John Mason Neale (1818 – 1866) was the Warden of Sackville College, a large group of Almshouses in East Grinstead. He was an avid writer of hymns and carols, his most famous work being the evergreen Christmas Carol ‘Good King Wenceslas’.
John loved visiting churches and certainly visited St Andrews Church in Alfriston. In 1843 he published a book called ‘Hierologus’ (or the Church Tourist). He mentions Alfriston Church a couple of times and made particular mention of the church frescoes. He wrote “ Alfriston Church in Sussex had whitewash scraped some time ago, and the whole wall was covered with frescoes in high preservation. Bishop Buckner, coming by, made the churchwardens cover them up again. There was, in particular a fine S. Catherine in the north transept.”
He later translated a book by William Durandus called ‘The Symbolism of Churches” and added many interesting footnotes. In one such footnote he writes “The frescoes with which the walls of our own churches were anciently adorned seem usually to have represented the Saviour as seated on the Throne of His Majesty. In the chancel of Widford, Herts, is or was till lately, a fresco of the Saviour seated on a rainbow, a sword proceeding from His mouth. His feet and His hands pierced. In Alfriston, Sussex there was we believe, before it was whitewashed over by Bishop Buckner’s order, a painting of a similar kind.”
In his 1847 book ‘Sketches, Graphic and Descriptive” the Victorian architect Edward Lushington Blakburne (1803-1888) uses almost the same words….“In the Chancel of Widford Church in Hertfordshire was a painting of our Lord ‘seated on a rainbow, a sword proceeding from His mouth; His feet and His hands pierced’, in Alfriston Church, Sussex was a similar one. Our Saviour seated on a rainbow to give judgement was also painted on the cover of St Cuthbert’s shrine at Durham”
An example of what this painting may have looked like can be found by searching on-line for the Last Judgement Triptych by the Flemish artist Hans Memling which is now on display at the National Museum of Poland in Gdansk. Christ is seated on a rainbow representing the universe with his feet resting on the globe. A sword and a lily are seen near the mouth and these symbolise mercy and justice. Underneath, Michael the Archangel is shown holding a set of scales. He weighs souls to establish if a person is heading heavenward or down into hell.
I suspect that the Alfriston frescos had a similar theme and there are examples still to be seen in nearby churches. St John the Baptist Church at Clayton has some fine wall-paintings showing the Last Judgement and Rotherfield Church has a wall-painting showing the Archangel Michael with his scales.
So we know there certainly were frescoes at Alfriston and we know that the Bishop ordered for them to be covered. The Bishop was John Buckner (1734-1824) who was the Bishop of Chichester from 1797 to his death in 1824. He had been appointed Bishop by King George III and was a close friend of The Duke of Richmond. (In 1795 Charles Lennox 3rd Duke of Richmond was bailiff for nearby Seaford where a road is named after him). The Bishop was known for the ostentatious decoration of his ‘Palace’ in Chichester and his house in central London but a bit of colour inside St Andrews was obviously far too much for the Protestant trends of the time. The Church in Rome was still seen as a threat and large colourful murals would have reminded the congregation that their church once came under the jurisdiction of the Pope. As late as 1864, the Reverend Buck-Mead of Seaford purchased a crucifix and two candlesticks for the altar of St Leonard’s Church and as a result had his windows smashed by parishioners worried that he had catholic sympathies. It is no wonder the Bishop had the Alfriston murals painted over so quickly.
The paintings remained under their whitewash until 1887 when the paintings on the wall of the north wall of the nave were uncovered. Florence Padgen (later Mrs Hubert Winstanley) wrote the first full history of the village of Alfriston in 1895. In her book she recalls seeing the frescoes. She says that one of them extended “from the extreme west end of the church to the first north window” She recalls seeing “a soldier in armour standing against a pillar” and “a priest whose cope was held up by an acolyte, carrying the Blessed Sacrament” She says that the faces, arms and hands of the figures had disappeared but the scarlet of the cope was clearly discernible. Florence rued that some scorned the idea that the paintings were worth preserving. They were plastered over by people who thought “it was wise to cover them up”.
People today have forgotten that once our medieval churches were would have been awash with colour. There are still glimpses of how things were at several Sussex churches such as Clayton, Battle and Hardham, but over the centuries these have faded and are difficult to discern. To see the full glory of a medieval painted church you must visit the National Museum of Wales at St Fagans (the Welsh equivalent of the Weald and Downland Open Air Museum) There, the medieval church of St Teilos has been repainted to show its former glory. The recreated, brightly coloured frescos seem garish to the modern eye but this is a hint as to what Alfriston Church must have once looked like. I doubt if the Saviour sitting on a rainbow would have been dull. St Catherine would have been holding onto the giant wheel on which she was martyred and I suspect that the soldier and the priest would have been a part of a huge colourful depiction of the Crucifixion.
A few weeks ago the church was awash with colour thanks to the beautiful Harvest flower displays but I wonder how many visitors realise that where was once much more colour in the church?.
I have visited the beautiful medieval church at St Fagans in Wales and have been to East Grinstead Church to see the grave of John Mason Neale. I have also visited the Sussex Churches at Rotherfield, Coombes, Hardham and Battle to see their medieval wall-paintings but I would dearly love to see the medieval frescoes of St Andrews. I know they are still there!
Chairman, Alfriston & Cuckmere Valley Historical Society