Seaford – St Leonard

The early C12 nave was probably arcaded, but was remodelled and heightened c1200.  A C15 tower was built within the nave walls.  The eastern parts, probably also C12 and possibly cruciform, disappeared and the present more modest ones date from 1861.

Seaford was probably initially connected with the episcopal manor and minster church at Bishopstone.  By 1100 it was a Cinque Port at the then mouth of the Ouse and reached its peak in the C13.  According to legend it had five parishes and the separate tithe ascertainment for Seaford-cum-Sutton which still existed in the 1930s (TNA IR 104/69) implies there was at least a second one.  The decline in the C14 and C15 resulted from both the political situation during the Hundred Years War and the silting up of the river.  In the C16 this changed its course to meet the sea at Meeching (soon renamed Newhaven) and Seaford’s decline worsened.  Only in 1864 did connection to the railway system provide the possibility of becoming a resort.  Success was limited and by the early C20 Seaford was best known for its private schools.  These in turn have declined in number and the town today is mainly a dormitory for Eastbourne and Brighton.  New housing has absorbed East Blatchington and Chyngton, where there is a now a further church (see St Luke, Chyngton).

The building history of the church is complex and incompletely understood.  It is the subject of a detailed study by J G Taylor (see 6), which though open to question in some respects, provides many valuable insights.  It is unusual for its date in treating the alterations in the C19 seriously and in detail.

Most authorities agree that the large nave dates from c1100.  It is 22ft across, though shortened at the east end by 6ft in 1861 (6 p13), and the line of its former west wall is visible.  The removal of the westernmost part of the south aisle in 1861 revealed a small round-headed window on a string-course over a broad round-headed arch with a plain hoodmould, nook-shafts and simple scallop capitals and in 1895 the west wall was found to be mostly part of the original structure.  The equivalent arch on the north side is still within the church with a roll-moulded inner head.  The north aisle is mostly of this date, including a small area of herringbone masonry near its eastern end, and three (formerly four) small windows, their heads made of one stone and set low in the wall, which may have been heightened.  Round-headed eastern arches, which disappeared in 1861 and are best seen in a photograph of that year (ibid pl 21B), suggest there were transepts; nothing else is known about the C12 east end.  Though weathered, the west doorway dates from 1895 not c1100, but the nook-shafts and billetwork on the head are based on what was found (ibid p21).

Both Taylor and Godfrey (3 p6) suggest there was a crossing tower, but whereas Godfrey considered the nave was aisled from the start, Taylor believed that it was started without aisles before 1100, like Westham, and that arcades were inserted about 1120 (6 p11).  He argued that the nave as built was too low for arcades, but it is hard to see why if it was too low in c1100, these could be inserted in the unchanged walls twenty years later.  In any case, the work is too much of a piece, leaving little doubt that Godfrey is correct.

The early C12 nave was, indeed, low and around 1200 most arcades were rebuilt with a clerestory which has lancet openings with nook-shafts outside.  Part of the corbel-table with grotesques remains to the north.  Except the south west arch, which has a keeled roll-moulding, the arcades have big pointed heads with two small hollow chamfers and a label.  The round piers and responds with one exception have varied foliage capitals and water-holding bases.  That of the south pier, however, has small, crudely carved biblical scenes, including the Crucifixion, the Harrowing of Hell, Daniel in the lions’ den and the Baptism of Christ.  The Burrell Collection drawing of 1785 shows a pointed arch at the east end of the nave like the arcades, which suggests the eastern parts may have been altered at the same time as they were inserted, whilst the partial outline of a broad pointed doorway in the north aisle shows this was altered too.

Both west responds of the main arcades are fully formed and do not suggest any intention of replacing the early C12 westernmost arches; indeed, the new clerestory was extended over them.  Taylor’s suggestion (ibid p8) that political unrest in the early C13 made it impossible to replace them is unlikely, as is Lower’s idea that they belonged to a putative crossing tower (5 p114), given their position.  Godfrey plausibly explained their retention by the presence of a timber belfry (9 p240), which he initially thought was replaced by the present tower in the C13 (1 p113).  He later accepted, as the architecture shows, that this is C15 and was built within the nave as there was no space west of it.

French raids on the town from the C14, the last of which was in 1559, would explain the signs of fire-damage on the south arcade and its weathered outer side suggests it was exposed to the elements, so the church was probably reduced in size.  At all events, as at Hastings after the raid of 1377, rebuilding must have been slow.  The aisle walls on the Burrell drawing are C15, with a lower part alongside the tower.  Most south aisle windows on the 1861 photograph are timber, but jambs remain of single C15 square-headed ones to north and south (west of the porch).  The question is whether the eastern parts were affected and, if so, whether they were rebuilt.  The construction of a west tower might suggest that the putative crossing tower had gone.  The new tower has three recessed stages, the bottom one consisting of three sides of the nave walling and a new eastern wall with a small double-chamfered arch.  The blank middle stage is built of flint and stone chequerwork and the four-centred north and south bell-openings of the top are later C15 (the others are single and trefoiled) as are a four-centred west window and doorways (one now gone).  Above are battlements and a low tiled cap.

The main beams and crownposts of the nave roof are C15 and, as the Burrell drawing shows, it continued over the aisles.  The C15 north west clerestory window is therefore puzzling.  Possibly, like the aisle window below, it resulted from immediate repairs after 1377, before a decision to change the form of the roof.

The Burrell and Sharpe Collection (there are two, both probably 1802) drawings show only the nave was left.  However, in 1811-12 a small chancel with sash windows and a pointed east window was added, incongruously fitted with shutters (Nibbs c1851) and big brick buttresses at the west end probably dated from the same time, as they are not on the Sharpe drawing.  In 1842 there were unrealised plans for a new roof and windows (ICBS) and in 1858 W Butterfield provided estimates for restoration and extension (BAL Biog file for J Billing).  In the event, J Billing did the work in 1860-62 (BN 7 p667) and it is successful in its own terms.  He replaced the aisle windows, added a south porch and reinstated the original arrangement of the roofs, whilst keeping the old nave roof timbers.  Though he removed the part of the south aisle alongside the tower, he kept the equivalent on the north side.  At the east end, Billing shortened the nave and added lower transepts, entered through arches that derive from the main arcades, and a five-sided apse, all in brownish stone with bands of yellow and red brick.  The arch to the apse has fleurons round the head and clustered shafts with rich foliage capitals.  Foundations of the old east end were uncovered, but not recorded (4 p133).  The work cost around £2300 (KD 1899).

The only work Billing did at the west end was to open up the tower arch (CB 1863 p38)  Not until 1882 was there a meeting of parishioners to consider plans for the restoration of the tower by ‘Mr Lee’ (B 43 p414), who is identified more fully in the ICBS file as J S Lee.  This is probably the same J S Lee who published an article on the church in SAC in 1883 (see 4) and the repairs were carried out in 1884 (CDK 1886 pt 2 p143) at a further cost of £725 (KD ibid).  The oppressive boarding of the apse roof dates from 1889 (6 p68).  Except the west window, the lower west end was still untouched and in 1895 W Woodward restored this, reopening and replacing the C12 west doorway (ibid p21).  He probably also refaced the brick buttresses with flint (see 1).  A need for more places was met in 1902 by L W Ridge‘s extension north of the chancel (6 p69) and in 1908 T Garratt made plans for decorating the chancel, with new stalls (ESRO Par 480/4/2/6).  He asked in the related correspondence (ESRO Par 480/16/6/1/192) for the plans to be returned if not accepted, so probably the scheme was not carried out; there is no trace of it today.  Subsequently, a vestry was added off the north aisle in 1929 (6 p20) whilst in 1938 W H Godfrey removed the west buttresses and opened up some clerestory windows (ESRO Par 480/4/2/18).  Most recently, the interior was re-ordered in 2006 by J D Clarke and Partners  (architect’s website), when the pews were removed, though it was not until 2010 that the new altar table and font (see below) were both ready.

Fittings and monuments

Altar table: (At west end of chancel) Designed by P Meynell in 2010 with a single curving centre stem, into which one of four seasonally determined fabric panels is set.  It is made of ashwood and is a major feature of the reordering (Artist’s website).  The wooden parts of both this and the font (see below) were made by P West (Church website)
Carving:  St Michael and the dragon, found in two pieces in the churchyard when the south west clerestory window was unblocked (6 p48).  It is a cut down tympanum and may come from the original west doorway.  Similarities to the reliefs of c1125-35 at Chichester cathedral have been noted ( retrieved on 15/4/2013).
2. (Opposite the last) Grotesque head, taken from the nave corbel table of c1200.
Consecration crosses: (On two sides of the tower) Large and of flint.
1. Square with a chamfered underside and cut-away angles.  It is a C19 copy of an original that vanished in 1861 (6 p85).
2. M Howse, 2010 (Artist’s website).  A shallow blue enamelled bowl rests on a gracefully curved wooden stem.
1. (North, north east and east apse windows) J Powell and Sons, 1862 etc (Cash book).  The designer of one is recorded as —- Moberley who probably did most of the others though one of 1865 is given to H Casolani (Hadley list).
2. (South and north apse windows) I A Gibbs and W W Howard, 1882 (BN 43 (1882) p309).
3. (North transept, first window) J Powell and Sons, 1882 (6 p76).
4. (South transept, first and second windows, with window above) Barton, Kinder and Alderson, 1958 ( retrieved on 18/3/2013).  The first and the rose at least are designed by C Knight  (ibid retrieved on 21/3/2014) and all replace glass by W Wailes, 1864 (B 22 p656).
5. (South aisle, west window) A J Dix, 1902 (6 p77).
6. (North east annex, first and second windows) Heaton, Butler and Bayne, c1915-22 (one signed).
7. (North east annex, east window). Heaton, Butler and Bayne, 1924 (ibid p78).
8. (South aisle, first window) C E Kempe, 1903, including St Leonard.
9. (North aisle, third window) Cox and Barnard, 1954 (signed).
Monument: (in tower) C13 stone coffin lid, with floreated cross.


1. W H Godfrey: Seaford Church Tower, SNQ 1 (Nov 1926) p113
2.                        : St Leonard, Seaford, SNQ 13 (May 1950) pp39-40
3.                        : Guide to the Parish Church of Seaford (Sussex Churches no 11), 1949
4. J S Lee: Seaford Church, SAC 33 (1883) pp131-38
5. M A Lower: Memorials of the Town, Parish and Cinque Port of Seaford, SAC 7 (1854) pp73-150
6. J G Taylor: The Parish Church of St Leonard, Seaford, London 1937
7.                    : A Norman Tympanum in Sussex, SNQ 8 (May 1940) pp48-50


1. Plan of church in 1800 by J G Taylor in 6. opp p18
2. Measured plan by J G Taylor (1935) in 6. opp p70
3. Measured plan by W H Godfrey in 2 p39

My particular thanks to Nick Wiseman for the colour photographs of St Leonard’s and for the permission of the vicar, the Rev P J Owen, to display those of the interior.  Information about the parish may be obtained from their website