Coombes West End

Saxon Churches in Sussex
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The West End of Coombes Church

The small
flint church of Coombes comprises its original early Norman nave, and chancel widened in the thirteenth or fourteenth century, and contains notable Romanesque and later wall paintings. Some architectural features at the exterior of the west end (Plate Ila) still require satisfactory explanation. First, the nave north wall continues beyond the present west wall-projecting some 4 ft (1.22 m) at ground-level, though tapering sharply into the west wall above-while on the south side, on the other hand, there is a neat brick quoin at the junction of the south and west walls; second, there are two lines of quoins built into the west wall, at about 2 ft (0.76 m) from either end, that on the north being at the angle formed by the projecting north wall; and, third, in the centre of the west wall is an unusual, large round-headed window, its sill only inches above ground-level. Two nineteenth-century writers might seem to throw some light on this state of affairs at the west end: Cartwright (1832) records that the church was `formerly rather longer than it is at present, being reduced to its present size in 1724';1 and Lower (1870) also states that the church was `reduced in size' in 1724.2 More modern writers have varied widely in their interpretation of the features at the west end: Godfrey (1936) again stated that the church had been reduced in size, and also suggested that it `probably had originally a west tower';3 Poole (1948) argued from the two lines of quoins in the west wall that an original Saxon nave had been widened by about 2 ft on both sides in the early Norman period;4 Steer (1966) considered that it `would seem reasonable to suggest' that the nave had been `widened or entirely rebuilt', but proposed that the west wall was of fifteenth-century date, and stated that there was `no proof' that the church had been shortened in 1724;5 Fisher (1970) rejected the theory that the church had been widened, but accepted that it was shortened in 1724, `evidently due to the pressure of the rising ground outside', and that the west wall was rebuilt then .6

It can now be stated with certainty that the church was indeed shortened in 1724, or soon thereafter, and also that Godfrey was right in proposing that it once had a west tower. The evidence for this is of two kinds. First, an estate plan of Coombes, by Robert Whitpaine, dated 1677, now in the possession of Mr. Dick Passmore of Church Farm, Coombes, and which has only become known in recent years, includes a small perspective drawing of the church, showing it with a square west tower with a pyramidal roof (Plate IIb).7 The reliability of this evidence for the existence of a tower can hardly be doubted; the remainder of the church, as shown in the drawing, is recognisably that which we still see today, with its east end towards the village, an unbroken roof-line over nave and chancel, the south porch in its correct position, and perhaps even with one of the large Perpendicular windows in the chancel south wall. Confirming the evidence of the drawing is an entry in the inspection book of Chichester diocese of 1602, and another entry in the inspection book of 1724 ('Bishop Bowers' Visitation').8 The 1602 entry reads: `the steeple is a littell faltie in one place of the healinge';9 and the 1724 entry: `Tower and part of the Church lately falln to be contracted by Leave (as reported) from your Lordship [i.e., the bishop], but when so lessen'd. sufficient to contain more than the Inhabitants, the remaining part in good repair."' Thus, given that the church was shortened c. 1724, it would seem reasonable to date at least part of the present west end-most probably the large central window, and indeed perhaps the entire west wall--to that time. The fragment of north wall which still protrudes must have belonged to the earlier west end, otherwise demolished. Mr. Passmore informs me that earlier this century this wall still protruded some 8-10 ft. and that the greater part of it was demolished from the top, giving the remainder its present tapering shape. A very short section of wall also extended from the south-west angle, but this was completely demolished, and the present brick quoin inserted. Neither the drawing nor the inspection book entries provide sufficient evidence to date the west tower accurately; however, its appearance in the drawing gives no grounds to suppose that it could not have been medieval, and it may be significant that it bears a general resemblance to the west tower with pyramidal roof which was added in the thirteenth or fourteenth century to the small eleventh-century church in the neighbouring village of Botolphs.

W. D. Park


1      J. Dalloway, with F. Cartwright, A History of the Western Division of the County of Sussex, II, ii, The Parochial Topography of the Rape of Bramber, London, 1830. 112.

2      R. H. Nibbs. The Churches of Sussex, reissued with history and architectural descriptions by M. A. Lower, Brighton, 1972.

3    W. H. Godfrey, at a meeting of the Sussex Archeological Society in the Adur Valley, Sussex Notes and Queries, VI, 1936. 113

4     H. M. Poole, 'The Domesday Churches of Sussex,' Sussex Archaeological Collections, LXXXVII. 1948, 45.

5      F. W. Steer, Guide to the Church of Coombes (Sussex Churches, No. 36), Chichester, 1966, I.

6     F. A. Fisher. The Saxon Churches of Sussex, Newton Abbot. 1970, 94f.

7     I would like to thank Mr. Passmore for allowing me to photograph the plan, and also for discussing the west end of the church with me. The plan has previously been published in Deserted Medieval Villages, ed. M. W. Beresford and J. G. Hurst, London, 1971, 47, pls. 3b and 4.

8     I am very grateful to Mr. Timothy Hudson, of the Victoria County History, for pointing out these entries to me, and for providing transcripts of them. I would also like to thank him for commenting on a draft of this paper.

9      W.S.R.O..       Ep. 1/26/1, fol. 1 verso.

10   W.S.R.O., Ep. 1/26/3. fol. 12.


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All presented material is for Private Study Only
Copyright 2002-2010 Martin B Snow. All rights reserved.
Revised: February 20, 2010 .