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The Saxons

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Earliest Times

The Saxons The Normans Late Medieval
Tudor Times Stuarts and Georgians Victorian age to Modern Times Today

There may have been a wooden church
on the site from c700

e can assume that the causeway and ferry crossing continued into Saxon times and no doubt this encouraged the growth of a Saxon settlement by the eastern landing point   Shoreham takes its name from the Saxon ‘ham’ meaning the home or dwelling place near the shore.  Other Saxon settlements soon began to appear in the Adur Valley, most doubtless on the sites of earlier villages.   In addition to establishing themselves on the old hill-forts on the high points of the Downs they settled at and named many places in the neighbourhood and elsewhere.   The Saxon endings of “ham”, “ing” and “ton”, common in the Adur Valley, indicate where Saxon communities lived. 

From earliest times small boats would have plied back and forth along the Adur loaded with cargo.   Downstream went raw materials such as Horsham slabs for roofing, but the most important in any period would have been the timber from the Wealden forests to provide wood for houses, shipbuilding, tools and fencing on the relatively treeless Downs and coastal pain.   At certain periods in history other raw materials such as iron ore, clay and charcoal were ferried downstream.   Upstream the boatmen laboured to bring grain, flour and other foodstuffs to feed both the farmers of the poor Wealden soils and the craftsmen who laboured there.   As knowledge of farming methods improved such cargoes began to include manure and lime (burnt chalk) to be spread on the clay soils of the Weald to improve their fertility.  As with all rivers, the Adur needed a port where the boatmen could transfer goods from the smaller craft used on the river to the larger, sea-going vessels.   By Saxon times, at least, this port was at Steyning, where routes were focused on the border between the high Downs and low Weald.   Inevitably people made their homes here and a market was established, so that by late Saxon times a sizeable town, with its own mint, had grown up.  

The origins of Christianity in this country are hazy.   However, we know from the writings of Bede, an eighth-century Northumbrian monk, that a successful mission had been sent from Pope Gregory in Rome to Kent under Augustine in 597.   We are equally hazy about the origins of the first churches, but it seems probable that Christianity developed at different rates in different parts of the country.

St Wilfrid, the exiled Bishop of York, brought Christianity to Sussex in 681.   He was granted land by King Aethelwealh to build a cathedral at Selsey.   Shortly afterwards Caedwalla of Wessex conquered the little kingdom of the South Saxons, but allowed Wilfrid to continue his work, and himself became a Christian.   With the spread of Christianity through all the South Saxon kingdom came the building of churches.   These, of course, were at first of wood, but as the centuries passed they were replaced by more substantial buildings in stone.   As well as in the church of St Nicolas, Old Shoreham, the work of Saxon masons may still be seen at many places in Sussex, and nearby too – St Botolphs, further up the Adur, and at Sompting.

Perhaps as early as 850, but certainly before 900, the Saxons built the present church in Old Shoreham.  The traces are slight but the evidence of the Saxon foundation is clear if you know where to look.  The boundary wall on the south side displays the curved shape characteristic of a Saxon churchyard and the nave of the church retains some clues to its origins.

The first stone-built church of St Nicolas now forms the western end of the present structure.   The church would have consisted of a nave and chancel only, with squared rubble walls, small square or round headed windows high up, and a narrow and tall rounded chancel arch.  A tower at the west end came later and there are traces, on the north side, of the Saxon doorway which led into it. 

Doorways and windows would have been narrow and bridged on top with a flat stone.   On the outside Saxon masonry is very distinctive.   One of its best known features is long and short work at the corner of the building.  The simple long and short work – large vertical stone slabs set alternately with horizontal slabs - roughly put together is seen in the column marking the change of line in the middle of the exterior of the north nave wall.   This and the very simply constructed closed-up door arch a metre or so to the west of it are clearly of very ancient Saxon origin.   The arch led to the base of the tower in the old Saxon church.  The size and shape of this tower at the west end although long demolished can be seen on the plan and traced in the present building.   There are in addition two blocked-up Norman doorways, one on each side of the nave.

The ground plan suggests that the Saxon worshippers would have gathered around their priest standing at the junction of nave and chancel.    It is likely that many late Saxon services still tended to follow the Celtic tradition (as opposed to the Roman) with services in Old English and participation by all, but this was to change with the coming of the Normans.

It is a good idea to stand back and view the building as a whole from the outside.   By standing back and just looking you will probably be able to see quite plainly where the church has been extended in length and possibly also in width and height over the centuries.   This will help you with your exploration once you get inside.

Stone church built c850-900

Saxon stonework visible on the north side