St. Anne’s is a Grade One Listed Norman Church with substantial elements of interest to visiting historians, genealogists, architects, artists, tourists and residents of Lewes.
Built by pilgrim donations, St. Anne's was a significant stop on the medieval pilgrim route from Winchester to Canterbury. St. Anne’s healing well was located opposite and portions of the rare 12th century anchorite cell can still be explored. The unusual Norman basket-weave stone font has been used for over 800 years in baptisms of countless generations of Lewesians. The beamed ceiling dates from the 14th century and is reputedly from the Refectory ceiling of the Lewes Priory. A carved Jacobean pulpit (1620) is still in use. The Arts and Crafts stained glass windows are of note, particularly those by JM Jacobs (1929). A statue of St. Anne and St. Mary by sculptress Karin Jonzen (1990) is on permanent display. The Churchyard also contains some significant memorials of local historical interest in addition to its Grade Two Listed north and east flint walls.
St. Anne’s parish lies outside the old west gate of the town and was also outside the boundaries of the borough of Lewes until 1881. The fact that a stone church of some size was being built here within a century of the Norman Conquest suggests that it already served a thriving community. It formed part of the endowment given by William II de Warenne about 1095 to the priory of St. Pancras, the earliest Cluniac house in England, which his parents had founded south of the town in 1077. Thus the prior and convent of St. Pancras had the right to present rectors until the priory was dissolved in 1537, when the advowson was granted to Thomas Cromwell, reverting to the Crown by 1551.
While St. Anne’s history has been peaceful for the most part, it did witness at close quarters the momentous battle fought in 1264 between King Henry III and Simon de Montfort. Scholarship suggests that the central division of the king’s army was drawn up just to the west of the church to face the attack by De Montfort’s men coming from the downs, and that it was in a windmill immediately west of the church that Richard Earl of Cornwall, the king’s brother, took ignominious refuge when the royal army was forced to retreat.
The church was originally dedicated to St. Mary the Virgin, mother of Jesus, and in 1538 the parish was united with that of St. Peter Westout, closer to the west gate of the town. St. Peter’s Church fell into disrepair and nothing now remains of it apart from a few stones set in a wall in Rotten Row. As early as 1537 St. Mary’s Church was being referred to as St. Anne’s, the mother of Mary, and there is evidence to suggest that the new name derived from an image of St. Anne venerated in the church before the Reformation. The church was closely linked to St. Anne’s Well, a pilgrimage site in medieval times, located opposite the church. By 1820 the name St. Anne was almost always used, but officially the parish remained ‘St. Anne, Lewes alias St. Peter and St. Mary Westout’ until 1975. In 1938 a daughter church was established on the Nevill Estate and dedicated, appropriately enough, to St. Mary. St. Anne’s was the Assize Church for the county of Sussex and now plays the same kind of role hosting the Judges of the Crown Court for annual services. In 1975 St. Anne’s parish was amalgamated with those of St. Michael in Lewes and St. Thomas à Becket and All Saints at Cliffe to form a United Benefice.
The Norman Church
St. Anne’s is the oldest church now remaining in Lewes. The tower, nave and south transept (which contains the Lady Chapel) and the south arcade were all built in the twelfth century, and the main north doorway is also Norman though it has been reset. The nave originally had no south aisle and it is still possible to see, from the western end of the south aisle, one of its original windows above the south arcade. The arcade was added in the late twelfth century and the capitals of the pillars with their ornamentation of carved foliage form one of the chief glories of the church. The arches are pointed except at the eastern end, where the south transept is flanked by two round arches and has a quadripartite rib vault, added when the south arcade was built. Finally, and not least, the Norman inheritance includes the splendid font, richly decorated with a basket-weave pattern, still fulfilling its purpose after more than 800 years. It underwent some restoration in 1925.
The Thirteenth Century and After
The chancel arch is modern but the western half of the chancel was probably built in the twelfth century. It was extended eastwards in the first half of the thirteenth century and the existence of four carved stone corbels, one in each corner, suggests that a vault was intended but, as far as is known, never built. On the north side is a fourteenth century altar-tomb, perhaps an Easter sepulchre, surmounted by a large Purbeck stone slab and a stone canopy. It has been suggested that one or more parts of it may have come from the church of St. Peter Westout
The Anchorite’s Cell
On the south side of the chancel can be seen a small window giving on to the remains of an anchorite’s cell. It had long been known, from a bequest to her in the will of St Richard Wich, Bishop of Chichester 1245-1253, that a female recluse, whose vocation called her to a life of solitary prayer, had been immured (walled in) at St. Anne’s, but the site of her cell was unknown until 1927 when a new vestry was built between the south transept and the chancel, and the remains of her cell were laid bare. There was no evidence to show its exact size, but the window into the chancel, which enabled her to watch services and receive the Sacrament, was revealed, together with her grave, and a hatch connecting with the south transept, through which she could received food. The cell may well have been about the size of the present vestry, perhaps with a small garden attached.
Although the ceremony of enclosure (which may have been performed in the presence of St. Richard himself) carried strong overtones of the burial service, it is not necessary to suppose that the anchorite was completely cut off from human society. She would almost certainly have had a servant to carry food and other necessaries, and would have been able to receive visitors, and might well have been a person of considerable influence in the local community.
A rule of life for anchorites written in England early in the thirteenth century (the Ancrene Riwle) warns against lavish entertainments and too liberal almsgiving on the part of the anchorite, advises her to keep no animals (except perhaps a cat), to wear warm and well-made clothing, and to make and mend church vestments and garments for the poor. St. Richard himself, however, issued a statute in which he warned against contact with any but the most upright of visitors, and preferred that the care of vestments should not be given to a recluse except as a last resort. Prayer was always to be her primary function.
As part of the work carried out in 1927, the Norman east window in the south transept was walled up and a modern painting of St. Richard of Chichester set within it. At the same time the westernmost arch of the arcade, which had been blocked up and used as a vestry, was reopened and a new south doorway put in.
The splendid nave roof with its tie-beams, queenposts and carved raking struts dates from 1538, the time of the union with St. Peter Westout, and the aisle was probably repaired and reroofed at the same time; the chancel roof retains its medieval tie-beams. The Jacobean carved oak pulpit was given in 1620 by Herbert Springett, one of whose descendants married William Penn, the founder of Pennsylvania. The pulpit seems at some time to have been discarded and was retrieved in 1864 from the garden of Southover Grange. Part of it is now in the custody of the Sussex Archaeological Society in Lewes.
To the eighteenth century can be attributed the altar rails, the brass candelabrum and the gallery at the western end, which carries the coat of arms of King George IV, a frequent visitor to Lewes when in residence at the Royal Pavilion, Brighton. This gallery was originally much larger but was reduced to its present extent in 1927.
The Victorian age saw much alteration to windows and outer walls. The east end of the chancel was remodelled in 1843. In 1889 windows of varying dates were removed and replaced with a uniform series of windows of thirteenth century type. No earlier glass survives. The window in the south transept showing St. Mary Magdalen at the tomb, by Capronnier of Brussels, is dated 1889, and was described by Pevsner as “very terrible”! The south aisle windows contain noted representations of the four evangelists by JM Jacobs (1929) and on the northern side are windows showing the Blessed Virgin with St Anne, and the Holy Family. The three windows in the north side of the chancel are the most modern, given in 1987 by a member of the church, and designed by Arthur Buss. They replace windows which commemorated the historian Mark Antony Lower, and which had faded beyond repair. However, the coats of arms of Lower and the Lewes antiquary John Rowe (d. 1639) appear in stained glass in a window in the vestry. The windows behind the altar portray the Crucifixion, surmounted by the pelican “in her piety” and the dove representing the Holy Spirit. The eagle lectern, now located in the Lady Chapel, was carved by a Lewes craftsman and given to the church in 1858.
In the south transept is a statue of St. Anne with St. Mary her daughter as a young child, by Karin Jonzen (1990). The base on which it stands was designed and cut by Michael Renton, and bears a text from the Book of Proverbs (ch31 v.29): Many women have done excellently, but you surpass them all.
A memorial brass in the sanctuary, set in the window sill to the right of the altar, commemorates Dr. Thomas Twyne who practised medicine in Lewes for over thirty years and died in 1613 in his seventieth year. At the head of the brass his coat of arms has a punning crest, an arm grasping two entwined snakes, and below is his epitaph written in Latin verse. He was also a man of letters and, besides other works, he completed the first English verse translations of Virgil’s Aeneid begun by Thomas Phaer and published in 1573.
Among other memorials are a brass on the south side of the chancel commemorating Robert Heath who died in 1681, two tablets on the north wall of the nave to members of the Shelley family, and above the north door a monument to Thomas Lewis, d. 1823, by John Hinchcliffe of London. In the floor of the vestry is the black marble tombstone (originally in the open air) of John Rove (d.1639) the antiquary and his wife Susanna, pleasingly commemorated in a Latin epitaph. The vestry also contains the tomb of the Sussex historian Mark Antony Lower, who died in 1876. Further written materials on St. Anne’s memorials, both within and outside the church, are available upon request.
Hidden from View
The walls of the church are of flint with stone dressings and were much modernised in 1889 when the new windows were installed. However, the north doorway is Norman, as is also the tower which is of flint with several lancet windows. Originally it had no external door, but in 1929 a Norman arch of Caen stone, probably the original south door of the church, was inserted. The buttresses were added in the fifteenth century. It is capped by a shingled spire with a weathercock made by G. Gurr in 1826. Supporting the stone coping of the tower is a series of carved corbels in the form of grotesque heads. There are three bells, two inscribed WILLIAM HVLL MADE MEE 1683. Iohn Smith Thomas Whiskey Church Wardens, and the third, SANCTA KATERINA ORA PRO NOBIS. The roof of the south side of the nave and the south aisle is of carefully graded Horsham slates.
The churchyard contains some interesting headstones. At the western end is a row of twelve cast-iron memorials, or ‘leaping-boards’, to Samuel Medhurst, owner of a local ironworks, and his wife and ten children who died between 1828 and 1887. At the eastern end, close to the lychgate, is a small stone commemorating Litle Benjamin the Ruler who died on 21 August 1747. The form of name seems to derive from the Prayer Book version of Psalm 68, verse 27 (There is Benjamin, the least of them, in the lead…) but the identity of “Benjamin” has aroused much speculation. It has been suggested that he was perhaps a jockey or a gypsy; but the most recent and persuasive theory is that he was Benjamin Ellis, born probably in 1663 and Churchwarden of St. Anne’s in 1719. Perhaps he was notably small of stature.
As with all old churches, there are considerable treasures hidden from view. There is a barrel vault located under the floor of the rear north nave found to contain leather coffins with the bodies of unidentified individuals. An unidentified skeleton is buried in the easternmost wall, behind the altar. Both have been sealed for preservation.