Churches in Sussex

Easter Sepulchres

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Observations on Supposed Easter Sepulchres in West Sussex Churches

Recent years have seen a surge in interest in Church Archaeology, many adult education courses now exist to cater for the demand.

Church buildings are merely the meeting places of groups of Christians who actually form the Church. Over time the design and layout of these buildings has evolved to met the changing fashions of the liturgy, a subject far too extensive to cover in a short article. This development is the source of much heated debate between archaeologists and liturgists, but it sells books so no one is in a hurry to resolve the differences.

My subject is one that I had not come across through my many church visits and might not have done so without being encouraged first by Robert Hutchinson and recently David Parsons. There are varying documentary accounts of the form of service, I have summarised these here, I am sure that the details would have varied both by location and over the many centuries involved.

I hope that your appetite is stimulated to go and look at these features and others in this part of our rich heritage. Please remember all the churches mentioned below remain consecrated and are used for regular Christian worship. Not all are normally open to the casual visitor, so be sure and check before travelling.

The origin of Easter Sepulchres in England
For Christians, Easter - that is: the death of Christ and his Resurrection – and the associated celebrations is their main focus of belief.
The early purpose built meeting places of Christians evolved to provide for the regular celebration which came from this main festival: - The Eucharist (Thanksgiving), Mass, Communion or Lords Supper, was instigated by Christ on the night before his crucifixion, at what has become known as the Last Supper.

‘Mass’ was the term used by the medieval church before the reformation, the Roman church continues to use it, but - Anglo-Catholics aside - Protestants prefer to use other terms. The term Mass comes from the Latin dismissal; - mittere – ‘to sent forth’

In the Mass, bread and wine are blessed by the priest as symbolic of the body and blood of Christ. For much of the medieval period until the reformation these ‘elements’ actually became the physical substance of Christ in the doctrine of transubstantiation. This doctrine was established by the Roman church in AD 1215 and restated in AD 1551 it remains a part of Roman Catholic teaching. This doctrine lead to various censures being placed on the treatment of the blessed elements, including that it was not to touch the floor or become ‘soiled’ in any way. This belief led in turn to the develpment of certain fittings, e.g. piscina, aumbry, pyx etc.

The Mass was celebrated with varying frequency in the medieval church. With the growth in the mysteriousness of the liturgy it became increasingly remote from the people who were in time encouraged to commune only once annually - at Easter.

The origin of this mysteriousness might be viewed as an early form of job protection or the very human wish to be more important than the laity, who were most likely illiterate and generally relied on the priest to guide them. In a way he took the place of the tribal leader or local lord. Many parts of the liturgy evolved to meet the demands of the time and various theologians’ ideas, this in turn lead to the developments in the layout and furnishing of the church buildings.

In time only the bread (Host) would be given to the people. The priest though would celebrate daily or perhaps more often where more than one altar was provided. At one time there was a restriction on an altar being used for celebrating Mass more than once a day. Many of the complaints at the Reformation centred on the Eucharist.

At Easter there was a Mass on the eve of Good Friday (Maundy Thursday) when three hosts were blessed. One was used then, the other two were reserved (placed in a container - a pyx – on the Altar or in a wall cupboard, often with a light nearby to signify the presence of God – a red one if hanging, otherwise white) to Good Friday. On Good Friday one was used, the other host was then placed within a pyx into a special receptacle, which was in or against the north wall of the chancel near to the altar. Initially this was a wooden structure, written records survive of churchwarden accounts of the costs for the provision of this important liturgical feature. Once the practice of having an Altar Crucifix became established this was also placed in the Sepulchre with the host.

There is documentary evidence from the 9th Century that the Altar Cross was wrapped in cloth – to represent the tomb shroud – and placed in the sepulchre - which was at this time often sited on the north end of the altar. This was before the host was used, but the symbolism was the same.

From the late 13th century a number of churches made permanent provision - usually built into the north wall of the Chancel close the to Altar, in other cases use was made of a tomb or monument often specifically designed for the purpose, sometimes provided for in the deceased’s will. These tombs may include a container or simply a flat shelf. There may have been a decoration or tableau representing the rock tomb and features such as Roman soldiers etc. The presence of such decoration or sculpture may be diagnostic of a tomb having been specifically provided to form the base of the sepulchre.

Once the host had been placed in this structure, termed the Easter Sepulchre (Sepulchre = tomb) it would be watched / guarded, often the watchman may have been paid or at least provided with ale and candles, records of this cost remain. Early on Easter Day (Sunday, the third day) the host was reverently returned to the Altar to take it’s part in the day’s celebration of the risen Christ. The symbolism was to represent the entombment of Christ’s body and the resurrection.

From the earliest times it appears that in monasteries – and possibly generally - the ceremony took on the form of what we would recognise today as a drama, with monks dressed up to emphasis the occasion. Possibly the origin of drama as we know it.

At the reformation much of the medieval pomp, ceremony and doctrines were swept away, some sooner than others, but most had gone by the end of Elizabeth’s reign. The puritans of the 17th century destroyed most of the remaining icons and decoration. The rise of protestant beliefs lead to the abolition of the ceremony and the need for the Easter Sepulchre as it was linked to the discredited/unpopular doctrine of transubstantiation.

Wooden Sepulchres were cast out, for use as firewood or the materials reused, in England just one is thought to survive. Those built into the building’s structure have fared a little better, but many have been filled in, covered over or simply reused. Where the form was a tomb, this survives, often though with much of the iconography lost to the puritans and others.

Some Easter Sepulchres in West Sussex today
There are records in wills and other documents for some forty Easter Sepulchres, however every church would have had one, in some form, in the medieval period. No wooden ones are known to survive in Sussex.

In a few places there are physical remains in the structure that are thought to have served as sepulchres. Other sites can only be guessed at, or await investigation/restoration of the fabric.

The following examples demonstrate a few potential survivors from the large range of sepulchre types.

This is another church with Anglo-Saxon roots, here the feature generally identified as the Easter Sepulchre is a tall niche close to the west end of the chancel, this is referred to as a Relic Shrine by some. It is also a little distance from the Altar, but would appear to be quite a good candidate for an Easter Sepulchre, possibly with a dual used for the remainder of the year. The position of this possibly earliest example in Sussex may reflect the earlier position of the altar near or under the Chancel arch.
The niche was uncovered by the Victorian restoration. The present pink plaster dates from the 2000 restoration.

Click Image for Plan


This church which has origins in Anglo-Saxon times, is featured in the Bayeaux tapestry. The original chancel was twice later extended, this is evidenced by uncovered blocked windows and a noticeable change in the wall fabric. The north wall has a shelf tomb recess that may be the sepulchre. Within the extension of the chancel, it is some distance from the present altar, however there is a broken piscina almost opposite, indicating an earlier altar location. There is an effigy lying on the shelf, which would have required a wooden platform for it to be used as a sepulchre, there has been recent ‘restoration’ that may have affected the appearance or the true sepulchre has been lost.


Here the form is a tomb within the Altar rail, built into the bottom of a window. There are several brasses of the family members with prayer scrolls and coats of arms.

The Easter Sepulchre niche is within the Altar Rail, there is a modern grill fitted to protect the contents.
Note the Aumbry in the east wall of the chancel, complete with door.


This is another Church with supposed Saxon portions. The Easter Sepulchre here would appear to have been a tomb sited on the north of the site of the Altar in the sanctuary. The current ordering of the church has moved the communion table to the south side of the Nave, the narrow Chancel making the sanctuary seem very remote.


Two recognised sepulchres here, one a recess with bands of interlacing foliage work.
The second is the canopied tomb of Richard Burri, it has angels bearing shields with coats of arms.
Note the decorated recess (aumbry?) in the east wall. This church was given to the Knights Templars and when these were suppressed it became a Knights Hospitallers church hence it would have had a large staff of priests etc to perform the fullest possible versions of the medieval liturgy.


Here use was made of another tomb sited within the Altar rail, north of the Altar. The fine stone carvings have survived well.

West Grinstead
This is thought to only have documentary evidence for its existence, but there is a surviving niche in the north wall of the sanctuary. It is interesting that it is still used to hold the un-consecrated wine and oils(?).

Other Recorded sites
– A tomb outside the sanctuary.

Trotton – the table tomb said to have served as the sepulchre is in the NE of the chancel.

Lost ?
These few churches are among those reported to have had Sepulchres, on reviewing my own observations and records there appears to be no visible feature resembling or usable as one. At least not in the north wall of the chancel close enough to the Altar.

Amberley: - the chancel has been panelled in wood, the piscina has been left to view, but possibly any remains of a sepulchre have been covered by this work.

Boxgrove: - In the medieval period this was a monastic foundation, the monks using the Quire and the West end corresponding to the nave was used by the local people. There are flat topped tombs in the north ailse which might have served as sepulchres for the monks. In the western end the altar was against a wall separating this end from the quire for the monks, two doors in the wall were for the monk priests to serve the altar. The nave end was demolished after the church was ‘reformed’ and the quire thereafter used as the parish church. There is no obvious sign of a sepulchre serving this altar, it is not know if there was a separate celebration of the Easter mysteries in each part of the church, but it is possible as the people would not be allowed into the Quire.

Coombes: - the chancel walls have the remains of apparent early painting to resemble stone and a blocked doorway to a later vestry – now demolished. West of this blocked doorway there are marks on the wall that I had previously interpreted as a further possible blocked / lost doorway. This would be worth a further investigation linked with the work that Rodney Gunner and Michelle Crabb are doing on the wall paintings here.
Stoughton: - the chancel has been cleanly plastered in recent times, possibly the signs have been covered. It is interesting that the piscina appears to be in the east wall (not the south) with an Aumbry between it and the south east corner.

Other candidates
In some cases features generally identified as being an Aumbry, may have been served as Easter Sepulchres. There is a example which might be considered in the north wall of the nave of the redundant church at North Stoke. A church not otherwise recognised as having an Easter Sepulchre; despite having fine triple sedilia and piscina constructed in Clunch, together with other features normally expected in high status churches.

Modern Form?
This picture taken in Easter 2004 is in Tillington Church, it shows a Calvary and Tomb on top of a ‘parish chest’. Might the form of this not be far from that of Easter Sepulchre decoration in the medieval period.


English Church Furniture – Cox & Harvey
English Church Fittings, Furniture & Accessories – J.C. Cox
The Christian Altar – C.E. Pocknee
The Mass, a study of the Roman Liturgy – Adrian Fortescue
The Stripping of the Altars – Eamon Duffy
Various Internet sites – for modern interpretations of Transubstantiation.
Various other books and guides were referred to - these added little.

Aumbry: a Chest or cupboard usually in wall of Chancel, used to store sacred item such as altar plate or relics
Piscina: usually in wall to south of altar used to rinse the chalice and priests hand, drained into sacred ground.
Pyx: container used to hold the reserved host

© 2004 Martin Snow

First published in Worthing Archaeological Society Journal Volume 3 No. 4 Autumn 2004

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Last modified: 20 February 2010