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Sompting

Dedication : St Mary the Virgin        Simon Jenkins: **                                         Principal Features : Unique “Rhenish Helm” Tower; Templar and Hospitaller Connections; Saxon Carvings

I am always a bit reticent about writing about churches like Sompting. For this is a “celebrated” church that you will find in all the major books on church architecture. Amateurs like myself can add little. I prefer, on the whole, to

focus on the hidden gems and on those churches that are not much photographed. Yet I can’t ignore Sompting because there is much that is unique.

It is located just off the very busy A27 between Hastings and Worthing. It’s not easy to see and it is most easily accessed off the westbound carriageway. There is something incongruous about a Saxon church so close to a busy main road.

Simon Jenkins manages to pull off one of his more bizarre ratings, awarding it only two of a maximum four stars. In some ways I can see his point. For all its attractions Sompting is a bit of a mess architecturally. I have to say also that it is has been poorly used in many ways, being festooned with modern lights and clutter. I always sympathise with historic churches that have to try to meet their first priority of serving their congregations whilst preserving nationally-important architecture. Sompting, I am afraid, has made a pretty poor fist of it.

It is believed that there was a wooden-framed Saxon church here built in around AD960, some 400 years after the Saxons settled in the area. A stone church was built in around AD1000. The lowest part of the tower below the string course (see picture left) is believed to have been the west end of the nave of that church: it wasn’t at that time a tower. The church was expanded in around 1050 with the west end being re-developed into the base of the soaring tower that we see today. The tower is England’s only example of a “Rhenish Helm”, although a few others exist elsewhere in Europe. The church was also expanded to the east so that the entirety of the original church was now just the nave.

In 1154 Sompting was “given” to the Knights Templar who added transepts in the late c12. They also added a small chapel annexed to the South Transept. The Templars were cruelly suppressed in 1307 on trumped-up and somewhat fantastical accusations (although the suppression in England was much milder than elsewhere in Europe) and much of their property, including Sompting, was given to the Hospitallers - the Knights of St John - in 1324. Perhaps a little surprisingly the Hospitallers added a chapel of their own adjacent to the north side of the nave. Sadly, this was ruined and in 1971 a rather ghastly parish room was built on its site. Some few vestiges of the original exterior, however, remain.

So it’s a bit of a mess, is Sompting. The combination of the extraordinary Saxon tower and connections to both Templars and Hospitallers, however, is a pretty irresistible combination. There are plenty of Saxon fragments - as we will see!

I make no apology for focusing first on the tower. The title picture shows the west side with the original lower section very obvious. Above left is the North Face. There are three pairs of window openings here, carefully arranged symmetrically either side of the pilaster strip. In fact, Sompting is not well-endowed with pilasters, making do with just one vertical one on each side of the tower plus a couple near the base of the west front. The other faces, like the western one, have just the saxon bifora near the roof: above centre is the south face.

At Sompting there is particularly good Saxon “long and short work” (alternate use of short horizontal and long vertical stones. Unusually, it is found on the pilaster strips rather than at the corners of walls. See, for example, Wittering Church in Cambs.

Sompting offers an almost text book set of Saxon window and bell openings. Left above shows a pair of triangular-headed bell openings. The terracotta tiles are likely to have been “liberated” from a derelict Roman villa. Left below are a pair of  bifora separated by the pilaster and (sad to say) an electric cable. Note

the characteristic the large stones supporting the two arches on top of a rather meagre pillar. Note also the fineness of the rounded pilaster strip - itself using long and short work - that has endured fore more than 1000 years. In the picture right is a superb example of a triangular-headed window, with massive stones to the side out of all proportion to the size of the window itself.

The entrance to the church is via a door in the south transept. We are in Templar territory here. The door is Norman, the windows clearly later. To the left we can just see the entrance to a Templar side chapel. Note the rather depressing clutter that is an unwelcome if necessary feature of this church.

Sompting is a muddly sort of church. The North Transept is divided by two c12 arches. It was built by the Templars. This is the easterly of the two halves which housed two small chapels. There is a nice lancet window at the end of a rather tight vaulted roof. The east wall was rebuilt in c19.

The chancel is probably c11. The windows are c15, but the outline of c13 Early English lancet windows are easily visible. Just visible to the right of the south window is what is probably a filled-in leper’s squint.

Looking towards the west end. The tower door is Saxon and nobody knows why it is located at the south wall rather than in the centre as would be usual. Note the typically Saxon proportions of the nave: tall but narrow

The tower doorway looking towards the altar. Carved capitals (right, above and below) are not very common on Saxon doorways. Massive unadorned impost blocks were more common.

This tiny Templar chapel now forms a an eastern annex to the south transept. Originally, however, the whole transept would have been the nave of the chapel whilst the eastern area seen in this photo would have been the sanctuary. Note the Norman “chancel arch”, window and font. The doorway to the left is to the sacristy.

To the left of the chapel’s chancel arch is this superb sculpture, probably of a bishop or possibly St Wilfrid. Nobody knows its age but it is certainly no later than c12. The folds of the clothing, the delicacy of the carvings on the bishop’s crook and on the surrounding arch contrast with the crudeness of the man’s face - especially that awful nose!

This is the south side of the Templar chapel sanctuary. There is speculation that the filled-in window may have been an anchorite’s squint.

The Norman font of Sussex or Purbeck “Marble” (limestone, in fact).

External view of the c12 filled-in doorway on the north side of the main nave.

This is another of Sompting’s treasures: a c13 carving (left) of Christ in Majesty surrounded at each corner by symbols of the four evangelists. This carving re-used two earlier carved stones from the Saxon period (right), hence the strange configuration of a stone carved back-to-back. It is mounted in the filled in c12 north doorway in the nave but was originally in a recess within the east wall of the north transept.

This little aumbry cupborad is just to the left of the reredos in the main chancel. It is surmounted by a delightful re-used Saxon stone which the Church Guide notes is similar in its decoration to the reverse of the Christ in Majesty sculpture (picture left).

Like Breeden-on-the-Hill Church in Leics, Sompting has a whole collection of re-used Saxon decoration. This particular arrangement is found lower down behind the altar table set into the east wall of the chancel. There are in fact five separate panels here if you look carefully.

The Piscina in the south wall of the chancel continues the Saxon theme with a triangular shape and Saxon carvings at its head. It all adds to the mystery of Sompting. The chancel is believed to be c11. The carvings do indeed appear to have been cobbled together from what was probably a single horizontal carving. Yet triangular openings are almost a defining feature of Saxon architecture. If the chancel is contemporary with the extensions of 1050 which gave us the Saxon tower, why did the architects re-use these carvings rather than createnew ones and where did they come from? Note also that the patterns here are identical to some of those in the photograph above. A mystery!

This photograph is taken inside the parish room that occupies the site of the c14 Hospitaller Chapel on the north side of the church.

Cat mask carving above the filled-in North door.

And here’s another aumbry, this time rectangular and with yet another course of decoration that clearly matches that of the piscina (photograph left).

In this view of the west end of the church, some of the original west wall of the Hospitaller Chapel can be seen on the left.

This strange corbel is in the North Transept supporting the vault of its east wall. It is called a “Saracen’s Head”. Whether there is any support for this notion or whether it is just an inference because of the Templar involvement in the Crusades, I do not know.

I found it hard (on a foul afternooon!) to find a vantage point from which to give an impression of the whole church. So I will finish off with a view taken towards the south porch and transept (left) and of the east end (right).