St Mary the Virgin ChurchHastings
Church Square
East Sussex TN31 7HF
Visitors wandering through the narrow medieval streets of Rye in south-east England are inexorably drawn up the hill to the parish church of St Mary the Virgin.
St Mary’s stands on the top of the hill in a cobbled square surrounded by half-timbered buildings. The church has occupied this site for over 900 years and is unexpectedly large – it is sometimes called ‘The Cathedral of East Sussex’. The church reflects the important position Rye held as a member of the Confederation of Cinque Ports.
In Anglo-Saxon times King Aethelred gave Rye and much of the surrounding area to the Benedictine Abbey of Fécamp in Normandy. In 1103, Abbot William de Roos came to look at his possession and decided he must build a stone church and a hospital at Rye.
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Local builders, under the supervision of the Abbey master masons and craftsmen, started work. By about 1120 the chancel and stone tower had been completed and over the next 100 years transepts, crossing, nave and finally two side chapels were added.
During construction, building styles changed and today we can see the Norman work in the chancel, while the nave and arches are Transitional and Early English. The imposing church was endowed with a fine set of six bells, establishing a bell ringing tradition that continues today.
Devastating Raid
In 1377 Rye suffered a devastating raid by the French. They killed some of the inhabitants, looted and set fire to the town. The church was extensively damaged, the roof fell in and the precious bells were carried off to France. Retaliation followed the next year when men from Rye and Winchelsea sailed to Normandy and got them back. In the process they burned two French towns and retrieved most of the loot.
One of the bells was hung in Watchbell Street to give warning of any future attack. It was not returned to the church until early in the 16th century. There is an old bell on display in Watchbell Street but this was cast in 1740 by the Whitechapel Bell Foundry in London. The same foundry cast the Liberty Bell, the Great Bell of Montreal and Big Ben in London.
Church Tower Views
A climb up the church tower takes the visitor through the bell chamber where eight bells are on view. These are not the same bells that were stolen in 1377 because they were re-cast in 1775 and 2 new bells added. At the top of the tower are magnificent views over the jumbled rooftops of Rye, the rivers and Romney Marsh as far as the sea.
St Mary’s is famous for having the oldest church turret clock in the country, still functioning with its original mechanism. It was built in 1562 by Lewys Billiard, a French Huguenot clockmaker living in Winchelsea. Billiard was paid £33 18s 0d (a sum equivalent to £250 today) for his handiwork. You can get a good look at this 450 year-old operating marvel as you climb the tower.
Gilded Cherub Quarter Boys
The present exterior clock face and the original 'Quarter Boys' (so called because they strike the quarters but not the hours) were added in 1760. From the top of the tower visitors can get a close up view of the charming gilded cherub Quarter Boys.
The interior of the church has undergone a number of renovations in its 900 year history, the most significant being in the 19th century. If you look carefully you can still see evidence of some earlier changes.
During the 16th century Reformation the church was stripped of its cross,statues and ornaments. Revenue raising church land was confiscated leaving the church unable to repair the fabric of the building. As the church fell into disrepair, sections of it were closed off and used for storage.
From the mid 16th century the north and south chancels were cut off from the main building and used for storing ladders, building materials, the town’s guns and gunpowder and as a prison. The north chancel housed the town’s fire engine and even smuggled contraband was hidden there.
The fabric of the building was so unsafe that a false ceiling had to be put up in the nave and the clerestory blocked up.
In the 18th century the south chancel was divided into two floors to provide a pauper’s school and a workhouse factory. The schoolroom fireplace can still be seen high up on the wall!
19th Century Restoration
Fortunately the church was saved from total ruin in 1883. The nave was re-roofed, an entirely new clerestory constructed, the walls strengthened, and the west door blocked up. The gorgeous stained glass windows were installed at this time. In the north aisle is a most beautiful window by Pre-Raphaelite artist, Sir Edward Burne-Jones (1891) in memory of Mary Tiltman.
The glorious large stained glass window in the west end was a gift of ‘Mapp & Lucia’ author E F Benson, dedicated to his parents, Archbishop and Mrs Benson. E F Benson had himself included in the window (he can be seen kneeling in his mayoral robes in the bottom right corner).
One other unusual feature of the church is the presence of an 18 foot (5.5 metre) pendulum gently swinging from the ceiling in the central tower. It is attached to the ancient clock mechanism above and takes two and a quarter seconds to complete its arc. The date on the pendulum is 1810.
The church is full of reminders of Rye’s turbulent past. Visitors are more than welcome to attend services and details can be found on the church website.
Plan Your Visit
Every day except 26 December
09:15 - 17:15 hours
The church closes 1 hour earlier in winter.
The Tower
There is a small charge to climb the tower. Prospective visitors are warned that there is a very narrow, claustrophobic passage to be negotiated. Also, the route passes through the clock bell chamber. When the clock strikes the hour the noise is deafening. Be warned!
Family History
Many overseas visitors come to the church hoping to trace family history through the parish records.
Baptismal and marriage records are held in the East Sussex Record Office, The Maltings, Castle Precincts, Lewes BN7 1YT Tel: +44 (0)1273 482 359.
Visitor Centre
Contact & Further Information
Website   Rye Parish Church    External Link
Getting There
- Parking
There is some on street parking in the town centre around the church but also plenty of double yellow lines (no parking)! Car Parks are sign posted.
Google Maps - St Mary the Virgin Church, Rye


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