Ashburnham – St Peter
The church stands by the mostly demolished great house. The tower is C15 and bears the Pelham buckle. Otherwise, the church dates from 1665 and is entirely gothic in style. There are contemporary fittings and the C17 Ashburnham monuments.
The parish consists of scattered hamlets, many of which were involved in iron-making until it ceased finally in 1828 (Millward and Robinson p118). The Ashburnham family has held the manor almost continuously since the C12 (VCH 9 p127), though the direct line has died out.
The church (formerly dedicated to St Mary) lies between the stables and the great house, which was demolished except for part of the central block in 1960 (2 p347). Though a church is mentioned in Domesday Book (9,7), the oldest part is the C15 west tower. It is one of the so-called Pelham towers, which for reasons not fully understood bear the family badge of a buckle on the stops of the square hoodmould of the west doorway; the shields in the spandrels are uncarved and the Pelhams had no known link with either the parish or manor. The proportions recall towers in Kent. Built of sandstone ashlar, it has diagonal buttresses, battlements, a stair turret and small bell-openings with two lights. The double-chamfered tower arch is an integral part and has semi-octagonal responds.
The rest is unusual in having been rebuilt in 1665 by John Ashburnham (VCH 9 p128), a leading royalist who attended Charles I at his execution and took away several keepsakes, including the King’s shirt, which were formerly displayed in the church (Mee p24). Except for a round-headed north porch and doorway, the body of the church is gothic, perhaps reflecting a wish to mark the revival of the old order. Most detail is accurate, but the plan is adapted to Prayer Book services, centred on the preacher. It is T-shaped, with a broad aisleless nave and the short chancel is raised above the family vault; on the north side is a funerary chapel and the family pew (now closed off) was opposite. The doorway into the vault, also of classical form, bears the initials I (=J) A and the date 1665. The east end thus has three level gables. The foundations of the nave may go back to the mediaeval church; it is broad, but little more so than the tower, which suggests that the then nave was aisleless. Its four-centred windows have cusped intersecting heads of stone, but wooden mullions, which must be original. All have three lights except for the east one, which has five and a transom. The combination of gothic and classical leads Christopher Whittick to speculate (5 p11) that much of the nave could remain from the previous church. In particular he cites a drawing of the church of 1638 which shows windows very similar to the present ones. However, whilst the foundations may indeed be older, there are good examples of the use of the gothic style even later than this. Wren’s city church of St Mary Aldermary is a good example of deliberate conservatism and given the sympathies of the Ashburnham family, it seems plausible that they should have sought to recall the architecture of an earlier age.
The plain interior has plastered wagon roofs and a west gallery with a panelled front. It has been suggested that this came from the old church (4 p xvii) and it has been dated to the 1620s (5 p12). It could have been reused, but was more probably another instance of being old fashioned for its date. Significantly, Nicholas Antram noted (BE(E) p94) that the Ionic columns on which it stands are of iron and that suggests in the case of structural ironwork a date no earlier than the later C17. Not only is the chancel elevated but, because the site slopes, there are steps from the tower into the nave. The chancel arch and adjacent side arches resemble C15 work, suggesting to W H Godfrey (3 p133) they might be re-used, but the capitals show an imperfect understanding of the gothic, so this is unlikely. In the north chapel are the Ashburnham memorials; except for two C17 ones (see below) they are C19 and C20.
Probably because it was on an estate, the church escaped major changes in the C19. The west window of the tower, of three plain lights, dates from shortly before Whistler wrote in 1881 (4 p xv). Earlier drawings do not show its predecessor, but other surviving Pelham towers have panelled tracery in the west windows. The rest was restored in 1894, mostly at the cost of the earl (CDG 5 (1894) p81). The architects were W O Milne and J C Hall (ICBS) and it may be no coincidence that Hall in particular was chiefly a designer of country houses. The work respects the original, even retaining the wooden mullions of the windows. During repairs about 1961 by J D Wylson (ICBS) the family pew was turned into a second vestry (2 p348).
Fittings and monuments
Altar rails and table: The rails date from 1665, with turned balusters and surround the table on three sides. The latter is later C16 with bulbous legs.
Door: The north door is original, including the hinges and lock.
Font: 1665. It is of white marble with a shallow bowl on a heavy square stem.
Font cover: Made of open woodwork and contemporary with the font.
1. John Ashburnham (d1671), builder of the church. It is conservative for the date and differs from work of fifty years before mainly in being of white marble. He is depicted in armour, lying between his two wives. The effigy of his first one, in a shroud, dates from c1651, when the monument was erected but the other two were not added until after 1671 (BE(E) p94). On the sides of the chest are grouped Ashburnham’s children and above and behind is the inscription between two columns. It has been attributed to T Burman (1 p1).
2. William Ashburnham and his wife (d1675). Though only a few years later, this belongs to a different age. The sculptor, J Bushnell (Roscoe p176), spent many years in Italy and his work shows it. Ashburnham kneels with outstretched hands, contemplating his recumbent wife, on whose head a cherub places a coronet. Both are elaborately draped, as is the back of the monument, which shows the English love of heraldry. Diagonal balusters at the corners display a coronet and a funerary helm. Despite the heightened pathos, the work is clumsy by comparison with Italian work of the period, for Bushnell was not a very good sculptor. However, he cannot be blamed for the break in the wife’s neck, which resulted from an accident in transit from London (see K Gibson passim).
Pews: These appear to be perhapa original box pews, though the ICBS application of 1894 speaks of a reseating and the height of these shows they have been cut down.
Pulpit: 1665, with simple panelling.
Reredos: (Removed to north nave) 1676, painted with Moses and Aaron and the Ten Commandments. It is more elaborate than most of its date, though insensitively repainted in part. It was over the chancel arch when seen by Mee (ibid).
Screens: (In all three eastern arches) Plain ironwork, probably made locally at the time of the C17 rebuilding.
1. K Esdaile: Bushnell’s Ashburnham Monument, SNQ 9 (Feb 1942) pp1-2
2. L Fleming: Ashburnham Church, SNQ 15 (Nov 1962) pp347-48
3. W H Godfrey: St Mary Ashburnham, SNQ 10 (May 1945) pp132-33
4. R F Whistler: Paper read at Sussex Archaeological Society Meeting at Ashburnham, SAC 32 (1882) pp xiv-xxi
5. C Whittick: St Peter’s, Ashburnham, NFSHCT 2008 pp11-12
Full measured plan by J E Ray and W H Godfrey in VCH 9 p128
My thanks to Nick Wiseman for the colour photographs