A closer look at St Michael and All Angels in Withyham
PUBLISHED: 10:28 12 May 2016 | UPDATED: 10:28 12 May 2016
This richly historic church enjoys impressive views over the Weald. Words by Slawek Staszczuk
The church of St Michael and All Angels in Withyham may not be the oldest around, but it is still rich in history. Its lavish interior houses one of the most important examples of sculpture in the country. Beautifully situated on a rise on the edge of Ashdown Forest, it commands impressive views over the Sussex Weald.
Although the civil parish of Withyham is quite expansive, incorporating a considerable portion of Ashdown Forest, the village itself is tiny and consists of a few houses scattered around the church. Withyham is not mentioned in the Domesday Book, but there is a record of a manor at nearby Backhurst.
The church was first built in the 13th century, but it was completely reconstructed in the following century to accommodate the Sackville chapel. In 1663 lightning struck the tower, the original five bells were melted and the church was mostly destroyed by the blast and the ensuing fire. It was rebuilt by 1672 – there is a sundial with this date on the south porch – and the Sackville chapel reconstruction was finished in 1680. In the 19th century the church was enlarged, its north arcade removed and the south aisle added.
Today St Michael’s is a Grade I-listed building. Services are held every Sunday; the church has a permanent choir and a qualified organist. The belfry now has a peal of eight bells.
The interior is a veritable treasure trove. In the south aisle there is a series of scenes from the Passion of Christ. The 14th century paintings by Niccolò di Pietro Gerini were donated to the church by Edward John Ottley in the mid-19th century. They came from the collection of William Young Ottley (Edward’s uncle) and had probably been acquired in Italy in the late 18th century. Their significance and value were not fully realised until restoration works carried out in 1990s at the Courtauld Institute in London. Consequently, due to potentially harmful conditions and lack of security in the church, they were loaned to Leeds Castle. In 2012 the paintings were sold at a Sotheby’s auction for £950,000. The proceeds from the sale were located in an investment trust, the interest being used to fund maintenance and repairs. Today copies adorn the church and the original paintings are in the hands of a private collector.
There are intricate stained glass windows on each wall, mostly dating from the 19th century. The stone font near the entrance comes from 1666, according to the carving on its side. On the chancel arch is a mural depicting the Last Judgement, which may not be immediately obvious as it is not well preserved, painted in the mid-19th century by the then rector Reginald Sackville-West. Another interesting feature is the sedilia (recessed seats for the clergy) in the south wall of the chancel.
But by far the most remarkable part of the interior is the Sackville chapel on the north side of the chancel.
Curiously, the chapel does not fall under the jurisdiction of the Bishop of Chichester, but is privately owned by the illustrious Sackville family, who have been the main landowners in the parish for over 900 years. They can trace their ancestry to pre-Norman times and have had connections to the British monarchy. Many members of the family are buried in the crypt beneath the chapel.
The centrepiece of the chapel is the monument to Thomas Sackville, who died aged 13 in 1675. It consists of life-size sculptures of the deceased boy resting on a tomb and his grieving parents kneeling on either side. Their remaining 12 children, some of whom had also died prematurely, are represented in bas-relief on the sides of the tomb.
The creation of the memorial was entrusted to Caius Gabriel Cibber in 1677. He was a Danish artist who had studied sculpture in Italy and the Netherlands and then moved to England where he enjoyed a very successful career, being involved in such high profile projects as St Paul’s Cathedral and the Monument in London among others. His Italian baroque-inspired memorial in the chapel is considered one of the finest works of art in England.
There are other fine funerary monuments by several renowned English sculptors – John Flaxman, Francis Chantrey and Joseph Nollekens – commemorating members of the Sackville family who passed away in the subsequent centuries.
Around the church
Buckhurst Park is a country house and a landscaped park belonging to William, Earl de La Warr, who currently represents the Sackville family. The house was originally built in 1603, but has undergone many alterations over the centuries. The park was laid out by the renowned English landscape designer Humphry Repton in the late 18th century.
Also within the estate, to the south of the park, lies the Five Hundred Acre Wood, the real-life archetype for the Hundred Aker Wood in the Winnie-The-Pooh stories by A.A.Milne, who was a resident of the neighbouring village of Hartfield.
Withyham does not have any shops, but there is a country pub, the Dorset Arms, which is an interesting building in and of itself. Built in the late 16th century, it became a public house in 1735. Being part of the Buckhurst Estate, the pub has also belonged to the Sackville family through the centuries. It is in fact named after the Earls and Dukes of Dorset, titles held by the heads of the family.
Across the road from the pub is a small B&B, Dorset House.
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