A walk within Winchelsea
Retrace your steps back along Friars Road to the junction with Back Lane and St Thomas s Street. Enter the churchyard of the Church of St Thomas the Martyr.
This magnificent building was probably built during the first decades of the new town. There has been controversy about whether the church was ever completed, but current opinion is that it was. The full-sized church would have extended across the churchyard, almost to German Street, making it the size of a small cathedral. It had a central tower and spire that would have been visible far out to sea and in the surrounding countryside. All that remains now is the choir (now the nave), the side aisles and the ruins of the transepts. The remains of the original nave were demolished by Rev. Drake Hollingberry in 1777. Hollingberry did the same in 1790 to a tower that stood by the Church, the purpose of which is a bit of a mystery. At the time of Hollingberry's depredations, fragments of tessellated flooring were uncovered. As it is unlikely that the floor would have been laid before the building, the implication is that the church was completed. More recently, work to lay stone paths revealed what may have been steps down into a crypt, but the church authorities were not keen on allowing further investigations.
It has traditionally been thought that the nave, transepts and tower of the church were destroyed during a French attack. It has been suggested that the attack on the church may have been motivated by religious differences between England and France as England supported the Pope in Rome, while France had installed their own pope in Avignon. However, a map of 1572 shows that the church tower was still standing at that time, while a map of 1597 shows the tower and nave gone. It now seems likely that the demolition was carried out by the church authorities in order to reduce the burden of maintenance on the impoverished parish and that the materials were sold off.
The current bell tower of the church came into use in 1676, when the watchbell was transferred from the Strand Gate. The clock was installed in 1910 and replaced an earlier one dating from 1790.
Take the opportunity to have a look round inside the church. On the left-hand side (north wall) are three canopied tombs with effigies of a knight, a lady and an unknighted youth, all carved from Sussex marble. The knight has his legs crossed in the manner of a crusader. These effigies had been thought to have been rescued from the Church of St Thomas in Old Winchelsea and to have been members of the Godfrey family. However, they have now been dated to the early years of New Winchelsea and are thought to be the members of the Alard family, possibly Robert Alard, his wife Isabel and his brother Henry (who predeceased Robert). If you examine the wall behind the effigy of the lady, you will see a painted angel, the only part of the brightly coloured paintings that once decorated the monument to have escaped the iconoclasts of the Reformation. The effigies and the canopies would also have been painted.
On the right-hand wall (south wall) are the canopied tombs of two more knights, each with a carved effigy. The main tomb had traditionally been thought to be that of Gervase Alard, the first recorded mayor of New Winchelsea and admiral of the Cinque Port fleet in the reign of Edward I. However, it is now thought to be his brother Stephen. The tomb was opened in the late 19th century during restoration work:
During the work the effigy was removed and the grave below it opened. The coffin was apparently composed of stone slabs, the sides being two feet high, and was covered by a stone arch. The floor of the coffin was about 4 6" below the present floor level...and the body was enclosed in a roughly cylindrical leaden shell about one eighth of an inch thick. This lead casing got broken during the work. The total length measures about 6 7" so whoever the person is who is buried there, he must have been a man of unusual size.
Stephen Alardï¿½s tomb was the background for a painting by Sir John Millais called The Random Shot (also known as Lï¿½Enfant du Regiment). This shows a little girl who has been accidentally wounded by a stray bullet, presumably from the musket of a Cinque Ports Volunteer. She has been laid on the tomb to rest and covered with the jacket of a soldier, having sobbed herself to sleep, overcome by pain and terror.
At either side of the canopy over Stephen Alard's tomb are two carved heads. On the left is one of the few authentic likenesses of Edward I.
On the right is Edward's second wife, Margaret. The heads on the canopy above the second tomb are thought to be of the unfortunate Edward II and his wife Isabella, the She-wolf of France. All around the church, you will find other carved heads. Many are assumed to be images of the men who built the church. Others are less explicable. For example, under the right-hand side of the canopy over the effigy of the young man in the north aisle is a grotesque head with the ears of a bat. At the apex of the canopy over each tomb, there is the head of the pagan spirit, the Green Man.
Above the three tombs along the north wall, there is the stained glass window commissioned by Lord Blanesborough and executed by Douglas Strachan to commemorate the tragic loss of the local lifeboat, the Mary Stanford, and her crew of 17 local men on 15 November 1928.
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6 Church of St Thomas
St Thomas's Church from the southwest
St Thomas's Church from the northeast
Spike Milligan's grave
The Painted Angel on the lady's tomb (Melvyn Pett)
Stephen Alard's tomb
The head of Edward I above Stephen Alard's tomb
The Green Man in St Thomas's Church (Melvyn Pett)
The memorial window for the crew of the Mary Stanford in St Thomas's Church (Melvyn Pett)