Origins of Shalfleet Church
The origins of the church are not precisely known and its original dedication has been lost. It may indeed have been dedicated to a Saxon saint. It had always been assumed that a Saxon church, probably a timbered building, existed on this site. Excavations by County archaeologists in 2003 and 2005 revealed the remains of Christian burials, some in the existing churchyard and some in the Old Vicarage garden across Church lane, which are of proven Saxon origin; one of the skeletons was carbon dated to belong to the late 7th or early 8th century. These remains were re-buried in a new grave by the path to the north porch in July 2008. The finds confirmed the existence of a Saxon churchyard, larger than today’s, stretching eastward as far as the west bank of the Caul Bourne. The condition of the skeletons also indicated the existence of a Christian farming settlement in Shalfleet rather earlier than hitherto thought.
The existing Norman Church was founded sometime in the years between 1070 and 1086. Percy Stone was of the opinion that it was built after the death of William FitzOsbern (1071), who gave six other Island churches to his Abbey of Lyre, and it was thus probably built by his son, Roger de Breteuil, who was banished for rebellion in 1075. Certainly it was recorded in the great Domesday Survey which William the Conqueror ordered to be compiled in 1085.
The tower is the oldest part of the church and is remarkable for its massive structure, the walls being over five feet thick. Built in the later eleventh century, it may in fact have pre-dated the church and served from the start as a stronghold for local inhabitants when threatened by invaders or piratical marauders. It must have been almost invulnerable as there were no openings at all at ground level and access was gained only by climbing an external ladder and scrambling over the parapet. The structure may occasion comparisons with the strongly built tower keep of Chepstow Castle, the stronghold of William Fitz Osbern who had responsibility for the Welsh border area.
The need for such a stronghold is made clear by the vulnerability of the Newtown River and the surrounding area and its attractiveness to seaborne raiders over the centuries, in particular the Danes at the end of the tenth century and culminating in the frequent French attacks of the fourteenth century – especially in 1377 when Yarmouth, Newtown and Newport all suffered much destruction. Defence of the Island against invaders remained a constant preoccupation, hence the provision of a 3-pounder gun, inscribed ‘Schawflet’, which was kept in the tower until 1779, and which must have been ready for use when the Spanish Armada threatened the Island in 1588.
THE TWELFTH CENTURY
Apart from the tower the only existing portions of the original church are the north door and the foundations of the north wall of the Norman nave, built in 1150. The north wall was once lit by a fine Perpendicular window in whose stained glass appeared the arms of William Montacute, Earl of Salisbury, who gave the advowson to his Convent of Bisham in Berkshire in 1414.
Over the north door is the quaintly carved tympanum, whose subject of a bearded man apparently resting his hands on the heads of two affronted lions has exercised many scholarly minds: Adam naming the animals beneath the Tree of Knowledge and the Tree of Life in the Garden of Eden; Daniel in the Lions’ Den; St Mark with lions; or David overcoming the lion and the bear?
A narrow south aisle may have been built in 1190 as there are some signs of a widening in the west wall.
THE THIRTEENTH CENTURY
In 1270 a great remodeling, and therefore enlargement, of the church took place when the present south aisle with its fine arcade of slender Purbeck piers was added as a vicarial church – probably to accommodate the manorial tenants, whereas the original nave would have been for the exclusive use of the lord of the manor and his family.
The aisle is remarkable for being the only one on the Island, apart from at Arreton and the domestic chapel at Carisbrooke Castle, where Purbeck stone was used, and for its south windows which have a possibly unique oval tracery in their heads. As late as 1796 the arms of Isabella de Fortibus appeared in one of these windows; Lord of the Island from 1283 to 1293, she may well have commissioned the work herself.
Slightly later, in 1290, the chancel was built, apparently by the same architect who shaped the chancel to the church of St George at Arreton. The great arch was also opened at this time in the east wall of the tower, but because of the lack of foundations for the latter, built as it was on clay, serious subsidence was caused in the wall above the arch
THE FOURTEENTH AND FIFTEENTH CENTURIES
There are few traces of fourteenth century work but a western buttress was added at the south angle of the tower and the original round-headed windows in its massive walls were filled in with Transitional Decorated perpendicular tracery.
In the fifteenth century, probably during the tenure of the manor by Thomas, Earl of Salisbury, the south porch was added, as also the south buttress to the east of it, while the church was re-roofed throughout and square heads inserted to the south-east and east windows of the south aisle.
THE EIGHTEENTH AND NINETEENTH CENTURIES
The north porch was built in 1754 and the door has that date roughly cut on the inside of it; in the same year a cupola was added to the tower. At a meeting in June 1796 a committee of five gentlemen was appointed to ‘Get an estimate of the Expense of Building a Singing Gallery and to Proceed to raise a subscription for Building the Same’. The bill for its erection was paid between Easter 1798 and 1800. However, this may have created too much strain on the west wall and it was later removed.
In 1800 the cupola was replaced by a wooden, tile-hung steeple, the subject of a well-known rhyme about Shalfleet people:-
‘Shalfleet poor and simple people
Sold their bells to build a steeple.’
No strengthening of the tower was carried out at this time to help bear its weight and this was to lead to later troubles.
In 1812 the north wall was rebuilt, on its original foundations, the work unfortunately being shoddily effected using a mixture of brick and stone and its windows being given makeshift wooden tracery, some of it subsequently replaced by stone mullions.
In 1889 a general restoration of the church was carried out. The tower arch – closed up since its medieval construction – was, perhaps mistakenly, unblocked; a door was cut in the north-east comer of the tower; the east window of the south aisle was re-headed; the plaster and the whitewash were removed and the fifteenth century roof timbers were exposed.
THE TWENTIETH CENTURY
In 1912 the steeple was removed because of the obvious strain imposed on the tower structure beneath it. In 1914 the north-east comer of the tower in fact collapsed and so in 1916 a certain amount of underpinning work was carried out, while the ivy was now stripped from the tower walls.
1931 saw further restoration of the roof, woodwork and the columns. In 1952 the chancel roof was restored and in 1964 woodwork in the nave and tower was treated for woodworm.
THE TWENTY FIRST CENTURY
A major repair of the fabric took place in two phases in 2003 and 2006, with grants from the Heritage Lottery fund and the Historic Churches Preservation Society as well as other bodies and donations from individual persons. Repairs were made to the tower roof (re-leaded) and stairway, the bell chamber floor, the nave and south aisle roofs and the south porch; new stainless steel ties were inserted to stabilise the church and tower arches; the east window of the chancel and the chest tomb were repaired. The tenor and sanctus bells were re-furbished and re-hung.
The font is a made-up affair with a late sixteenth century bowl placed upon a Doric cap, and is similar to one at Carisbrooke.
The oak pulpit, with its carved designs and a bookrest on brackets all round, is of the time of Charles I.
The altar rails are of the eighteenth century and the reredos, designed with the help of Percy Stone and installed in 1908, incorporates the Elizabethan communion table with its inscription and the paneling includes oak from Arreton church, St Nicholas Chapel at Carisbrooke Castle and HMS Nettle.
The box pews with their H-hinges are of the eighteenth century.
The rood screen was erected as a memorial to Thomas Hollis, the sexton from 1854 to 1909.
The two-manual organ, built in 1866 by H.C. Sims of Southampton, and until 1920 placed at the east end of the nave where the pulpit is now, was replaced in 2009 by a two-manual and pedal pipe organ of 1885, the work of celebrated organ-builder, “Father Henry Willis” for a private house in Scotland.
The thirteenth century piscina remains in the wall of the south aisle, to the right of the altar.
Just outside the south door there is scratched on the east jamb of the doorway a mass clock, but the later addition of the south porch must have rendered it useless.
Two bells are hung: the Tenor is 35 3/4″ diameter and 9 cwt in weight; its note is B flat; cast in 1815 at the foundry of Thomas Mears in Whitechapel, London; inscnbed – ‘May all whom I shall swnmon to the grave the blessings of a well spent life receive’. Thos.Way ]as.Street Churchwardens 1815. The Treble was cast in 1807 by Mears; J.Jolliffe G.W. 2.0.3 J.Cooper
Although in the early years of Edward VI (1547-53) much church plate was sold off in accordance with the beliefs of the Protestant Reformers – and Starfleet’s sale of this realised £3. ls.4d – the church still possesses two patens dated 1594 and 1705 and a chalice of 1798.
Above the north door is the Coat-of-arms of George IV (1820-1830) and the names “Jas. Whittington and Thos. Way”, who were Churchwardens from 1824 to 1833.
At the west end of the south aisle there lie two sepulchral slabs. One of these was originally thought to have covered the remains of Pagan Trenchard, the twelfth century lord of the manor, but it seems more likely to be the resting-place ofa thirteenth century Trenchard. Carved in low relief on the upper surface are a pot-shaped helmet, lance and pointed shield. These slabs were, probably in Georgian days, put out in the churchyard but were later rescued, though with some damage incurred during their movement.
In the east wall of the vicarial church is set a nameless mural tablet, dated 1630, possibly to a member of the Worsley· family.
In the chancel are several tablets by Jones and Willis, in memory of members of the Wilkinson family, who in the 18th and 19th centuries occupied Parsonage Farm on the site of what is now the New Burial Ground and were the lay rectors.
The Kindersley memorial, next to the pulpit, has lettering by David Kindersley, a pupil of Eric Gill, on welsh slate.
Way Window: in the north wall adjacent to the door; of 19th century stained glass, it commemorates William Way, owner of Calbourne Mill and Dodpits House, who was churchwarden and benefactor of the church and of the new Shalfleet School of 1850, and his wife Fanny. He died in 1859 and his wife in 1886.
War Memorial Window: by Jones and Willis, the notable church furnishers; dedicated in 1920; St George for soldiers and St Nicholas for sailors are depicted.
Wyndham Cottle Window: at the east end of the chancel. Memorial to the former occupant of Ningwood Manor who died in 1919. A former Army surgeon and later Island physician, he was a generous benefactor to the church. The window, by Jones and Willis, depicts Christ inviting the sick to come to be healed, with St Luke on one side and the Good Shepherd on the other-themes evidently chosen to reflect Dr Cattle’s profession and his interest in animals; a small oval picture of him was included at the bottom.
Pennethome Window: Nativity scene by Ward and Hughes (1888) on the south side of the chancel; the family were the ‘adopted’ children (his wife’s second cousins) of John Nash, the architect, who rebuilt the Hamstead farmhouse as a shooting- box; the Pennethome children are buried in the churchyard.
We have a map of the churchyard showing the location of all known graves. It is hard to display on screen, but we are working on it!