When we come to the Church we reach the central place in the parish, and though there is no actual record in stone or document older than the 12th century, the site has probably been a sacred one since Saxon times, if not before. Long before there was any building there was the need of a burial ground. Churches were not placed in any haphazard way, but naturally arose on spots already hallowed in the minds of the people by the burial of their dead. Sometimes they gradually superseded heathen shrines, sometimes there seems to have been a hot dispute between the Christian worshippers and the heathen people over the place of their worship. In many parishes the dim tradition remains as to supernatural interference with the building of the Church, the stones of which were constantly removed from one place chosen by the worshippers to another preferred by the higher powers, and the first place constantly retains the name of Church in its description. Although we have no such tradition in Ardingly, we have Church Wood and Church Meadow away in the Strudgate part of the Parish, without any known reason for their being so named.
It is not generally recognised that our Church stands at four cross-roads, and it would not be difficult to prove also that the Churchyard was once circular. These facts may be used as evidence that the site has been a sacred one from those dim times which lie behind history. The chief road now-a-days is Street Lane, which leads from Hapstead to the Church and on to Balcombe, but the road which crosses it, coming up from the Downs and going through Wakehurst to Selsfield, is probably of greater age and was of equal importance in old days.
The following is from the history of the parish published between 1915 and 1925:
The Church is dedicated to St. Peter. It was given by William de Warenne, a Norman who came over with William the Conqueror, to the Priory which he and his wife Gundrada had founded at Lewes. There is no direct mention of Ardingly in Domesday, but the land with which the Church was endowed is part of the Manor of Ditchling. The Church stands at the crossing of the Roman Street by the road leading from Lindfield and the hamlet of Hapstead to Balcombe. This road still bears the name of Street Lane, a name of historic value. It is possible that the Church was built on the spot which had been a burial place from time immemorial.
Of William’s church but a few stones are visible – a capital found in the rubble of the north wall when it was cut through for the addition of the north aisle in 1887, and two or three built into the plinth of the south aisle to the west of the porch.
The round heads of the windows in the upper story of the Tower may possibly also be of Norman date re-worked.
The Tower appears to be Norman in its massive proportions, but the angle buttresses contradict the appearance. If the Tower was re-cased and the buttresses added, it is a marvel of re-constructional skill. The head of what may be a Norman buttress appears above the junction of the south aisle with the Tower. The stem of a beacon remains at the top of the Tower.
The greater part of the present Church dates from the second quarter of the 14th century, 1325-50, in the style called Decorated or Curvilinear. A Perpendicular window has been inserted in the south aisle, and the splendid Tower Arch and West Window belong to the same style, 1350-1500.
The priest’s door shows traces of a hood over it. There are several dial marks to be found on the buttress of the south aisle and also a sundial high up on the wall to the east of the porch.
On the south side of the Chancel is a low side window. The lower half shows a transom and rebate for a shutter, proving that it was used for some communication with outside. The idea that these windows were used by lepers is completely exploded. The porch itself has fine ancient timbers, but the weathering still remains of an earlier one.
The Churchyard was formerly surrounded by a fence, the provision of which was allotted in portions called a mark to the various farms of the parish. The portion on either side of the main gate was a stone wall. Tradition says that it was against this wall that the men of Ardingly set their backs and defied the troop of Cromwellian dragoons sent from Lewes to eject the Rector in November, 1643. A fine yew tree somewhat past its prime shades the southern side.
The Chancel contains the effigy of a priest of the early part of the 14th century, and the remarkable wooden hood moulds over the north and south windows show the scroll mouldings of the same date. The two shields in these windows are of very early stained glass – one, chequy or and az., is the coat of the Warennes, the other, or a lion rampant gules, is unidentified, but probably represents a member of the Fitzalan family with colouring altered for difference. The chancel screen, which has lately been put back into its original place, is a fine specimen of late 14th or early 15th century work. The staircase to the Rood Loft, which once surmounted the screen, still remains in the buttress on the north side.
Within the sanctuary is the altar tomb, with a fine brass, of Richard Wakehurst and Elizabeth his wife. He was Member of Parliament and concerned in much public work. He was the last of the Wakehursts and died in 1454; without doubt the most prominent man to whom Ardingly has given birth. In the central alley of the Chancel are the brasses of Richard and Margaret Culpeper, d. 1516 and 1504, which originally lay before the altar, and of Nicholas (d. 1510) and Elizabeth Culpeper, with their 10 sons and 8 daughters. Within the altar rails (which are of 17th century date) are the brasses of Elizabeth Culpeper, d.1633, widow of Sir Edward, the builder of the present house at Wakehurst, and of Elizabeth, d.1634, a grandchild of the same.
The South Aisle is called the Wakehurst Chapel, Richard, the first Culpeper owner of Wakehurst (d. 1516), founded a chantry* by his will and charged the expense on Upper Lodge Farm. It is probable that the obituary services entailed by this foundation were held in this aisle. There was also an obit with 4d. and the price of a shirt for the poor charged on Mylplace, East Grinstead, probably by Margaret Heansill, a descendant of the Stone family of Ardingly, and another for Thomas Bridges, (d.1542/3), with 6s. for the poor. These were all confiscated within a short time of their foundation. The monumental recess in the south aisle has no history.
The staircase in the Tower is ancient – its steps are cut from square blocks divided diagonally.
The bells are varied in age – the oldest date being 1629, but possibly No.4, undated, is older.
The iron grave slab, used as a fire back, is one of the well-known Anne Forster set. It was probably cast at the Ardingly Hammer (Fulling Mill), where it was till 1915. The same inscription, with different surroundings, has been cast many times. One lies over Anne Forster’s grave at Crowhurst, Surrey. She was a descendant of Richard Wakehurst.
The Communion Plate is chiefly the gift of the Culpepers in 1673.
The Registers commence in 1557, a considerable portion of the original paper book being in existence.
The War Memorial was designed and constructed by men of Ardingly.
* Noted as “an obit”
The Chancel Screen
The Bells of Ardingly
The Charter of Henry I
The Fourteenth Century
The Fifteenth Century
The Eighteenth Century
The Nineteenth Century
The Rectors and Parsons of Ardingly
The Memorials of Ardingly, Gravestones and Monuments