Clayton – St John the Baptist

A small C11 church with a fine chancel arch.  The chancel was altered in the C13 and in 1838.  The early C12 wall-paintings are of international importance.

The walls are only 2ft 4in thick (Baldwin Brown p448) and together with the large quoins, especially at the west end, the north doorway and the chancel arch leave no doubt that the church is C11.  Largely on the basis of the chancel arch, the fabric was long regarded as pre-Conquest.  Its massive head and jambs have two heavy roll-mouldings, punctuated by thin abaci, but otherwise undifferentiated.  The lack of full capitals and bases was seen as a sign of its date, but Eric Fernie (p168) concludes, on the basis of the mouldings, that it is unlikely to be earlier than the 1060s.  Interestingly, Jessep had suggested in 1917 (p30) that the head might be a Norman reconstruction and although this seems unlikely, his suggestion does indicate that he too had doubts.  Also cited in support of a pre-Conquest date was the tall, narrow north doorway, which lacks abaci.  However, other such doorways exist in Sussex and resist precise dating.  There is little doubt, however, that the church is the one recorded in Domesday Book (12,37).

A blocked, apparently round-headed arch on the north side of the nave, now containing a C19 window, led to a structure of which the external roofline remains, showing that the arch was off-centre.  Foundations found in 1918 suggested this was a chapel, possibly C11 (VCH 7 p143).  The date of its removal was not established.  The outline of a large plain pointed arch to the south, partly hidden by a later buttress, cannot predate the late C12, but it implies there was something similar here, so there may have been porticus, especially as arches leading to them were often off-centre to allow more room for an altar inside.  Though less common by the C11, others of this date may have existed at Southease, East Sussex, where there were also C12 alterations.

Both the length of the chancel and the small blocked lancets to north and south, found about 1980 during repairs (vidi), suggest that it was lengthened or even rebuilt in the early C13, though the other, larger windows are more than doubtful and there is no internal detail of this period.  The render obscures any join, so the walling of the western part may still be C11.  The east quoins look C11, but the present length of the chancel suggests hat if they are, they have been re-used.  The recesses either side of the chancel arch are also probably no earlier than the C13, despite their round heads, for one cuts into the wall paintings above and there is decorative painting of that period on the soffit.

C19 restoration has obscured changes made in the C14 to C16 when, with the possible exception of the removal of the porticus or chapels, the main fabric was untouched.  A renewed two-light C14 west window has slightly ogee-shaped heads and, probably in the C15, the east window was replaced with a larger segment-headed one, of which the opening and possibly the hoodmould inside remain.  A few old timbers suggest the roof and belfry were of this period too.  The sides of the largely renewed north porch retain enough old work to suggest it dates from around 1500.

Quartermain ((E) p59) (1848) and Nibbs (1851) show most windows then had segmental heads and were probably C17 or C18.  The present east triplet of lancets was squeezed into the C15 opening in 1838 (SAC 87 p193) and there is no reason to doubt its date.  However, the disproportionately long north side-lancets of the chancel are another matter.  On his visit in 1825 Sir Stephen Glynne (SRS 101 p84) describes what in effect is there today, particularly the rere-arches which are shafted and have foliage capitals and head-stops.  They are remarkably well-preserved and it had generally been assumed that they probably also dated from 1838, mainly on the basis of Hussey’s statement (p215) that the chancel ‘window frames’ had ‘recently’ (in 1851) been renewed within the old splays; by ‘frames’ he presumably means the openings as much as the rere-arches with their embellishments.  The latter convinced the VCH which assigned them to a date around 1260 (7 p142), but neither Hussey’s implicit dating of c1838 nor a mid-C13 dating can be sustained.  It is most likely that the larger lancets appeared in the period between 1804 and Glynne’s visit in 1825. The smaller lancets found in 1980 do not help either, though this drawing shows what may be faint traces of blocked north lancets which seem to differ in form from the uncovered ones and there is little doubt they are C13.  No part of the boarded chancel roof looks old and it could well date from 1838.

By 1875, £3000 had been spent on restoration (PP 125), probably only on the chancel and some fittings.  The nave was restored in 1893 by E E Scott and F T Cawthorn (SAC 87 p194) (probably the latter by then), who rebuilt the nave roof and the bell-turret on four posts, keeping some old timbers.  They inserted C14-style windows in the nave, no doubt by analogy with the west one, and repaired the chancel arch, particularly its east side.  Later changes include a vestry to the south and P M Johnston‘s lychgate of 1919 (ibid p195).  In 1963 there were repairs by F E Green.

Wall paintings

The wall paintings, found in 1893, are the finest of those known as the ‘Lewes group‘.  They have been much discussed, particularly the ultimately sterile question of whether they were pre-Conquest.  Much of the argument in favour of this depended on the chancel arch being accepted as pre-Conquest.  Since Fernie challenged this, debate has subsided and the majority view is that they are likely to date from 1100 at the earliest.

They are executed in true fresco (i e painted on wet plaster) and centre on a figure of Christ in Judgment, seated in a mandorla above the chancel arch, supported by an angel on each side, beyond each of whom are six Apostles.  The latter appear to be in conversation with each other.  Lower down under a band of elaborate ornament, Christ gives the keys to St Peter on the north side, and the book to St Paul to the south.  Rouse believes these show the relationship with Lewes priory, a Cluniac house, which particularly venerated these saints (4 p233).

Those to the sides of the arch are less clear, but show parts of the Last Judgment, with standing and horizontal (probably flying) angels and alternating groups of the blessed and the damned.  The side-walls are less clear, though the upper tier is reasonably preserved.  Robin Milner-Gulland (in his contribution to the SAS conference on early mediaeval churches in Sussex, 14 May 2011) interprets the figures here as a procession and despite their static nature this is plausible.  At the west end of the top tier of both are what are interpreted as angels blowing trumpets, whilst on the north side a hexagon containing buildings, interpreted as the city of God, is clear.  This may have been chosen because in mediaeval numerology, 6 was seen as the perfect figure (2 p264).  A mounted figure to the south has been seen as one of the Horsemen of the Apocalypse, and there are a cross and angels receiving groups of the saved.  Only fragments remain of the lower tier, but on the north wall an angel weighing souls can be discerned and also the dead rising from their graves.


Brass: (On south chancel wall) John Idon, rector (d1523).  Small figure, vested for mass.
Font: C19 octagonal with fleurons in quatrefoils and a panelled stem, donated in 1850.
1. (Small south east nave window) Kempe and Co, 1915.
2. (East window) The patterned glass is based on examples of mediaeval grisaille glass and is likely to be contemporary with the remodelling of the chancel in 1838.
3. (West window) Engraved glass, 2000 by T Gilliam  (Church guide).


1.  A M Baker: Wall Paintings in the Church of St John the Baptist, Clayton, SAC 108 (1970) pp58-81
2.  J Edwards: Hexagonal Heavenly Cities at Clayton and Plumpton, SAC 124 (1986) pp263-64
3.  C E Keyser: Mural Paintings at the Churches of Clayton and Rotherfield, SAC 40 (1896) pp211-21
4.  E C Rouse: Clayton: Church of St John the Baptist, AJ 116 (1959) pp233-34

Plans etc

1. Measured plan by E F Harvey in VCH 7 p143
2. Plan and elevation of chancel arch in Taylor and Taylor I p160; profile of mouldings in Taylor III p789

My thanks to Mike Anton for two photographs of the interior and that of the Brass