Petworth – St Mary

The chancel and north transept remain from a large cruciform aisleless church, which was mostly C13 and probably emerged from a lost pre-Conquest one.  The north aisle and base of the tower are C14, the north chapel and some windows C15 and the south aisle and rest of the tower early C19.  There were later C19 and C20 alterations.

The church is close to the great house and its tower dominates the town. A church is mentioned in Domesday Book (11, 18) and both the size of the mediaeval parish with its formerly dependent chapelries (including EgdeanDuncton and Northchapel) and the significance of the place suggest that it was a minster.  However, no part survives from that period, though what has been interpreted as part of an early window was uncovered in the west wall of the north transept during Barry’s work of 1827-29, though this raises several structural problems (see 3 p123).  David Parsons is inclined to think that this is more probably C13 (ibid p125), in which case it is surely related to other windows in the north transept and to the south windows of the chancel.  These consist of a restored lancet and two-light windows with circles in the head, indicating a date of c1250, so the church was already cruciform, though as yet aisleless.  Parsons argues that the north transept in its present form has been lengthened, possibly when the broad north chapel was added in the C14.  He suggests further that this C14 work preceded the addition of the north aisle during the same period (see below).  The transept was divided horizontally from the start, for the upper part has a piscina (see also below) and its restored upper windows are like those in the chancel.

The nave appears to have been aisleless until the Percys (4 p17), who owned the house, added a north aisle in the C14, probably as a chapel.  This has been refaced except at the north western corner, which reveals that it has been heightened and originally had a lean-to roof.  The change is is apparent on one of the two Sharpe collection drawings, which also depicts both north and west porches, now gone (there is still a west doorway, but it appears entirely C19).  Inside, the form of the north arcade is still C14, with octagonal piers (renewed by Barry) with abaci and upward extensions, from which the heads of three hollow-chamfered orders emerge.  The similar arch into the transept has no abaci.  A mid-C14 tower, of which the sandstone base remains, may replace a south transept, though towers in this position are found locally at Lurgashall and Tillington (both also originally dependent on Petworth).  As built, it was not tall and until the early C19 had a tall leaded spire, probably dating from c1400 (3 p129) and shown on the Burrell Collection drawing (1789).

The renewed panelled head of the C15 east window is as shown on one of the Sharpe Collection drawings (undated but probably of 1804 or 1805; one is missing and known only from a photograph), though the rest was then blocked.  The other Sharpe drawing shows the outline of a large blocked west window, so the present C19 panelled tracery could well represent what was there before.  The east window of the gabled north chapel is similar in style, with the addition of a horizontal element in the head and there are three-light pointed north ones.  These are not old and the Burrell drawing shows only one, with a further square-headed one.  The arcade to the chancel has an octagonal pier and responds with rather crude abaci and the arch into the transept is similar.  The low east vestry is part of the chapel; a C17 monument with a scrolled top has been set in it externally.  A renewed south window of panelled tracery and an octagonal stair attached to the tower may be early C16, for there was a bequest of two shillings ‘fabrice campanilis’ in 1508 (SRS 43 p298).

Before 1800 there were few obvious further alterations beyond new windows, though the plain mullioned gable-window suggests the north transept may have been adapted as a pew in the C16 or C17.  In 1804 the tower was heightened by 12 feet and the spire was replaced by battlements and pinnacles (2).  This date was established by David Parsons’s researches in the archives of Petworth house.  One of the Sharpe drawings showing the new top is probably the earliest depiction of the change and indeed determines the earliest possible date of that drawing. The slightly revised date does not accord with Horsfield’s statement (II p179)  that the work was done in 1800, but there can be no doubt that it is correct.   There were further alterations to the body of the church in 1821, when T Chrippes inserted galleries (ICBS), which were lit by dormers that are shown by Quartermain ((W) p170).   In 1827-29 Sir C Barry (A Barry p75), in the course of his work on the church, added a further stuccoed stage, panelled on each side around a clock-face beneath a tall broach spire of stone.  The 3rd Earl of Egremont paid for these improvements and David Parsons points out (3 127) that he had also been involved in the building of St Peter, Brighton (started in 1824), which Barry had designed.   It has indeed been suggested (see footnote in BE p294) that Barry’s design for the spire was originally intended for St Peter, though this was never built.  However, although the designs show some similarities in that both are octagonal with lucarnes, the design for St Peter differs significantly (the clearest reproduction of Barry’s own print of the design is in Dale (p32) and there is an even better view of the tower with spire from the west on the dust-jacket of the same book)  From these, it is clear that the present parapet and pinnacles at St Peter’s belonged to the original design; the spire was intended to rise from within these and there were to have been low flying buttresses linking the pinnacles with the spire behind.  By contrast, the broaches in Barry’s final design for the Petworth spire covered the whole top of the tower and though there were pinnacles at each corner linked to the spire by flying buttresses, the latter were much less conspicuous.

The arch into the nave, mostly hidden by the organ, may be his and so is the south aisle with C15-style windows.  It is taller than the north one, though Barry may have heightened this.  Dr Parsons (2) also ascribes the present west window of the nave to him.  Barry’s most prominent work inside is the three-bay south arcade, which has quite plain octagonal piers without abaci and moulded heads, a rather curious combination he would surely not have countenanced after his association with A W N Pugin had started.  A suggestion by Ian Nairn (BE p295) that the arcade was rebuilt at the restoration of 1903 is unlikely.  For one thing it is built of Portland stone, which Barry also used elsewhere in the course of his work as Parsons demonstrates (3 p127-28).  The use of this was deplored by Pugin and it fell out of favour even during Barry’s lifetime.  The chancel arch and the family pew as it now is, with a west stair and doorway are probably also by him. The final cost of Barry’s work came to £12714 9s 3d (ibid p130), though £16,000 has also been given (KD 1899).  Either way, this is a considerable amount even when paid by the Earl of Egremont.  The contractor was W Ranger who had also worked for Barry at St Peter, Brighton (information from David Parsons derived from Petworth House archives) Finally, at an unspecified date the sculptor J Carew (see under Monuments below) is said to have altered the chancel (Roscoe p195).  He was closely associated with the 3rd Earl of Egremont, but there is nothing identifiable and the fact that he died in 1868 seems to rule him out from all recorded work except a restoration of the tower said to have been done in 1866 (B 24 (7 April 1866) p ii).

This is the earliest of three tantalising references to later C19 restorations.  Second was an undated restoration by Sir George G Scott, which is mentioned without further detail in his obituary in The Builder (36 p360) and is otherwise unrecorded (RIBA Library typescript p35), suggesting it is one of the numerous mis-attributions to him.  Finally, in 1879 a faculty for unspecified repairs and restoration was granted (BN 36 p588).  Even if all these references are correct, it is unlikely that work at any of them was extensive, for in 1903 C E Kempe and W Tower (CDG 128 (1904) p98) renewed the roofs.  That of the chancel has wooden panelling and the nave one is panelled with angels on the wallplates and ornamental plasterwork, though the painting dates from 1958 (BE(W) p539).  It is likely that the architects were also responsible for the pargetting on the chancel, pretty but hardly a Sussex feature.  Kempe, famed for his glass and fittings, designed both at Petworth (see below) and re-arranged the monuments.  Tower returned on his own in 1912 to add a vestry on the south side of the chancel (BE(W) ibid).

The north transept gallery received a new panelled front in 1903 and later a west one was built.  In 1935 C R B Godman and C J Kay rebuilt the top 15ft of the spire (CDG Nov 1935 p407), but for structural reasons it was all taken down in 1948.  Responsibility for the present top of 1953 has variously been given to J Seely and P Paget (BE p294) and L H Parsons (3 p133).  The latter attribution is supported by the parish records and thus seems the more likely, especially as Parsons was a partner of Godman and Kay who had done the work in 1935.  The work involved stripping the stucco from Barry’s upper stage to reveal an attractive pinkish brick, and adding a plain parapet and low pyramid.  In 1958 the nave roof was decorated.

Fittings and monuments

Altar: Seely and Paget, 1956 (BE(W) ibid).
1.  C15 octagonal with a quatrefoil on each side and an arcaded stem.
2. (North transept) A plain, rough round font bowl on an ironwork stand.  This is said to have been found in the rectory garden at Tillington (church guide) and has been dated to the pre-Conquest period, though this is open to doubt.
1.  (North chapel, north windows) Three C15 shields and a fourth fragmentary one.
2.  (Round window over chancel arch) Mayer and Co, c1840, in lurid colours.
3.  (South chancel, second window) Clayton and Bell, 1872 (B 30 p1032).
4.  (South chancel, third window) Heaton, Butler and Bayne, 1874 (B 32 p975).
5.  (East window) C E Kempe, 1903.
6.  (Three roundels in north chapel, north windows) C E Kempe, c1885, brought here from his house, Old Place, Lindfield, in 1973 (Collins p312).
7.  (North transept, two windows under gallery) One is definitely by Sir J N Comper, 1905-06 (BAL/MSS EeF/1/1).  An adjacent one of 1907 is sufficiently similar to be attributed to him with confidence.
8.  (Tower, south window) J Powell and Sons, 1904, designed by — Read who may be the same as G Wooliscroft-Rhead (Hadley list).
8.  (South aisle, first window) Kempe and Co, 1912.
9.  (South aisle, second window) N Westlake, 1921 (WSRO Fac 2776).  It must have been one of his very last windows as he died in that year.
1.  (North chapel) Sir John Dawtrey (d1542) and his wife and related to the contemporary series of monuments in the Selsey area.  Small figures kneel either side of a relief of the Trinity or Resurrection, now hacked away.  Cherubs holding shields are included in the otherwise gothic crested canopy and there was a helm above (see 1).  The painting is modern.
2.  (Chancel) Thomas Dawtrey (?1738) by P Hoare (Roscoe p623).
3.  (Chancel) John Wickins (d1783) by J Flaxman (SAC 97 (1959) p84).  An angel holding a book floats on clouds, a motif the sculptor used elsewhere.
4.  (Chancel) Rear-Admiral Richard Willis (d1829) by J Carew (Roscoe p196).
5.  (Nave by the north transept) Dr John Johnson, rector of Northchapel (d1831) by J Carew (ibid).  A seated figure with a book.
6.  (Chancel) Ann Child (d1835) by J Carew (ibid).
7.  (Tower) Percy family, 1837 by J Carew (ibid). Draped lifesize figure, holding a cross, which is said to have been intended originally for a monument in Wexford, Ireland.
8.  (Chancel) Charles Dunster (d1816) by Sir R Westmacott (ibid p1361).
9.  (North aisle) Life-size seated effigy of the Third Earl of Egremont who paid for Barry’s work (d1837) by E Baily (ibid p58), best known for the statue on Nelson’s column.
10. (Nave south east) John Henry Robinson (d1871 and dated 1875) by C A Fellows (signed).  A bust on a console and unusually late for this type.
Piscina: (North transept, upper level) C13.
1.  1903, gilded triptych, by Kempe.
2.  (Tower) Small relief of the Virgin and Child by Flaxman.  From the reredos of 1827 and placed here in 1903.
Royal Arms: Alison Kelly (p190) records a Royal Arms signed by Coade and Sealy, dated 1812 and made of their artificial stone.  However, she does not state any location and nothing is apparent today.
Screen: Kempe, 1903.


1.  W Huyshe and Baron de Cosson: Notes on the Helms from Petworth Church, AJ 39 (1862) pp184-91
2.  D Parsons: St Mary’s Petworth before Barry, Petworth Society Magazine
3.                     : The Church of St Mary the Virgin, Petworth, West Sussex, and the Work of Charles Barry, SAC 156 (2018) pp123-35
4.  R Turner: Petworth, SAC 14 (1862) pp1-24

I am indebted to Dr David Parsons for making me aware of his article cited as no 2 above and for further information and insights into the church as well as his more recent article cited as no 3.