The End of Local Christianity?

by David EP Dennis BA (Hons) FCIPD LCGI RAF

A doorway at St John the Baptist – Westfield Church, East Sussex, England

Christianity in England has Her Majesty the Queen as Defender of the Faith. This has come about after centuries of bloodshed between Catholics and Protestants. Each side had its Archbishops burned by the other. Yet Christian religion was strong – the idea of faith – the belief in Jesus Christ, still embedded in the mind. How else could the universe be here? Did not God make Man in his own likeness?

Then along came physics and the scientific method followed by a fight back by the creationists. Now the main problems for local Christianity seem to be falling congregations and falling churches. Beware the Cromwells! The ‘poling-out’ and smashing of stained glass windows by Oliver Cromwell’s men and before him the mass vandalism and art atrocities of the Dissolution of the Monasteries by Henry VIII and Thomas Cromwell, is now replaced by teams of thieves taking lead from roofs and smashing more glass, stealing from offertory boxes, overturning gravestones, illegal use of metal detectors, and the theft of valuable church items.

In those long ago days when you could be hanged for stealing a loaf of bread, theft of church property would likely see you dead too. Nowadays, crimes against churches are a daily occurrence and there is only one police officer in the whole of Sussex whose impossible job it is to specifically protect our Heritage – my good friend PCSO Daryl Holter.

Daryl explains: ‘Nowadays, crimes against churches are a daily occurrence, My work here is to specifically protect our Heritage. Sadly, churches make up 51% of all recorded Heritage crime for Sussex Police to investigate, that’s at least one to two crimes a week.’

Focusing on the divided county of the South Saxons – Sussex, visitors will find more than 560 Anglican parish churches, ranging in date from, at the earliest, the Eighth Century to the present – of these, 284 are in East Sussex. Each church has a history detailed in this most excellent website here:

In the past, the Anglo-Saxons set up churches here and abbeys and monasteries too. The Saxons managed to covert the Viking Danes after much bloodshed. To the east of Hastings, prior to the famous 1066 Battle and the building of Battle Abbey, there was a large area of French Abbey land called Rameslie, owned by the Norman Abbey of Fecamp. Rameslie covered an area from east Hastings to Rye and Winchelsea and the valley of the River Brede. The precise borders of Rameslie are not known, however, I have been visiting churches in the general area of Rameslie to see how Christianity is faring a thousand years after the fateful Norman invasion – anniversary 14th October.

In the two weeks prior to the battle, the Normans laid some villages nearby to waste, including some in the remit of Rameslie. Instead of giving the Abbey of Fecamp the right to build Battle Abbey, Duke and then King William gave it to one (creepy) monk from Marmoutier who kept plaguing him.

Then came the punitive Erminfrid Penitential:

The Bishop of Sion eventually told King William that the Pope was displeased with his murderous rule and wanted him to make amends. So finally after burning half of England, he let Marmoutier build their abbey and eventually- after his death – to forge its charters to ensure a grab of lands and spurious rights including the killing of the King’s Deer.

Here’s a view of some of the local churches in Rameslie or nearby.

Westfield Church – St John the Baptist
St George – Brede Church
Catsfield Old Church – St Laurence – early 11th Century and mentioned in the Domesday Book
St Mary – Salehurst Church
St Mary – Udimore Church
St Laurence Church, Guestling
All Saints Church, Icklesham
St Thomas-a-Becket, Winchelsea

Each of these churches has its own problems – of congregation size, administration and repair. So, for example, take a look at Salehurst Church.

St Mary – Salehurst Church frontage

When you get to the door, you will see a notice telling you (despite the Church’s stance on temperance), that if you want to see inside you must wait till the local pub opens and get the key from the pub landlord.

Contrast this with Westfield Church where, apart from a disrupted path border, the church is open and well-kept.

St John the Baptist – Westfield Church gardens
Inside St John the Baptist -Westfield Church

When you take a good look at the very old 11th Century Catsfield Old Church you can really see the problems.

St Laurence – Catsfield – roof repairs to the church

The sheer cost of re-tiling this huge roof must be very considerable – but if it is not done then the whole building will fail and it will be impossible for the congregation to sustain it, with rain falling inside it. So money has been found from somewhere – which shows commitment – either locally or from central church funds perhaps.

Now look at a commercial premises and the way they keep up a very high standard using business money because if no-one wanted to go there it would be impossible to keep the building in such a fine state. I’m talking about the Netherfield Arms Public House – here:

The Netherfield Arms Public House

Public Houses have been closing all over the UK. Those that have survived have done so by meeting local demand – for wholesome restaurant-quality food without posh and snobby waiters, for example, and children’s playgrounds, outside seating and sufficient parking. It has been a struggle to survive and relies entirely on customers’ goodwill and footfall.

So does the survival of the Rameslie and Battle District churches. they need ‘customers’ and footfall. Will we see a steady closure of churches, a loss of beauty and ancient architecture in the next 20 years? Will this be caused by a lack of money locally, centrally or just a drifting away of the ‘unfaithful’ who have decided to follow humanism, paganism or any other -ism rather than Christianity? What is at the tipping point of church collapse? Building costs rise, refurbishment is an endless task, although the greatest cost to the Church of England overall are the pension payments to retired clergy – who are living longer as health services improve.

Take a look at some of the problems of upkeep.

St Laurence – Catsfield Church graveyard staircase
Caring for the many oaks and yews at Westfield Church
Caring for graves, tombs and ornamentation – for example: The Brede Giant – Brede Church
St George – Brede Church Graveyard

Churches have been built on hills and high points, in the marshes, in woodland – all places of great beauty and tranquility. It is vital to remember that the loved ones of the local community are at rest here. The tranquil spaces must be preserved. Even if churches no longer have a use as religious centres of worship due to cost of maintenance, their grounds are hallowed, their trees are national treasures. We do not want to lose any square centimetre of peace.

I have found as I toured these places, local people who were knowledgeable about their history and the ancient history of their churches. They worry about the future for these buildings. They are concerned that housing estates are not built over graves and stunning views lost to the public due to private estate enclosure.

The question is – is this whole religious system sustainable? Have we lost too much already? Should the government and local authorities or central church authorities do more? Should precious objects and paintings be sold just to preserve church stone fabric? Should the collection boxes and church roof lead be protected by alarms and cameras? Should each church have a more active warden with a camera at the church linked by wi-fi to the warden’s home laptop?

Should the police give more manpower and resources to the issue of heritage preservation both religious and civil?

All these are tough questions. I hope I have spurred debate. Please let me know what you think.

The glorious view from St George – Brede Church

kind regards


Copyright 2021 David EP Dennis BA (Hons) FCIPD LCGI RAF

Crowhurst Churchyard – a little piece of heaven

by David EP Dennis BA (Hons) FCIPD LCGI RAF

Death and Life in a Country Churchyard

By David Dennis

In England, there are at least two Crowhursts with a very old Yew Tree – one in Surrey and this one in East Sussex near Battle. Before we learn about the magnificent King Harold 1066 Yew Tree and the other beautiful Crowhurst trees, let’s find out about St. George’s Church, where this enormous yew is located.

As M. E. Newman says in her little guide ‘Some Notes on the Church and Manor of Crowhurst’ (1971):

‘The church was first mentioned in the year 771 in the charter of King Offa of Mercia. The village was then called Croghyrst.’ Offa gave some land to the Bishop of Selsey to build a Saxon church here and then Robert Count of Eu and the Norman Archbishop of Canterbury Llanfranc rigorously enforced ownership after the bloody Conquest, in which the Crowhurst area was laid to waste by William the Bastard.

Yew trees can seed themselves naturally or be planted for a specific purpose. A human settlement can form around a naturally occurring yew tree or a yew tree can be deliberately planted to form a focus of community importance or worship.

Unfortunately, no-one seems to have been able to determine for sure, why or when the oldest Crowhurst Yew was planted and so we need to dig down through history – which is always fun.

There are several old and new yews here in the Parish Church of St George: without much ado you can view a few new yews it’s true (couldn’t resist that), and two older ones planted most probably on the orders of Sir John Pelham, who paid to have part of the pre-existing Saxon and 12th century enhanced to its present form church building, in 1412 or so. Then we come to the eldest yew here – and various sources give dates from to 1,250 years to 3,000 years.

Often yews were planted on sites of pagan worship and then Christian activity began to incorporate existing trees in a reverential way, rather than chopping them down This reverence was maybe, to entice pagans to believe in Jesus because it is said he died on a wooden cross. In fact the current priest incumbent Father told me that he thinks yews were planted by worshippers not for arcane druidic reasons but simply to provide greenery ready for Palm Sunday services.

This whole area has a truly wonderful history. Twelve thousand years before, Stone Age hunters sat on the shore of Combe Valley below where Crowhurst is now situated. Some had walked for more than 100 miles – from Dorset. Combe Valley was then, like Pevensey Levels, just the sea. You can imagine many hunters coming and sitting for an hour or so knapping flint to make knives, scrapers and arrowheads – these beautifully crafted items have been found here. Their descendants continued to hunt and occupy the area, developing into Iron Age cultures easily because of the massive amount of iron in the rocks stretching from Crowhurst to Beauport in Hastings. 

Iron was mined in the south-east of England long before the Romans came, but when they did invade they had already had a belly-full of the Druids who worshipped and used the yew tree as a source of magic and poison. The Saxons certainly lived here, King Harold owned Crowhurst and is said to have had a manor here at Wilting at the top of the hill above Crowhurst village. A case has been made that William the Conqueror’s fleet sailed up Combe Valley to beach below Upper Wilting farm near modern Crowhurst recreation ground – but this has been discounted by some experts because of evidence of silting and longshore drift at the time of the invasion.

However, the theory that best fits the facts in my opinion, is that of Kathleen Tyson in her book ‘Carmen Widonis – The First History of the Norman Conquest’. This theory sites the landing and battle near a once sea-flooded estuary near Icklesham, not that far from modern Battle. My own discovery supports her ideas. The traditional historians mistranslated the early word ‘Apuldre’ to mean ‘hoar apple tree’ whereas in fact it means Apppledore, not far from where the Vikings sailed with 230 ships and attacked Castle Toll in the sea marshes. Updated versions of books describing the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, now use Appledore not hoar apple tree – so the message is getting there slowly. Anyone who looks at Kathleen Tyson’s maps of the coast in the year 1066 will soon see how things became confused later.

A lot more work needs to be done to prove to English Heritage that the current ‘Senlac’ is not where the battle took place after all! It really took place at ‘Sandlache’ (Sandy Loch) near Icklesham. This was – back then – a very large but quiet estuary big enough for 770 ships. It would have been madness to land soldiers (and horses) on beaches with crashing waves – as Julius Caesar soon found out.

Laying to waste was a bloody business in which humans and livestock were killed, forests burned and farms destroyed. It is possible that King Harold’s Danish right-handfasted wife Edith Swan-Neck lived at Upper Wilting – and that one scene in the Bayeux tapestry shows her being burned out of her home along with her boy child – never to be king.

Thankfully the old Yew was spared – after all, the Normans were Christians. For those who think the Yew is 1,250 years old then the planters must have been Saxons not Normans. Planting a yew is usually done when then slow-growing sapling is 8 or 9 years old, so the tree and the early church building might be a simultaneous enterprise.

For obvious reasons of hatred, the Domesday book never refers to Harold as King, but as Earl Harold – who owned Crowhurst. Once he was dead, the overall landowner of church lands here has been the King of England until 1412, though the Walter of the Fitz-Lambert family managed it first for the Count of Eu from the Domesday Survey until the 12th century. Then an ancestor of Walter Fitzherbert – Walter de Scotney (originally Escoteni), was given stewardship by Richard I after the Third Crusade, although Walter forfeited it in 1259, having been found guilty of a crime.

And it was a humdinger! – Walter de Scoteni (then called), was tried and hanged, at Winchester, for administering poison to Richard, Earl of Gloucester, and William de Clare, his brother, the latter of whom died on 23rd July 1258 at Retheford in Scotland and was buried at Durreford Abbey.

Sir John Pelham, coroner of Sussex, Treasurer of the Exchequer and Royal Swordbearer was then given Crowhurst to own in perpetuity by Henry IV in 1412; Pelham built the present parish church.

To find out if our Yew could be as old as 3,000 years we need first to see if there are any such yews that old – and we find that in Wales there is one that is claimed to be 5,000 years old. On 8th July 2014, the Daily Express revealed:

‘…they say the tree in St Cynog’s churchyard, at Defynnog near Sennybridge, Powys, is certainly Europe’s oldest living thing. The yew tree is more than 5,000 years old, from the era 3,000BC. It started growing nearly 500 years before the Pharaohs built the Great Pyramid of Giza. And it was a sapling at about the time work first began on building Stonehenge. The 60ft wide tree’s age has been revealed by experts who carried out ring dating and DNA analysis. It could be the oldest living tree in the world, a title currently held by a bristlecone pine in California known to be 5,063 years old.’

So what is the girth of the Welsh giant? The Express reveals that:

‘“It is so old that it has split into two halves, one 40 feet wide and the other 20 feet wide.

“It’s DNA has been tested by the Forestry Institute and its ring count is 120 per inch, which makes it over 5,000 years old.”

This means it outranks its nearest British rival, the Fortingall Yew in Perthshire Scotland, which is said to be up to 5,000 years old.’

However, this ‘dendrochronology’ of yews is slightly suspicious, as some experts say that big yew trees don’t make annual rings?

So the Welsh tree has an approximate diameter of 60 feet. How about the Crowhurst Yew? How big is it?

Well, in 1680 it was measured to be 27 feet in girth at 4 feet from the ground and 33 feet in girth at ground level and in 2012 it measured 30 feet and two inches around with the tape measure 18 inches above the ground.

Tony Hindson and Lesley Elphick who measured it in 2012 explain that  has grown 2 feet and 10 inches (86 cm) in girth in the last 332 years so that is 2.59 mm a year, but it increased its growth rate to 3.44mm a year between 1879 and 1894 because it had been damaged – which spurred recovery. The Ancient Yew Group say that any Yew tree with a girth of 23 feet should be older than 800 years. So combining all the factors about growth rate and damage we come to the conclusion that the tree is at least 1,300 years old – not 3,000 years old.

In the much-praised book on the conflict between Harold of England and William of Normandy, Hope Muntz tells of a treasure buried nearby whose location was known by Harold’s reeve at his manor of Crowhurst. Because the reeve stayed loyal to his Saxon king, he was hanged from the Great Crowhurst Yew. The trouble is – the tree by then would only have had a girth of 10 feet so could not have been that imposing. But where is the treasure of Crowhurst now?

In 1669 Evelyn Silva alleged that the Yew  had a diameter of 10 feet and as most schoolchildren know, we can calculate its girth then using the formula: C=piD = 31.42 feet. In 1842 it was reported to be ‘flourishing’ at the topmost branches. Then in 1870 it was claimed to be 33 feet around – but gradually through storms it began to split and the top of the tree is past its best – like we would be if we were over a 1,000 years old. Twenty years ago it had a health & safety check and a fence was put around it to stop people from climbing up its temptingly convoluted and amazing branches.

Please note that all the photographs of the yew tree above are of one tree only – the King Harold – all parts connected to the roots in one massive structure – an awesome survivor.

There are more large yews and some huge oak trees in the churchyard too – it is a quiet place full of butterflies and moths, with wild flowers and well as commemorative bunches. Here for example is a magnificent holly.

And here’s a great oak…

Crowhurst also has a direct descendant tree of Joseph of Arimathea’s Holy Thorn at Glastonbury – but that’s another story!

If you have enjoyed this article please ‘Follow’ this blog – there’s lots more history and wildlife information to come. Thank you. David

St George’s Church, Crowhurst, East Sussex, England

Article copyright 2021 David EP Dennis BA (Hons) FCIPD LCGI RAF