.

The inscriptions, located in a medieval undercroft beneath Blackfriar’s Barn, were first identified by builders carrying out repair work prior to the National Trust opening the cellar to the public this summer. A recent survey of the inscriptions, undertaken by medieval graffiti specialist Matthew Champion, has identified a whole series of large-scale medieval ship inscriptions; leading to the discovery being referred to as Winchelsea’s ‘Lost Fleet’.

The undercroft at Blackfriar’s Barn is believed to have been built in the early fourteenth century, dating back to the time when Winchelsea was a bustling south coast trading port. The town was constructed on the orders of Edward I after the former settlement of ‘old winchelsea’ was lost to the sea, and it soon became one of the busiest ports in southern England. However, a series of French seaborne attacks, culminating in their sack of the town in the 1380s, led to the slow decline of this once bustling port into the picturesque village that survives today.

The undercroft at Blackfriar’s Barn has had a chequered history. Archaeological work has shown that it was originally built beneath a large 14th century building, thought to be one of the medieval Guildhalls. This building was probably targeted by the French during their raids in the 1380s which resulted in it being deserted and left to decay.

In the 18th and 19th centuries the cellar was re-used as one of the towns rubbish dumps, which led to it being filled with broken pottery and animal bones, and a barn was built on the remains of the guildhall above it. The barn was subsequently destroyed during a catastrophic fire, leaving the site ruined once again.

The undercroft is one of 33 accessible medieval cellars in Winchelsea, and it is regarded as the finest and most impressive example to survive. The National Trust made the decision to open the site to the public and, working with the Winchelsea Archaeological Society, they began a project to empty the cellar of several hundred year’s worth of accumulated rubbish.

During building works following the clearance, workmen noticed an unusual series of inscriptions on one of the walls and initial inspections by National Trust archaeologists suggested that the inscriptions could well have been of an early date.

In May of this year the undercroft was surveyed by medieval Graffiti specialist, Matthew Champion, and the full significance of the discovery began to be revealed. “My initial reaction on seeing the inscriptions”, comments Champion, “was that they were far larger and more complex than most of the examples that I have come across. It was clear that the inscriptions were of ships, but the whole wall was covered in lines and it was unclear exactly how many ship were present or what period they might date to”.

A full photographic survey of the walls surface was undertaken over a two day period, with members of the Winchelsea Archaeological Society undertaking a measured drawing survey at the same time. “The results were simply astounding”, states Champion, “and it was clear that we were looking at at least a dozen ship images, all in varying states of preservation, and all of them had been executed into the plaster when it was actually wet. We could even make out impressions of fingers and fingerprints on the wall surface”.

Analysis of the photographs and drawings also allowed the survey team to suggest that all the ship inscriptions all appeared to date from the medieval period. “All the ships appear to be single masted vessels with a very distinctive shape to the hull, bows and stern”, comments Champion, “and whilst ship graffiti has been found at a number of locations it is extremely rare to be able to give it a firm medieval date. All the examples that we looked at would appear to date to the early 15th century; a time when Winchelsea was still a bustling medieval port. Their size and location, in a medieval cellar, also make them highly unusual and pose a number of very interesting questions. Most obviously, who made them and why? Whilst research into these inscriptions will continue, it is clear that they are an important discovery. To find one or two clearly datable medieval ships would be significant. To find a small fleet of them across a whole wall is simply unique – a fantastic find.”

The National Trust are now planning to open the cellar to the public on a regular basis, with the first event taking place of June 16th. As well as a chance to see firsthand the ‘lost fleet’ of Winchelsea, there will be tours, live interpretation and a wine tasting. The tours start at 7pm but places are limited and booking is essential. Further information on the event can be found at:

http://www.nationaltrust.org.uk/bodiam-castle/things-to-see-and-do/events/

See also New Website Showcases Suffolk’s Medieval Masterpieces

Sharan Newman