Plumpton – St Michael

The narrow parish stretches north from the Downs, with a church that is today engulfed by the East Sussex Agricultural College.  It marks the first site of the village, which has moved nearly two miles north to Plumpton Green, the site of a railway station by a racecourse and which today has its own church.

A church at Plumpton is mentioned in Domesday Book (12, 42), though the relatively broad proportions of the present nave point to a rather later date of 1100 or shortly after.  The north window and south doorway do not conflict with this dating.  They are plain except for grooves on the abaci of the doorway, and the jamb of a north doorway is visible inside.  Old render on the north wall and the western part of the south one make it more difficult to reach a definite conclusion over the dating, but the slightly later date is preferable to Robin Milner-Gulland’s suggestion (in Cather etc p213, note 29) that it may lie between 1066 and Domesday Book.  This derives from his interpretation of the wall paintings, for which in fact a rather later date is likely (see below).  Until 1866 the central of three round-headed chancel arches (VCH 7 p112) was probably part of the original church.  There was a similar arrangement at Bolney and still is at Pyecombe, both in West Sussex but quite close.  However, in the latter case the date of the arrangement is open to question as the side openings are thought to have been converted from squints.

Milner-Gulland implicitly (Cather etc, ibid) dates the tower to the same period, citing its hastily built north wall, but the previous accepted dating of c1200 is preferable.  It is of the squat form common in the area in the late C12 and has a broad shingled broach spire (as at e g Barcombe).  There is a round-headed opening to the north, but the head of the chamfered doorway from the nave is pointed.   Structural problems in the C14 led to alterations, which obscure the structural development.

The chancel was rebuilt in the C13 with lancets and a lowside to the south and in 1851 Nibbs showed three pointed east lights.  The roof with outward sloping queenposts is probably of this period as may the main timbers of the nave roof.  In the later C14, the structural problems with the tower already mentioned led to the reconstruction of the south west angle and most of the west wall with big buttresses.  The different flintwork is obvious and the chamfered doorway and two-light square-headed window are characteristically C14.

There were extensive changes in the C17 or C18.  Various early depictions show plain square-headed windows and a modest south porch.  The front of the latter, which remains, is of brickwork.  The east window was changed to the form shown on the Sharpe Collection drawing (1802) with three square-headed lights and a heavily buttressed nave.  The north buttress, which blocks the north doorway, is tile-hung and in the south east one are re-used carved stones.  They are likely to come from re-used carved tombstones, probably C13, for one looks like a floreated cross and the other consists of a shield with fleurs de lis at the corners.

The restoration in 1866-67 (ESRO Par 446/4/1a) by an unknown architect included nave windows in C14 style; the north ones are pointed and the single south one remains square-headed but acquired leaf tracery.  The east wall was rebuilt with a triplet and the nave roof was boarded.  When the south wall was repaired, the part west of the porch was thickened.  A new chancel arch replaced the previous triple one, which was considered inconvenient.   A vestry and organ chamber were added in 1886 (ibid Par 446/4/2)J L Denman in 1929 restored the roof and porch, revealing the south doorway (CDG 1929 p184), and in 1932 he replaced the chancel arch again in C13 style (CDG 1932 p375), though W H Godfrey was also involved (CDG 1933 p22).

Fittings

Font: A plain square bowl with the date 1710 scratched on it.  It is actually much older, for the octagonal base and angle shafts, the bases of which are joined to the central stem, date from c1200.
Glass: (East window and south chancel, first window) Mayer and Co, c1874 (both signed).
Paintings:
1.  The wall paintings are generally seen as part of the ‘Lewes Group.  Some were discovered in 1867 on both sides of the east wall (1 p199) and included what was interpreted as a Doom, which was dated to the late C14, but not preserved.   In 1900 J L André (p267) also stated that there had been a Lamb of God on the soffit of the previous chancel arch, though given the lack of certainty over the date of this, the reliability of the otherwise intriguing iconographical link with both Westmeston and Hardham, West Sussex, both within the ‘Group’, is hard to assess, However, fragments uncovered in 1955 on the north wall and in 1964 show clear links to the ‘Group’ (4 p187).  There is decorative painting on the rere-arch of the original window and other work is related iconographically to nearby Clayton.  According to the most recent interpretation (see 2), both show Christ depicted in the Heavenly City, shown as a hexagon, handing the keys of Heaven to St Peter (here lost to a later window) and the Book to St Paul.  When first  uncovered, E C Rouse, who conserved them, dated the paintings to c1120 (4 ibid), a little later than others of the ‘Group’.  In accordance with his general perception, Robin Milner-Gulland, emphasising their Anglo-Saxon nature, prefers an earlier date, but assigns them towards the end of the work of the ‘Group’, citing their less assured technique.  Though fragmentary and faded, they are certainly by a less proficient hand than the others, though it could be argued that this suggested that the paintings at Plumpton were relatively early rather than late.  Some latitude over dating is unavoidable, but on the assumption that all the paintings in the ‘Group’ were carried out within a fairly short time, Rouse is probably not far out.
2.  (South wall) Early C17 painted Biblical texts.
Reredos: (Now on west wall) Four C18 round-headed panels with the Commandments and Lord’s Prayer.  They are contained within a single panel which is topped by an entablature.
Stalls: These incorporate C17 panelling.

Sources

1.  C H Campion: Mural Paintings in Plumpton Church, SAC 20 (1868) pp198-202
2.  J Edwards: Hexagonal Heavenly Cities at Clayton and Plumpton, SAC 124 (1986) pp263-64
3.  W H Godfrey: Parish Church of St Michael, Plumpton, SNQ 14 (May 1954) pp15-16
4.  E C Rouse: Wall Paintings in St Michael’s Church, Plumpton, SNQ 14 (Nov 1956) pp187-89

Plan

Measured plan by W H Godfrey in VCH 7 p112

My thanks to Nick Wiseman for the photographs, except that of the west side of the tower.

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