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St Mary, Rye, Sussex

(50°56′57″N, 0°44′0″E)
TQ 921 202
pre-1974 traditional (England and Wales) Sussex
now East Sussex
  • Kathryn Morrison

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This is a cruciform Norman church, which was much enlarged in the 13thc. The nave is flanked by aisles with five-bay arcades dating from the early 13thc.; on the S side is a porch and the Lamb Vault (with sacristy over), dating from the 14thc. and 15thc. respectively. The crossing tower and transepts are of 12thc. origin, but were remodelled in the late 12thc., then again in the 15thc., when the crossing tower was rebuilt. The chancel is flanked by three-bay arcades opening into chapels: this is mainly 13thc. work, but much of the arcades was rebuilt in the 15thc.


The Domesday Survey (1086) reveals that Rye belonged to the Abbey of Fécamp in Normandy in the time of Edward the Confessor; five churches are mentioned. In fact, Rye (the ancient manor of Rameslie) seems to have been granted to Fécamp by Cnut after 1017, carrying out a promise made by Ethelred. The town - together with nearby Winchelsea - was recovered from Fécamp Abbey by Henry III, the remainder of the parish thenceforth being called Rye Foreign. Rye church was heavily restored in 1862-63 and 1882-84. The N doorway has been moved 6 feet W of its original position (see drawing of 1760).


Exterior Features



Interior Features


Tower/Transept arches

Interior Decoration

Blind arcades

Loose Sculpture


The oldest surviving part of the fabric of Rye church is the lower part of the N transept, but much of the sculpture in that area has been renewed. The VCH (vol 9, 59-60) claimed that one capital of the blind arcade on the W wall of the N transept is original: this must refer to the right-hand capital of the S arch, which, together with its impost block, is in a less pristine condition than the others. The strange form of this capital, however, has a Victorian appearance and there remains some doubt about its authenticity. With the possible exception of this capital, the N doorway, the blind arcade and the arch leading through to the N aisle have been completely renewed. However, the fragment of the blind arcade, which once adorned the E wall incorporates a scallop capital, which is clearly original, carved simply with two cones on each face. The original impost block also survives, confirming the profile of those used in this part of the building by the restorers. One other piece of sculpture, which may be coeval with this ensemble is the chevron archivolt on the S wall of the S transept.

The blind arcade in the S transept, the arch between the S transept and the S aisle and the upper parts of both transepts are contemporary. Their sculpture shares many features although, again, most of it has been renewed. The high windows in the W wall of the N transept may be original work, giving an idea of the capital and impost types which would have been used throughout this campaign. Once again, while they faithfully reproduced the profile of the imposts, the restorers could not resist elaborating the designs of the capitals. Another original capital, which may date from the same campaign is that of the blocked arch on the S side of the S transept.

The blocked arch on the S side of the S transept is puzzling as it seems to incorporate sculpture of two, and possibly three, different periods. It would appear that a mid 12thc. arch (ie: the chevron voussoirs) was reused along with several new elements (ie: the smooth capital and dogtooth label) at the end of the same century. The point-to-point chevron and nailhead may date from that later period, or could represent an intermediary campaign. The exact purpose of this arch, which appears to be an internal feature rather than a doorway, remains uncertain.

Victoria County History: Sussex. 9 (Rape and Honour of Hastings). 1937, 57ff.
J. Morris and J. Mothersill (ed.), Domesday Book: Sussex. Chichester 1976, 5.1.
Butler, George S 1870. 'The Church of St Mary, Rye', Sussex Archaeological Collections, 22, 1870, 124-33.
F. Harrison, Notes on Sussex Churches. Hove 1908 (4th ed. 1920), 174-76.
J. Borrowman, 'A short account of Rye church, Sussex', Sussex Archaeological Collections, 50, 1907, 20.
I. Nairn and N. Pevsner, The Buildings of England: Sussex. Harmondsworth 1965, 594-96.