Rye – St Mary

A big church with transepts, which dates back to the mid-C12.  The nave is late C12 and the chancel and chapels are C13.  Much was rebuilt in the C14 and C15, including the crossing tower and some of the east parts.

Rye lies at the confluence of the rivers Tillingham, Brede and Rother of which the last is the biggest, though its mouth did not shift to its present position until the C13.  The town stands on an isolated hill which was valuable for purposes of defence and it was one of the Cinque Ports, though not an original one (for a full discussion of the evidence for the early history of Rye see chapter 1 of 2).  It seems likely that it was a new settlement dating from soon after the Conquest, for there was definitely a town by 1086.  The area is reasonably well recorded earlier in the C11, assuming it is equated with the otherwise unidentified ‘Rameslie’.  This is the name found in Domesday Book (5,1) but as ‘Rammeslege’ there is a reference as early as 1005, though it is probable that this extended to a wider area than that later covered by the town.  The site of the town itself may have been the meeting place of more than one hundred.  The abbey of Fécamp was granted Rameslie before 1032 and held it until 1247.  The town is presumed to have emerged under the abbey’s auspices, as a reflection of the growth in cross-Channel trade and its shift from further east.  It was clearly a success, for by the early C12 a mint may be identified here, albeit its production was modest by comparison with the established ones in Sussex.

‘Rameslie’ in Domesday Book is stated to have had five churches, which might suggest a remarkably fast development after the Conquest.  The number may be doubted, particularly because the whole town was held by Fécamp so there was no fragmentation of ownership of the kind that determined the multiplicity of churches in, say, Lewes or Chichester (2 p113).  It can be presumed that the others were not in the town; Holloway’s statement that before the C12 another stood on the site of the present Gun Garden (4 p470) is open to question unless it was a provisional one which disappeared after the parish church came into use and therefore did not alter the total.  The evidence that Rye was connected with the hundredal system suggests that the other churches were actually in the area round, though it should not be forgotten that many parishes near the coast had Wealden outliers with churches; as these became full parishes, their origins were forgotten.

Late mediaeval Rye certainly had only one parish church, which stands at the top of the hill and is conspicuous in every view.  Its fabric reflects the history of the town, as all the devotion of its citizens was directed towards it.  No part of the present church predates the mid-C12, which might support the existence of an earlier one in the Gun Garden.   The new one was built from the first on a cruciform plan and the earliest part is the chancel, indicating that building began at the east end as was customary.  Here there are surviving pilaster-buttresses in the east wall and two round-headed recesses inside.  These show that the chancel was never lengthened, though rebuilt, and was thus of exceptional length for the mid-C12.  The transepts followed with little or no interruption; the north doorway has two orders of billet-work, nook-shafts and renewed scallop capitals.  Though moved in the C18 (VCH 9 p59) and much renewed since, its form is reliable.  The blocked south doorway of the south transept presents a puzzle.  It is also offset and its head, originally of three orders with chevrons and lozenges would point to the mid-C12, were it not for the label with nailhead, a feature of the end of that century.  Either there was an interruption in the work which would be unlikely since the whole would have been commissioned at the same time or there were alterations unexpectedly soon after initial completion.

Narrow wall-arcades on the west walls of the transepts have scallop and volute capitals.  To the north, the heads are crenellated, with chevrons to the south.  Above, best seen in the north transept, are larger arches on corbels and a wall-passage linking the clerestory-openings – these have rere-arches with two rings on each shaft.   Though heavily restored, there is no reason to doubt that they are correct in form.  A blind arch on the east wall of the north transept with billet-work may have been one of two and a shaft in the north east corner shows that the east side, though altered, was treated similarly to the west one.  Nave aisles were planned from the first, as the round-headed arches from the transepts show.  Though restored, they differ and this is likely to follow the old pattern.  The north one has scallop capitals and two orders on the head and the other has three, of which the innermost is roll-moulded with shafts and volute capitals.  Above both is the former lean-to roof-line of the aisles.

The late C12 nave would have had no predecessor.  The lancet-clerestory is C19; though parts of the linking wall-passage look old, Godfrey suggests the level was altered at the restoration of 1882 (3 p253).  The five-bay arcades, despite restoration, are old, with many irregularities.  The piers and responds are round except for octagonal ones, second from the west.  The more steeply pointed heads of the narrower west bays have damaged foliage capitals on the west responds.  The moulded heads include some dogtooth.

By about 1200, the church had reached its present dimensions and is one of the largest in Sussex, though the appearance of the then crossing, tower and east and west ends can only be conjectured.   The first addition was an early C13 north chapel with pairs of lancets, separated by buttresses and with sills connected by a string-course.  The easternmost bay was rebuilt about 1745 (VCH 9 p57), leaving only one jamb of a lancet.  Inside, the rere-arches are roll-moulded, with irregular labels of dogtooth moulding and bases for shafts, which may never have been put in place.  They are linked by another wall-passage, now blocked.  The two eastern bays of the arcade to the chancel are early C13, with a pier of eight clustered shafts, four round and four keeled, and a foliated capital.  The head has a hollow-chamfered and a moulded order and it has been suggested (1 p33) that a chancel vault was intended, though little supports this.  The east respond, is like the pier but C19.  The later C13 south chapel, though more restored, has two windows with shafted rere-arches (a third is C19) and paired lights with a circle above.  Here too there are traces of a wall-passage, also blocked, so the extensive remains suggest one went all round the church.

In the C14 further work probably started before the French raid of 1339, and there is no indication of what damage was suffered then.  Both aisles were heightened and battlemented and the roof of the north aisle retains some timbers of this period.  The restored square-headed windows with pierced spandrels in the north aisle are mid-C14.  The similar ones in the south aisle are C19 and not shown by Adelaide Tracy (undated but after 1850) (IV p99), though there is a rather indistinct one on the Burrell Collection drawing of c1780.  This also shows clerestory windows with panelled tracery, which could be C14 or C15, which are not shown by Adelaide Tracy.  In the angle of the north transept and aisle a simple porch, adapted in the C17 to open into the tower stairs, was almost certainly linked to the remodelling of the aisles.  Also C14 is the vaulted two-storeyed structure in the angle of the south transept and nave, originally a porch and chantry and now a vestry.  The boss in the centre of the vault of the former porch is a rose with a grotesque face.  The blocked doorway has two moulded orders and the chantry has a quatrefoil-headed south window, which, though said to be C19 (6 p125), looks at least partly old, as more certainly is the renewed circular window.  The upper chamber was formerly entered from within through a moulded doorway and the external stair is C19.

The church suffered again in the further French raid of 1377, which seriously affected the town’s prosperity.  Signs of fire damage in the crossing, found in 1844 (ibid p126), suggest it may have collapsed and the rough repairs may be a consequence of the subsequent decline of Rye as a port.  Three distinct types of crossing arches suggest that rebuilding was unco-ordinated and lengthy.  Earliest is the arch into the nave with semi-octagonal responds and three hollow-chamfered orders.  It is lower than the others and more assured, so a date before 1377 cannot be ruled out.   It is certainly earlier than the arch into the north transept, which is off-centre, with a broader west respond and a head of three orders that die into the responds, which is a late C14 motif.  Finally and clearly built as a pair, the south and east arches look C15, with continuous moulded outer orders and inner ones on demi-shafts, of which one on the south arch has been cut away for a monument.  The low, battlemented tower has double square-headed openings except two single ones to the north.  The squat spire is said to have been renewed in 1702 (Horsfield I p495), but the outline at least is unchanged from that shown on van Dyck’s drawing of 1634 (Uffizi, Florence no 762P (see plate 161 in SRS 85)).

The early C15 arch from the south chapel into the transept and the south chancel arcade resemble each other, though only the inner sides of the arcade have demi-shafts.  The western arch of the north chancel arcade was rebuilt similarly and the east windows were replaced.  That of the north chapel has an old opening and C19 tracery in C14 style, but those of chancel and south chapel have panelled tracery.  The chancel one is less restored, with six lights and a castellated transom.  Flying buttresses were added at the south east angle and on the south side.  This has heavy pinnacles and is pierced with a quatrefoil and there is a C19 copy to the north.  Taken together, they suggest structural instability, perhaps in the aftermath of the raid, and, if this is so, are further evidence of piecemeal repairs to the church.  Most old roofs, in the north transept and chancel chapels (that of the north chapel is much renewed), are plain and probably built as inexpensively as possible.  A bequest in 1417 mentions fenestre (windows) (SRS 45 p63), so work was going on at this time.

The opening of the west window is C14 or C15, though its tracery is C19.  The subsequently rebuilt flanking pinnacles and the nave clerestory on the Burrell drawing may have been contemporary.  The transepts have early C16 four-centred five-light north and south windows with a transom.  The head of the north one is flatter, but both are of the same date, as, probably, are the beamed roof in the south transept and the flat gable of the north one with pinnacles.  A bequest of 1510 mentioning repairs to windows may provide the date (ibid).  The four-centred arch of the south porch may be linked, though the mouldings of the doorway inside are C15 and both are renewed.  There were references to work on the north aisle in 1515 (4 p480) and on the south aisle in 1539 and in 1543 (ibid pp495-515 which provide details of the work between 1547 and 1845).  A second Sharpe Collection drawing of 1804 shows a four-centred east doorway in the south chapel, marked as wooden.  It has been replaced by a C19 one but could have dated from this time.

The churchwardens’ accounts from the C16 to the C19 survive and show how the church was treated.  Puritan influence was strong in Rye, so worship was concentrated in the nave to make preaching more audible and thus effective.  Timber for the roof was purchased in 1548 for nearly £30 and new seats were provided in 1561; earlier expenditure on seats in 1547 included one for the mayor (see below).  The chancel was said in 1586 to have been ‘open in the roufe’ (i e lacking a roof) (SAC 53 (1910) p4) and at some point the arcades were blocked.  The north chapel became the store for the town’s fire engine and the south one a school.  In 1702 substantial repairs were necessary and a brief raised nearly £400.  This work included the replacement of the spire, though the date of 1699 on the south transept gable suggests work started earlier.  In 1735-37 there were payments for Portland stone, probably to rebuild the west pinnacles, which in Holloway’s time were of that material.  Maintenance of the roof was regular, but the next big change was a west gallery in 1790, entailing the blocking of the west doorway.  C Smith as surveyor and J Blackman as builder (the latter signed the plan (ICBS)) replaced this by a larger gallery in 1839 and re-opened the doorway.  This was surely one of the last occasions when a gallery was approved by the Society.

The latest work Holloway mentions is repairs to the chancel roof in 1845, which followed the restoration of the C12 work in the transept the previous year.  The architect is unknown, but ‘Mr Smith’ (B 21 p882) in 1863 restored the east windows of both chapels (shown blocked by Nibbs in 1851).  He could have been the same C Smith who did the gallery, but was more probably A Smith, who was the most prominent member of the Smith family of Rye by this date.  In 1868 Sir Stephen Glynne found the west window had been restored since his earlier visit before 1840 (SRS 101 p245) and this was probably done at the same time.  During these repairs the chancel was returned to its original form and worship was resumed there; whichever Smith did the work of 1863  was probably the architect for the chancel repairs also.  A E Street in 1882-83 restored the nave, previously disfigured by galleries (4 p514), to designs by his late father, G E Street (CDK 1883 pt 2 p164 and BN 44 p647), who had examined the church in 1877 (WSRO Ep II/27/67) and advised restoring it in sections, though only the nave was done.  The roof was replaced, the arcades repaired and the clerestory rebuilt.  The west doorway of 1839 was blocked, leaving an outline.  Including the south porch, the cost was £4200 (CDK 1883 ibid).  Though thorough, the new work is clearly differentiated.  Subsequently, in 1908, Sir T G Jackson advised on refitting the chancel (CDG 169 p15) and most fittings are no earlier.

Fittings and monuments

Altar table: (North chapel) Elaborately carved mahogany of 1735 and probably Spanish in origin in view of the presence of the Lion of Castile at each corner (Mee p320).
1.  (North chapel) Anonymous civilian and his wife (c1490), of some size for the date.  The man lacks a head and wears a fur-trimmed gown.  Only indents for his children and coat of arms are left.
2.  (By the altar) Thomas Hamon (d1607) Robed as mayor, an office he held several times.
Chandelier: (Near pulpit) Presented in 1759 (3 p512).
Clock: (North side of tower) The mechanism dates from 1560 if not earlier (5 p307) and is said to have been made at Winchelsea (Mitchell/Shell Guide p162) (5 p307), but the face dates only from about 1760.  It is surrounded by carved flowers and above it are two gilded quarter-boys.  These are modern copies in fibreglass of the originals now kept in the church, where the swinging pendulum is conspicuous.
Font: 1845 and said to be a copy of that at Newenden, Kent (Langdon p215).
1. (Lost) Heraldic glass by Harry the Glasyer was installed in the church in 1562 (G Draper in Vidimus 65 (January 2013).
2.  Resurrection by Heaton Butler and Bayne, 1886 (BN 50 p321).  Nothing that resembles this can be identified, so it may have been among the glass known to have been destroyed in World War II.
3.  (South porch east window) Two lights by Swaffield Brown, 1894 (www.stainedglassrecords.org retrieved on 18/3/2013).
4.  (South porch, west window) J Powell and Sons, designed by J W Brown, 1894 (Order book).
5.  (South aisle, first and west windows) C E Kempe, 1889 and 1896.
6.  (South aisle, second window) J Powell and Sons, 1894, designed by J W Brown (Hadley list).
7.  (North aisle, second window) Morris and Co, 1897, to a design by Sir E Burne-Jones.
8.  (North aisle, first window) J Powell and Sons, 1911, designed by J H Hogan and J W Brown (ibid).
9.  (North chapel, east window) J Powell and Sons, 1912, designed by J H Hogan and W Aikman (ibid).
10.  (West and south transept, south windows) Both commemorate the Benson family.  The west one (1937) was made by J Powell and Sons and designed by H J Stammers to commemorate  the most eminent member of the family, an Archbishop of Canterbury and shows his son, the donor, kneeling in mayoral robes.  That in the south transept (1929) is to A C Benson, who wrote the words of ‘Land of Hope and Glory’.  Designed by J H Hogan and also made by J Powell and Sons (DGSW 1939), the design is conventional, but the colours are characteristic.
11.  (East window) C Webb, 1952 (DGSW 1958).  This replaced glass destroyed in World War II and except for the blues the colours are muted, especially by comparison with Hogan’s work.
1.  (North aisle) Thomas Owens (d1769), Elizabeth Weller (d1781) and Catherine Owens (d1797).  A squat creeper-hung urn by J Flaxman (Roscoe p447).  It dates from shortly after 1797.
2.  (North transept, east wall) Thomas Holford (d1780) by J Marten of Tenterden, Kent, erected in 1798 (ibid p821).
3.  (North aisle) Thomas Lamb (d1804) White marble tablet signed by J Bacon junior.
4.  (Crossing, south east pier) Elizabeth Woollett (d1810) by J Bacon junior, with a draped urn (ibid p49).
5.  (Crossing, north west pier) John Woollett (d1819) Standing women with an obelisk by J Bacon junior with his partner S Manning (ibid p32).
6.  Nathaniel Procter (d1831) by J Malcott the younger (ibid p792).
7. (North aisle) Margaret (d1770), Peter (d1790) and Elizabeth (d1841) Collett.  A white marble tablet that probably dates from after 1841 – Elizabeth was the second wife, who died at the age of 95.  The memorial is signed simply ‘Smith’ and is likely to be by one of the architects and masons in Rye of that name (see under A Smith).
8. (North chapel) Inscription beneath a statue of St George in memory of Vice-Admiral Sir George Warrender Bart (d1917) by E Gill (E R Gill p53).
Pulpit: A pulpit was ordered in London in 1567 (4 p502) and though the structure of the present one is C19, it incorporates linenfold panels, which could come from this.
Reredos: Perp in style and made of oak, 1886.  It was designed by one Parsons and made by H Hems of Exeter (BN 68 p254).
Royal Arms: (Facing nave, above west tower arch) Painted arms of Queen Anne, dated 1703.
Screens: (In both arches from the chancel chapels to the transepts) C15, with minimally traceried openings recalling the main screen at Playden.
Seating: The seating in the nave is C19, probably by Street, but by the pulpit is a special place for the mayor, like a throne, recalling the arrangement of 1547 (4 p495).


1.  J Borrowman: Short Account of Rye Church, Sussex, SAC 50 (1907) pp20-40
2.  G Draper et al: Rye – a History of a Sussex Cinque Port to 1660, Chichester, 2009
3.  W E Godfrey: Rye Church, AJ 116 pp253-54
4.  W Holloway: History and Antiquities of Rye, 1847
5.  R P Howgrave-Graham: Some Clocks and Jacks with Notes of the History of Horology, Arch 77 (1927) pp257-312
6.  G Slade Butler: The Church of St Mary, Rye, SAC 22 (1870) pp124-33


Measured plan by W H Godfrey in VCH 9 p58

My thanks to Nick Wiseman for the exterior photograph of the east end and that of the interior of the chancel; also those of the stained glass and Royal Arms