Rye's history can be traced back to before the Norman Conquest, when, as a small fishing community, it was almost surrounded by water and lay within the Manor of Rameslie. The sea has retreated and now lies two miles from the town and sheep graze where the waves once broke on the beach.

The Manor of Rameslie was promised to the Abbey of Fécamp in Normandy by Ethelred the Unready, who - true to his name - had been caught off guard and forced to flee from the Danes in 1014. Luckily it was the Abbey that gave him shelter. Although Ethelred died before he could bestow his gift, his widow, Queen Emma married King Canute and made him confirm the transfer of Rye and the surrounding area, to Fecamp.
The town grew in stature as a trading port and in 1205, when King John was forced to return Normandy to the French Crown, control of this part of Sussex was confirmed as under the control of Fecamp.

It was Henry III who finally restored order and in 1247 the area was returned to the English Crown from the Abbey of Fécamp, except for a small area some way inland, still known to this day as Rye Foreign. It was not taken back under English control until the Reformation.
Once back in English hands, Rye underwent a period of sustained fortification with the construction of four gates and a town wall in about 1380 under Edward III.
Today, only the Landgate, Ypres Tower (the castle) and a small section of the original town wall in Cinque Port Street remain. Sections of the wall appearing elsewhere have been rebuilt.
By the 13th century, the Plantagenet kings Henry III and later Edward I consolidated the defenses of the realm with the Charter of the Cinque Ports, which meant towns along the coast of Kent and Sussex provided safe harbour, a quota of ships and men to sail them. In return for their support the ports, including Rye and Winchelsea, - defined as 'Antient Towns' - were granted common rights and privileges, with freedom from taxes and custom duties, trading concessions and rights to hold judicial courts.
As a result the Cinque Ports became one of the richest and most important maritime economies in Europe, laying the foundations for Britain's maritime power.

The French attacked on a regular basis, testing the defences and raiding the port. Even the Spanish tried their luck in 1350, the year after the Black Death raged across the country, but Edward III and his son, the Black Prince, routed a fleet of 40 Spanish vessels in Rye Bay. In a devastating French attack in 1377, Rye was almost completely devastated by fire, and the bells of St Mary's Church stolen.

Not a town to take things lying down, the men of Rye and Winchelsea set sail in 1378 to wreak their revenge on the French coast and returned with the bells and other loot stolen the year before. One of the bells was later hung in Watchbell Street to warn of subsequent French attacks and walls built where only earthen banks had defended the town.

Perhaps Rye's most exciting point in history was the 18th century when its prosperity depended as much on smuggling as any other trade. Smugglers' hoards were stored in the old vaulted cellars and they crept around Rye through secret tunnels and passages. You can still see some of these 'haunts' (often complete with ghost) on a Blue Badge Guide tour of the town.

For over 100 years Rye has been famous for its bohemian approach to life which thrives today and with only 5000 inhabitants it retains a village atmosphere and old-fashioned values.

  • Historic Rye
    The historic centre, known as the Citadel, sitting atop the rocky outcrop, is easy to explore by foot. At its heart stands the Church of St Mary the Virgin. Don't miss the view from the top of the tower, the highest part of Rye and for centuries the town's lookout. Overlooking Lion Street is an antique clock dating from 1561, with its mechanism, including 18-foot long pendulum, viewable on the way up the tower.
  • The streets of Rye
    As you wander around Rye's cobbled streets, look out for local landmarks like the Ypres Tower (the castle) and Landgate Arch. Some of the old buildings are now enjoying new uses such as the working pottery in the former Augustinian Friary in Conduit Hill and the record shop in the old Grammar School on the High Street. The Town Hall in Market Street and the Mermaid Inn are still being used for their original purpose, several centuries after being built.
  • Mermaid Street
    Mermaid Street is peppered with ancient buildings, with strange names such as, 'The House Opposite', 'The House with the Seat' and 'The House with Two Front Doors'. Even the sea is a little wayward - it retreated from the town years ago, leaving Rye feeling a little bemused - a seaside town where the sea is almost two miles away…
  • Rye Military Heritage
    A footpath across the marshes leads to Camber Castle which was built by Henry VIII in the 16th century to protect Rye from invasion. In the 19th century a series of Martello Towers were added to the south coast to counteract the threat of Napoleonic invasion and they can still be seen around Romney Marsh and Rye Harbour. The Royal Military Canal, designed to act as a fortification and canal provides for excellent walks with abundant wildlife.
  • The churchyard
    The churchyard remains a tranquil haven for visitors and residents alike, made even more atmospheric thanks to a farsighted ruling from 1606 when John Cheston bought a house overlooking the churchyard and started removing the tiles a few years later. Following a local outcry it was decreed that no property should be pulled down in any open street that might be detrimental to the area - which just goes to show that conservation is not new.