History of St Denys'
The present sandstone building dates from about 1060 and stands in the centre of the village. Its spire, reaching a height of 165 feet, is a familiar land-mark for miles around. The oldest part of the church is the north-east corner of the building and is believed to have been erected on the site of the original wooden buildings. Known as the Nevill Chapel, it is named after the Nevill branch of the Abergavenny family, the Lords of the Manor from 1450. The rest of the building dates primarily from the 11th, 12th and 13th centuries, with later additions such as the 15th century tower and porch. The 15th century spire was destroyed in the Great Storm of 1987 and two years later was replaced by one of steel construction.
Pictured left is the original building dating from 1060
The 12th/13th century Nave was originally oblong with a flat roof; the recess for the beams can still be seen in the chancel arch. The nave has an attractive wagon roof with magnificent arched rafters, a vivid illustration of the skills of medieval craftsmen.
The North Aisle with it’s circular pillars date from about 1250AD and the South Aisle with it’s octagonal pillars date from the 14th century. The cross hanging over the High Table was made by local carpenter using oak beams from the old spire. The roofs of both aisles have been raised and the original sloping line of the North Aisle roof can be clearly seen above the wall painting at the east end, as well as externally at the west end of both aisles.
|North Aisle||South Aisle|
The late 19th century box pews are unusual in that they are tiered at the west end of the nave. Near the south door is an unusual alms box, dated 1846, with a cross for the money slot. On the other side of the south door is a plaque commemorating the founding of the church in 792AD and a framed copy of the wording of Duke Bertaold’s will. Beneath the First World War Memorial is a table used by the Archbishop of Canterbury on the occasion of a field military church service held at Hesdin, France on Sunday 21st May 1916.
The massive 12th/13th century Early English Chancel Arch has part of the moulding cut away. This would have accommodated the rood screen which no longer exists, although it is thought that part of it has been used for the screening between the chancel and the Nevill Chapel.
The Chancel also dates from the 12th/13th century and may originally have been apsed (Curved) at the east end. It must have been extended at an early date as the sedilla (Clergy seats) and piscina (for washing communion vessels) on the south side of the Sanctuary are also 13th century and are amongst the finest of their kind and date. The ridge of the chancel roof curves towards the south, symbolic of Christ’s head drooping on the cross. The lancet windows on the south side are of different size and date and the leaded lights still have one or two pieces of ancient glass in them.
The oak choir stalls, with their carved finials, date from the 16th and 17th centuries.
Outside, on the south side of the chancel, it is believed there was a chantry chapel with access directly to it through and archway, the outline of which is still visible and now partly taken up by a stained glass window. The priest’s door still exists in the chancel’s south wall. On the outside of the east wall of the south aisle a large blocked up archway can be seen. This gave access to a stairway within the wall the wall, and inside, above the pulpit, a blocked doorway is visible. This would have given access to the chantry chapel to the top of the rood screen where the Deacon sang the Gospel.
The Nevill Chapel, in the north east corner of the church, is the original stone building constructed in the 11th century and there is evidence of Saxon stonework externally. During the alterations in 2000/2001 a Tudor fireplace was uncovered, situated next to the Easter sepulchre, the recessed arch where the host was placed between Maundy Thursday and Easter Sunday.
The two massive reeded beams across the roof are thought to be as originally constructed and are of a great age. The roof has many interested carved wooden bosses including two ‘Green Men’ and other grotesque heads as well as the coat of arms of the Nevill family. The large piscina in the east wall is still functional and the High Table replaces one that was stolen some years ago. A local craftsman made it from timber salvaged from the spire blown down in October 1987.
The newest part of the church (2000/2001) comprise of a Clergy Vestry located in the south-west corner of the nave and a Utility Area/WC in the north-west corner. Ramps for disabled access have been provided. The Nevill Chapel has been restored to its former glory following the removal of the clergy vestry and old pipe organ. The new three-manual electronic organ is positioned at the end of the choir stalls with the speakers located above the Nevill Chapel screen and at the west end of the Nave. A publican address system incorporating a loop system for the hard of hearing has been installed. A recent major project was the provision of new tapestry kneelers designed and worked by local parishioners. Many of the kneelers, which can be seen in the pews, commemorate village and family links.
The Tower Spire and Bells:
The step-buttressed and battlemented Tower was added to the west end of the nave in the 15th century. The original entry into the church would have been at the west end of the nave. When the tower was added a new west door was incorporated having a fine arch and door frame which can be viewed from outside.
The octagonal timber-framed spire was blown down in the October storm of 1987 with much damage to the west end of the church. The spire was replaced in sections by helicopter in 1989, now with steel beams and chestnut shingles. It rises to a height of 165 feet.
Before 1967 the ringing chamber for bells was on ground floor. It was then raised to its present position and the bell ringers can now be seen in action from the main body of the church.
The bell chamber in the tower houses a peal of eight bells. The tenor was cast in 1670 and the Fifth in 1603; the fourth, sixth and seventh date from a similar time and were recast in 1908 when the Treble, Second and Third were given by George, Emily and Winifred Burt, together with a new steel frame made by the Whitechapel Bell Foundry. The family also presented a carillon so that chimes and tunes can be played by one person on eight bells.
The Porch was added in the 15th century and has stone seats on either side. Above the porch is a small low-roofed chamber with two small windows; access to which is gained by a spiral staircase in the wall to the right after you enter the church. It is not known why the door is set so high above floor level. It is possible that the room above was used as the storehouse or treasury referred to in our early documents.
The Holy Water Stoop:
During the restoration work (2000/2001) a recess was found in the wall of the north aisle near the porch door. It is thought to be a space where a holy water stoop was fixed when the porch was added in the 15th century.
The Font and Font Cover:
The octagonal stone font is late Norman and was missing for a number of years until the Rector at the end of the 19th century found it lying in a field belonging to Horsegrove Farm being used as a cattle trough. Although slightly damaged, a small sum of money was exchanged and the font was returned to the church. How it came to be in the field is a mystery although it should be noted that Samuel Wickens was churchwarden from 1814-18 and he was the tenant of the farm in 1816!
The richly covered octagonal oak front cover was made in 1533 and bears the coat of arms in George Nevill, Baron Burgavenny, Lord of the Manor of Rotherfield at the time. Other panels are carved with the heads of men, animals and scrollwork. The centre panel has a pair of doors, carved with a large shield and in the top right hand quarter is a carving of a boat said to represent the good ship “Bergavenny” in which the Nevill’s ancestor accompanied William the Conqueror to our shores. The front cover was repaired in 1816 and the original panels are said to be of Flemish or French work. The church registers show there were French people living in Rotherfield at that time.
The fine carved oak pulpit has a decorated canopy with winged bird ornament and friezes of salamanders and of acorns and oak leaves. It was made by Francis Gunby of Leeds in 1632 for the Chapel of the Archbishop of York at Bishopsthorpe. When it became redundant it was brought to Rotherfield in 1896 and installed in the church as a memorial to William Thomson, Archbishop of York. Archbishop Thomson’s daughter was married to Canon Goodwyn, Rector of Rotherfield from 1889 to 1898.
There are a number of grave slabs set into the floor of the church, several of which are beneath the carpeting. The oldest one, dated 1591, is beneath the choir stalls on the south side on the chancel. In the 1800’s alterations were made to the church and a number of grave slabs were moved into the sanctuary and placed beneath the High Table.
At the east end of the Nevill chapel is a stone slab carved with the initials TMC between a gauntleted fist clutching an arrow and a lively representation of a talbot hound. ‘TC’ indicates Thomas Chowne and ‘M’ indicates Mary, his wife, who died in 1605. The fist and hound are both heraldic devices of the Chowne and Talbot families and each have a circle with a segment cut out of it. This device in heraldry indicates the second son’s coat of arms as distinct from that of the father and eldest son.
On the right, as you enter the Church is an iron grave slab. It is the only one of its kind in this church, although in this district of the great Wealden iron industry that flourished from Roman times until the 19th century, many more can be found in neighbouring churches. This one could scarcely be more enigmatic, for there are no marks – neither dates nor inscription – other than the raised pattern of processional crosses. It may originally have covered the tomb of an ecclesiastic or, perhaps, one of the Wealden ironmasters. Not surprisingly, therefore, its age has long been a matter of opinion and various possibilities have been put forward with a date as early as the 14th century being quite unlikely.
The Rotherfield First and Second World War Memorials are in the church and the Rotherfield Royal British Legion Standards are also displayed.
The Wall Paintings:
St Denys’ Church is well known for the marvellous wall paintings which still decorate large areas of the interior and date from the 13th, 14th and 15th centuries with texts of a later date. For several centuries they were completely covered over, and it was only in 1893 during restoration work to the nave that a fall of plaster revealed fragments of decoration. Further investigation resulted in the discovery of a number of substantial early paintings and the realisation that they must have once covered almost every available surface. Since the 1890’s many of the paintings have faded badly, but the rest of these that can still be clearly seen are on the chancel arch and in the Nevill Chapel. In several places in the nave there are some small areas of wall painting indicative of the whole church having once been decorated.
At the top of the chancel arch there is an impressive 15th century Doom Painting. Christ is seated on a rainbow with his feet on an orb representing His dominion over earth, air and water. His wounds are strongly defined, with streams of blood, represented in black, falling from his hands, feet and sides. Above his head are the sun and the moon with angels bowing trumpets on either side of Him. To His left is the kneeling figure of the Virgin Mary and to the right is St John. Below Him there are the heads of two monks which are thought to be a reference to the priory established in the 8th century. To the upper left is a representation of paradise and below is a figure probably of St Peter at the gate. Lower down the arch, on the left hand side, there is a 14th Century representation of a winged St Michael weighing the souls of the departed. To the left of St Michael, in the north aisle is an early 14th century representation of the Incredulity of St Thomas with the risen Christ on a background of five-petalled roses. The inscription above the pulpit appears to be the Ten Commandments (now badly faded).
On one window splay in the Nevill Chapel is seated nude female figure holding a distaff and on the opposite splay a foot can be seen; it is most likely that Adam and Eve are portrayed here. They were painted in the 14th century over the 13th century masonry pattern. Restoration work revealed further 13th and 14th century patterns including unusual coloured flowers on long stalks on the splays of the high blocked window above the west arch. On the north splay of the east window of the Chapel there is a 14th century figure of St Gabriel. It is thought that on the opposite splay would have been the Blessed Virgin Mary but there is now no trace of her.
Coat of Arms of George 1:
Above the north door is a painted representation of the Royal Arms dated 1723 and painted on wood. The arms are those of England, Scotland, France, Ireland, Brunswick, Saxony and the diadem of Charlemagne. In many churches these were originally placed above the chancel upon the removal of rood loft and screen. They symbolised loyalty to the Crown head of the Church of England. Most date form after the Restoration of Charles II and they are now found hanging in different parts of churches.
The Stained Glass:
The earliest stained glass in the church is at the top of the east window in the Nevill Chapel where fragments of 14th century glass can be seen, some of the earliest known in Sussex.
It is the late 19th century Pre-Raphaelite glass in the fine 14th century east window of the chancel that is of special art-historical interest. It was mainly designed by Sir Edward Burne Jones. It was made in 1878 by William Morris who also designed the foliage and the figure of St Barnabas in the bottom right corner. All the branches of the foliage spring from a single root.
The subject is the Te Deum, and the delicate drawing of the figures and generally light, open style of the whole design come together within the Perpendicular decorative stone framework to make a very beautiful window. In the top tier of tracery flanked by cherubs are four archangels. The middle and bottom tiers each have eight angels with different musical instruments. In the centre of the top line of the main part of the window is the figure of Christ with an angel and cherubim on the left and a seraphim and an angel on the right. Below them are Apostles and Martyrs and in the centre is the Blessed Virgin Mary.
The other stained glass windows are all late 19th or early 20th century memorial windows and are of a much more conventional design. The one on the south side of the chancel, in memory of Daisy Fletcher King is exceptionally brilliant and colourful. It represents the Annunciation.
The Churchyard and Cemetery:
In front if the church, the Yew Tree, supported by poles, is said to be at least 1500 years old, older than the original church. It is practically hollow and it is a miracle of nature that so much can be supported on so little. There are 369 gravestones in the churchyard, the oldest dated 10th November 1702 and there are two dated 1706. An area is set aside as a Garden of Remembrance and used for the interment of ashes.
To the south west of the church, a cemetery contains 619 gravestones as well as a considerable number of unmarked graves. In this cemetery is the grave of Sophia Jex-Blake, one of the first women doctors. From about 1955 interments have been in the cemetery in Eridge Lane.
The earliest Register belonging to the Church contains Baptisms, Marriages and Deaths dating from 9th March 1538. The Churchwardens’ Accounts, Inventories and Minutes begin in a volume dated 1509, one of the earliest in the country. The Rate Books commence in 1690, Poor Relief Books in 1818 and Surveyors of Highways Accounts in 1796. These documents and others are now held in County Archives and Records Office at Lewes (Telephone 01273 482349).
Extracts from the Registers of Baptisms from 1813, Marriages from 1837 and Deaths from 1847 are held in the church and be viewed on application to the Churchwardens.
Tours of the Church:
There is more of interest in St Denys’ Church than can be described within this brief history. By arrangement guided tours of the church can be offered to Individuals, Societies or Groups.
For further information with regard to the Registers and Church Tours please see the contacts page.