Lewes – St John-sub-Castro

A church of 1839, which is rather bleak except a surprisingly good tower and a later C19 chancel.  It incorporates C11 features from its predecessor.

The church of 1839 replaced one that went back certainly to the C11 and is said to have stood on the site of a fort, possibly Roman.  More than usual about the old church is known, thanks to several descriptions and drawings and the surviving reset doorway and inscription.  It stood south of the present one and the burial vault of the Crofts family is on the site of the chancel.

The Burrell Collection drawing (c1780) shows a nave with herringbone masonry, an unbuttressed west tower, mostly square-headed windows and a blocked, pointed arch leading to a vanished chancel.  Sir Stephen Glynne who visited first in 1826 (SRS 101 p179) confirms the arch was pointed as does the Sharpe Collection drawing (1803-04?), so Horsfield’s rounded head is clearly wrong (plate xxii).  There was a small round-headed south window and north doorway (4 p53).  A blocked south doorway, reset in the present church near the east end (the orientation of the church is in fact more north-south, so the points of the compass are used here in their liturgical sense), has three shallow roll-mouldings on the slightly stilted head and jambs.  Square marble abaci have shallow grooves, which may originally have been continued each side beyond the doorway (Baldwin-Brown p465).  Its proportions and appearance suggest that it, like the rest of the fabric, belongs to the second half of the C11.  There is a persistent belief that the church was cruciform (see Hussey p250) and it has also been suggested that the tower originally had transepts (see 2 passim), with arches on at least three sides.  An apparently pointed one on the south side, seen on the Burrell drawing, may be seen as supporting evidence, but the slender proportions of the tower argue against such an arrangement.

The second survival is the head of a plain round-headed arch, reset in the south nave wall and inscribed in obscure Latin:


Pye (in 5) translates this as: ‘There enters this cell a warrior of Denmark’s royal race; Magnus his name, mark of mighty lineage.  Casting off his mightiness he takes the Lamb’s mildness and to gain everlasting life becomes a lowly anchorite’.

The earliest record of the arch dates from around 1586 when William Camden describes the stones as arranged ‘archwise’ (ed Copley p51).  For a C17 depiction see an engraving from the 1656 edition of Camden (Reproduced in W Rodwell: The Archaeology of Churches, 2005 page 18) whilst Horsfield says the stones were formerly round ‘the chancel door’ (Lewes I p273).  Godfrey suggests (3 p27) that they are from the chancel arch, but it is hard to see how they could have formed part of a pointed head, as the chancel arch definitely had.  Furthermore, a pointed head would be later C12 at the earliest and the reference in the inscription to the long defunct Danish royal line at that time would be unlikely, although Parsons and Milner-Gulland (p125) without saying why suggest a date as late as c1200.  The emphasis on Danish lineage might indeed otherwise suggest it was pre-Conquest.  It is known that the chancel was removed soon after Camden’s visit and that there were further repairs in 1635 (1 p4), when the Lewes antiquarian John Rowe reset the stones in the nave (3 ibid), where they were visible on the Sharpe drawing.  He omitted some and many have been recut, either then or when they were again moved in 1839.  The most that can be said with reasonable certainty is that there was an anchorite called Magnus, of Danish royal lineage and all else is speculation.  If some voussoirs are missing, that could suggest that the arch from which they came was wider, supporting the Taylors’ surmise that the C11 work was relatively late (p355).

The pointed former chancel arch suggests the chancel was altered or rebuilt in the late C12 or C13.  In the C14 a south aisle may at least have been started, which may better explain the apparently pointed arch in the tower in the Burrell drawing, and a new south porch was built against the tower as part of general repairs in 1779 (4 p54).  At the same time other work was done (1 pp6-7) as a result of which there were considerable losses of old glass and brasses.  By the early C19 the town was expanding fast into the parish and the church became too small.  The first proposal to rebuild it came in 1818 (1 p7) but this came to nought.

The present church was not built until 1839, to a design by G Cheesman (ICBS), with flint and brick walls and galleries with panelled fronts on iron posts that are moulded and there are no arcades, making the nave a single space.  The detail is gothic and the best feature is the castellated tower, with large octagonal turrets at the corners.  Compared with most work of the period, this is amply proportioned and was clearly designed as a foil to the nearby castle; it fulfils this purpose effectively, though on closer examination the poor detail is apparent.  In 1883-84 Philip Currey added a short chancel with a three-sided apse and small transepts (WSRO Ep II/27/180) at a cost of £1402 (KD 1899).  This work is in a C14 style, including the arch to the apse.  The flat plaster ceiling was replaced in 1903 by massive trusses, open towards the centre.   More recently, probably in the 1960s or 1970s, the gallery fronts and the roofs above have been painted in colours that will not be to everyone’s taste.

In 2016 repairs to the masonry of the tower and improved drainage under the supervision of Carden and Godfrey (see under W E Godfrey) were carried out at an estimated cost of £170,000 (SPAB Magazine winter 2015 p68).

Fittings and monuments

1.  Battered C15 octagonal bowl with arcading on three sides of the stem.
2.  Later C19, with a quatrefoil-shaped bowl, supported on marble shafts.
1. (Three apse windows) J Powell and Sons designed by H Holiday, 1884 (Hadley).
2. (North nave, first window) Kempe and Co, 1910.
3. (North aisle, second window) A Savell and Co(KI) dated 1872, but actually dating from 1893 (www.stainedglassrecords.org retrieved 15/2/2015).  All the glass by Savell’s consists of single figures set in quarries of greenish glass and were clearly designed to be an entity.
4. (North aisle, third window) A Savell and Co, c1894 (ibid retrieved 11/3/2013).
5. (South aisle, second window) Savell and Young, dated 1885 (signed), but almost certainly later.
1. (Churchyard) Russian prisoners from the Crimean War who died at a naval prison that then stood in the parish.  Designed by Philip Currey (BN 31 p611), it was commissioned by the Russian authorities in 1877, though most names are Swedish, as they were captured during a forgotten expedition against the Åland Islands in the Baltic, which belonged to Finland, then under Russian rule.  Inscriptions record restorations in 1957 by the Soviet Embassy and in 2012, when the Finnish Embassy and the Åland authorities were also involved.
2. (Chancel) A quantity of tablets, mostly quite plain and all unsigned.  They are of various dates back to 1771 and were presumably rescued from the old church and reset here in 1883.
Painting: (Above entrance to tower) Previously thought to be probably Venetian of c1600 (e g BE p552), recent research suggests it is Flemish and from the school of F Floris (information from Jenny Lovell).  It shows Christ with the children, and is presumably the painting described by Horsfield rather optimistically as in the style of Rembrandt, which was donated in 1751 (I p208).
Reredos: White marble and probably dating from 1883-84.
Royal Arms: (Beneath painting) George IV of iron.  Painted and quite small.
Tombstone: (Under the Magnus inscription) C13 with a floreated cross, found under the nave floor c1748 (Horsfield: Lewes I p274).


1.  R Field: Ten Centuries of History: the Story of St John sub Castro, Lewes, 2006
2.  R Gilbert: Evidence for Tower Transepts at the Old Church of St John-sub-Castro, Lewes, SAC 112 (1974) pp44-47
3.  W H Godfrey: St John-sub-Castro, Church and Site, Lewes, SNQ 9 (May 1942) pp25-28
4.                          : St John-sub-Castro, Lewes, SNQ 9 (Aug 1942) pp53-55
5.  D W Pye: The Magnus Inscription, SNQ 16 (Nov 1965) pp184-87


Drawing of south doorway with profile of mouldings in Taylor and Taylor I p387


Sketch plan of old church by W H Godfrey in 3 p54


My thanks to Jenny Lovell for information about the current attribution of the painting above




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