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Tortington, Arundel Rape, Photo Tour 2001

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TORTINGTON is one of those small parishes, with a small population and a small church to match, so common in Western Sussex, near the sea. Its proximity to Arundel, with the living of which that of Tortington is now united, does not seem ever to have affected the number of its inhabitants; but the summer visitors from Arundel and the neighbourhood often swell considerably the knot of worshippers in the little church


The church is not mentioned in Domesday (1086), and it is uncertain that any then existed. It was possibly the child of Tortington Priory, and built to supply the wants of its tenants, and this, if it be a fact, would give the tiny building an interest of its own, as, unlike all the neighbouring village churches, it has not replaced a more ancient building and preserved an older plan or incorporated in its structure earlier features. Priory and Parish Church are therefore bound up together, and their fortunes are closely connected. With the former I propose to deal at greater length in a future paper, when the excavations now in hand have been completed.

The priory was founded for a small establishment- never more than seven or eight-of canons of the Order of St. Augustine, commonly known as Austin Canons, or Black Canons, at some date in the twelfth century.

A good deal of uncertainty still attaches to the questions - " Who were the founders of Tortington Priory ? " and " At what date was it founded?" Upon the answer to these depends the truth or otherwise of the reiterated statement that the church of the parish was built by the Canons of Tortington for the accommodation of their tenants and dependents - a statement likely enough, but at present lacking both documentary and architectural evidence.

As to the first question, we have the assertion by Dallaway that the foundress was Alicia Corbet, supposed to be a member of the D'Albini family. Dugdale gives the name more correctly as Hadwissia1 Corbet.2

As to the second question-the date of the foundation of the priory-Dallaway gives it, without any supporting evidence, as 1180, and the existence of the Priory at that date is shown by the Pipe Roll. Curiously enough, however, all the architectural evidence so far disclosed by the excavations now in progress on the site of the Priory Church is in favour of this date, i.e., if we assume that the monastic quire would be the first part of the buildings to be built. So far nothing has been found of Middle Norman date, the period in which the Parish Church was erected.

The dedication of the priory was in honour of St. Mary Magdalen, and the Parish Church seems to have been placed under the same saint. The late Mr. Charles Gibbon, Richmond Herald, in a learned paper upon the dedications of churches and chapels in this part of Sussex,3 writes "Unknown as yet" against Tortington ; and in a more recent work, " Chichester Diocese Clergy Lists," there is no saint appended to the name. In consulting the Feet of Fines for the County of Sussex,4 however, I hit upon an entry relating to an arrangement come to, in 1214, between William, Earl of Arundel, and Pharamus de Tracy, in which " the advowson of the Church of St. Mary Magdalen of Tortington" is mentioned. If this can be taken as referring to the Parish Church, it would show that the priory and the Parish Church were placed under the same patron saint.

For the last century and more of its history, until, in 1536, the priory was surrendered to Henry VIII., its record is one of decay, neglect and disorder.5 There were at the date of the suppression five priests and one novice. The revenues of the priory were mainly derived from lands in West Sussex,6 and it possessed the advowsons of Tortington (by gift of the Abbot of Seez) ; Isleham-a manor-farm with a chapel, in the parish of Clymping-by gift of Robert Aguillon, North Stoke, Madehurst, Blnstead and East Ichenor, in Sussex; of Farley, in Surrey ; of Tyneham, Dorset; and of St. Swithin, in London, where the prior had a house in which he occasionally resided, the gift of Robert Aguillon, when he bequeathed his body to the Canons to be buried in the priory church.7 Doubtless the architecture of this building must have influenced that of the little church of the parish-to what extent is difficult to judge now, owing to the scanty remains of the priory church and buildings. At present all that remains above ground are parts of the north transept and the north wall of the nave of the priory church, with some graceful vaulting shafts, which indicate a date about the middle of the thirteenth century.8 It would be premature to publish the interesting results of the excavations now in progress on the site, which it is hoped will be fully detailed in a future volume of the Collections, but it may be said here that the monastic quire and its aisles have been traced, and proved to have been of considerable size and of great architectural beauty. The planning and arrangement of the various offices, not at present excavated, probably had much in common with those of the priories of Hardham and Pynham, or De Calceto, in this part of Sussex.9

Henry, Lord Maltravers, was granted the site of Tortington Priory in the 29th year of Henry VIII., and in Elizabeth's reign the estate, after passing through other hands, came into the possession of Roger Gratwick, the son of John Gratwick, of the Ham, Angmering. This squire built the old manor house, called Tortington Place, largely with the materials of the Priory. There is a small brass plate in the chancel of the Parish Church to his memory, dated 1596. He is supposed to have been the father of Sir William Gratwick, of Ulverston, Lancashire, who was buried here in 1613. The estate passed, through the female line, to the family of Weekes, one of whom represented Arundel in Parliament in 1702, and this gentleman sold it to William Leeves in 1706, from whose descendants itwas purchased by Charles, Duke of Norfolk.

How greatly the charm of an ancient church may be enhanced, or the reverse, by its environment! Nestling against a background of lofty trees, and surrounded by old farm buildings, Tortington Church forms a very picturesque object.

The building dates from about 1140; and, with the exception of a later aisle on the south and a modern vestry on the north of the nave, it preserves the original plan of a diminutive nave and chancel intact, resembling its neighbour and contemporary, Binstead, in this respect. The nave is exactly 30-ft. in length by nearly 16-ft. at its eastern and 15-ft. 1-in. at its western end; and the chancel is only 12-ft. 8-in. wide by 14-ft. 3-in., while the thirteenth century aisle is but 6-ft. wide. Everything about the church is on a miniature scale, in keeping with the lines of the building, except, perhaps, the fine Norman font, which looks out-of-the-way large in its present position at the western end of the narrow aisle.

The walls of the original church are very thick for so small a building-2-ft. 9-in.--and very solidly built, in most places of flint and chalk rubble, with quoins of Caen stone and internal dressings of hard chalk. The N.E. and N.W. quoins are in very perfect condition, showing the axe tooling and many old initial letters and dates, such as T. S., 1675, and W. S., 1688. Pulborough sand-stone is used in some of the later windows and arches, so that there is a picturesque variety in the materials. The original thin coat of twelfth century plaster, or pebbly mortar, remains on the north wall of the nave.

The rafters and beams of the nave roof are of oak, almost black in colour, and probably of the same age as the walls. The rafters are about 6-in. by 3-in., "laid flat," as was always the custom in mediaeval times. At the western end is a quaint dove-cot turret,10 the frame-work of which appears within the church resting upon two massive tie-beams.

Externally, as in the case of Ford Church hard by, the turret is covered with boarding, painted white, so that both form prominent landmarks. Judging from a drawing made in 1782,11 the shape and colour of the turret have not altered since that date at least. In the turret hang two bells, one of which is ancient, and bears the inscription, S thomas treherne-which is somewhat enigmatical. Possibly the bell is dedicated to St. Thomas the Apostle, and one " Treherne" was the donor or the maker of the bell : and it is quite likely that this bell came from the desecrated church of the priory.

The drawing above referred to shows the church without the present south aisle, which was built (upon the old foundations) about forty years ago, the original thirteenth century aisle having been pulled down, and the arches from the nave blocked up, at a date not long after the desecration of the Priory Church. A large and very picturesque timber and plaster porch is shown as occupying part of the site of the aisle, and traces of a blocked archway and some rude windows-two square headed - of post-mediaeval date appear in the walls. Unhappily, none of the windows now in the church have escaped alteration at one time or another. Some, like that in the west wall, are of the thirteenth century, and others-those in the north wall of the nave and east wall of the chancel-while retaining their chalk-edged internal openings, have had the outside frames renewed and made wider, so that they have lost much of their original character. Not even the beautiful glass by Mr. Kemp, which has been placed in some of these nave windows, quite compensates for this ungainly widening of the old openings.

The internal stone quoins, which appear in the nave and chancel, are commonly found in buildings of twelfth century date.

Click for image

The south door, a richly ornamented example of Late Norman work, has probably been three times re-constructed; the first time when the aisle was originally built (when presumably the door was shifted outwards); the second when the aisle was pulled down, at which date the door was put back into the nave wall under one of the closed arches; and the third when the aisle was rebuilt forty years ago. It has necessarily not passed through all these changes without injury, but, considering all things, it has preserved its original character surprisingly well; the plain inner order of the arch and jambs has been reduced in breadth to make the opening wider; but with this exception, and the omission of the sub-base of the shafts, the proportions of the doorway do not appear to have been altered. The hood moulding has a four-leaved ornament, approaching to the later dog-tooth, and the two outer orders of the arch are enriched with the chevron or zig-zag, the outermost having a bunch of grapes in the angle of each zig-zag. There is an engaged shaft in either jamb. The impost mouldings of the capitals and the bases are of common Late Norman sections; the capitals themselves have been injured, but are the original ones.12 The stonework is all Caen-a stone much used in the buildings near the coast, it being cheaper and easier to import this in barges from Normandy than to quarry the coarse sandstone from Pulborough.13

The best substitute for Caen stone for internal work was the hard chalk brought from the hills at the back, and the very interesting chancel arch is worked in this material. This arch is of two orders, the inner plain and square edged, and the outer composed of a row of beak-heads, alternating with grotesque semi-human faces, or masks, with sprays of foliage, hair or feathers, growing out of their heads. There is nothing else quite like this curious arch in Sussex; in fact, the characteristically Norman beak-head., or cat's-head, ornament, which is found in most English counties from Yorkshire to Cornwall, only occurs in one other church in Sussex.14

It would appear as if the beak-head and kindred ornaments were almost a trade mark of a guild of masons working during two generations. There is no doubt that, like some other characteristic Norman ornaments, its genesis is Scandinavian and Pagan-as opposed to Classical and Christian-and that its pedigree might be traced back to a remote past among the Aryan nations of the East.

The capitals of the nook shafts are carved with shallow foliage, and the bases are of a characteristic section. Over the centre of the arch is a keystone, bearing on its western face a shield in low relief, with the arms of the Leeves family, and on the east the inscription, W. F. LEEVES. 1750. The beak-head above this stone on the western side is obviously an insertion of the same date, so that we may infer that the crown of the arch had parted, owing to the foundations of the piers having settled (the piers are still very much out of the perpendicular), and to prevent further injury to the arch Mr. Leeves inserted these stones to wedge the two halves together. We owe him our gratitude for preserving so interesting a feature from ruin.

Traces of colour (such as black in the holes drilled for eyes in the grotesque masks) show that the arch was originally additionally decorated in this way.15

The arches to the aisle are wide for so small a building. They are constructed of chalk, with Caen stone for the responds and the low central column. The latter, which is only about 5-ft. in height to the top of the capital, has a base and capital of sandstone prettily moulded, the base having angle spurs. The respond corbels are partly in the same material, the effect of this mixture of stones recalling that of the Sussex marble introduced into the white stonework of the arcades at Boxgrove. The arch wall is only 2-ft. in thickness, those of the nave being 2-ft. 9-in. Its date is about 1220.

The font, which is coeval with the chancel arch, has a circular bowl set upon a moulded pedestal (the lower part modern), giving it something. the shape of a chalice. It is in Caen stone, and the bowl is finished at the top with a cable moulding, beneath which is an arcade of twelve circular arches, furnished alternately with little shafts-diminutive Norman columns, with capitals and bases--and a bunch of conventional foliage bearing some resemblance to the Greek honeysuckle.16 The font at Binstead, hard by, which is of about the same date, is somewhat similar, though not so richly ornamented.

The low pulpit, a beautiful piece of Jacobean work in black oak, is thoroughly in harmony with its surround-ings. It has often been remarked-as in the case of Wimborne Minster, Dorset and Compton Church, Surrey --how admirably woodwork of this Renaissance type suits the Romanesque stonework : and it is hardly a matter for surprise, because, although separated by five hundred years in actual date, both derive from the same classical mother.17

In the eastern end of the aisle is the sole remaining mediaeval seat. No doubt the nave was at one time filled with these beautiful oak benches, dating from about 1420. The square bench ends have sunk panels of tracery, the upper part having refoiled arches, and the lower, beneath a transom, two quatrefoils. The ends and the seat-back are finished with a moulded capping, of similar section to that of the seats at Clymping Church, which are of the same date. The tracery of the ends is, however, more like that in the Burpham seats.

One writer mentions " some early painted glass" in the windows, but if any existed it has disappeared, and most of that now in the church (with the conspicuous exception of Mr. Kemp's) is poor modern stuff. The old glass referred to would seem to have consisted of roundels painted with the Four Living Creatures of the Apocalypse -commonly known as the symbols of the four evangelists -which are to be seen in the comparatively modern glass of the small east window. It is possible that what we now see has been copied from some really ancient glass that once existed here. Over the chancel arch are two of the old black-bordered, lozenge-shaped funeral hatchments, formerly so common in our churches. They have mostly been banished at restorations, but happily these have been suffered to remain.

The monuments within and without the church are comparatively modern and of no great interest. A small brass plate attached to the northern jamb of the chancel arch bears the following inscription :-


In the aisle hangs a board bearing a list of the vicars of Tortington, whose names have come down to us :-

1389 John atte Wode
1402 Wm Wilby or Wyllin 
1404 Robert atte Mere 
1405-6 Alex. Coktox
1407-8 Robert Bartlot
1611 William Bennett, A.M.
1614 Adam Page, B.A.
1627 Hugh Robinson, D.D.
1640 William Chaunter
1655 Francis Cuffley
1661 Ralph Calvert
1670 Ralph Calvert 
1690-1 John Albery 
1703 Serenus Barrett, B.A. 
1709 Nicholas Lister, B.A. 
1746-7 William Baynes, B.A. 
1754 John Copley, M.A.
1767 William Byass, B.A.
1794 William Groome, LL.B.
1809 John Duncombe, M.A.
1809 Patrick Battinghall Death
1812 Thos. Brooke Morris, M.A.
1817 Charles Bethell Otley
1833 John Delafield, M.A.
1854 Rd Francis Tomkins, B.A. (United to Arundel 1898.) 
1897 Walter Crick, M.A. 
1901 Rowland John Burdon, M.A.
1905 Ernest Solomon Saleebey, B.A.

Tortington Church
The Pulpit

1 The same as the German Hedwig.
2 Presumably one of the Corbets connected with Warwickshire and with Tyneham in Dorset.
3 Sussex Archaeological Collections, Vol. XII., pp. 61 et seq. 
4 Sussex Record Society, Vol. II., p. 33 (No. 136).
5 See, for an account of the priory, a paper by the late Rev. Edward Turner in Sussex Archaeological Collections, Vol. XI., pp. 109 et seq. The author details the irregularities and dilapidations reported at different episcopal visitations, including that of 1478, when " Elias Parker accused the prior of idolatry, in honouring and adoring the sacramental elements, and the relics of saints, by placing them on the high altar; thereby occasioning an unseemly strife between them." The dilapidation of the buildings, which was made a subject of complaint at the same time, was again brought forward in 1527, when the priory church and the brewhouse were reported to be ruinous.
6 In Arundel, Angmering, Billingshurst, Biustead, Blakehurst, Chidham, Cudlow, Eartham, Eseborn, Goring, Hangleton, Heene, Ichenor, Poling, Prestone, Pypering, Thornwicks, Tortingtone, Westdene, Wiggonholt, Worthing, Woughton-juxta-Lewes, Upwaltham and Yaptone.
7 Sussex Archceological Collections, Vol. XI., p. 110. The tithes of Bilsham, where the hamlet chapel still remains, in the parish of Yapton, were also in the possession of the priory. In Vol. XLIV. is printed an inventory of the goods of the priory.
8 Built up in some comparatively modern walls of the farm buildings now occupying the site are numerous fragments of columns and sections of mouldings belonging to more than one date in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries. A writer in The Gentleman's Magazine, 1794, mentions that seven years previously a vault was discovered under the site of the church, and in it " a skeleton lying at full length. By it was standing a circular leaden boa, which might contain near half a bushel. Within it was an empty earthen vessel; but no remains of any coffin or wrapping the body was deposited in were discovered."
9 The priory of Shulbrede was another of these small houses of Austin Canons, in West Sussex. Hastings and Michelham, in East Sussex, belonged to the same order De Calceto, or " Of the Causeway," was so called from the long wooden bridge of stakes or piles constructed across the marsh land between the priory and Arundel. The upkeep of this way was an important and expensive duty devolving upon the canons of Pynham, and many benefactions of the wealthy landowners in these parts were devoted to this practical object. Bridge and road-making and maintenance were in mediaeval days considered as works of piety, second only to the building and endowment of churches.
10 These little bell-turrets on churches were often literally columbaria, and the parson's pigeons found shelter in them. There is something pleasantly symbolical and suggestive in the conjunction, reminding one of the passage in Isaiah (lx., 8), " Who are these that fly as a cloud, and as the doves to their windows "'
11 Burrell MSS., British Museum.
12 Cf. the rich Late Norman door in the west wall of the south transept of Old Shoreham Church. The bunches of grapes occur in a curious external wall arcade at Buncton Chapel, near Steyning.
13 Caen stone allowed of much finer workmanship than the rough, coarse-grained sandstone which had been used in pre-Conquest times and by the first Norman builders. With the fourteenth and fifteenth century workmen the sandstone again came into favour.
14 In the western doorway at New Shoreham a pointed-arched opening, rebuilt in its present position when the nave was truncated. The arch-voussoirs have been carelessly reset There is no example of the beak-head ornament in either of the neighbouring counties of Surrey and Kent. Middlesex furnishes two-in the doorways of Harlington and Harmondsworth. Birkin, Etton, Stillingfleet, Riccal and Adel, Yorkshire; Lincoln Cathedral (west doors-the only instance of this ornament in a cathedral church) ; Tickencote, Rutland ; Earl's Barton,
Northants; Steetley, Derbyshire; Kenilworth, Warwickshire; Wantage and Charney, Berks ; Blechley, Shellingford, South Twyford and Stewkley, Bucks; Burford, Iffley, North Hinksey and St. Ebbe's, Oxford: Elkstone and English Bickner, Gloucestershire; Holgate, Salop; Kilpeck, Herefordshire; Lullington, Somerset; Bishopsteignton, Devon; and Morwenstow and St. German's, Cornwall, are the most prominent examples in other counties that have come under the writer's notice. It is a peculiarly English ornament. The instances of its occurrence in north-west France are few and far between, and it would seem that it originated in England-possibly in the north, spreading south and west; but its absence from the south-eastern counties is difficult to account for. It is not found in Early Norman, but only in the Middle Period-circa 1120 to 1160.
15 The white appearance of the stonework has caused it to be mistaken for chalk, but a careful examination shows that it is Caen. Unfortunately, when the church was restored, about forty years ago, the stonework was somewhat harshly scraped.
16 This ornament and the cable moulding are found on the Norman font of Bishopsteignton Church, Devon, cited above as having a door with beak-heads round the arch. The presence in both churches of two objects coeval, but bearing evidence of such different traditions in design, lends weight to the theory that fonts were commonly in these early times not made on the spot, like arches and doors, by a travelling band of masons, but ordered from some quarry and sent carved ready to be set up. This is obviously the case with a large class of square Sussex marble fonts of twelfth century date found in many churches in the South-Eastern counties.
17 Abbey Dore, Herefordshire, and St. David's Cathedral, Wales, are other charming instances of this conjunction of styles. Needless to say, it is only the earlier Renaissance woodwork that accords so well with Norman architecture. One of Wren's classical altar pieces, for instance, would look thoroughly out of harmony in a twelfth century church

From Sussex Archaeological Collections LII, MCMIX
Reproduced by courtesy of the Sussex Archaeological Society (SAS). 
SAS grants this licence for the stated purpose in respect of such rights as SAS may have over the articles, 
but those rights may not include the author's copyright in the words and/or images.

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Last modified: 20 February 2010