Sidlesham – St Mary Our Lady

The nave and transepts are early C13, with a C16 tower.  The chancel was removed, probably in the C17 and because later restoration was slight, many post-Reformation alterations remain.

Sidlesham church is down a short lane off the Chichester to Selsey road, by some thatched cottages.  As built, it was large for the area and was cruciform, with a chancel, transepts that are lower and aisles.  Though there is now no crossing, the inscriptions ‘Chancel Boundary 1814’ at the east end of each arcade may record the removal of an arch across the nave (1 p151), but more probably mark the boundary for formal, legal purposes to do with ownership after the actual chancel had been removed.  As a consequence of this removal, the church has a T-shaped plan.

Despite later alterations, surviving details leave little doubt that the church dates from c1200 or soon after.  Of the chancel, nothing remains, but one can reasonably be assumed to have been part of this build.  The east wall of the north transept contains two blocked arches of c1200 and one is complete.  Their moulded heads, the round Purbeck marble pier and moulded capital recall work at Chichester cathedral, as do other churches in the vicinity.  The detail looks later than the rest of the transepts, but probably dates from the same time.  Godfrey suggests they opened into an eastern aisle, as at Sompting (ibid).  There are signs that the south transept slightly predates the north one, though not by much, particularly a fragmentary arch in the east wall of slightly earlier appearance, which may have led to a chapel.  Further evidence comes from the segmental heads of the rere-arches of the long lancets.  There are no arches from the transepts into the presumed crossing, but those into both aisles are of about 1200, with inner orders on conical corbels.  Their similarity is another argument for both transepts dating from much the same time.

The lancets in the aisles have low sills, all of which are blocked except two to the south; until recently so was the south doorway.  Above the present north doorway is the segmental head of the C13 one.  The detail of the arcades is slightly later than that of the transepts, showing that as was usual, the church was built from east to west.  They are larger than similar ones in the area, with round piers and abaci on spurred square bases and double-chamfered heads.  The roofs are mostly plastered, but the visible timbers are probably also C13, with the exception of the hipped roofs of the transepts, which are likely to be post-Reformation.  The nave roof, which has tiebeams with inward curving braces near the edge, is unusual.

The church as it was completed in the C13 appears to have had a short life for it was the subject of alterations from the C14, the date of the opening of the east window in the south transept.  Despite the removal of the chancel, evidence of C15 alterations to the eastern parts remains.  Thus, the main east window was put together from two C15 ones, probably when the chancel was removed.  Its lower part consists of a three-light square-headed one and above it is the panelled top of a three-light one.  Assuming there was originally a crossing, possibly with a tower, it could have been removed around this time and would have had to be gone by the early C16, as this is the date of the plain west tower.  There are also possible implications for the date of the removal of the chancel, though a post-Reformation date is generally preferred (see below).

The tower has diagonal buttresses and a blocked, pointed west doorway.  This may contain re-used C13 stones, together with a reset head above, perhaps from a former west doorway.  The west window is a modern replacement, but the uncusped bell-openings, variously single and paired, and big plain battlements are typically C16.  The plastered four-centred tower arch is probably of brick and is in two stages, as if a gallery was always intended.

One of the oblong brick aisle windows with wooden frames bears the date 1596 on the inside.  The chancel is mentioned as extant but in need of repair in the survey of 1602 (SRS 98 p121) and the Sharpe collection drawing (1805) shows it gone but the precise date for this is unrecorded. It probably happened in the late C17, for the earliest recorded burial on the site in what had become part of the churchyard is 1719 (VCH 4 p213).  The composite east window is set in a recess inside, which is too narrow to have been the chancel arch and has a brick head.  Outside, it stands proud of the wall under a brick gable.  Perhaps around the same time a lean-to structure was added east of the north transept, entered by a segment-headed doorway in the blocked east arcade.  Probably a vestry, Quartermain drew it in 1860 ((W) p244), but it has now gone.  The north transept has a hipped roof today but on the Sharpe drawing it is shown with a north gable, so the alteration may have been part of the work of 1814.  This work may have lasted longer, for according to Sir Stephen Glynne who visited the church in 1862 (SRS 101 p254) it was ‘smartened up and re-pewed’ in 1817.  This is close enough to the date of the known work of 1814 to suggest it belonged to the same intervention.

The brick north porch and segment-headed doorway are late C18.  The inscription of 1814 already noted may indicate that further work was done then and this could have included two dormer windows in the south aisle for a gallery, which are obviously early C19.  The only consequence of plans for an extension by J Butler in 1840 (ICBS) may have been an increase in the seating, whilst a restoration by L W Ridge in 1890-91 (WSRO Par 173/4/14) cost under £500, so it had to be modest.  He removed the galleries (though there is still a west gallery for the organ), repaired the arcades and roofs and opened up or replaced the aisle windows.  The west window of the tower with reasonably accurate geometrical tracery dates from 1932 and there were repairs in 1963 by E B Tyler of Tyler and Dixon (ICBS).  Most recently, the church was adapted to provide disabled access, most notably by unblocking the south doorway and in 2016 a free-standing annex designed by J Jones-Warner was added (practice website).

Fittings and monuments

Aumbry: (In recess for the east window) A segment-headed recess looks like an aumbry, but it is unlikely that one was inserted in the C17 or C18, when the present east end was built.
Chest: A fine wooden chest with traceried front, which looks C14 and was illustrated by Horsfield (II p42), is now missing.
Font: Worn, square marble bowl, with carved rosettes and what may be human figures.  It rests on five shafts, the four corner ones with capitals and bases.  The form of the latter is early C13 so the font represents the latest development of this type, found so frequently in Sussex.
Grille: (Across north transept) This looks C17 or C18 and is probably linked with a vanished monument.
Monument: (East wall) Rebekah Taylor (d1631).  She kneels, facing her husband across a desk, but his name and details were never added to the inscription.
Paintings: (In the blocked north lancets and doorway) C13 decorative work.
1.  (East wall of north transept) Tall C14 ogee-headed and probably reset.
2.  (South transept) Plain C14 pointed.


1.   W H Godfrey: St Mary, Sidlesham, SNQ 6 (Feb 1937) pp151-52


Measured plan by W H Godfrey in VCH 4 p214

My thanks to Joanna Chivers, Director of Music of the church, who has updated this entry and has also drawn attention to the organ, which is by G E Holditch and comes from the chapel of St Luke at the Radcliffe Infirmary, Oxford. She also drew my attention to the unusual, possibly unique, form of dedication.