St Mary's Church, Easebourne - A Family Affair
It was a long time ago that I was baptised in the church of St. Mary's, Easebourne in Sussex. Of course, I don't remember the day, but this was just one of many family events held at St. Mary's over the years. Family baptisms, marriages, and funerals have come and gone. Grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins.
As the cool days of winter gave way to spring in March 1965, my parents were married here. And then a year and a half later I was baptised over the ancient 12th-century font. Great Uncle Dick is memorialised on the war memorial in the churchyard. In 1996, Matilda May Muller ('Granny Muller') was remembered here before she was carried the short distance up Easebourne Street to the local cemetery. A lifetime of important events tying us to Easebourne, Midhurst and St Mary's Church, regardless of where we ended up.
All these moments are just a brief snapshot of the 900-year history of St. Mary's, Easebourne.
Humble Beginnings - A Small Norman Church
The church of St. Mary's, Easebourne is a small village church with a long history. Its size is a little deceptive, blending as it does with a much larger religious complex - Easebourne Priory. As with most established religious sites, St Mary's church and the priory was built up, neglected and restored many times over its long history, each stage of development being layered one on top of the other. The site started as a small Norman church; fragments of the original walls can still be found in the current church walls.
Establishment of Easebourne Priory
The priory was established around 1248 by the De Bohun family. The De Bohun's owned Cowdray and the surrounding land, having received it from William the Conqueror for services rendered. Ten Benedictine nuns and their Prioress took up residence at the priory during that time.
Development of the priory resulted in many changes to the original church. The site was expanded significantly, and the need to devote space to the nuns for private worship resulted in the creation of two churches within St Mary's. A wall was constructed between the north and south aisles. The north aisle was expanded to compensate parishioners for the space turned over to the nuns. The south aisle was given over to the priory and nuns for private worship.
Even today, with the nuns and the dividing wall long gone there, is a clear difference between one side of the church and the other. The north aisle remains somehow warmer and more welcoming, the south cooler and more austere. As you can see, the altar area has been refurbished with drapery and a warm wood altar. The bright and detailed stained glass window helps bathe the church with coloured light.
By all accounts, the nuns led a colourful existence. There are stories of impropriety which created the need for multiple 'visitations' from church officials who audited and sanctioned the order. Despite these, they continued to inhabit the priory for nearly 300 years until the reign of Henry VIII and the Dissolution of 1535.
A Royal Visitor to St Mary's Church
After the Dissolution of 1535, the nuns were turned out, and the priory was handed over to Sir William Fitzwilliam, the owner of Cowdray. He appears to have used the eastern range as an annexe to Cowdray House. In August 1591 Queen Elizabeth I dined in the priory refectory, during a visit to the estate. Some 350 years later, during the Second World War, the same refectory was used as a dining hall for the local school children. I wonder what Queen Elizabeth I would have made of that? After this, the priory was allowed to fall into neglect. The presbytery roof collapsed, and parts of the building were used as a barn. Despite this, several members of the Montague family were buried on the grounds during the 18th century.
19th and 20th Century Renovations and Reminiscences
In 1876 the new owner of the Cowdray estate, the 7th Earl of Egmont, began extensive restorations to the building. The roof over the presbytery was repaired, and the dividing wall between the former nuns' church and the parishioner's church was taken down. Renovations have continued through the years. Serious infestations of death watch beetle necessitated the replacement of the organ, and a new window was commissioned and fitted through a millennial fund. Despite the changes, St Mary's retains much of its historic charm. As you walk around you, get a sense of the passing of time and the need for anchor points in our lives.
As I stood in front of the altar capturing the daylight breaking through the ancient windows and showering colours on the ancient stone walls, I remembered how this small church anchors large and important parts of my life and family. Even though some of the family have moved far away, St Marys Church still provides a touchstone that invokes memories both hard and easy to resolve. More than that, as I left the church, I ran my hand across the top of the font that I had been baptised over all those years ago. In another family moment, I had not only reconnected with my past but had physically reaffirmed my connection with 900 years of history, pageantry, and the village that is my home from home.