Deadly Sins in a Sussex Church

Wherever I travel, I take a copy of Simon Jenkins book ‘1000 Best Churches’ which is usually a good indication of churches worth going out of your way to see. Occasionally though, I come across a church not mentioned in his book and wonder why it has been omitted. One such church is St George’s at Trotton which is on the western extremities of Sussex, almost on the Hampshire border. 

The architectural historian Sir Nikolaus Pevsner says the church is ‘dour; plain on the outside and baffling blank inside’ but then he is often grumpy with his descriptions.   I thought the church was beautiful and a ‘quick peek inside’ nearly extended to an hour!

The church is set back from the Petersfield to Petworth Road (A272) and not far from the narrow medieval bridge over the River Rother. In fact it is the river crossing that gave Trotton its name. Before the bridge was constructed in the early fifteenth century the river was crossed by a series of stepping-stones. The area was originally known as treading-tun (the farmstead by the treading stones) but over the years the ‘place of the treading-stones’ became Trotton. 

I pushed open the large door and immediately gasped as I saw that there were medieval wall-paintings completely covering the west wall.  Above the west door, Moses holds his stone tablets and above him Christ is perched on a rather monochrome rainbow. To Christ’s left, an angel directs a good man towards a heavily clothed ‘Spritual Man’. To his right another angel directs a sinner to a naked ‘Carnal Man’ (although a notice in the church rather simplistically describes them as ‘The Good Man and The Evil Man’.)

The wonderful images are not as well-preserved as those at Chaldon in Surrey which I visited a few months ago but they are still remarkable.   They have been dated to about 1380 but were not exposed until the church was restored in 1904. Carnal man on the left is surrounded by the ‘Seven Deadly Sins’  (Envy and avarice are nearly hidden by the church organ). This side is badly faded (that’s sin for you!) but each sinner can be seen standing in the gaping sharp-toothed jaws of monsters.  I particularly liked ‘Gluttony’, still swigging from a large earthenware pot as he is himself, being swallowed by a gluttonous monster. 

Opposite the Seven Deadly Sins are the lesser-known ‘Seven Acts of Mercy’, sometimes called the ‘Seven Virtues’.  Spiritual Man is standing on a later painted Consecration Cross. To the left of this is a red roundel depicting ‘Visiting the Imprisoned’ which, although faded shows two people standing before a large towering prison.  Above this ‘Tending to the Sick’ is much clearer; a woman is helping a bed-ridden man in a half-timbered building.  Above this is ‘Feeding the Hungry’ in which a man is at the door of his house passing a bag of food to two passing beggars. 

At the top, above the good man’s head, is ‘Clothing the Naked’ where a woman appears to be helping a man into a large ‘onesie’; his modesty preserved by a pair of medieval boxer-shorts.  Down the side of the north wall are ‘Giving Water to the Thirsty’, ‘Harbouring a Stranger’ and lastly (literally) ‘Burying the Dead’.

There are further wall-paintings on the North and South Walls.  Above the a Georgian Royal Coat-of-Arms on the north wall stand four armed figures looking suspiciously like Monty Pythons ‘The Knights that say “Nee”’.  Although they all appear to have three breasts, the heraldic shield of the ‘Camoys’ family depicts three circles.  

If you wish to see the Camoys, just turn around and look above the door. Sir Thomas Camoys (1351-1421) is seen keeling at a prie-dieu – a prayer stool.  Sir Thomas attended Parliament on several occasions. In 1415 he commanded the rear-guard of the English forces at the Battle of Agincourt. Behind him, also kneeling, is his son Richard Camoys with his wife Joan Poynings. 

Having taken in all these medieval marvels, I turned towards the chancel and smiled when I saw a small red carpet in the nave beside some sturdy Victorian box-pews.  An odd piece of carpet in the middle of a church usually means something precious is hidden underneath! I knelt down and pulled back the carpet and was not disappointed as I revealed the full length brass of Lady Margaret Camoys.  

This is apparently the oldest brass of a female in England.  She is shown life-size, her hands tightly pressed together in prayer.  Although she is wearing a tight-fitting headdress, small locks of her hair escape on either side of her forehead.

Beneath her long flowing dress, a scared looking dog cowers between her feet.  Although this brass is impressive it was clearly once magnificently decorated with numerous long-since lost stars and heraldic shields.

As I carefully replaced the carpet something else caught my eye. Tucked under a pew was a bright kneeler remembering a local lad Philip Trotton who was convicted of stealing a jacket from one Henry Carpenter in 1837. He appeared before the Earl of Surrey at Horsham Quarter Sessions and was transported to the colonies for seven years.  

Philip left Trotton in shame and I wondered if he ever returned.  However it is splendid to see that a young ‘ordinary’ man is remembered by the congregation alongside the titled gentry. 

There is more to see. (How could this church be omitted from the ‘1000 Best’ or be described as ‘blank inside’??) Perhaps the main feature of the church is the table-like monument for Sir Thomas Camoys (yes him again) and his second wife Elizabeth.  The huge, inconveniently placed memorial is described by Pevsner as “One of the biggest, most ornate and best preserved brasses in England”.  

Standing under an ornate gothic canopy you see the brass figures of a moustachioed, armour clad Thomas Camoys and his wife.  His left gauntlet is resting on the hilt of one of his two swords.  He is wearing an ‘SS’ collar which was made of S-shaped pieces of metal (often gold) and was reserved for members of the Royal Household. Thomas was a member of the Order of the Garter (Established in 1349 by Edward III) and this honour can be seen tied just below his right knee. This is one of only four brasses that show such a knight.  

Elizabeth is shown in a tight bodice wearing an elaborate headdress with a veil hanging over her shoulders. Pevsner describes the couple as ‘blank and limp’ but I think there is tenderness shown here in the brass.   Sir Thomas has removed his right gauntlet and his hand is tenderly holding the right hand of his wife.  Her left hand is held up to her heart and she is touching the jewel of her necklace, maybe a gift from her husband.  At her feet, standing in the folds of her long dress, is the tiny figure of her son Richard.  Her husband’s feet rest on a grinning lion, obviously depicted by someone who had never seen one before!

Elizabeth is a noted person in English history. Her first husband was Henry Percy (1364-1403) who was a knight famous for campaigns against the French, Scots and Welsh. He was so quick to attack the enemy he was given the name ‘hot-spur’.   Hotspur’s family owned land around Tottenham in north London.  (I am sure you don’t need me to tell you the connection to a famous football team!). Shakespeare mentions Elizabeth in his play Henry IV where she is referred to as ‘Gentle Kate’.

A translation of the text under the two medieval lovers reads “Pray for the souls of Thomas Camoys and his wife Elizabeth. He was Lord Camoys, a baron and cautious Minister of the King and the realm of England and a valiant Knight of the Garter. He commended his end to Christ on the 28thMarch 1419.  On whose souls may God have pity. Amen.”

Although the brasses are outstanding, there are some other good monuments at Trotton. Ann Twyford died having suffered her fateful illness with ‘submission, silence, calmness and fortitude’.  The white lily carved on the top indicates that she died unmarried.  At the bottom of the memorial is the Twyford coat-of-arms but this is seen more clearly on the nearby funeral hatchment for her father Samuel. He died in 1826  His wife Suzanna died in 1795 (see nearby monument). Her coat-of-arms can be seen in the middle of the hatchment in the form of four pears and two grosing irons. Also known as ‘cripping irons’ these were used by glaziers for stretching out molten glass.  The hatchment includes the family motto ‘Veritas’ (truth). 

Ann’s two brothers are remembered on another memorial. Ennis Twyford was promoted to Lieutenant in 1863 and to Captain the following year. He served in India and seems to have genuinely cared for the local people.  On hearing of an outbreak of cholera he went to the scene to establish temporary hospitals for the sick.  Despite being nursed by a German missionary, he succumbed to the illness himself.  Ann’s other brother, Albert is remembered on the same monument. 

I was confused by the memorial to the two daughters of the Reverend John Alcock.  Mrs Mary Alcock died in 1763 and Mrs Elizabeth Alcock died in 1786, coincidentally both on 7th October.  I wondered how they could both be MRS Alcock? Did they both marry men who had the same surname as their father?  I suspect that rather than ‘Mrs’ meaning they were married, the prefix here was short for ‘Mistress’ and that the two ladies, like Ann Tyford, died unmarried. 

A small square memorial in Latin remembers local man, playwright Thomas Otway (1651-1685).  He left Sussex to seek his fortune in London and when he failed as an actor turned to writing.  He fell in love with actress Elizabeth Barry who was famed for playing boys in Shakespeare plays.  When she jilted him, he joined the Army and saw service in the Netherlands but later returned to London where he fell destitute.  The story is told of how he was near Tower Hill one day when he was recognised by an old friend who gave him a guinea. He was so hungry that he dashed to the nearest baker but gulped down the bread so hastily, he choked on his first mouthful! He was buried at St Clement Danes Church in the Strand but is still remembered in his home village of Trotton.  Roughly translated his monument reads. “This monument is a simple reminder of Thomas Otway. Unquestionably he was one of Britain’s great tragic poets. He was born in this old village in 1651. Burdened with poverty he died in 1685. Dear reader, God may have use of his talent”.

Outside in the churchyard there is a single Commonwealth War Grave to Edwin Standing. A married man with six children, he joined up to fight in the Great War despite suffering from diabetes.  Despite his illness being diagnosed in December 1916 he was sent to France but returned to England as medically unfit a few months later. 

I was so pleased to have stopped at this this delightful and well-loved church.  St George’s at Trotton is now CERTAINLY in my list of top 1000 churches! 

Sources: 

Sussex Place-names by Judith Glover (1997)

Buildings of England – Sussex by Nikolaus Pevsner (1965)

Notes on Sussex Churches by Frederick Harrison (1929)

The Monumental Effigies of Sussex by H. Mosse (1933)

Hatchments of Kent, Surrey and Sussex by Peter Summers (1985)

The Broad Arrow Newspaper 17thJuly 1869

Rother Valley War Memorials Website. 

National Gallery of Scotland

Internet research. 

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