Wednesday, 2 September 2009

St Mary Our Lady, Sidlesham

The most lavishly decorated part of most churches is the chancel, but somehow Sidlesham has lost what must have been most impressive feature.
The church was originally built in the early 13th century in a cross shape, with a pair of transepts and a tower at the crossing. The chancel must have been imposing as it had side aisles, very unusual in a parish church.
The tower was the first to go, probably in the 15th century when the new tower was built at the west end. The chancel was pulled down in the late 17th century, leaving the church a strange T shape.
The only traces of the chancel are fragments of the pointed arches that led into the aisles, now set into the wall like fossils in a cliff. The new east window was cobbled up out of 15th century tracery from the old chancel, which looks lovely from the inside but from the outside protrudes from the east wall in a very odd way.The reasons for the disappearance of the church's finest feature are lost in time, but it may have been something to do with disputes over maintenance costs.
In medieval times, the parish paid for maintenance of the nave, but the rector was responsible for the chancel. He paid for it out of income from tithes and the glebe, farmland owned directly by the church. Could some 17th century rector of Sidlesham have decided he had better things to do with the money than prop up an old chancel, and simply left it to fall down?
This theory gets some support from the fact that tow small square stones were let into the columns at the end of the nave, inscribed: "Chancel Boundary 1814", clearly a reminder to the rector that he still had some financial responsibilities.
Chancel repairs would be a forgotten detail of medieval church finances if it were not for a succession of legal twists that make it a hot topic even today.
In late medieval times, monasteries began to buy up the right to appoint rectors, known as advowsons. They would wait for the current rector to die, appoint one of their own monks and appropriate the rectory, glebe and tithes. It was a very profitable diversification of their core business.
When the monasteries were dissolved in 1536, Henry VIII distributed their property to institutions such as Oxford and Cambridge universities and to his cronies. The responsibility to repair the chancel went with the land.
Over the centuries following, tithes that were originally paid in wheat, wool, milk and so on where replaced with money payments, and finally abolished as late a 1936. But the responsibility of the owners of former rectorial lands to repair the chancel was retained.
Recently, owners of charming country houses around the country have been startled to discover that they are responsible for repairing part of a church that may be miles away. And restoring a medieval structure to today's conservation standards is an expensive business.
Even now, the government is not abolishing this anomaly, simply setting a time limit for chancel repair liability to be registered on the title deeds as a charge so owners can get insurance. For them, simply letting the chancel disappear is not an option, as it seems to have been for rector of Sidlesham all those centuries ago.