Church of St Mary the VirginHastings
Upper Lake
East Sussex TN33 0AN
 

 

Thanks to King Henry VIII’s Dissolution of the Monasteries there is not a great deal left of Battle Abbey but St Mary’s is almost as old and it has hardly changed from its foundation in 1115.
 
Medieval Treasures 
The 1066 Battle of Hastings and all that, is the main reason for most tourists to visit the historic south-east English town, Battle Village. They usually visit the Abbey and the Battlefield but miss going into St Mary’s. This is a pity because the church is crammed with medieval treasures and architecture. Entry is through the porch in the south wall of the church.
 
King William I (‘the Conqueror’) founded Battle Abbey on the site of his victorious battle and it enjoyed the status of a Royal Peculiar. A small village grew up around the monastery and Abbot Ralph founded the church of St. Mary the Virgin for the 'people of Battle'.
 
'Peculiar' Status
The priest in charge was given the style and dignity of Dean and the parish enjoyed 'Peculiar' status, outside the authority of the Bishops of Chichester in whose diocese it lay. This privilege survived until 1845. Today the Sovereign is the Patron of the Benefice and the incumbent is still the Very Reverend the Dean of Battle.
 
This unusual history is not the only extraordinary thing about this church. It started life as a small chapel served by the Abbot and monks. The Nave was about 40 feet(12 metres) long, it had no aisles and a tiny chancel about 17 feet (5 metres) long.
 
The church was extended in the mid 12th century and narrow lean-to aisles were added on each side of the nave. The three pillars on each side of the eastern end of the nave were built between 1190 and 1200.
 
Medieval Font with Carved Cover
The font is early 12th century with a medieval carved and gilded cover. One can still discern a much worn frieze of Norman arches carved around the square cut marble slab.
 
The Chancel was rebuilt and enlarged around 1230 and extended a further 30 feet (9 metres) to the east in Early English style. This is how we see the chancel today. The East window is a 19th century addition and the reredos behind the High Altar is of modern oak.
 
The tower was built in 1440 and holds a peal of eight bells. The North Aisle was added in the mid 15th century and there is still a remnant of early stained glass, probably from 1443.
 
At the eastern end of the South Aisle is St Catherine’s Chapel. There is a lot to see here, starting with the Catherine Wheel carved into a niche to the right of the chapel’s altar. The chapel was built on the site of the original Norman tower as evidenced by the outline of a huge Norman arch in the masonry.
 
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Knights of the Crusades
On the pillar behind the Dean's Stall are small crosses probably carved by knights on their return from fighting in the Crusades. The long indented slits are where they blunted the points of their swords.
 
At the entrance to St Catherine’s Chapel in the south aisle is the modern Senlac Memorial Window dedicated to both the English and French troops who died in the 1066 Battle of Hastings. Also in the south aisle is buried the last Abbot of Battle Abbey, John Hammond, O.S.B.
 
To the left of the chancel is The Lady Chapel, built c.1350. Between the Chapel and the High Altar is the colourful Tudor tomb of Sir Anthony Browne and his first wife Alice. Sir Anthony was a favourite of King Henry V111 who granted him the Abbey and its estates in 1539 after the Dissolution of the Monasteries. The Lady Alice died in 1540 and Sir Anthony in 1548. The alabaster tomb was probably made in London by Italian craftsmen and transported by cart to Battle.
 
Memorial Brasses
St Mary’s has three fine memorial brasses. The oldest can be found on the floor between the Lady Chapel and the Chancel. Dated 1426 it depicts Sir John Lowe in armour. In the floor of the Sanctuary on the north side is a brass dated 1450 to the memory of Dean Clere. He is depicted wearing Mass vestments. On the south side of the Sanctuary is a very fine Jacobean period brass to Dean Wythines dated 1615.
 
Medieval Wall Paintings
Perhaps the greatest treasure in this remarkable church is the medieval wall paintings. In the Middle Ages St Mary’s must have had the most painted church interior in the whole of Sussex. Parishioners were uneducated and wall painting was a way of teaching the Christian message. The services were in Latin so they couldn’t understand what was being said but they understood the dramatic paintings.
 
The whole area above the chancel arch was painted with the Three Living and the Three Dead (a warning of the emptiness of earthly rank and riches) and a great ‘Last Judgement’ continued on the north and south walls of the Nave. The whole north wall of the Nave above the arcade was also painted, including the clerestory window splays.
 
Recent restoration has revealed at the east end of the north wall, now partly concealed by new organ pipes, is a great procession of Blessed Souls about to be received into heaven by St. Peter, part of the Last Judgement.
 
St Margaret of Antioch
The whole of the rest of the wall is occupied by a series representing the life of St. Margaret of Antioch in twenty-four scenes. She is alleged to have lived in the Middle East in the 4th century and was one of the most popular saints in the Middle Ages, being invoked by women in childbirth.
 
The series starts at the right hand (east) end with the upper row and reads westwards to the end, where the scenes return eastwards in the lower row. The scenes are somewhat repetitive, showing the birth of the Saint, her handing over to her Christian nurse, the approach of the Roman Provost Olybrius and her subsequent tortures, finally her execution, burial, and her soul received into Heaven.
 
The restorer, E Clive Rouse, states: "The paintings are of the highest quality, and artistically very fine and consequently of great importance. There has been a much wider range of colour than in normal parish church paintings. On stylistic grounds one would be inclined to place these paintings at the end of thirteenth century or early in fourteenth century".
 
Visitors are more than welcome to explore St Mary’s or join the parishioners at a service. Details can be found on the church website below.
 
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Contact & Further Information
 
Getting There
St Mary’s is an arrow flight’s distance from Battle Abbey! The church website has excellent 'How to Find Us' Information
 
Google Maps - Church of St Mary the Virgin Battle