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Wivelsfield Church History
The church built from sandstone, rubble and ashlar, stands east of Lunces, a Celtic site. The yew tree to the north of the church has been dated as a thousand years old, indicative of a pre-Christian sacred site. The earliest church would have been built of wood and was rebuilt in stone about 1050: only the north doorway, with reeded arch and hood-mould, now survives.
Earl William de Warrenne held this part of Sussex from William the Conqueror. In 1077 he founded the great Cluniac Priory in Lewes and gave it several local churches, including Wivelsfield, in order to provide income.
In the early 13thcentury the chancel was extended and a lean-to south aisle added. Internally the arcade of two bays with short round piers and double-chamfered arches can still be seen but nothing of this south aisle remains externally because the aisle and nave were altered and lengthened by 14 feet in the late 14thcentury. In the late 13thcentury a local landowner, wishing to have masses sung for his soul and those of his family, built the gabled Chantry Chapel with its small lancet east window. Outside on the south east corner is a Mass or Scratch sundial, moved at some stage because it is now upside down.
In the 15thcentury the south aisle roof was raised, and the porch and tower were built. To take the weight of the new tower a massive strengthening block was needed to reinforce the southwest pillar. The south window of the tower has charming, carved label stops of an owl and a musician playing a wind instrument while those in the south porch are fantastical creatures, placed either side of the door to fend off evil spirits.
The earliest of the six bells dates from c.1450; others are from 1599 (recast in 1954), 1714, 1766, 1904 and 1954. The 15thcentury wooden ladder formerly used to access the bell chamber is on display at the back of the church. Near the Victorian font is a list of clergy from 1419. A 1974 survey by the National Association of Decorative and Fine Arts Societies considered that none of the stained glass was pre-Victorian however there are some interesting modern memorial windows.
As in so many churches, the Victorians made sweeping changes. The Chancel was extended eastward by 13 feet, the position of the plain 13thcentury piscine indicating where the altar previously stood. In 1869-70 north aisle was created and the 13thcentury East Window, with three stepped lancets under one arch, and Saxon north doorway were moved to it. The west gallery, installed in 1716, the external steps to this and the box pews were removed, as were the reredos and large representations of Moses and Aaron. The sounding board of the Jacobean 3-decker pulpit became the base of the new pulpit.
A harmonium provided music until 1877 when an organ was installed in the Chantry Chapel. It was rebuilt and moved to its present position in 1948. In 1925 the Renshaw family gave oak pews with fine linen-fold ends. A Crusader's cross on the pillar beside the pulpit records a pilgrimage to the Holy Land in 1930 by the then vicar. The vestry was added in 1937. In 1992 the church room was built: four lead coffins of Lawson family members from 1814-60 were discovered and reinterred in the south churchyard.
The north part of the churchyard is the oldest. The earliest burial recorded is in 1559; the original registers are deposited at the East Sussex Record Office in Lewes. A wooden war memorial records the names of 21 men killed in the First World War and 5 killed in the Second World War. (Green Road has a stone memorial.)
Burials include Richard Miles, the landlord of the Royal Oak Inn on Ditchling Common, and his wife Dorothy, murdered (with their maid) in 1734 by Jacob Harris, a pedlar; the nearby gibbet where he was hung in chains, Jacob's Post, still stands. There are cast iron headboards of Ann and John Fuller dated 1807 and 1845. In 1898 four Bartlett siblings died within a week of diphtheria from the contaminated school well. Also interred were: in 1929 Kenneth Milne, brother of A A Milne, in 1942 Muriel age 36, the first wife of Sir Ralph Richardson, the actor, and in 1970 Bishop Henry Montgomery-Campbell, Bishop of London 1956-61. The churchyard was extended southward in 1857, 1893 and 1928.
The church was dedicated to St John the Baptist; the dedication to St Peter was only added in the 1930s, recalling a Minster founded in Lindfield by the cannons at South Malling. The earliest mention of Wivelsfield is in the 8th century Anglo-Saxon charter granting land to fund the building of this minster.
With thanks to Sheila Blair, Barbara Hall and John Jeffrey-Cook
A guide and leaflet giving much more information about the church is available, copies are in the church.
Wivelsfield family history
If your ancestors came from Wivelsfield you might be interested in our Wivelsfield family history group. We hold an annual get together once a year (in August) so that people whose ancestors came from the village can get together to learn more about what life was like in past times, exchange information, and visit the local area. Our members also have many years of family history research on file, so might be able to help you with your own investigations. If you would like further information please contact Ian Everest at firstname.lastname@example.org or Janette Dollamore at email@example.com