Welcome to St. Peters, Bexhill
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History of St. Peter’s

St. Peters Bexhill: An Historical profile

It is probable that this hill, crowned by the ancient church of St. Peter, was once the site of an Iron Age fort. Pagan Saxon tribes had settled in this whole area in the late 5th century when Pevensey, (called Anderida by the Romans and later named Adredesceaster after their departure) fell to the Saxons in A.D. 490; St. Wilfrid, Bishop of Northumbria, arrived in the land of the South Saxons in A.D. 681, to convert the pagan tribes to Christianity.

Less than a century later, a church was endowed on this hilltop by Offa, King of Mercia; the exact date of this endowment being 15 August 772. On the wall of the tower arch can be seen a copy of the Charter, written in a mixture of Latin and Old English. The bounds of the land, which formed the endowment, can still be traced today. It was only as late as the 1950’s that the last parcel of this land was sold.

During the 300 years of Saxon history, there may have been more than one church on this site. Surviving Saxon work in our Church is sealed behind plaster on the walling between the Norman arches which stand at the western end of the nave. This herring-bone work was uncovered during the Victorian restoration/enlargement of St. Peter in 1878.

The Saxon Church was about 40 feet long by 20 feet wide, measuring from the tower step to the point where the metal bar crosses the Nave roof. The year 1086 saw the first Norman additions to the small Saxon church, with the building of the Tower - substantially the same tower that we see today. It was originally a couple of feet lower, and had no windows. At the same period, the Saxon walls were pierced north and south, meaning that the walling and arcades between the arches are older than the round-topped Norman arches which supported them. Porches were added on both sides.

In a glass case on the south tower wall, is the only other Saxon survivor – a reliquary lid. It is said to have been carved in a Northumbrian monastery early in the 7th century, certainly of north-country stone and was probably brought south by St. Wilfrid, with relics of a Saint. It was presented to St. Peter’s Church for its consecration in 772. Such relics in a suitable box were considered necessary in those days for a proper consecration. There is a theory, but nothing more, that the relics could have been those of Oswald, King and Martyr of Northumbria, who died fighting against the pagan King Penda of Mercia. The battle took place near Oswestry, which means “Oswald’s Tree”. In Welsh this town is Croesoswallt, or “Oswald’s Cross”, tree and cross meaning the same thing.

It is interesting to note that near here, at Hooe, there is an ancient church, dedicated to St. Oswald, which may owe its origins to evangelising by secular clergy based at Bexhill. Anyway our reliquary lid was found under the floor within the Old Saxon church boundaries, during the Victorian restoration of 1878-80.

Also on the opposite wall of the tower, we have an ancient grave-slab dating from the 12th or 13th century, found at the same time as the reliquary lid. It marked the grave of either a crusader or of an unknown benefactor of that time. Also in the tower is our font, made of Derbyshire marble on a base of winkle, or “Sussex Marble”. This is an exact 19th century copy of the original Saxon font, whose well-worn remains have long since vanished. The font cover includes carvings of fish and frogs. High above, on the North tower wall, is the old minstrel-gallery doorway, dating from around c.1450. Nowadays, it allows access to the bell tower (bell chamber)

As time went on, around 1150, north and south aisles were added (not to present dimensions) giving rise to six pillars and four arches, which are with us today. Processional arches in the tower were cut and as processions kept to consecrated ground, so the position of these arches suggests that a public road or track ran outside the tower’s west door at the time. The tall eastern arch of the tower was cut in about 1215, around the time King John sealed the Magna Carta.

Bishop Neville of Chichester did away with the old Norman Sanctuary and built a 40 foot Early English style Chancel, including a priest’s door on the south side and 4 lancet windows. Around 1300, a north doorway was added. Later this was moved to the entrance to the choir-vestry area in 1907. The small nave aisles were lengthened by one bay north and south, the pointed-style “gothic” arches indicating this.

During the 15th century the minstrel gallery appeared in the east end of the tower. This was used by village musicians who accompanied services until about 1811 when the barrel organ was introduced, which can still be seen in the modern Lady Chapel. The barrel organ itself was made redundant in 1881 when the first pipe organ was built.

Also in the 15th century, Small Chapels were added to the sides of the chancel between 1425 and c. 1450. The one on the south side has gone; the opposite one was endowed by Chantry Farm, whose old farmhouse was formally the rectory. Although the Chantry Chapel survived the dissolution of the monasteries under Henry VIII, it fell into disrepair, until late in the 16th century. At this time, the then rector, Dr. Thomas Pye, restored it and turned it into a school, the first in Bexhill. The Chantry Chapel today is home to our war memorial which lists the name of parishioners who lost their lives in WW1 and WW2, and the stained glass that can be seen shows the saints of the Allied countries of WW1.

North and South aisle galleries were put in during the 17th century to accommodate parishioners from the growing village. These galleries remained until the 19th century.

We have one surviving medieval window, now in the north aisle. This 14th/15th century glass has had a chequered past, for it was removed from St. Peters in the 18th century by Horace Walpole, but actually found its way back to St. Peter’s in 1920.

The major restoration and enlargement of St. Peters began in 1878 and continued for some years. This was in the time of Canon Leopold Clark and was in response to (a) the need to halt the decline and dilapidation of the ancient fabric and (b) to increase the size of the church to meet the needs of the growing parish population.

The south aisle was made longer and wider; this meant that the 12th century south wall, south porch and 15th century aisle chapel disappeared. The Chancel was extended by 23 feet; the tower battlements were raised by 2 feet (the flying buttresses were a 15th century addition).

All the old galleries and dormer windows went; the reredos behind the altar, the chancel screen and Lady Chapel screens were added. The tower window stained glass south aisle stained glass, the choir and sanctuary wall, ceiling paintings and the sanctuary “Angel Window” all date from approximately 1878 –1895. The architect for the great restoration was William Butterfield who replaced Ralph Neville’s early 8th century with what we see today; this meant that the 13th century chancel arch had to be moved back one bay to where it is now.

The current north aisle was built in 1907, the prime mover here was Archdeacon Churton; a local butcher put up most of the cost but the congregation was not largely in favour. Our pulpit dates from around the First World War, and is in memory of the Revd. Churton; the lectern is about the same age.

Over the chancel screen is the rood, made by Martin Travers in 1948. On the North side of the nave is a mural painted by Alan Sorrell in 1951. Between 1959 and 1963 the Chantry chapel pillars, arches and timbers were restored, as were the chancel ceiling paintings. These were treated again in 1996. The choir vestry was built in 1965; its roof and that of the north aisle were renovated in 1998.

During the late 20th century the pipe organ was extensively overhauled and the tower bells were re-tuned and re-hung in a new cage. The old 8 bells were made up to 10 and a beautiful new window added to the Lady Chapel, featuring St. Cecilia, Patron Saint of Music.

All our windows today have had to be protected from decay and vandalism; toughened glass has been put into the choir vestry and external grills and windows’ bars have been renewed and extended. Our parks’ and gardens’ team currently maintains the churchyard, which has been closed for burials since the 1890’s. However, there is a substantial Garden of Remembrance, used since 1961, and its extension, for the interment of cremated remains.

The list of Vicars/Rectors of St. Peters appears on a board near the south door and is complete back to the 1300’s. A few early names and approximate dates appear as Saxon records were lost long ago.

If you wish to visit this beautiful and ancient church, our willing team of Watchers and Guiders will be happy to show you around, or if you would like just to drop in for a quiet time, then the Church is waiting to receive you.

Stephen Werrett, December 2000. With acknowledgement and thanks to Bill Sharp, who drew up comprehensive history notes in the mid 1980’s.