The Wakehurst Family
Two outstanding features mark the early half of the Fifteenth Century for Ardingly and, as so often happens, they are expressed in building and personality. One is the completion of the Church in the form which remained unaltered until 1887; the other is the remarkable personality of Richard Wakehurst. The last and greatest of the Wakehursts, he is, with perhaps the exception of Sir Edward Culpeper, the most widely-known man that Ardingly has ever produced. The records of his time are full of references to him. He was M.P. for Sussex County in Henry V’s reign, commissioned for the gaol delivery (judge) at Chichester in 1415, Custodian of the Peace for Sussex, 1430. He was also Commissioner for carrying out drainage and other works of improvement in the Sussex Marshes, and served his County well in many ways. We do not know when he was born, but at his death in 1454 he must have been an elderly man.
He married Elizabeth Etchingham, who survived him for ten years and lies buried with him under the altar tomb on the north side of the Sanctuary. The double brass on the tomb gives us a faithful representation of the pair in the dress of those days, and is a priceless possession of the Church.
Their only surviving son, Richard, died about the same time as, if not before, his father, leaving two daughters, Elizabeth and Margaret Wakehurst, whose romantic marriages brought the property to the Culpepers. Thus the Wakehurst family died out after holding the position of chief landowners in Ardingly for more than 250 years.
Completion of the Church
Let us now turn to the other conspicuous feature dating from this century—the completion of the Church by the addition of the Tower in its present form. The tower is somewhat of a puzzle to the student of building. It is possible that some of the core of the walls is of much older date than that which we are now reviewing
—the great thickness of the walls (4ft.) and the bases of the Tower arch are points in favour of this view; but there can be no doubt that the outer casing of the Tower, with its wide angle buttresses, the western door, window and Tower arch are typical of the work of the late 14th and early 15th centuries. The heads of the upper windows may be formed from stones belonging to the Norman church re-used with a chamfer added.
It is often remarked that Ardingly is the only Church in the neighbourhood that has a tower; the rest have spires. Now, whenever there is a fact there is a reason for its existence. Men have been asking the question “Why?” about every fact that has come under observation since the childhood of the world, and to patient pursuit of the answer we owe all the knowledge we possess. Can we find a reason for the difference between our own Church and its neighbours?
There are three special points to be considered——the troublous times during which the Tower was completed, the position of the Church, and the Wakehursts.
The Wars with France were at their height and the danger of invasion was constant; we have recently recorded how one of our Rectors was taken prisoner by the French in a raid on Rottingdean. Signalling of danger in those days was carried out from one high point to another by means of beacons, and we all know the tradition that the thick post on the top of the Tower once carried a fire basket. The objection may be raised that West Hoathly would be a much better place to signal from— no doubt—but West Hoathly had already got its spire, and towers are more convenient for signallers, as our own soldiers found out in the summer of 1914, when once again Ardingly Tower played a part in military service. Although the Church is now much hidden by trees on the S. and E., we have only to think of them as absent to realise that the Tower commands all the heights of the Sussex Downs.
We now come to the third and last point— the Wakehursts. Richard the elder, as already mentioned, was a man of considerable importance and his various public duties involved wide opportunities of seeing buildings other than those close by. Richard, his son, was closely connected with Bexhill, and the family must have known the Tower there being cased in the Perpendicular fashion and yet retaining its Norman proportions.
John Wakehurst was one of those appointed in 1415 to see to the maintenance of the Beacons.
When we see the Bexhill plan reproduced, with a beacon added, in the very village of one of the chief men of the day, is it too much to imagine that we owe to the Wakehursts the present form of the sturdy Tower which marks us off from our neighbours?
Nearly five hundred years have passed since Richard Wakehurst worshipped where we worship now, in the Church which is sacred to all generations. He took his share in handing on to us a possession of incalculable value. The glory of God and the good of His people is the secret of all good building, and those builders of old possessed it. They endure as seeing Him Who is invisible.
The Coming of the Culpepers
During the latter half of the 15th century the Manor of Wakehurst passed into the hands of the Culpepers, and in consequence the history of Ardingly is closely bound up with the history of the family, who for more than two hundred years held the foremost place in the parish.
The possession of Wakehurst by the Culpepers came about in the following fashion. Richard Wakehurst, the last of his family, died in 1454, leaving as his heirs two granddaughters, Margaret and Elizabeth, the children of his son, Richard, who had died before him. These girls were left to the guardianship of their grandmother, Elizabeth Wakehurst, John Gaynesford and other trustees, who for some unknown reason handed them over to Sir John Culpeper and his wife, Agnes, who lived at Bedgebury, in Goudhurst, Kent. Whether Sir John was trustworthy or not cannot now be ascertained, but in or about 1463 his two brothers, Richard and Nicholas Culpeper, appeared “with force and arms, riotously against the King’s peace, arrayed in the manner of war,” and carried off the heiresses from Sir John’s house. They took them first to their sisters’, at Bobbing, in Kent, and then on to London, where the marriages must have been quickly solemnised, for by the time that Elizabeth Wakehurst and the other trustees could institute proceedings for the recovery of the heiresses, Margaret Wakehurst was safely married to Richard and Elizabeth to Nicholas Culpeper. Whether there was much romance about the matter in the first instance may be doubtful, “the said Margaret and Elizabeth at the time of their taking away making great and piteous lamentation and weeping,” but in those rough and tumble days people had a great power, adapting themselves to uncomfortable circumstances, and the little that we know of their later history leads us to think that the marriages turned out happily.
Grandmama Wakehurst and her co-trustees, finding themselves unable to recover possession of the heiresses, proceeded to make things nasty for the runaway couples by refusing to give up the title deeds of the considerable property belonging to their wards, which included three manors besides Wakehurst. But ere long death smoothed the trouble and in 1464 the body of Elizabeth was laid beside that of her husband, Richard Wakehurst, within the altar rails of Ardingly Church. From that time the heiresses and their husband, had possession of Wakehurst, and it remained in the ownership of their descendants down till 1694. Richard and Margaret had no children, but Nicholas and Elizabeth had no lack, ten sons and eight daughters being portrayed on the brass which commemorates their parents. Richard (who it may be well to record took part in the rising under Jack Cade in 1450) survived his wife and his brother Nicholas and died himself in 1516, the last survivor of the four being Elizabeth. They and their descendants have passed beyond the veil, leaving their bones to rest in peace within the Church we know so well, where they in their day and we in ours worship Him with Whom a thousand years is as one day.