Saxon Churches in Sussex
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St Helens - Hangleton Photo Tour 2002

Hangleton History

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Listed Grade 2, St Helen's has parts variously dated to Late Saxon to Early Norman, It does not feature in Domesday, but certainly was in existence by 1093. The Tower was added c. 1300 along with a re-modelling of the Chancel.

The decline of the village after the black death in the mid 14th C. to a population of less than 100 which level  remained until the 20th C. was probably responsible for saving St Helen's from the Victorian 'restorers'. Today much of the medieval fabric remains, the inside having more changes to make a living building more suitable for today's worship, while retaining a few original features.

Much repair and restoration has been done in recent years, the 1960's north vestry has flint walls to match the original construction materials. After water damage in the 1950's, which lifted layers of lime wash, lead to several layers of medieval wall paintings being uncovered and stabilized. 

The Church being in an urban area is normally locked, access can be made by arrangement with the parish office.

Parish Website

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HANGLETON : The Church without a Village

By the Rev. NOEL E. C. HEMSWORTH (Rector)

The old church of Hangleton is in need of a root, and those entrusted with its care are making an appeal to provide this necessity. They regard this little Downsland church on the bare hillside as a precious heritage, but they are happy in the knowledge that many outside the parish feel its curious appeal and are led not infrequently to worship there. This old church, standing solitary four square to wind and weather crowning the heaving Downs as if in triumph at its persistence, fits the place, and men react to what they feel is holy ground. 

LIKE most old churches, St. Helen's, Hangleton, has lessons for the archaeologist, but the ordinary man can readily notice several interesting features. The large unsplit flints arranged in herring-bone fashion to form the walls at once arrest the visitor's attention. These flints were found on the spot, as the district is full of them, though the stone dressings and framings had to be brought from other districts. Walls, four feet in thickness, plainly speak of storm and tempest. The church consists of nave and chancel with a fine square embattled western tower, in the south base of which two heads of knights are carved in the fabric just below the embattlement. Inside the building there are remains of a holy water stoup and an old alms cupboard shows in the east wall. Five stout but much worn oak tie-beams, which join the walls, are conspicuous, and the sloping of the brick floor from east to west is a rather unusual feature.

The churchyard, which is in good demand as a burial place for non-parishioners, contains the rather ornate tomb of Dr. Kenealy, famous as the defender of the claimant in the Tichborne case of fifty years ago. The earliest known tombstone, which is in the aisle, is dated 1749.

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The nave of the present church may go back a thousand years to Saxon times. It may have replaced a primitive structure reared by British Christians, which would carry us back to Roman Britain. The choice of the patron saint, St. Helen, is, to say the least, suggestive. St. Helen, who married Constantius, and became the mother of Constantine the Great, is said to have been a British woman, born in Gloucester. She embraced Christianity and was venerated for her piety. Why was Hangleton Church, probably built by Saxon workmen, dedicated to a British woman? It is a most remarkable selection. Hangleton village is supposed to have lain on the track of an old Roman road passing from the port of the Adur (Portus Adurni) to the Devil's Dyke. This is probably true. Relics of a Roman villa have been found at a spot a few hundred yards from the church, and silver coins of Germanicus and Valerian were dug up not far distant. Moreover, in the adjoining village of Portslade, which was the stade, or flat piece of ground by the port, there is an old roadway in the line between Hangleton and Southwick still known as the Drove. Drove roads were long cross-country tracks along which cattle were driven. As generations of drovers used them, there is no saying to what antiquity they may reach back.

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In Roman times, it must not be forgotten, Britain was very prosperous. The south was well populated and agriculture was carried to such a pitch that quantities of grain were exported. Such a village as Hangleton could grow corn and rear cattle, and the proximity of the Adur supplied a convenient point for export, and it is possible that this village had been Christianised. Christianity came into England from France, and the Britons of what is now Sussex, trading regularly with their Gallic neighbours, would become familiar with Christian teaching and in some districts would accept it. The building of a church would naturally follow, and in such a case the choice of St. Helen for their patron would be most popular. But the heathen Saxons under Ella and his son Cissa invaded Sussex in 477, and if a Christian church stood then in a British village at Hangleton it was most likely in ruins or serving as a barn by the year 500. This, however, might not have meant the complete extinction of Hangleton Christianity, for though the Saxon invaders would drive out or kill most of the natives, some would be captured and retained. Individuals among these could secretly cherish their faith and even teach it to their children. So that when Wilfrid, the apostle of Sussex, found himself here about the year 700, he might have found much to encourage him, even to the extent of meeting fellow Christians.

There is roughly a break of 200 years during which paganism flourished, but this interval is not enormous, and in particular cases might be covered by three contiguous lives. A man of eighty who, as a child, knew his octogenarian grandfather who, in his turn. shared a similar experience, would bridge the gap and make it possible for Wilfrid's missionaries to have fanned the embers of the faith into the flame which illuminated Hangleton during the subsequent centuries and is still burning clearly. The remnant of the old primitive building which had honoured the British saint, restored and enriched, would serve the Saxon converts for a time until their faith demanded a more fitting shrine for St. Helen, and their zeal expressed itself in the craftsmanship of the present nave. Later on they built a chancel and the tower, added about the fourteenth century, completed the building which the Hangleton people are so anxious to preserve.

If the question of the church's age be found intriguing, the problem of its isolation is equally perplexing. To-day, save for two modern buildings, the church stands alone. What has become of the ancient village which this church served?

The writer of an anonymous pamphlet, entitled "St. Helen's, Hangleton" (1902), completely disposes of the mystery by stating, without any 'qualification, that the village was destroyed by a disastrous fire caused by lightning on May 31st, 1666. If we can accept this the problem is solved, but there seems to be no authority for the statement, and the writer gives none. We know that the parsonage at Hangleton was burnt down that night, for the record is given at the commencement of the Portslade Register, which reads: "Through the sacred Providence of Almighty God the old Church Register of Portslade was burnt by Lightening together with ye Parsonage House of Hangleton on Thursday 31st of May between 4 and 6 morning 1666, John Temple clerke being ye Rector thereof." This entry makes no mention of the village. If the village perished with the parsonage the omission would be extraordinary. Moreover, it would be reasonable to expect that such a disaster would leave its mark on the neighbouring districts and that, in a bookless age, during the nights of winter, when the largest fires were lit, fathers would relate it to their sons. It does not, however, appear that the adjacent village of Portslade, whose vicar is a rector in Hangleton, is possessed of any such tradition. In an instructive History of Hangleton, contributed to the Sussex Archaeological Society in 1886, the writer, Mr. Charles Clayton, considers it possible that the Black Death, which appeared in England about 1348, or some similar pestilence, exterminated the village; but there is no reference in support of this theory.

For the solution of the question we must consider the facts which are indisputably attested. On the north-east side of the church, about a hundred yards distant, there are a number of grass-covered mounds which are supposed to cover the remains of the old dwellings. Domesday Book makes mention of it as Hangetone and gives the population as 57 beside the lord, William of Wateville. No fewer than fourteen variations of the name have been collected from different references, the last one in 1646 appearing as Angleton, which would appear to indicate that the place possessed some importance. But, in 1603, we encounter a decisive piece of evidence. In a reply to the Bishop of Chichester as to the condition of the parish the rector states : " In this parish of Hangleton whereof I am parson the whole place consisteth of but one house and there are about sixteen communicants."

This statement is convincing. It clears the ground. The village had already disappeared in 1603 and therefore could not have perished in the fatal fire which devoured the old parsonage 63 years later.

This document does not stand unsupported. In 1724 a similar return gives the number of families as five, and adds that there has been no communion within living memory, and also that the parsonage house had been destroyed by lightning many years before. Here again it will be noticed there is no reference to the village having shared a similar fate.

The village had gone by 1603. Did the Black Death cause its disappearance? This plague devastated England in 1347-8 and recurred a few years later. As, however, the tower of Hangleton Church was constructed about this period, that is at the least presumptive evidence of the existence of a populated village at the time.

The explanation after all is perhaps quite simple. The village may have gradually dwindled through the young men leaving it for mere profitable work. It could have happened naturally enough in the 16th century when men's minds were so strongly stirred after centuries of repose. The invention of printing with its consequent spread of knowledge, the discovery of America, and the great changes in religious thought, all exerted a strong influence. The spirit of adventure may have reached the youth of this quiet hamlet and sent them east or west. Then as the old died off none filled the gaps. So the old places, empty, uncared for, could pass one by one with few to notice and none to make record.

The old village has gone but u new one comes: for already the lonely sentinel on the Downs can see the battalions of Hove advancing, and within a few years St. Helen's, in a ripe and vigorous old age, may be called on to manifest activities far beyond any demanded of her in the strength of her youth.

From Sussex County Magazine 1929 Page 799

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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 .