Friday, 2 July 2010

St Michael, Lewes

Located right on the High Street in Lewes, yet strangely hidden, St Michael's is a fascinating amalgam from different periods, with a distinctive and rare round tower, with a tall shingled spire.


The church dates from the late 12th or early 13th century, the actual date a puzzle as the pointed arches indicate a 13th century, but the round tower is more typical of the 11th or 12th centuries. There are two others of similar design in Sussex. The list of rectors goes back to 1283.

The church was rebuilt in the 14th century with the addition of a south aisle, the arcade of which survives. However, the church suffered badly after the Reformation (Lewes being a fiercely Protestant town) and was semi-derelict by the 18th century.

This necessitated a significant rebuilding in 1748, in which a north arcade was added (or rebuilt) and the south arcade extended - unusually in wood - but in a vaguely matching style. A further rebuilding in 1884 extended the chancel, remodelled the interior and replaced three Georgian windows in the south wall with Gothic versions.

The church

The most distinctive external feature is the tower, now rendered, with a single pointed lancet window, and a later trefoil window above. The tower is adorned with a prominent sculpture of St Michael by Harry Phillips, erected in 1976. The 18th century frontage to High Street is an attractive example of square and knapped flintwork, with two doors, each surmounted by rounded windows, and the three Gothic windows inserted in 1884.

Inside, despite the dark and atmospheric interior, one can clearly identify the distinction between the original 14th century arcade of slender Gothic arches, and the 18th century wooden versions - painted a slightly odd chocolate colour. At the west end of the south aisle is an original lancet window, an equivalent on the north side now blocked and infilled with a Victorian wall painting of St Pancras.

The fittings are of extensive interest. Behind the attractive Victorian font are two brasses, relocated from the floor. The older brass, dated around 1430, is of a knight in full armour, now sadly headless, a lion at his feet. One heraldic shield survives. He may be a member of the extended de Warenne family (who built Lewes castle), possibly John Waryne, a member of the household of Henry IV. Adjacent is a half brass to John Braydforde, (d. 1457) a former rector of St Michael's. His brass has a wonderfully touching expression.

On the north wall, a 16th century classical style memorial to Sir Nicholas Pelham shows him and wife facing in prayer, their ten children as mourners below. He is famous for his defence of Seaford against a French force which had previously sacked Brighthelmstone (modern Brighton). A wonderful inscription on the monument has a play on his name:

His valr's proofe, his manlie virtues prayse;
Cannot be marshall'd in this narrow roome;
His brave exploit in great King Henry's dayes,
Among the worthye hath a worthier tombe.
What time the French sought to have sack't Seafoord,
This Pelham did repel them back aboord.

Opposite are the remains of the monument to George Goring, MP for Lewes, (d. 1601) and on the north wall a brass memorial records the life of Dr Gideon Mantell, (1790-1852), a local doctor, geologist and paleontologist. He discovered first the teeth and then a skeleton of an Iguanadon, now on show in the Natural History Museum, and is credited with helping inaugurate the scientific study of dinosaurs.

There are two paintings, one large 17th century canvas of the Descent from the Cross, possibly by Balucchi, and one of the Madonna and child, thought to be Spanish of 17th century. Finally, the reredos is by celebrated Victorian Gothic architect J L Pearson.

Through a door in the north wall, steep steps (formed from tomb slabs) lead up to the small but tranquil graveyard. A surprising space for the town centre, from the rear there are fine views of Lewes Castle's keep.


The church is normally open during weekdays until 5pm. The church is part of the united benefice that includes St Anne's and St Thomas a Beckett in Cliffe. There is a Sunday Mass at St Michael's at 10.30am.

High Street, Lewes, BN7 1UW

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