Why exactly was St Andrew's Church built?

LAST weekend I was asked to provide some guided tours of Alfriston for their 'Comforts and Joys' event.

The rain held off for most of the weekend and the shops, tea-rooms and pubs were busy despite the flooding of a few days earlier.

Many people enjoyed a ride around the village in a cart drawn by two huge but docile shire horses and I was fascinated by the model railway layout with trains running through a model of Alfriston High Street!

There is much to see in the village, including a small history display upstairs at the marvellous Old Post Office Stores (is there anything they don't sell?) but whenever I visit the village I am always drawn to St Andrew's Church, the massive cruciform shaped building on the Tye.

The church stands on a circular, possibly man-made mound, which indicates that it was built on a pre-Christian place of worship. It is a huge church that is much too large for the three hundred or so villagers, who would have lived in Alfriston when it was built in the 1370s.

And here lies a mystery: why exactly was the church built? That is not as daft a question as it seems to be. You see, most old churches in the country are built in one of two ways. Firstly, they are community churches, built up over hundreds of years, with a chapel added here and aisle added there, a mixture of architectural styles usually culminating with heavy Victorian 'restoration'. Alternatively, they are built in one go by a sponsor, usually the Lord of the Manor who would have a large tomb inside.

St Andrew's is one of the latter churches, built in one go – but the mystery is: who for? There was no Lord of the Manor in Alfriston and the interior of the building has no grand tombs or memorialss. There are not even any old church records to give us a clue.

So when you enter the church and stand under the central tower, where the bell ringers stand in full view of the congregation every Sunday, you see around you a church virtually unaltered in 600 years. There is no big tomb or memorial to show us who the donor was. The largest memorials are in the north transept. These are to the Chowne family who lived at the Burnt House on the Seaford Road. Thomas Chowne was MP for Seaford for a few months in 1702 and from 1710 to 1713 representing the Tory interest.

At the east end of the church to the right of the altar is a sedilia; stone seats for the priest, the deacon and sub-deacon, and nearby a piscina where the priest would have rinsed the chalice and paten after mass. For some reason the architectural historian Nikolaus Pevsner thought that these were 'very odd indeed' although they look fine to my untrained eye.

Opposite, on the north wall of the chancel is an Easter Sepulchre, which compliments the sedilia. An Easter Sepulchre was where the Blessed Sacrament was kept from Good Friday until Easter Sunday.

Most of these were wooden temporary structures, but here at St Andrew's it was permanent, one of only three that remains in East Sussex. It is decorated with carved corbels on each side; one depicting a dog biting his own tail and the other, the head of a woman with a deep scar.

This woman is surely our local Saint Lewenna who I have previously written about. She was martyred in the 6th century for her religious beliefs. I believe her shrine was probably at St Andrew's Church, Bishopstone although the church guide at Alfriston suggests that she was actually entombed here. It is most likely that although Lewenna was buried at Bishopstone she would have been revered at all local churches, including here at Alfriston.

The church would have once been brightly coloured with murals. A local historian wrote in 1895 that she remembered seeing murals of a soldier and a priest on the north wall of the nave and other records show that there was once a painting of doom and one showing St Catherine and her wheel.

These have sadly now disappeared apart from a small red consecration cross to the left of the altar.

Consecration crosses were used when a church was either built or rededicated and there would have been twelve inside and twelve outside at the time when the bishop consecrated the church. At St Leonard's Church in Seaford three flint consecration crosses can be seen under the clocks of the tower.

Another connection between St Andrew's and St Leonard's is that they both have stained glass windows by Charles Eamer Kempe (1838-1907), the celebrated local artist. The window showing St Leonard at Seaford and the Jesse window in the south transept at Alfriston both have his trademark wheat-sheaf in the lower left hand corner.

If you are doing your Christmas shopping at Alfriston do take a few minutes to visit St Andrew's Church on the Tye or even try to attend a service there over the Christmas period.