The white-washed St Botolph’s Church in Hardham, West Sussex, was almost certainly built before the Conquest. It is dedicated to a Saxon saint (the 7th century fenland St Botolph) and has a traditional square east end, rather than a more Romanesque rounded end that is more typical of churches built after the Conquest. Its date is probably around 1050.
The church is as simple as can be imagined. There are two rectangular rooms: to the west, a larger nave and, to the east, a smaller chancel. They are connected inside by a plain unmoulded chancel arch. Tiny arched windows appear high up in both spaces. Lancet windows were added in the nave in the 13th century; simple windows were added in the chancel in the 14th century. A shingled bell-turret and a small porch (masquerading as Norman with its dog-tooth stone-carving) were added in the Victorian age. As is typical of ancient churches, successive burials have lifted the surface of the graveyard up higher than the building’s foundations. The place is atmospheric enough as it is.
The medieval wall paintings
It is inside where this simple church becomes truly exceptional for every wall is covered with frescoes dating from the beginning of the 12th century. They were painted onto fresh plaster using locally-available pigments: red and yellow ochre, lime white and carbon black. They are among the earliest medieval wall paintings in England and, as the excellent Hardham PCC booklet available in the church itself says, “form one of the most complete schemes of medieval paintings in the country”. Some 40 individual subjects survive, albeit terribly faded and very difficult to ‘read’. They are thought to be the work of a single travelling workshop of artists who belonged to the Cluniac priory of Lewes. Other, similar, wall paintings exist in the Sussex churches at Clayton, Coombes and Plumpton.
The Hardham paintings were discovered in 1866. Several attempts have been made since then to preserve - or conserve - the paintings. These included coating them with size and varnish or with wax. This has unfortunately caused them to darken or to make the underlying plaster blister. Moisture and salt damage have also played their part in erasing the impact that the paintings now have.
The paintings are arranged in two horizontal tiers throughout, one above the other. In the nave, the west wall shows the Torments of the Damned. The north shows Nativity scenes above, with a still vivid scene of St George, probably victorious at the first Crusade battle of Antioch. On the south wall are more Nativity scenes. On the east wall, surrounding the chancel arch are scenes of the Baptism, Christ with the Doctors, the Annunciation and the Visitation.The angel descending, as if a plunging bird, is especially powerful. In the chancel, on the north are Elders and Apostles, the Betrayal and the Last Supper. On the east wall, Christ in Glory and Entombment. On the south wall, are more Elders and Apostles. On the west wall, Eve is milking a cow, a Temptation and Adam and Eve which one could most reasonably accept as inspiration for Matisse and Picasso.
[These frescoes are extremely faded and very difficult to ‘read’. For four of these photographs, marked with an asterisk (*), I have increased the visible contrast to help accentuate the detail.]
Exceptional though Hardham Church is, the existence of medieval wall paintings in churches and secular buildings was common. Indeed, it is thought that most church interiors in England were originally painted with extensive decorations. Such images played a key role in conveying the Christian message for a largely illiterate society. The Protestant Reformation in the mid-16th century obliterated most of these images. The Civil War removed most of what survived. If the plaster on (or in) which they sat wasn’t simply hacked off walls, then lime-wash was used to obliterate them. It is only in recent years that surviving traces have been uncovered.
English Heritage has recently launched an appeal to help fund the restoration of these precious images. In their own words, this restoration will be “like drawing back the curtain on the lives of those who shaped who we are”.
Hardham Church’s anchorhold
As if Hardham church is not special enough, there is documentary evidence that an anchoress, thought to be a woman named Myliana, was walled up in a cell attached to the outside of the south wall of the chancel. (In the second photograph, above, you can see an uneven smudge in the masonry to the left of the lancet window on the right of the building, marking where this cell originally was.) Her occupancy of the cell is thought to have been in the middle of the 13th century. A narrow slit - or squint was provided for her to view the altar and receive communion. From the outside, a further opening was provided on the outside through which could be passed food, going inwards, and a chamber pot, going outwards. This existence was a devotional one, not unlike that of a hermit, with the difference being that an anchorite was permanently anchored to the same place. This cell was subsequently occupied by a Prior Robert who died in situ in 1285. [Anchorite is the masculine form of the noun, anchoress is the feminine form and anchorhold is the noun that refers to the cell in which they live(d).]
The Hardham Church yew tree
There is a photograph in Horsfield’s History of Sussex, Vol. II, page153, which shows an enormous yew tree to the south of the church. E.A. Fisher’s The Saxon Churches of Sussex, page 129, mentions this, including the claim that the tree was large enough to shelter 27 people inside its hollow trunk. Its girth 1 foot about ground was 21 feet. Its top was blown off in a storm in 1824 and the tree was cut down some time after 1832.
Yew trees are notoriously difficult to age because of the tendency that their trunks have of becoming hollow. The naturalist Richard Mabey discussed this in episode 1 of the second season of his BBC Radio 4 programme Mabey in the Wild. He believes that there is strong evidence that many of England’s churchyard yew trees pre-date the churches that they now adjoin. The presence of a yew tree could well have been motivation enough to build a church alongside it. Their great age would have been considered likely to ensure long-lasting protection and blessing. Indeed, the habit may have developed to build north of a yew tree so that when the dead were carried out of a church’s south door, they would have been carried to their graves beneath these venerable trees. At Hardham, the south door is now blocked up, but it did exist and would have opened onto the ancient yew. The Tree-Ring website, listed below, considers that a yew tree with a girth of 7 metres might well be as old as 1,600 years, fitting this narrative in the Hardham graveyard almost perfectly. Given that Kingley Vale, a Site of Special Scientific Interest west of Hardham by a half hour’s car ride, has several yew trees acknowledged to be over 2,000 years old, this seems to be a perfectly reasonable estimate.
- Churches in Sussex, Hardham, a on-line version of Philip Mainwaring Johnson’s 1901 article from the Sussex Archaeological Society’s Collections, dated 1901, photographs of which hang in the north-west corner of the nave. This article also shows Horsfield’s photograph of the yew tree mentioned above.
- Churches in Sussex, Hardham 1978, an account of building work done on the church in 1978, showing the squint used by the anchorite to view the alter.
- A Wikipedia article on anchorites.
- Tree-Ring Services: yew tree age estimates.
- Mabey in the Wild: Yew, Sycamore and Ash, BBC Radio 4.
- The Saxon Churches of Sussex, E.A. Fisher; David & Charles, 1970.
- The excellent pamphlet St Botolph’s Church, Hardham,West Sussex: The Wall Paintings, Hardham PCC, 2017, available to buy within the church.
- The Buildings of England: Sussex, Ian Nairn and Nikolaus Pevsner; Penguin Books, 1973.