Standing in the Sussex Parish furthest from the sea and at 406 feet above sea level Rusper Church is at the highest point in West Sussex.
Where else can you see Morris Men dance in church on May 1st? An outstanding East Window and pre Reformation brass memorials of note adorn an otherwise plain interior.
Memorials to the musical Broadwood family abound There are many stories to tell of what in many ways seems an ordinary rather small village, yet some of those tales are quite extraordinary.
Click on the church plan to see an interactive floor pan of St Mary Magdalene
Just over fifty years ago a fascinating document came into the hands of the then Rector of Rusper. It was a medieval document confirming the rights granted by local lord William de Braose to a small group of nuns who had been settled in the village since the 1100s and gives us perhaps our first written hint to the history of this place, for unlike many ancient villages we cannot claim to have made our mark with an entry in King William’s Domesday Book of 1086. the nuns possibly chose this spot deliberately as a remote and wooded area suitable to their contemplative way of life and, who knows perhaps this is why the compilers of the Domesday Book missed the small community? In every culture elevated sites have been perceived as having some mystic meaning and.
The list of Rectors of Rusper goes back to around the time of St Richard of Chichester early in the second half of the 1200s, but there had been a Benedictine nunnery here since the previous century, so it is likely there was a building in existence far earlier. Domesday Book is mysteriously silent on whether there was any settlement here in Saxon times, but the high ground would have lent itself to sustaining a few dwellings. There is evidence that early churches were often built on sites considered sacred in the pre-Christian era so we might imagine that the position of the ‘rough enclosure’ from which the name Rusper derives already held some religious significance for the pagans who first lived here
The nuns held powerful sway in local politics, though on occasion were heard to plead that they did not enjoy the wealth or trappings that befitted their station, indeed it is recorded that St Richard himself intervened on their behalf when they were short of grain. It may have been the saint himself who ordained our first recorded priest for the name of William de Hortune, rector of Rusper occurs as witness on
The connections between landed gentry, the nuns, rectors and their patrons formed a close knit community The present rector has discovered that he is related to most of his predecessors between the years 1560-1890.
The church has notable examples of pre Reformation brass memorials, placed on the walls when the Victorians rebuilt the church in 1855. it is recorded on the memorial stone of wonham in churchyard that she died…foundation stone
The history of Rusper begins with the small settlement of Benedictine nuns in what was then a remote part of the Weald in the early thirteenth century. The name Rusper is unique; no other place in the British Isles has a similar name and it probably derives from the Old English ‘ruh spaer’ a rough enclosure. In this rough enclosure the church was founded, probably soon after the Nunnery became firmly established, but the first record of the church is not until 1287 with the appointment of a Rector. Possibly the church was enlarged to meet the needs of the developing settlement.
The present church probably dates from this time, although the nineteenth century rebuilding has left little evidence of the early period. There is, however, a drawing of the church prior to the rebuilding which clearly shows certain early fourteenth century features.
The church was rebuilt in 1854-44 by the Broadwood family of Lyne House, in the parish of Capel, who throughout the 19th century had much concerned themselves with the village. It had originally been intended to enlarge the church by making a south aisle, but when the foundations were found to be insufficient for this and the building generally to be in an unsound condition, the four sons of James Shudi Broadwood, who had died in 1851, offered to rebuild the church in memory of their father.
This offer was accepted and the church was rebuilt completely, with the exception of the tower, but following closely the original design except for the addition of the south aisle and the raising of the roof, with clerestory windows added to give more light. The architect was Henry Woodyer and the contract price was @2,150. The tower itself was altered by removal of the original wooden cap and the raising of the stonework by 10ft, utilising old stone, coming from Holmbush, near Faygate, and roofing was in Horsham stone slabs, many of these presumably coming from the original building. It was the use of iron pins, rather than the traditional oak pegs, to hold these slabs, which lead to the collapse of part of the north roof in 1979.
Entrance to the church is through a timber-framed porch, of late 16th century origin, into the west end of the south aisle. Near to the door is an old small square font on a 19th century base which was found in a local farmyard.
The West Tower
This is of massive construction and apart from the raising of the stonework in the Broadwood alterations is basically as originally built in the late 15th century. Bequests of Stephen Garrett of Bristol and John Bradbrig of Slinfold, who each left 6x. 8d. towards ‘the making of Rousper’ date the building to between 1489 and 1503. The height of the tower is 68ft and it is a fine example with its heavy buttresses and battlements of a perpendicular church tower of this period.
In the south wall is a doorway giving access to a circular staircase built into the angle of the south and east walls. Note the plaque recording the remains of a prioress and four nuns buried at Rusper Nunnery who were accidentally exhumed in 1840 and were reinterred near the south wall of the tower. When the remains were discovered a beautiful enamelled chalice of Byzantine workmanship and a rosary of semi-precious stones. These items are now in the British Museum. On the 1st floor of the tower is the ringing chamber and on the floor over the 8 bells is a steel frame. Six of the bells are inscribed “Gulielmus Eldridge Fecit 1669’ (William Eldridge was a bell founder in Chertsey) and the remainder were hung in 1897 to mark Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee. Bell ringing has always been a feature of Rusper Church life and a board in the ringing chamber records a peal of Bob Major (5056 changes) rung in 3hrs 5mins on 21 December 1919. Other records of change-ringing are on the boards in the south wall of the tower.
On the floor of the tower are a number of 17th Century memorial stones and brass inscription plates and on the wall various memorials to members of the Broadwood family. Note in particular on leaving the tower a fine alabaster memorial on the west wall to Lucy Ethelred Broadwood (1858-1929) by Thomas J Clapperton (1879-1962)). Lucy Broadwood was a pioneer in folklore research who recorded and preserved Sussex folk songs, plays and dances. She is commemorated today by the Broadwood Men who perform regularly in the villages around Horsham and act the Rusper Mummers Play each Boxing Day.
The North Aisle
Like the South Aisle, is separated from the nave by an arcade of four bays with circular columns. The long and two short pews enclosed by screens at the west end of the North Aisle are known as the Broadwood pews. Also in this aisle are various memorials to other members of the Broadwood family.
The two features of the nave are a fine 18th Century brass candelabrum given by Edward Mills of Rusper Court House in 1770 and the carvel Royal Arms of George I over the tower arch. From the restoration of Charles II then display of royal coats of arms in the churches was compulsory as acknowledgement of the Sovereign as a temporal head of the Church. George I Arms are therefore either a replacement of earlier royal arms of possible the authorities were a little slow in enforcing their instructions in Rusper.
The pews are part of the 19th Century reconstruction, but a record of the allocation of pews in 1763 is preserved with the Rusper documents in the West Sussex Record Office. Every house in the parish was allocated, and paid for, its own pews; even as late as 1763 there were still separate pews for men and women on opposite sides of the church.
The list of ‘church marks’ relates to the maintenance of the church fence by the owners or occupiers of the main houses in the parish. This custom, which applied also in a number of other Sussex parishes, lasted well into the 19th Century.
Before the church was rebuilt, the nave was separated from the chancel by a Jacobean screen; the space between the top of this screen and the roof was boarded and written on these boards were the Creed, the Lord’s Prayer and the Commandments. This screen was clearly a major loss in the restoration.
Fortunately, however, two interesting brasses in the nave floor survived the restoration and are now set in the north wall of the chancel. The first, which is dated about 1380, records in Norman French “John de Kyggesfolde et Agneys sa feme gisount icy, dieu de lo’almes est m’ce” (John of Kingsfold and Agnes his wife lie here. God have mercy on their souls). This is one of the earliest examples of an inscription in Norman French rather than in Latin. There are records to show that in 1326 John of Kingsfold and Agnes bought a messuage (dwelling house) and virgate of land (about 30 acres) in Rusper. The clothes worn by John are the high buttoned jacket with tippet and hood worn by the ordinary yeoman at the end of the 14th Century and Agnes wears a simple veiled headdress.
The second brass dated 1532 is to Thomas Challoner and his wife Margaret of Porters Farm, Friday Street. The boy below is presumably their son. Thomas Challoner may possibly have been a maker of ‘challons’, a woollen quilt, originating from Challons-sur-Marne in France. Certainly his dress, typical of the period, indicates a man of some substance.
The glass in the East window is modern, being inserted in 1955 as a thank offering for the centenary of the church rebuilding. The designer was Gerald E.R. Smith. The theme is the ascended Christ in Glory, together with panes of country scenes of Rusper in the four seasons, with birds, animals and the old and new churches. The tablets painted with the Commandments, the Lord’s Prayer and the Creed, flanking the East window, were undoubtedly done at the time of the restoration to replace panels over the Jacobean screen.
On the way out not the old oak ironbound 13th Century chest to the right of the Trevaskis window with linenfold panelling at one end. Before the Reformation these chests were used to collect ‘Peter’s Pence’, the money demanded from all English churches to be sent to the Pope. The keys to the three locks were held by the rector and the two church wardens, so that it could only be opened when all three were present.
The Churchyard contains a number of 18th Century tombstones, including one to the Mutton family, who were reputed to have come over the England with William the Conqueror and who lived in Normans until the end of the last century. To the north and east it is still bound by the wooden fence of a type similar to that used for many generations.
So much for the building. What of the people who were responsible for running the church and organising the parish? Fair quantities of records survive and are deposited in the Diocesan Record Office in Chichester. The parish registers date from 1560; there are churchwardens and vestry records from 1676 and accounts of the overseers, who were responsible for collecting a poor rate and arranging parish relief, from 1711. All the principal inhabitants of the village served in turn as one of the churchwardens, waywardens (who were responsible for the roads) or overseers. The out of work were generally employed on road maintenance, receiving 2s a day met from the highways rate. However, a bill of 1730 from ‘The Star’ for “likor for the waymending at Friday St.” indicates that there were certain other benefits. The accounts of the overseers throughout the 18th and 19th Centuries indicate a considerable concern for the less fortunate. There are gifts for the elderly – a ‘quartern of wood for ye widow field’ – together with regular weekly cash payments; payments for looking after orphan children – “to Thomas Bell for keeping Thomas Potter’s children”’ payments for vagrants – “the expenses of the tinker’s wife” – although they were probably moved on quickly to the next parish; and finally payments for a decent funeral.
An almshouse was built in 1698 on land at Venters, about a mile from the centre of the village, although this was turned into a workhouse in 1731. Later in the early 19th Century the row of cottages adjacent to the Star were built as almshouses and served this purpose until 1833 when country parishes were vested into rural districts for rating purposes and administered from the nearest town.
Presiding over all this was the rector, Rusper was clearly fortunate in having a number of rectors who gave a lifetime’s service: Joseph Browne for 43 years (1580 – 1633), John Priaulx for 32 years (1680-1712), John Wood for 48 years (1748-1792), Peter Wood for 61 years (1792-1853 and Henry Gore for 32 years (1853-1885). No startling disputes with parishioners are recorded, apart from a brief unhappy period in the early 1920’s and the excellent state of the records throughout the 18th & 19th centuries probably indicates a reasonably content and prosperous community. Extensive glebe lands were attached to the rectory and were farmed. Presumably this enabled John Wood as recorded on his memorial tab let to be “very easy in his demands for tithes’ as well as being “punctual in his discharge of his priestly office”.
In the early 19th Century Rusper even had a curate – Thomas Smith, for 18 years. He was most punctilious in his parochial duties. His pocket book survives; in this are recorded details of all the inhabitants. It is interesting to note that in 1821 there were 89 families in 69 houses, 487 inhabitants in all, of whom 165 were children under 10 years of age! Just fewer than 100 men were working, two thirds of them in agriculture. Mr Smith recorded various comments on his parishioners, using Latin when he wished to write anything critical. Some of his comments are rather cryptic. Of one of the almshouses he wrote: “The house is the resort of young men – for the purpose of playing cards and eating tarts and fruit”.
The East Window
The East Window, installed in 1955, is based on the Benedictine, with the two Angels in the tracery lights beholding scrolls with the opening verse of this Canticle: “O All ye Works of the Lord, Bless ye the Lord: praise Him and magnify Him for ever”. The centre figure is the Ascended Christ in Glory; at the top of this light is the Holy Spirit in the form of the Dove, with the Sun behind.
In the outer main lights are scenes typical of the four seasons in Rusper. On the left at the top, Rusper Churchyard in shown in spring. The then verger, Mr Harris, can be seen with his mowing machine in the foreground. On the right is a scene adapted from a drawing by Gainsborough, ‘Cattle in a stream’, to represent summer. Below, on the left, autumn is shown by another Rusper scene – looking southeast form Normans Corner on the Faygate road. In the field of corn can be seen a combine harvester, while at the bend of the road is a farm cart. In the right had light is another Rusper view- looking westward to the distant hills in Winter, a farmer and his dog are in the foreground while a fox is crossing the snow covered field in the middle distance.
The framework round these scenes symbolises the Tree of Life and in the foliage are various birds of the countryside. In the left light from the top are show a swallow, nuthatch, chaffinch, tree creeper, goldfinch, tawny owl, bullfinch, thrush; at the base a woodpigeon and woodpecker with a red squirrel and rabbit. The building in monochrome is a view of Rusper Church as it is today.
The birds in the right light are, from the top, a lark, magpie, cuckoo, hoopoe, bluetit, spotted flycatcher, barn owl, robin, blackbird, lapwing and pheasant, with a hedgehog and lamb. The building here is the old Church before restoration.
In the two openings on either side of the Cross at the top of the tracery are the Alpha and Omega, whilst in the two smaller openings are the Jar of Ointment (left) – emblem of ST Mary Magdalene, Patron Saint of Rusper Church and the symbol of the Holy Trinity (right) to whom the Cathedral Church of the Diocese is dedicated.
To the left of the south door is a new ‘window’ in a wooden frame. This window, made by Fourace and Son of Plymouth, was originally installed in the Church of St Luke, Southampton, in memory of the Reverend James Trevaskis DD, Vicar of the parish of St Luke from 1899 to 1925. His son, the Reverend Hugh Trevaskis, was rector of Rusper from 1932 to 1948. The window was removed from the Church of St Luke after it was declared redundant and installed here by members of the Trevaskis family in 1996.
This is only a brief introduction to a church and parish with a history stretching back nearly 800 years. For further information reference should be made to Barbara Underhill’s excellent booklet – ‘Rusper Yesterday and Today’ and Francis Steer’s detailed guide to the church.