Mystery Of Sussex Church Solved By Archaeology Students

By Caroline Lewis | 11 December 2007
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Photo of a leaded glass panel with fragments of stained glass depicting the Annunciation

Medieval stained glass in St Mary's, North Stoke. © Tony Voice

A redundant Sussex church has had its own Da Vinci Code moment after a husband and wife historian team dug around in the archives to unravel some of its secrets. As a result, bishops and local dignitaries attended the small church on December 8 2007 for a special ceremony of rededication.

Tony and Lesley Voice began researching the past of North Stoke Church, near Arundel, West Sussex, as part of a church archaeology course at the University of Sussex. On discovering a letter from the 13th century at the National Archives, Kew, they solved a centuries-old mystery surrounding the church.

The medieval church was not known to be dedicated to a particular saint – unusual for a church of this time. However, when Tony found a scrap of a vellum letter dated 1275 from the Bishop of Chichester to King Edward I, the no-name riddle was no more.

The letter offered proof that the church was in fact dedicated to St Mary the Virgin – a fact lost since the Reformation. It also explained why there are rare surviving medieval stained glass fragments depicting the Annunciation (many churches were stripped of their stained glass during the Reformation).

“I found the letter by accident really, as it was attached to another document,” explained Tony. “It was without doubt the most exciting discovery I have made in all my years of archival research. I am filled with a great sense of pride that such an historic building is regaining its true status.”

As well as their archival research, Tony and Lesley studied the building’s carvings and other ornamentation to piece together its history.

“I always think the investigation of a building should be combined with in-depth documentary research to try to discover the reasons for a particular feature or, as in the case of North Stoke Church, why it was such a richly ornamented church for a parish that always had a small population,” said Tony.

A scrap of vellum with handwriting on it and mounted on a paper with the date April 25 1275 written on it

The vellum fragment. © Tony Voice

The thorough research paid off, as the Voices discovered other aspects of the now redundant church’s history. They found that its aristocratic benefactor was William FitzAlan of Arundel, who was also patron of an important Augustinian abbey in Shropshire.

When a new abbot was to be installed, rather than travel to Shropshire, FitzAlan would have the important services held at his Sussex church, St Mary’s. This explains why such ornate decoration, such as the carved heads of some Augustinian monks, exist in such an obscure location.

“Church archaeology is a bit like detective work,” said course tutor Bob Hutchinson. “It’s real-life Da Vinci Code stuff. Buildings like churches offer lots of clues about their past, but this find is quite special.”

The Churches Conservation Trust, which looks after churches that are no longer used for regular worship, is the custodian of St Mary’s. As a result of the research, the Trust held a rededication ceremony at the North Stoke church, attended by the Roman Catholic Bishop of Arundel, Kieran Conry, and the Anglican Bishop of Horsham, Lindsay Urwin.

Other guests included the Duke and Duchess of Norfolk (residents of Arundel Castle), Mr Ian Field (the High Sheriff of Sussex), Mr Hugh Wyatt (Lord Lieutenant) and the Chief Executive of the Trust, Crispin Truman. Fr Anthony Maggs represented the Augustinian Canons, who owned the church in the Middle Ages.

The church archaeology course (The Recording of a Sussex Church) is arranged by the Centre for Continuing Education at the University of Sussex and runs annually. The open course analyses and records the archaeology of a different medieval church each year, looking at written descriptions, drawings, measurements, photographs and sometimes geophysical sensing.

For more information about St Mary’s, see the Churches Conservation Trust website.

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