Battle – St Mary


A large church, originally C12, with an early C13 nave.  The chancel is a little later.  The south aisle was remodelled in the C14 and the north aisle in the C15, when the present tower and chapels were added.  There are wall paintings of c1300, fine monuments and brasses.

Battle grew up round the Benedictine abbey which was founded by William the Conqueror on the site of the Battle of Hastings, using Benedictine monks from the abbey of Marmoutier on the Loire (3 p15).  As befitted a royal foundation, the abbey and the area within a league of its high altar were exempt from the control of church and lay authorities (7 p17 etc), though the ecclesiastical exemption was largely de facto and was several times disputed (ibid pp27 and 93).  Within this banlieu the abbot claimed to be sole judge and lord (ibid p197), though this right was also challenged and limited by the mid-C14 (ibid p263).  The abbey took the lead in populating what had previously been an empty area as part of the process of expansion into the Weald.  A settlement outside the abbey gate existed by 1110 (ibid p69) and a parish church was started at much the same time.  The townsfolk enjoyed certain rights and liberties (ibid p79), which were strengthened after the French raids on the coastal towns in the later C14, which enhanced the relative prosperity of Battle as it was located well inland.  For its part, the abbey did its best to maintain close control of the parish church (ibid p154) by means of owning the advowson and thus appointing the vicar.  Today, the incumbent’s title of dean rather than vicar or rector recalls the privileges which the parish enjoyed because of its relationship with the abbey and many of which survived the dissolution.  Thus, until the mid-C19, the dean’s court dealt with matters such as the probate of wills and marriage licences (VCH 9 p111), usually the prerogative of archdeacons.

The church stands by the north wall of the abbey and a large plain round-headed arch from the south chapel to the chancel is consistent with an early C12 foundation.  The wall around is appreciably thicker, suggesting it was the lower part of a tower.  If so, the first church was ambitious, with either a cruciform plan or a tower to one side of the chancel.  What looks like a buttress at the south west corner of the north chapel may be a further C12 remnant.

The five-bay arcades show the nave was started about 1200 and there may not have been a predecessor, in view of the long time it normally took to build an entire new church.  The chamfers on the pointed heads are slight and the piers are alternately round and square; the arcades are not symmetrical, with round piers opposite square ones.  The capitals have varied foliage carving, except the moulded ones on both westernmost piers and the south west respond, which also have higher bases.  They show that, as was usual, the western bay was last to be built.  The work is related to the arcade of similar date at Herstmonceux and may have its origin in the abbey.  The eastern end was affected by the C19 rebuilding of the chancel arch.  This is like the arcades and, though wider than before (see below), may incorporate early C13 stones.  The original head had alternating light and dark stones (SAC 84 (1944-45) p117), a characteristic of around 1200.

There is doubt about the west end, particularly whether there was a tower here in the C13.  If so, this implies any earlier one there might have been elsewhere in the church had gone.  The reason for assuming that the lower part of the present tower is C13 (e g VCH 9 p108) is the west doorway, which has three moulded orders on shafts (renewed).  Everything else in the tower is C15 and more probably the doorway was reset from the original west end.  The aisles have been rebuilt, but the relatively narrow south one has a lean-to roof and some of the footings of its eastern part and of the otherwise later porch are of rubble, suggesting its dimensions are C13.  The present north aisle is broader and the west wall shows the line of the C13 sloping roof and a trefoiled lancet inside, by the arch from north chapel to aisle originally opened onto the outside.  The upper parts of the nave have been altered; almost all the plain lancets of the clerestory are renewed and though the main timbers of the roof are C13 and made, unusually, of chestnut wood, C19 iron ties replace the wooden tiebeams that are visible in a picture dating from c1845 (in 2).

The nave was complete by 1230.  Most probably at around the same time, the rebuilding of the chancel was begun, also in rubble masonry and almost certainly longer than before, though the concentric rere-arches of the three south lancets could suggest a rather earlier date.  These have external sills, connected outside by a string-course that is interrupted by a doorway.  Inside, only one shafted and roll-moulded wall-arch on the north side is intact, but there are three on the south side, with a stone seat along the base and a change in level in the second bay.  The others to the north were replaced by an arcade to the chapel, when it was extended to the east, though part of the outline of one arch is to be seen above its replacement.  These arches are mostly C14, but the complex moulded capitals and roll-moulded outer order on shafts of the westernmost are C13, so a chapel was at least intended from the start.  A shaft on the chancel side is probably also C13, but not necessarily evidence of an intended vault.  The east end has been twice altered, but the pinnacles at the angles were probably there from the start.

In the C14 the south aisle was rebuilt in ashlar with battlements, though as already noted, probably on C13 foundations.  The mostly renewed pointed heads of the windows, with quatrefoils, are typical.  The lower porch walls look C14, like the moulded archway and small square side-openings. The pyramid roof is not old, for Adelaide Tracy (1852) (IV p72) shows a flat one; there was probably an upper chamber, as at Rotherfield or Mayfield.  The doorway is probably C14, but has been repaired in cement.  The north chapel was enlarged, with windows of reticulated tracery (renewed).  The arches into the chancel are conventional C14 except for the C13 work already noticed; the arch to the aisle is similar.  The chapel is stated by Meads to have a vaulted crypt, which he believed to have been inserted later.

The most obvious C15 feature was the west tower, whether or not any part of it was already there.  Built of ashlar, it has angle-buttresses, an octagonal south east stair turret, square-headed bell-openings and battlements around a low tiled pyramid.  The tower arch has two continuous orders and an inner one on semi-octagonal responds.  The four-light west window has panelled tracery.  An angled lancet-like opening above the moulded north doorway (now concealed), noted by Hussey (p192), can hardly have been a squint for an anchorite in view of its position.  The north aisle was widened with a gable and three-light windows like the west one of the tower.  It is built of rubble, possibly because the north side was less conspicuous.  The roof retains some original timbers, though the tracery above the ties is probably C19.  Outside, a rood-stair projects near the east end; only the blocked lower entrance remains inside.  The position of the stair indicates that the loft extended across nave and aisles.  Hussey (ibid) records openings by the chancel arch and to the north aisle which confirm such an arrangement.

The smaller south chapel, also C15, has a plain parapet and panelled tracery.  If the tower stood here until one was built at the west end, the chapel may date from after its removal.  A smaller pointed arch with semi-octagonal responds was inserted in the C12 one to the chancel.  A double-chamfered half-arch into the south aisle is angled to support the east wall of the nave.  Its outer respond has a semi-octagonal shaft.  Of the niches in the south and east walls, those by the east window, though damaged, have vaulted heads.  The main east window, which may be presumed to have consisted of a group of at least three probably stepped lancets, was replaced by five lights of panelled tracery, as Quartermain ((E) p50) shows.  The adjacent pinnacles, probably C13 in origin, seem to have been altered, though C19 changes make certainty impossible.

The only obvious later change since the Sharpe Collection drawing of c1797 is the south porch roof.  Galleries appear to have been limited to a west one of 1666 (3 p36) and there were new pews in 1839 (ICBS) and a restoration in 1845-46 (Eccl Feb 1846 p83), when the wall-paintings (see below) were found.  W Butterfield in 1867-69 restored the whole church except the tower (B 27 p572).  He replaced most external stonework, with little change except at the east end, where the C15 window gave way to three stepped lancets in a single shafted rere-arch, an arrangement he would have considered more  in keeping with the C13 work.  For the same reason, he may also have altered the pinnacles.  All the roofs are his except for the nave, though the iron ties of this are his work.  Probably for structural reasons he rebuilt the chancel arch, which is wider than its predecessor, though on similar lines.  The picture of c1845 (in 2) shows its predecessor in the centre and it was also distinctly lower.  This is due to the south side of the chancel not being in line with the south arcade of the nave, probably because of the putative tower in the southwest angle of the chancel.

There was further work at one or more later dates.  Not only has the tower been restored, but the shafted rere-arch of Butterfield’s east window is said not to have been to his plan (SAC 84 ibid).  In the early C20 a vestry was added to the north aisle, concealing a C15 doorway.  It is in a pleasingly rustic brick style with Horsham slabs on the roof.  The only architect recorded in connection with the church at this period is P A Robson, who undertook unspecified work before 1914 (WWA 1914).  It is likely that this was the new vestry, which in 2011-12 it was extended to the east to a design by J D Clarke and Partners;  also in 2011 the tower was repaired (vidi).

Fittings and monuments

Aumbry: (Under north lancet of chancel) C13, large and square.
1.  (North chapel) John Low (d1426).  Worn and wearing full armour.
2.  (Concealed) William Arnold (d1435) Small armoured half-figure.  Both this and that to John Low are given to the quantitatively small Series E (see London workshops).
3.  (Sanctuary) Robert Clare (Dean of Battle, d1450), Dean, vested for mass, with a hound at his feet.  This also appears to belong to Series E, though most authorities assign it to a rather earlier date than 1450.  However, the recently proposed date of c1430 appears too early, as Clare only became Dean in 1440 and the inscription refers to him as this (Mosse p23).
4.  (East end of north aisle) Thomas (d1589) and Elizabeth (d1590) Alfraye. Only the female figure is left.
5.  (Sanctuary) John Wythines (d1615), Dean, shown in contemporary academic dress.
Font: Late C12 Purbeck marble.  The largest of the type with square marble bowl with round-headed arcading, of a type common in Sussex and southern England.  It stands on a centre-stem and four renewed corner-shafts.
Font cover: C15, though much restored and repainted.  It is octagonal and domed with a large finial.
1. (North aisle) C15 fragments in the windows.  Most is canopy work in the heads, but there is also a complete bust of a bishop.  A figure of St Catherine mentioned by Horsfield (1 p529) cannot now be discerned, if indeed it ever existed.
2. (West window) A Gibbs, 1882 (four prophets) (BN 42 p586).  Four other windows in the south aisle dated 1870 have also been attributed to him on stylistic grounds (, retrieved on 28/1/2013).
3. (East window) Burlison and Grylls, 1893 (ibid).
4. (South chancel, third lancet) J Powell and Sons, 1885 (order book).  This was designed by —- Suter with part of the drawing done by the Duchess of Cleveland, who was then living in Battle abbey (Hadley list).
5. (South aisle, first window) It commemorates the Battle of Hastings (‘Senlac’) and is by M C F Bell, 1984 (signed).
6. (North chapel east window) Burlison and Grylls, 1906 ( retrieved on 9/1/2015).
7. (North chapel, second window) J Powell and Sons, 1884, designed by H Holiday (cash book).
1.  (Easternmost arch from chancel to north chapel) Sir Anthony Browne (d1548) and his wife.  He acquired the abbey after the Dissolution (Mosse p23) and the tomb combines old and new ideas.  The alabaster effigies are of different lengths, so his wife has a canopy.  He is shown in armour and both are praying, though the hands are lost.  This is fairly traditional, but the chest is Renaissance in design, divided into three parts by balusters.  Each has an arched top in the form of a shell and contains a cherub with outstretched wings.  Beneath is a shield in a wreath with more cherubs as supporters.  The design is closely based on one of c1498 at Tickhill, West Yorkshire (BE(E) p107).  The repainting of this monument is fairly recent.
2. (North aisle, over north doorway) Edward Donne (d1847) by J Bedford (signed).
3. (North chancel) Robert Wallace (d1824) signed by Vidler and Co.
4.  (North aisle) Edmund Cartwright (1823?) large tablet by M Vidler of Hastings (Roscoe p1314).
5.  (Churchyard near east end) Isaac Ingall (d1798).  Said to have been 120 years old and to have been the  butler at the abbey for 95 years.
Niches: (South chapel) Either side of the east window and thus probably C15 are two chiselled-off niches for statues with evidence of vaulted heads.  There is a further one in the south wall.
Paintings: (Above north arcade) These were found in 1845, but were covered over again until 1867.  However a set of watercolour sketches shows that when found there was far more, with scenes from the life of St Margaret of Antioch and possibly other scenes above a procession of figures which extended across the east end above the chancel arch and onto the south wall, at least as far as the position of the pulpit (it is quite likely that they would have extended further when painted).  This is thought to have represented the souls of the departed waiting to be received by St Peter (KF).  In 1867 the paintings were partially restored by E Ward RA (B 25 p317)E C Rouse did further work in 1976-78 (6 passim) and since then the paintings have been noticeably more faint, suggesting that Ward had done much over-painting which was removed then.  They date from c1300 and the main series shows the life of St Margaret in two tiers, each scene in a frame, as in contemporary manuscripts.  In the splays of the clerestory are large figures, though only Moses in the westernmost opening can be identified for sure (6 p157).  Though faded, the colour and drawing suggest a skilled master, possibly linked with the abbey.  Hidden behind the organ is a scene of blessed souls being received into Jerusalem. The picture of c1845 already cited shows in addition a Doom above the chancel arch, which presumably disappeared during Butterfield’s alterations.
1.  (Chancel south east bay) Complex C13, with three trefoils above a cusped head.
2.  (South chapel) C15 trefoil-headed.  Damaged.
3.  (North chapel) C14 ogee-cinquefoiled double one.
Pulpit: 1869, Open timber, designed like the stalls by Butterfield, with the foliage on the pulpit carved by T Earp (B 27 ibid).
Reredos: (and altar) 1929, by C J Blomfield (CDG 1929 p225).


1.  J L André: Battle Church, SAC 42 (1899) pp214-36
2.  L Boys-Behrens: Battle Abbey under 39 Kings, 1937
3.  K D Foord: Battle Abbey and Battle Churches since 1066, Battle 2011
4.  W H Godfrey: St Mary the Virgin, Battle, SNQ 11 (Feb 1946) pp6-7
5.  G M Livett: Three East Sussex Churches: Battle, SAC 46 (1903) pp69-93
6.  E C Rouse: Wall Paintings in St Mary’s Church, Battle, SAC 119 (1979) pp151-60
7.  E Searle: Lordship and Community – Battle Abbey and its Banlieu 1066-1538, Toronto, 1975


Measured plan by W H Godfrey in VCH 9 p108

My thanks to Keith Foord for much valuable information and interesting conversations about Battle and Telham churches, even before the publication of his study of places of worship in Battle (see 3 above).  The results of his researches into the wall-paintings have been particularly illuminating.  I am most grateful to him for the photographs of these.  He also drew my attention to the book by Lilian Boys-Behrens (2), in particular the picture of c1845 cited above.  
He has in addition provided the photographs of the wall paintings and stained glass, as well as the general view of the exterior from the west.