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The Churchyard

Wilmington Church taken from the northWilmington Churchyard, due to its great age (it has been in continual use certainly since Norman and possibly since Saxon times), its seclusion, its rusticity and the fact that most of its tombstones are of native stone - there are very few discordant imported marbles - is aesthetically most satisfying. It is, in fact, just the kind of churchyard in which Gray might have written his elegy.

Prior to the 18th century, village churchyards were generally maintained as open spaces and used as places of assembly and recreation. Consequently it is rare to find a tombstone in a village churchyard earlier than that century. The oldest tombstone in Wilmington churchyard is dated 1707.

It is interesting to note that all the table tombs are in the vicinity of the porch. It was not unusual in the 18th and early 19th centuries for charitable persons to make provision in their wills for bread and beer to be distributed to the poor at the Church porch. The tops of table tombs were used for this purpose.

The Wilmington Yew

The 'Wilmington Yew'The yew stands in the churchyard and is believed to be one of the oldest yew trees in Sussex, certainly older than the church itself, since it has recently been dated at around 1600 years old. Its gnarled double stem is a study for many painters and photographers and its girth near the ground is 23 feet. The magnificent tree has to be supported by props and chains. At the foot lies an old Roman stone said to have been found at the bottom of the vicarage well by the village well-digger. It now lies over his grave.

Many reasons have been given as to why yews are to be found in nearly every old churchyard. One of the most acceptable is that given by a medieval author who states that the yew is grown in churchyards: “as an emblem of Resurrection, from its perpetual verdure”. And this may be the reason why it was customary, certainly during Tudor times and probably earlier, to tie sprigs of yew to coffins.

It is well worth walking down to the north-west corner of the churchyard to see the view of Firle Beacon. On the way you pass a sundial erected in 1887 to commemorate Queen Victoria’s Golden Jubilee.

Church Exterior

Norman Window

On the north wall of the chancel is an original Norman Window of Caen stone with chevron moulding underneath.

Mass Dial

On the north-west corner of the Church is a stone with the markings of a mass dial in a side-way position. Originally, it probably was in the south wall or south porch and has been removed and built into its present position at some previous reconstruction of the Church. These mass dials were used before 1394 to mark the time of the services. It was a form of sundial. All that remains to-day to show its original use is a small bole which once held a shott rod.

The Saxon Period

At the end of the 5th century, in A.D. 485 - not long after the last Roman Legion had left Britain - Saxon invaders landed near the mouth of the estuary that then occupied the valley of the River Ouse and defeated the native Britons who opposed them at the battle of Moercryd (somewhere near Seaford).

During the years immediately following this battle, the Saxons established settlements in the surrounding countryside, and it is from one of these settlements that the village of Wilmington, like many of the villages in this Downland part of Sussex, evolved.

The Saxons were, of course, heathen, but they were gradually converted to Christianity during the 7th and 8th centuries following the establishment of Augustine's Mission at Canterbury in A.D. 597.

To begin with the spiritual needs of village communities were the responsibility of priests who travelled through the country visiting each community in turn, but gradually churches were built - firstly of timber but later of flint or stone - and the parochial system was established.

It is thought by some that a church was built at Wilmington about A.D. 1000, and that the Parish of Wilmington, possibly with its own resident incumbent, came into being about the same time. Others, however, are of the opinion that no church was built at Wilmington until the beginning of the 12th century when the existing church was founded.

The existing church may, of course, have replaced an earlier church that was demolished to make way for it, but whether it did or not will never be known. There are certainly no remains of any earlier construction - but this is no proof that a Saxon church never existed, since its timbers, and it would almost certainly have been built of timber, would have been used for other purposes and disintegrated long ago. It is significant, however, that the Domesday Book of A.D. 1036, which records the existence of churches, does not record one at Wilmington.

The Norman Period

After the Norman Conquest, the Benedictine Abbey of Orestain in Normandy, acquired several properties, amongst them the Manor of Wilmington, in that part of South-East England then known as the Rape of Pevensey. It was thus, at the beginning of the 12th century, that Wilmington Priory came to be built.

The Priory was to be the headquarters of the Abbot of Orestain's representative in England and to accommodate no more than two or three monks and their household. To have built a chapel specifically for the use of such a small community would have been superfluous, so it was decided to build a church to meet the needs of both monks and parishioners. This was, in fact, a common practice of small monastic communities. And so the church of Saint Mary and Saint Peter was built, its chancel being used as a monks' quire and its nave to accommodate parishioners.

The new church was built to the north of the Priory, possibly because the village or an existing graveyard lay on that side, but probably because it was customary to site monastic living quarters on the sunnier side of church or chapel. It was connected to the Priory by a covered cloister-walk and possibly also by a short underground passage to the Priory crypt - highly desirable connections in view of England's inclement weather and the fact that Benedictines normally held eight services daily.

The association between the church and the Priory did not last long. It was interrupted by the Anglo-French wars of the 13th and 14th centuries and finally ended in 1413 when the Priory ceased to be a religious establishment.

During the centuries following their foundation, most of the old churches of our English villages were reconstructed or enlarged on several occasions to meet the special needs of growing communities. They are thus a mixture of various architectural styles and Wilmington church is no exception. Following its foundation at the beginning of the 12th century it was reconstructed or added to on several occasions during the 13th, 14th, 15th, 19th and 20th centuries. Its existing structure is a mixture of Norman and Gothic architectural styles. Despite this, however, such was the expertise of native builders and craftsmen, it is much more than the confused sum of its parts - it is a harmonious whole with a marked personality of its own.

Construction Materials

Village churches are built generally of that material natural to the locality. Wilmington church is built of flint, the material most easily obtained in Downland Sussex, and imported stone has been used only for essential items such as quoins and buttress facings, arches, pillars, door jambs, window casings and mullions. Unfortunately, in places, the exterior flint wall has been plastered over, and in one instance - for the central pillar supporting the arches separating the nave from the south aisle - chalk, not a good building stone, has been used.

The Fourteenth Century Nave

Roof and Windows

During the 14th century the nave was rebuilt, and the existing nave dates from this period. It has a trussed rafter roof, with tie-beams and king posts, and four two-light windows of differing Early English design. The use of king posts - the vertical posts resting on the transverse tie-beams - was the medieval method of giving support to the roof and thus reducing its outward thrust on the walls. Windows of a reasonable size could then be built into the walls without weakening them too much.

The new roof, even at this early date, may well have been covered with clay tiles that were then gradually replacing thatch, and the new windows may well have been glazed with ‘quarries’ (diamond-shaped panes in which medieval glass was cast) set in lead ‘calms’ (frames) sprung into grooves cut in the stone casing. Before this window openings were either covered with wooden shutters wedged into a rebate cut into the outer edge of the casing or with oiled linen fitted into a wooden frame.


The new walls were lime-washed and painted with brightly coloured murals depicting the Gospel Story for the benefit of an almost entirely illiterate congregation. Unfortunately, due to Puritan fervour, these murals were plastered over during the 17th century.

Wilmington Church - FontFloor

The floor was undoubtedly of beaten earth. (Bricks imported from the Low Countries were not in general use for flooring until at least a century later.) The earth would have been covered with rushes to facilitate kneeling, and with sprigs of yew and rosemary and other sweet-smelling plants, which exude an aroma when crushed underfoot, to mitigate the stench of an agricultural congregation which seldom washed or changed their clothes. The congregation either stood or knelt on the floor; stone ledges around the periphery were reserved for the elderly and weak. Wooden benches, though gradually introduced, were not in general use until the 16th century.

The Font

The font, dating from the 14th century, is square with hollow chamfered corners and is supported on a central shaft and four angle shafts with moulded capitals and bases. Its basin is large enough to allow baptism of an infant by total immersion, and this was the usual practice unless the child was sick or a weakling - our medieval ancestors did nothing by half measures! The cover is a replica of a typical medieval steeple cover.

On the wall hereabouts is a list of Vicars starting with Geoffrey de Caz in 1208.

The Belfry

Timber belfries were first erected as long ago as the 13th century and subsequently became a characteristic feature of village Churches in localities devoid of stone. Exactly when Wilmington Church was first given a belfry is not known, but it was probably during the 15th century. The existing belfry - a type known as the “Sussex Cap” - has a spire of cleft oak shingles with walls of weatherboarding. It contains three bells: “William Hall made mee" 1677; (2) and (3) “Thomas Mears, founder, London, 1837(9)”.

The Eighteenth Century Nave

The Western Gallery - Choirs and Orchestras

After the Restoration galleries were built at the west end of the nave in many village Churches to increase seating capacity and accommodate a choir and an orchestra. Such a gallery was built at the west end of the nave of Wilmington Church at the beginning of the eighteenth century, probably when the Rood- screen was removed.

Choirs as such did not exist in village Churches until after the Restoration. Before this there had no doubt been a nucleus of singers leading the congregation, but they would have stood or sat in the nave along with the congregation, and until the 17th century have been accompanied by a wind instrument or an organ of the old barrel type.

Such organs, operated by turning a handle and playing from eight to ten tunes, had been introduced into Churches at a very early date, and by the end of the 15th century nearly every village Church possessed one. They were, however, like the medieval murals, the victims of Puritan fervour.

After the Restoration, village orchestras, in which the favourite instruments were violin and cello, flute, clarinet, hautboy and bassoon, were formed to accompany the new choirs. Both choirs and orchestras were accommodated in the new galleries towards which the congregation turned during the singing of hymns and anthems.

Box Pews

About the same time as the gallery was put up, box pews were built on to the floor of the nave. Some of these were rented to local families who furnished them to provide a considerable degree of comfort - no doubt as a panacea to offset the hardships of long winter sermons - and pew-rents provided a valuable addition to church funds.

In 1883 the interior of the Church was radically changed. The western gallery was demolished, the box pews were replaced by the existing pews, a new pipe organ (single manual built by Bevingtons of Soho), superseding the village orchestra, was placed in the north chapel archway and stalls were erected in the chancel to accommodate the choir.

The Organ

In 2002 a serious fire destroyed most of the wood structure and fabric of the North Transept, including the organ. Fortunately, an original Bevingtons organ of similar date was tracked down and, having had a second manual added, installed at the west end of the Church.

The Millennium Window

To mark the millennium a stained glass window was commissioned for the west window. The artist, Paul San Casciani, was chosen after a competition for the design and his description of the window together with the techniques employed in its creation can be seen close by the window itself.

In broad terms, the design is based on two different magnifications of a yew tree’s cross section which then overlap each other. Note also the Apocryphal text which alarms some but is seen as ample justification for an otherwise mystifying context.

At the same time some practical additions were made to the Church by providing lavatory, kitchenette and storage beyond the oak door by the side of the organ. This allowed the west end of the Church to be opened up and freed from unsightly domestic clutter that detracted from its elegant simplicity.

A brass tablet on the south-west wall of the nave commemorates the visit of Queen Mary in 1935.

The Royal Arms

On the south wall of the nave is the Royal Arms of Queen Victoria. When the Pope’s jurisdiction in England was repudiated in 1536 and the King became Supreme Governor of the Church of England, the Royal Arms were introduced into our Churches. In 1660 the display of the reigning monarch’s arms was made compulsory but during the 19th century the practice fell into disuse.

The South Aisle

The South Aisle is separated from the nave by two Early English arches with chamfered edges which are supported on a central circular pillar with moulded capital. Originally, this aisle or arcade, dating from the 14th century, was a covered cloister-walk for the monks to go to the Priory.

By 1851 the aisle was in the form of a transept, itself rebuilt in 1883. In the west wall is a blocked-up arch, showing within it a monument of the Jacobean period to the Culpeper family who lived in the Priory during the 16th century and several members of whom were formerly buried in this Church. It is possible that steps once led down through this arch to the Priory crypt.

The Lady Chapel is modern and was consecrated only a few years ago. The altar table here is the old Communion Table of 1670 originally used as the High Altar. Above this is a memorial window depicting the Virgin Mary and recently rededicated in further memory of the Forty family.

The two windows to the south date from Victorian times

The Pulpit

The oak pulpit is Jacobean and, along with its sounding board, was placed in the Church in 1610. It was probably made locally. Notice the beautiful simplicity of the carving. (At one time it was covered with layers of whitewash and paint!). Before 1603, when pulpits were made a compulsory part of the furnishings of a Church, sermons in village Churches were generally given from the Chancel steps.

The Chancel Arch

In early medieval Churches chancel arches were generally very small - often small enough to give the impression that the Church consisted of two separate halls, the chancel and the nave, but by the 14th century most of them had been enlarged to give the congregation a full view of the east end of the Church.

Wilmington Church - Early English StyleWhen Wilmington Church was founded it almost certainly had a small chancel arch, and it may well be that this arch was enlarged when the nave was rebuilt in the 14th century. The existing Gothic (early English style) chancel arch was erected in 1883 to replace the medieval arch which had somehow become damaged. It replaces the original arch destroyed about 1558.

The Rood Beam

A rood-screen was put up between the nave and the chancel during the 15th century. Screens had originally been put up in an attempt to preserve the sanctity of the chancel - especially from fouling by dogs which were permitted to accompany their owners into the Nave - following the enlargement of chancel arches. Congregations were still able to see into the chancel through the tracery of the upper part of the screen.

These early screens were later transformed into rood-screens which were beautifully carved and decorated with bright colours. The top of the rood-screen was fixed to a transverse beam, the rood-beam, on which stood the Rood - the Cross with Christ crucified and figures of Saint Mary and Saint John on either side. Miracle plays were sometimes performed before these screens. The rood-beam is still in position immediately to the east of the chancel arch but the beautiful medieval rood-screen disappeared in 1749 together with all traces of the stairway which led up to the Rood.

The Chancel

The chancel is of unusual length and the massive side-walls are internally splayed to allow maximum light to enter. The walls of the chancel, the narrow round headed window casings of Caen limestone in the side-walls of the sanctuary, and the stone ledges used as seats by the monks all date from the early 12th century when the present buildings were founded. The seats are now very low since the floor of the chancel, then at the same level as the nave, was subsequently raised.

It is interesting to note that stone ledges against the walls were the only form of seating in our early medieval village Churches. The erection of stalls in the chancel in 1883 must have been a striking innovation, since it had almost certainly, apart from a chair or two and a table for the convenience of officiating clergy, remained unfurnished right from the days when it was a monks’ quire.

North and South Wall Windows

During the 14th century two single-light windows were built into the north wall and a three light window was built into the south wall of the chancel. The small low window with a pointed ogee head in the north wall was probably a Sanctus window. If so it would have been fitted with a wooden shutter which was removed when the Sanctus bell was rung before it to warn those outside as well as inside the Church that the Host was about to be elevated.

Little is known about the stained glass window in the north wall. Its quality, sadly, has deteriorated.

Norman walls were made massive in order to stand up to the outward thrust of the roof and would be definitely weakened by having these windows built into them. It is therefore highly probable that the existing trussed rafter roof with its tie-beam and kingpost was put up over the chancel at this time to reduce the outward thrust.

The East Window - Buttresses
During the following century, the 15th, the Norman wall at the east end of the chancel was replaced by a wall with a large window - a beautiful example of perpendicular tracery in it, thus flooding with light what must have been a somewhat sombre sanctuary.

The removal of this massive east wall and its replacement by a wall with a large window would undoubtedly have weakened the north and south walls taking the thrust of the roof. To strengthen them, therefore, diagonal buttresses were built on to the north-east and south-east corners of the Church.

The Wilmington “Madonna”

In the north wall of the chancel is a strange figure, removed in 1948 from the exterior wall to a corresponding position inside the chancel.

One theory suggests that this is akin to the grotesque gargoyles found outside medieval Churches. Although it has certain features common to medieval angels, after recent cleaning the figure is considered to be an early Norman representation of the Madonna since the carving includes the remnants of what might well be a Christ child on the main figure’s knees. An even earlier date for this carving is not improbable and could suggest a connection with some pagan fertility cult.

The Sanctuary

The east window of three lights dates from the 15th century when the east wall was rebuilt. Two medieval aumbries on either side of the altar are intended for the Reserved Sacrament and the Holy Oils used for baptism, confirmation and for the anointing of the sick. They are rarely seen in an east wall and usually appear in the north and south walls. The doors of these aumbries are modern. Above the aumbry on the Gospel side is the stone bracket on which stands the statue of Saint Peter, one of the two patrons to whom the Church is dedicated. The present figure is recent but fragments of an original figure were discovered when the trefoil window in the chancel was opened up some years ago.

A Chippendale chair with hidden drawer may be on view and is used only at certain church services providing seating (a sedilia) in the Sanctuary for a visiting bishop or another senior member of the clergy.

There are two very fine stained glass windows in the sanctuary attributed to Michael O’Connor c. 1845. Depicting Moses and Aaron they include references to the ten commandments and the twelve tribes of Israel together with other elements of the Old Testament story.

The North Chapel and Vestry

Wilmington Church - Old Butterfly WindowSometime during the 13th century the North Chapel was built on to the Church. It is entered through an Early English plainly chamfered arch which leads from the nave into the North Transept.

This area of the Church was completely devastated by fire in July 2002. All the stonework was ruinously damaged together with the Bevingtons pipe organ, which almost filled the archway at the time, and the lovely “Bee and Butterfly” window destroyed.

The contents of the space, then used as a vestry, were reduced to ashes. At the subsequent restoration in 2003 the transept was reopened to the nave and a new, if much smaller, vestry fashioned out of the space between transept and porch. It is entered through a new door at the north west corner of the transept. Opposite that is an external door furnished with its original magnificent pair of ornate straps and locking arrangements.

As mentioned previously, the replacement Bevingtons pipe organ was positioned at the west end.

The current “Bee and Butterfly” window is a wonderful replacement worthy of its predecessor and includes salvaged pieces from the old stained glass set in at the bottom below the rising phoenix. A full description of the window can be found close by. Some think that the centre panel of Saint Peter in the original window was of 15th century Flemish origin.

Paul San Casciani’s description of the window can be found here.

The Porch and North Door

Wilmington Church - Norman DoorThe Porch was built on to the Church in the 15th century. It was given an outer rounded Norman arch although the inner arch in which the north door is set is Gothic, of the early pointed period in the 14th century. Here penitents received absolution before being readmitted to Church - those who had broken marriage vows being wrapped in a white sheet and those who had spread false information about a neighbour being padlocked in a ‘scold’s bridle’. Here also marriage banns were called, coroners sometimes held courts and public notices were displayed. Notice the "Votive Cross" on the right jamb of this entrance.

The North Door probably dates from the 14th century when the nave was rebuilt. It is composed of boards enclosed in a frame with vertical stretchers on the outside and horizontal stretchers on the inside - a common medieval practice - and hinged with twin straps turned into a loop swinging on hooks built into the stone of the jamb. The straps are straight and plain unlike the ornate ones on the north transept door.

Before being damaged by the fire in 2002 they were inscribed, within the shield shape above and on the internal wall, in Elizabethan lettering, the words: “I had rather be a door keeper to the house of my God” (Psalm 84:10). The stone carving which you now see in its place has been generously donated “in memoriam”.

Other Items of Interest

The Church Registers

The Registers give the records of births, marriages and deaths from 1538. The earliest entries were transcribed from “an ould paper book” into the first parchment register of 1598. The records are therefore earlier than most Churches.

The Communion Plate

There is a silver Communion cup and paten inscribed 1679. And a silver paten, 1721. The latter is described in the register as:  “A paten of silver for the administration of the Bread in the Holy Sacrament, given to the Parish Church of Wilmington in Passion Week, 1722, by an unknown hand. Sam: Isaach, Vic.”

The Wilmington Bible

170 years old. Inscription on the front page: “This Bible was given to me by my uncle George Sampson of Ninfield, Sussex, who also told me it was formerly let out to the Wilmington parishioners at 6d. a time.” (Jane White).

A number of other items have disappeared from the Church over the last forty years but the following are recorded as being part of the inventory in recent times:


Used in the Church over 180 years ago by the Clerk, Mr. Crowhurst, to lead the music. Given to the Church in 1939 by Mrs. Page of Polegate, his nephew's widow.

Christ's Sermon on the Mount

A beautifully executed and hand lettered copy of Matthew 5 bound in blue leather, presented to the Church in memory of Clement Stretton, FRIBA, of Leicestershire, who died in 1950.

The Wilmington Diary, 1781-2

Written by Miss Mary Capper during her stay at Wilmington with her brother, the Rev. James Capper. Years later the original diary was snatched from a fire before it was destroyed. It gives a fascinating account of life in a country vicarage in the latter half of the 18th century.

Baptismal Shell

A beautiful mother-of-pearl baptismal shell from Bethlehem depicting the Nativity of Jesus was presented to the church in 1958.

Wilmington Spoon

A most interesting item was a silver spoon inscribed with a picture of Old Swede's Church, Wilmington, Delaware, one of the oldest churches in the USA. This was presented to Wilmington, Sussex, during a visit to America by a former Vicar (the Reverend P. N. Harvey).

Wilmington, Delaware, is the See city of the Bishop of Delaware, and in 1960 parishioners of Wilmington, Sussex, presented him with an old Sussex shepherd's crook for use as his Pastoral Staff when he goes round his diocese, part of which is known as "Sussex County" and, as well as Wilmington, includes towns such as Lewes and Seaford.

We hope you have enjoyed looking round this ancient Church with its marks of a long and chequered history. But this or any other Church is not a museum merely housing interesting relics of the past. It is the House of God where Sunday by Sunday the Holy Mysteries are celebrated upon the altar and God's people come to pray and worship. Before you leave, you may wish to kneel a moment in silence and remember God's presence and say a prayer for those who worship and minister here in the ageless Faith of Jesus Christ.

Wilmington Priory

Wilmington Priory - dating from 1100The Priory dates from 1100 and was probably built by the Abbott of Grestain in Normandy upon whom Robert, Earl of Mortain bestowed Wilmington.

In 1413 Henry V gave it to the Dean and Chapter of Chichester. History does not connect it with any stirring events but Eleanor, daughter of King John and wife of Simon of Leicester, stayed here on the night before the fatal battle of Evesham in 1265.

Various periods of architecture may still be discerned in the ruins ranging from Norman to Tudor work and the Crypt (c. 1300) is well worth a visit.

A few years ago the Duke of Devonshire presented the Priory to the Sussex Archaeological Trust by whom the ruins have been most carefully preserved and cleared of modern additions so that visitors now have a fair idea of the original beauty of the house. More recently, the Landmark Trust have leased the property which is let out to visitors. Viewing the Priory is limited to a few weekends in the year. The agricultural museum which used to be housed here has been moved to Michelham Priory near the Dicker.

The Long Man of Wilmington

The 'Long Man of Wilmington'The Long Man, or Wilmington Giant, is a remarkable curiosity. The arms are extended upwards and in each hand is a long staff - some old drawings represent these as a sickle and a rake. It is 230 feet high and is now cared for by the Sussex Archaeological Society in trust for the nation.

No-one has solved the problem of the origin of the Long Man or its exact age. The two most likely theories suggest Celtic or Norse origin, although this has been disputed as recently as 2005.

When the Romans landed at Totnes and conquered Britain from the ancient Celts they found “figures of enormous size” (Caesar Book VI). It was an age of colossal figures, e.g. the Giant of Cerne Abbas. The Celts came from the East and were related to the Phoenicians and Canaanites and traded with them, especially at the tin mines in the West Country. They were great builders and very artistic, viz. Stonehenge and Avebury. The prevalent worship was of the gods of Sun and Fire. The Long Man may probably therefore be the god of Bel, contemporary with Baal of the Bible. At the neighbouring village of Arlington, in sight of the Long Man and near to the Church, is a meadow called “Bel Brook” and there is also “Bel-tout” near Beachy Head.

On the other hand, the figure may be of much later date and linked with the invasion of the Vikings and Danes. Similar figures (one, particularly, appears on the silver cauldron from Gundestrup, Denmark, dating from the 1st century BC) carrying a scythe have been found in Scandinavia and northern Europe, and this suggests the Norse god Baldur who, according to legend, recedes into the underworld during the winter months and emerges afresh each year with the coming of the spring. Interestingly, the Long Man is in shadow for five months of each year.

It was a common custom for Christians in the early centuries to “baptise” sites of pagan worship and by building their churches close by. This may have some bearing on the building of the Benedictine Priory so close to the Long Man, though any suggestion that the monks themselves were responsible for the giant is obviously absurd.

St Mary and St Peter’s Church, Wilmington - An Historical Guide