Site of Special Historic Interest

The site of the medieval Oratory, Priest House, Chapel of Ease and the old Church of St John the Baptist

The old church site in centre of the village was the focus of religious worship for around 500 years and during that time it had been the site of a medieval Oratory, Priest House, Chapel of Ease and a Victorian church. In the 1890’s this was also going to be the location of a new village church, which was proposed to commemorate Loxwood becoming a separate Ecclesiastical Parish.

So one may ask; how did the site evolve from its early Roman Catholic origins, to become the site of a Victorian Church and why with such a long history of religious worship on this site, is the church now in a different part of the village?

Church Cottage and the Chapel of Ease depicted in 1791. Village pond in foreground with Willetts in the background. © Andy Gammon. Watercolour painted in the style of Swiss artist Samuel Hieronymus Grimm.

The early beginnings

Loxwood was originally a corner Wisborough Green parish, known as “Loxwood End” or “Greene”. In the 14th Century everyone was expected to attend their parish church each week, however the dense woods and marshy land around here made the 3-mile journey to Wisborough Green church difficult, and so the villagers went out of their parish to Alfold Church, which was nearer.

Drungewick Manor was about 1 mile from Loxwood and the favourite rural retreat of the Bishops of Chichester. In 1404 the vicar of Wisborough Green and eight prominent landowners of the parish approached the Bishop of Chichester, Robert Reade for permission to build a place of worship in Loxwood. Permission was granted on the condition that the villagers found and accommodated their own curate and always looked after and maintained the building at their cost.

The Oratory and the Chapel of Ease

A few months later in the winter of 1404 oak trees were felled, and work started to build an oratory, with separate accommodation for a curate. The site chosen was within the moated manor house known as “Loxwood Place” and the building was positioned in front of the house on the eastern side.

The building was 15ft wide x 30ft long, orientated north, south, east, west and consisted of three bays. The western bay was the accommodation for the curate; the entrance door was in the south west corner and there was an internal ladder that led to an upper floor, where there was a sleeping area formed as a simple loft space. The centre and eastern bays were the oratory, which was accessed by an entrance on the north side, and both bays were open to the rafters.

The altar was against the wall in the east end, possibly behind a rood screen, there was a spectacular crown post roof, which sprang from an oak chancel arch that crossed the building, and there were high-status carvings on the supporting beams. Today that building is an inhabited cottage, known as Church Cottage.

c1404 Church Cottage was constructed in the Winter of that year as a place of worship. Illustrated with door to curate’s accommodation in the south west corner and door to oratory on the north side.

The Oratory

This was the first ecclesiastical building to be constructed in this area of Sussex for some 300 years, with all the surrounding village churches having been built around 1100 AD. Trustees were appointed to manage the chapel business, and land and properties were endowed over time to generate income.

Throughout the centuries, the trustees of Loxwood Chapel have been the most eminent in society, with generations of King’s, Napper’s, Onslow’s, Threel, Botting’s and Laker’s being a constant reference that appear in records that cover 675 years.

Having a place of worship in the village encouraged more people to settle and allowed the landowners to find tenant farmers, to work on their land. As the number of settlers grew over the next 40 years, a larger place of worship was needed, and the trustees decided to build a Chapel of Ease, next to the oratory and convert the oratory into the accommodation for the curate.

In 1447, before work commenced, the trustees approached Bishop Adam Moleyns of Chichester for his confirmation of the Grant that was given in 1404. They wanted Bishop Moleyns full assurance that the original grant allowed them to build a new chapel having already built the oratory. Confirmation was given and the chapel was constructed 16ft from the west elevation of the oratory, but inline with the south elevation, so in effect the new chapel sat in its own plot, outside the ‘shadow’ of the oratory. 

Oak pews were carved using only an axe and adze, (which was a primitive tool). Eight of those ancient pews have survived and can be seen in Loxwood church, they are believed to be some of the oldest in the Country.

The footprint of the Chapel of Ease was almost the same as the original oratory building, 15 ft wide x 30 ft Long, however without the accommodation for the curate, the new chapel was effectively 30% larger as a place of worship. The oak pattern on the front of the chapel was very similar to the crown post roof and chancel arch oaken work inside the oratory, and appears to have been designed to visually link the two ecclesiastical buildings.

The Chapel of Ease

c1447 New Oak framed Chapel of Ease was built 16ft from Church Cottage, inline with the south elevation, so it sat outside the ‘shadow’ of the oratory. Church Cottage was then converted to be the curate’s cottage.

Towards the end of the fifteenth century c1480 an oak framed building was built between the Chapel of Ease and the curate’s cottage, to form a chancel which created a “T shaped” chapel. That building was 30ft wide x 10ft deep, and effectively increased the length of the chapel by 10ft. A short bridge linked the upper floor of the chancel to the upper floor of the west end of the cottage, to provide access for the curate between the buildings. 

In the east end of the cottage there were stairs that led to an upper floor which covered half of the bay but the centre bay was still open to the rafters with an open fire, and smoke windows on the north and south elevations. However by the end of the century it is thought a smoke hood had been been inserted which took the smoke up into the roof eves, where it was dispersed out of the small outlets at the end of the gables.

c1480 Chancel was constructed between Church Cottage and the Chapel of Ease to form a “T shape” – Door to chancel was in the west elevation, bridge link connected the upper floor of Chapel & Church Cottage.

The story of the ancient Altar stone

The Oratory and Chapel of Ease were built as Roman Catholic places of worship, and Inside their walls would have been aglow with colour, light and images covering all the flat surfaces. The incredible art was there to describe biblical scenes to the villagers, many of whom were illiterate and were attending religious services conducted in Latin. The High Altar was against the east wall and was formed from a slab of local “Henley Hill” sandstone, (13 miles south west of Loxwood), which was also the stone used to construct the Parish Church at Wisborough Green.

This was a time when the Pope in Rome was the head of the church in England but in 1534 there was a decisive change, when Henry VIII declared himself the head of the English Church, not the Pope and that started the English Reformation. In an attempt to reduce the influence of the catholic religion, Henry ordered that all imagery in religious buildings must be whitewashed over, and all religious artefacts removed. Henry still practiced Catholicism however and so High Altar’s remained, because they were an essential part of celebrating Mass, albeit they were also an important symbol of Rome’s influence having been consecrated by a catholic bishop.

After Henry’s death in 1547 his nine-year-old son Edward VI came to the throne and his reign was governed by a Regency Council. It was during this period c1550, that the order was given to go further and remove or destroy all the altar stones and replace them with wooden communion tables. 

Henry Napper of Lakers Lodge, was a Victorian solicitor and historian, who took a keen interest in the affairs of Loxwood Chapel. In November 1883 he wrote a wide ranging, detailed article for the Horsham Advertiser about the Trustees management of the chapel properties over the centuries, citing dates of land transactions, and he mentioned a story about the High Altar of the chapel that has fascinated readers ever since.

The Kings soldiers arrived in Loxwood

According to Mr Napper before the Kings soldiers arrived in Loxwood to destroy the altar, the villagers had taken the ancient stone from the Chapel of Ease and it was worked into the kitchen chimney of the priest house, disguised as a bressummer supporting beam! Mr Napper added that “some years” later when the chimney was rebuilt, the altar stone was removed and taken to Wisborough Green Vicarage where it was used as a garden seat!

Saving the Altar could have been a dramatic scene from a film, but this was not just an isolated incident unique to Loxwood, because over the years there have been many altar stones recovered from church kitchens, tombstones, stairs, floors, towers, and even bridges! Mr Napper didn’t appear to know which building was the kitchen at that time, however there is now a better understanding of the construction work carried out on the chapel site during the Reformation Period which may provide some clues. 

Historian James Dallaway completed a great study of West Sussex History in 1819, and noted that around the year 1540 three sisters had funded repairs and improvements to Loxwood Chapel of Ease. Dendrochronology has subsequently confirmed that upper floors were inserted in the centre and eastern bays of the priests cottage during that decade, which may also have been part of the improvement work that Dallaway had noted. With upper floors covering all three bays, it follows that the inglenook, tall chimney and outshot building at the eastern end of the cottage would have been constructed around that time to replace the internal smoke hood, and that was a significant undertaking which involved supporting the upper floor of the east wall with a bressummer beam. 

However there was also a shorter chimney and fireplace within another outshot building on the south side of the cottage, directly behind the chancel of the chapel. The chimney and fireplace were removed in the mid 1960’s but pictures taken when the outshot was dismantled in 1977 show that this was also an ancient oak building, the same style, and size as the outshot at the eastern end. Access was from the Service bay of the cottage and there was an external door to the water well and garden. The ancient frame had all the characteristics of having been built in the 15th or 16th century, possibly when the improvements were made to the chapel, and as the fireplace was inside the building it has been suggested that this may well have been the kitchen where the villagers are said to have hidden the altar stone in c1550, disguised as a bressummer beam for the chimney.

illustration depicting C1791 Church Cottage and the Chapel of Ease, with Outshot buildings

Church Cottage and the Chapel of Ease, with Outshot buildings at the East and South elevations. The frames of the buildings were of ancient oak, thought to have been built with the fireplaces and chimneys around c1550.

The discovery in the vicarage garden

Although the hiding position may never be known with absolute certainty, Henry Napper clearly did know the altar had been saved by the villagers and years later taken to Wisborough Green Vicarage. His article indicated the stone was recovered from the priest’s kitchen long before he was writing in 1883, and in fact altars were being restored to parish churches from around c1660. The altar stone may therefore have been in the vicarage garden for 100’s of years, when in 1933 it was found by a new Vicar, under some bushes and covered in moss, just where Mr Napper had said it would be! 

The stone was examined and thought to be one of the finest examples of its kind anywhere in the Country. On December 5th 1937 the stone was reconsecrated by the Bishop of Chichester Dr G.K.A Bell to be used as the altar for Wisborough Green Church, where it can be seen today.

The stone weighs about a ton, is 1ft thick and measures 6ft 3 inches long x 2 ft 6 inches wide. Three of the original five consecration crosses can be seen on the top, from where the Bishop of Chichester (presumably Bishop Robert Reade) marked the position of the crosses with his thumb when he consecrated the altar the first time in c1404.

Wisborough Green Church ancient altar stone

According to Henry Napper writing in 1883 the top stone of the Altar in Wisborough Green Church was originally the ancient Altar of the Chapel of Ease in Loxwood village.

Loxwood Parish Church

In the Georgian era c1822 the Nave of the oak framed Chapel of Ease had fallen into disrepair and was taken down and a new Nave was constructed from bricks, with slate for the roof. The new Nave changed the “T shape” to a rectangle and doubled the width of the chapel to 30ft wide x 40ft long. The medieval oak chancel from c1480 was retained, with the bridge link to the cottage and it was refaced in brick to match the new brick Nave. 

An interesting historical anecdote: In 1822 a nine year old boy was awoken one morning by his father and taken to lay the first brick in the wall of the new chapel. That boy was Henry Napper, who became a life long patron of the village and the Chapel of Ease.

In 1871 Reverend John Davies Trigg became the curate of the Chapel of Ease and his wife Emma established a Sunday School in the Chapel which was the first time a school was open for all the children of the village to attend.

A note about John Davies Trigge:

John Trigge was educated at Foys Boarding School, West Brompton under the tuition of Headmaster William Foy and when he was only twenty-two, he was appointed Headmaster at the prestigious Central National School in Brighton. He was a leading advocate of church school teachings, with its aim of providing schooling for all children regardless of their family’s financial situation.

In 1856 John Trigge left the Central National School, to study at Magdalen College Oxford. Nine years later he was Ordained in Chichester Cathedral by Bishop H B W Churton. He returned to Brighton and was appointed Curate and lecturer at St Peters Chapel of Ease, and it was in Brighton that he met his future wife Emma Andrews, who was working at The Vicarage in Montpellier Road for the Vicar of Brighton, Henry Michael Wagner.

On August 9th 1873 in the presence of Queen Victoria at her Court at Osbourne House on the Isle of Wight, Loxwood’s Georgian Chapel of Ease was ratified as a consecrated church and was thereafter known as Loxwood Parish Church, breaking the historic tie with the church of Wisborough Green. 

In November of that year Reverend John Trigge was announced as the first Vicar of Loxwood Parish Church and Henry Botting of Brewhurst became the first Churchwarden. 

The site had evolved from its early beginnings as the location of a Roman Catholic Oratory within a moated Manor House, to a medieval Chapel of Ease, a Georgian Chapel of Ease and finally a Victorian Parish Church, marking the evolution of the village through 475 years of religious, social and cultural change.

The Georgian Church

c1822 Oak framed Nave was taken down, larger Nave built using local bricks. Oak framed Chancel retained and faced with bricks to match. Door to chancel moved to North elevation. Was known as Loxwood Church from 1873.

A new church of St John the Baptist

The Sunday school in the church was popular and the high esteem in which Reverend John Trigge and Emma Trigge were held by the villagers of the time is evidenced by the many newspaper articles that praise their work at the church and within the community.

Now that Loxwood had a Parish Church, conversations turned towards the possibility of building a new church to replace, what was in effect, still a Georgian Chapel of Ease by design. By 1893 Reverend Trigge was fundraising to raise the estimated £3,000 it would cost to build the church and plans were drawn up by the esteemed Victorian architect Rowland Plumbe, Fellow of the Royal British Institute of Architects.

The new church was designed for the old site and a prospectus was circulated in 1896 showing the church in position. The entrance and crenelated watch tower would face north towards the village pond, the west window would overlook Loxwood Place, the east window would overlook the cottage with the fields beyond and the south elevation would face Willetts.

The design would have provided the centre of the village with a spectacular focal point and continued worship on a site that had already covered almost 500 years.

The beautiful pencil drawing by Andy Gammon below, illustrates how the new church would have looked in the centre of the village in 1901, with the ancient elm tree in front and its hollow trunk!

Plumbe church 1901 illustration by Andy Gammon

However on July 12th 1897 Reverend Trigge sadly died unexpectedly, leaving the village in shock and mourning a great loss.

The newspaper reported that “Rev J D Trigge had been Vicar for 27 years and was both highly respected and loved by all. His great ambition was for Loxwood to have a new church and some village elders have already said they will push forward with the scheme as fast as possible”.

The funeral service held three days later in the old church, was attended by all the children and villagers, senior figures from local villages, and from St Peters in Brighton, where John had been curate. The service was conducted by Reverend Mainprice the Vicar of Wisborough Green and Reverend Trigge was then laid to rest in Brighton with Reverend Thompson conducting that service.

Whether the loss of Reverend Trigge had a bearing on the next decision is not clear, but as the old Church didn’t have a burial ground (villagers were buried in Wisborough Green Churchyard) alternative locations started to be considered and two years later a plot of land near Loxwood river bridge was generously donated by Lionel Leslie Constable the owner of Ifold Manor House.  It was then decided that the new church would be built on the alternative site using the Rowland Plumbe design, with the churchyard between the church entrance and the Lynch Gate.

The new church was built by a team of local builders led by Henry Spooner from Alfold. The building was orientated exactly as Rowland Plumbe had intended for the old site, however instead of the length of the church sitting alongside the road, it was positioned to be seen across the river, which must have been a spectacular site as the villagers walked down the hill in those early days.

The last service in the old church was held on Sunday August 18th 1901, with the first service in the new church held two days later.

Sale of the chapel properties

The old church was finally demolished in 1903 and the materials were used throughout the village. The Wharf building located between the old church site and the new Loxwood church, was built using the bricks, windows and roof slates from the old church and the builders may also have used some ancient timbers from the medieval chancel of c1480.

Once the old site was cleared, the cottage was left standing in its own plot as it had originally been built in 1404, with the old church site becoming the cottage garden. The Chapel Trustees Let the cottage to tenants and in 1909 pictures show the garden around the cottage full of fruit and vegetables which had been grown by Charles Hooks, who was a gardener living in the cottage with his family.

For over 500 years the Chapel Trustees had fulfilled the condition of the original Grant from 1404, to always look after and maintain the property but as the church was now on another site, in 1916, they decided to sell all the chapel properties at auction. The cottage was purchased by Thomas & Catherine Wells, which was the first time the property had been in private ownership. The decision to accept the bid from Thomas Wells however was a good one, because the family lived in the cottage for 60 years and during that time they established the name “Church Cottage” to maintain the link to the historic site and they didn’t make any significant alterations, whilst other properties were being renamed, extended or in some cases demolished to make way for new housing.

The Wells family continued the legacy passed on to them by the church and preserved the historic integrity of the cottage and its medieval features, including the original sleeping area for the curate, and it is largely because of their long ownership and care that those features can still be appreciated today.

Bibliography of primary reference sources used to create this article:
Andy Gammon Art and Design
British Library
Buckwell, J, C. The Stories of Loxwood
English Heritage
Historic Buildings and Monuments Commission for England
National Archives
Lambeth Palace Church Archive
Loxwood Church of St John the Baptist Archive
Loxwood History Archive
Oxford Dendrochronology Laboratory
Stevens, S. Archaeological investigations at the site of Loxwood Place Farm
Surrey History Centre
West Sussex Record Office


This historical summary has been compiled from research using a wide range of sources. The information, dates and details are based on that research, but Loxwood History does not guarantee the original source contained accurate information. While Loxwood History uses reasonable efforts to include accurate and up-to-date information in its articles, Loxwood History makes no warranties or representations as to its accuracy. Loxwood History assumes no liability or responsibility for any errors or omissions in the content of this article and any reliance you place on the information is entirely at your own risk. Please contact us if you believe any of the details in this article are inaccurate, and we will review those details and where appropriate, amend the article accordingly.

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