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The Normans

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Earliest Times

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

Arms of de Braose

Philip de Braose, 2nd Lord Bramber,
commemorated in a window in St Mary de Haura

St Nicolas'  c1140

fter the Norman invasion of England in 1066, the new local Norman overlord was the first Lord of Bramber, Guiilaume de Briouze or William de Braose.   He must have quickly caused anger amongst the Saxon peasantry of Old Shoreham by granting the tithes of the church and Old Erringham Chapel nearby, to his new church at Bramber.   From Saxon times a tithe of one tenth of everyone’s produce was raised to support the local church.   De Braose’s changes resulted in tithes levied in Shoreham going to benefit the church of a village some miles away.  

Worse was to come:  the earliest documentary mention of St Nicolas’ Church shows that in 1075 the revenue of the whole church and the right to choose the rector was granted by de Braose to the Abbey of St Florent at Saumur in Anjou. This was to help the Abbey establish a Priory at Beeding.   The church is also mentioned in 1086 in the Domesday Book which also records a settlement of 6 acres of meadow, woodland and land for 15 ploughs serving the needs of about 300 people.  The settlement was assessed at just over 5 hides (land for taxation purposes), but this represents a decline since the mid-eleventh century when it was valued at 12 hides producing £35.   The modern taxpayer will appreciate the problem faced by the village which was over-assessed at a value of £50 “but it could not bear it”.   

A further cause of this population decline was the changing shape of the coastline and river channel.   Following the demise of Bramber and Steyning as ports, Lord Phillip de Braose, son of William, chose to establish new port facilities at a purpose-built town further south, to be named New Shoreham, where he also built a new church named St Mary de Haura - St Mary of the Harbour.   Old Shoreham, though still the lowest crossing point, became something of a trade backwater; however this did not mean it was left in peace.

King Henry I died in 1135 after naming his daughter Matilda his heir.  Henry’s nearest male kinsman, Stephen, Count of Blois, claimed the throne and the result was civil war.  Sussex did not escape the war and in late 1139 Stephen was laying siege to Arundel.   So commenced what historians once called the 'Anarchy', a time of unbridled political and social chaos when the barons of England fought out their private feuds and ambitions across the kingdom.   It is hard to imagine that Shoreham would not have been affected by the violence and strife of civil war, which was intermittently waged until 1153 when a compromise was reached whereby Stephen would reign for his lifetime but accept Matilda’s son Henry as his heir. 

Even as this strife was beginning, Lord Philip commissioned work on St Nicolas'.  No doubt he brought over Norman masons, as a comparison of the work on St Nicolas' and the church of Domfront, close to his home in Briouze, shows. By 1140 our narrow, stone-built parish church had had the upper stage of the former Saxon west tower removed and the south wall of that tower and the nave reconstructed on a single alignment as part of a westward extension of the nave.   An early doorway in the north wall of the tower had been blocked and a new doorway opened in the north wall of the nave, although the main entrance was by an enriched doorway in the west wall of the south transept.  

What remained of the old Saxon building were the north and west walls of the nave, and perhaps part of the south wall.   The chancel had been replaced with a newly completed tower, supported internally on round arches.   The new tower was flanked by transepts with eastern chapels, and a new apsidal-ended chancel.   The nave west of the low tower, was longer than the chancel.   The windows would have been small and high up and there would have been no pews.   The church was almost like a fortress inside.    And it was indeed a fortress to Christianity in a time of turmoil and in a community where pagan memories and practices survived, where barons were like warring kings and monasteries the centres of faith.   Small village churches like St Nicolas’ were like mission stations in a jungle clearing.

The modern visitor can readily appreciate the skill with which the 12th century craftsmen achieved an interior of rich carvings of limpets, chevrons, beaded cabling, shells, rosettes and other decorations on the south transept doorway and the pillars and arches of the crossing tower.  

Nor can he or she fail to enjoy the carved figures, including King Stephen (1135-1154) and his Queen, Matilda, which adorn the junction of arches and pillars, and the grotesque cat which crowns the nave arch.   What the 12th century villagers thought of their new church went unrecorded.   We can speculate that in the normal manner of such things, some were impressed by the gleaming new stonework (which may originally have been painted in rich colours - red, yellow, blue, white and black) while others looked back in sorrow at the removal of so much of the old church.   Some may have unwittingly provided the inspiration for the amusing carvings and caricatures which masons included among their work in medieval times.

The Norman doorway

(L) Notre-Dame-sur-l'Eau, Domfront, Normandy 
(R) St Nicolas' Old Shoreham