2. History of The Church


As you walk into this beautiful Grade II* Parish Church, we hope you will take time to enjoy its many historic and contemporary features.  These equip this building to serve the present generation.  The general consensus is that the church dates from the early 11th Century and is therefore Saxon in origin.  Worship has taken place here since those early times.

Originally the church was much smaller and probably not as large as the present nave.  It would have been simple and bare with few creature comforts.  There were possibly rough hewn benches around the walls for the elderly and infirm to rest.  It was built on rising ground to emphasise its importance to the local community.  It is doubtful any of the fabric of the original church remains, although there may be some traces in the north wall.

Plan of the Church

Rottingdean – ‘the valley of Rota’s people’ – was one of the prizes which fell to William of Normandy when he invaded England in the eleventh century.  There was already a settlement here with a church.

The Christian faith was spreading rapidly throughout England, and there would have been a group of people who wanted their own church building.  It was in this building where mass could be celebrated, baptisms take place, marriages blessed and loved ones buried.  The village community would have been much smaller in those times and the church became their meeting place.  We may never know the details of these people, but we do know enough to allow us to imagine how the erection of the first church might have taken place.  There would have been an architect with his ideas and plans and it was all brought to life by the skill of workers, such as, stone masons and joiners.  The building would have risen slowly.  As well as the paid workers, volunteers would have given their time from whatever was left after their daily toil on the land.  Despite being by the sea, Rottingdean has always been a farming community and not a fishing village.  Whilst the men worked the land their women folk would keep house, raise and care for the children and watch over domestic animals.

The able bodied would have been called upon to dig the foundations which was no easy task in this area of the East Sussex coastline with its chalk and flint.  Craftsmen would be called upon to carve the stone; blacksmiths to make iron bars and locks for the heavy wooden door which would be made by a master carpenter.   There would be those who would prepare food for the workers and possibly a jug of ale. 

In the years immediately following the Conquest, the Normans displayed a great zeal for church building.  They built to impress.  In every village where they settled, their influence is evident and their work may be observed in a very large number of Sussex churches.  The Norman Lord, William de Warenne, to whom the village of Rottingdean and the adjoining land was granted, at once set about improving the church.  About the year 1100 AD he erected a tower on the site of the Saxon chancel where the present tower now stands and built a new chancel beyond it; two transepts of similar dimensions were also added.  The tower and transepts were built askew to the nave while the chancel was sited approximately in line with it.  The curious irregularity of design may have been due to faulty planning or site difficulties or as some prefer to believe, the architect’s intention was to make his cruciform Church conform to the assumed position of Christ on the Cross.  This shape has been preserved in subsequent rebuilding and is very noticeable when viewed from either the west door or the sanctuary rail.

There are distinct indications on the north wall of the nave and chancel that some great calamity befell the early Norman Tower within a century of its erection.  Probably it was caused by one of the tremendous gales that occasionally swept in from the sea.  The tower had been erected with comparatively thin walls and the shallow foundations of the Saxon chancel would not have resisted the fury of the wind, and thus fell, carrying with it parts of the adjoining walls.

The present tower, with its typically Sussex capped appearance dates from 1200 AD and is a replacement for the original.

The 1100 Century tower when it collapsed appears to have demolished the two transepts and a good part of the Chancel.  While the tower and Chancel were in due course rebuilt, the transepts were abandoned.

Parts of the foundations of the south transept were uncovered in the course of digging operations in 1909.  Owing to the large number of graves on both sides of the north and south of the tower, it has not been possible to make a full examination of either of these sites.

Fortunately today’s tower stands tall, because of the work carried out in the year 1200 AD.  Its massive walls, which are over four feet thick and flanked by strong buttresses, have been able to survive the storms.  It stands today as it has stood for over 810 years, a monument indeed to the constructive skills of the Early English builders.

In 1377 the building suffered severely in the course of a raid by a party of French pirates landing at the ‘Gap’ on the coast at Rottingdean, the only break in the cliffs for many miles.  They plundered and fired the village and many of the villagers fled to take refuge in the Church.  Sadly this was to no avail.  The French proceeded to set fire to the Church, the villagers were burnt alive and the fabric was left half in ruins.  The side aisle and roof of the nave, together with the west wall were totally destroyed.  Many of the flints in its inner walls were fractured from the intense heat, and the stonework of the arches and windows given that peculiar pink and grey colouring which is there for you to observe this day.