The church stands on the point of a spur which projects into the Brede valley. Here an ancient trackway crossed the River Brede. The trackway was broad and by a ford in a forest clearing, thus named a “leah ford”, from which has come Leeford. Shrines and chapels, where wayfarers could offer prayers, were often built on such sites.
In 1086, the Domesday Book states “Earl Harold held Watlingetone, Earl Harold was King of England from January 1066 to October 1066. In the Domesday Book he is referred to as Earl Harold since the Normans did not admit his claim to the throne) It was worth 50 shillings and has been waste”. This could be because in 1066 whilst William remained near the coast for a fortnight, hoping to draw Harold to fight him, he systematically destroyed the villages around, pillaging, killing and burning. This may be the reason why there is no mention of a church in Whatlington in the Domesday Book.
However, the Yew tree which stood in the churchyard, until it fell in the storms of 1987, dated from before the Conquest. Dendrological examination of the fallen Yew established it to have been already aged in 1066, but its precise age could not be determined, the centre of the trunk having rotted away to create a cavernous hollow. Local folklore, handed down through the generations, tells that from the boughs of these trees were hanged in chain, members of King Harold`s personal guard. This could certainly be true, as in the reign of Edward the Confessor, the lordship of Watlingetone had been seized by Earl Harold, and therefore he would have known the “lie” of the land, when preparing for battle. On his march to Battle he would probably have used the old road from London which passed through Whatlington. Perhaps, therefore, it was in a chapel on this site that King Harold heard Mass before the battle, as described in Hope Muntz`s historical fiction “The Golden Warrior”. It is at least interesting to speculate !!
It is known that there was a chapel at Whatlington prior to 1200, because Simon de Echyngham (Etchingham) retained his “rights” in it when granting lands to William de Haremere about the end of the 12th century.
( After The Conquest, Watlingetone formed part of the large estates, granted by Robert, Earl of Eu, to Reinbert, founder of the House of Echyngham.) In 1205, the Chaplain of Whatlington, according to the “Robertsbridge Charters”, was Warin the son of Gilbert de Dumare. In 1252, William, son of Simon de Echyngham bequeathed his “rights” in the chapel to the Abbot of Battel. (Battle)
The present church building must have been built not long afterwards, either by Ralph de Coventry, the tenth Abbot of Battel, or his successor, Reginald, for the East window dates from around 1275. This could be supported by the fact that the original window in the North wall of the church, was reported, in 1776, to contain, in a shattered condition and partly upside down, the arms of Battle Abbey.
In 1291 the advowson was with the Abbey of Battel and was worth £4 13s 4d and in 1299 it was recorded that Whatlington was taxed seven marks in Pope Nicholas`s taxation.
Some alterations to the church probably took place in the 15th century, as the first and fourth windows in the South wall possess the exterior square labels of the period.
In 1538, after the dissolution of Battle Abbey, King Henry V111 granted the advowson (benefice) of Whatlington to Sir Anthony Browne, his Master of Horse. Sir Anthony became the first domestic resident of the Abbey. He has a fine memorial near the altar in St. Mary the Virgin Church, Battle. It has doubtfully been attributed on stylistic grounds to the Florentine sculptor Torrigiano ,a pupil of Michelangelo, who made the tomb of Henry V11 in Westminster Abbey. It remained in the family of Viscounts Montagu until 1685. Towards the end of the 17th century the patronage had come into the hands of Lionel, Duke of Dorset, and remained in that family until 1877. In 1877 the “living” was inherited by the first Lord Sackville and has been with the Sackville family ever since. However when the benefice united with that of nearby Sedlescombe, under Ernest Reid , Lord Sackville and the Lord Chancellor became alternate patrons.
The chancel and nave are structurally undivided. The walls of the church are supported by six original buttress. Prior to the 1862 restoration it appears the church may have fallen into a state of disrepair. In that year it was reopened after extensive works, paid for by public subscription.
In common with so many medieval churches, the restoration was extensive, allowing the Victorians to put their stamp on the building. The old bell turret on the West end of the roof was replaced by the present NW tower and steeple, the porch of which now serves as the principal entrance. (The old porch here was taken down.)
The South door was closed off and replaced by a window.
It may be seen that the East gable retains its ancient coping.
The organ loft is also believed to date from the 1862 restoration.
In 1908 the vestry was added, having being funded by Sir Thomas Brassey of Catsfield , giving us the building as you see it today.
The weather vane commemorates organist Ken Crouch who did so much for the church.
The church hall was built in 1888 at a cost of £120 (Kelly`s Directory 1903), It was purchased from the P.C.C. of St. Mary Magdalene in 1956 by Whatlington Village.
The principle feature of the church is the East window, of three trefoiled lights believed to date from around 1275. The present glass dates from Victorian times (1850s) and is thought to be of French origin. At the top can be seen two pieces of medieval glass with a green vine leaf design, these were formerly in the lancet windows.
All other medieval glass was removed at the restoration in 1862. The east window was formerly divided into squares with line designs which may have been inspired by the arms of the Echynghams (azure fretty argent) and there was a border of silver leaves and flowers. In the corner of the chancel, on corbels, are two small sculpted heads which most probably represent King Edward I, the reigning sovereign when the church was built, and Eleanora, his Queen.
The two lancet windows in the north wall of the nave, the easternmost is original and the other modern. Of the four lancet windows in the south wall, the second from the east is original, the first and fourth late 15th century. The original window in the north wall was reported in 1766 to contain, in a shattered condition and partly upside down, the arms of Battle Abbey within a border of silver foliage.
The north doorway is a plain arch opening and mainly modern. The west wall has been partly rebuilt and contains a plain doorway of two orders. The font. of the same age as the church, has an oak cover with ornamental wrought iron. It has a plain square bowl with chamfered angles and an octagonal shaft with a square base. It is one of only five in Sussex that is lead lined. It was kept may years ago to prevent the Holy Water from being stolen. The font ewer (pitcher) is oak bound with brass.
The pulpit and lectern are worthy of note, they are of French craftsmanship and were exhibited in the Great Exhibition of 1851. The hexagonal pulpit is supported by the figures of Faith, Hope and Charity, with the Good Shepherd and four saints carved in the panels. It was bought in 1862 and is dated 1643.
There are beams along the nave walls with centuries old carving. The carved oak altar, presented in 1933 by Hilda Gripper, is in memory of her parents. The brass candelabrum is 18th century Flemish work and was given as a gift by the late Reverend F. J. Browell. It has eighteen lights. The organ was erected in 1937, it cost being met by subscription of the parishioners.
The belfry contains three bells. Bells 1 and 2 are uninscribed. The third bell, originally cast in 1636 was inscribed "Laur Chaderton, Parson of Whatlington IP 1636 Richard Donck, Lance Davies, SC Warden T P". It was recast in 1862 and now bears J Warner and Sons, London patent (recorded in George Elphick's book "Sussex Bells & Belfries").
The plate used for communion includes a small pre-reformation silver paten from the latter half of the 15th century and together with the silver communion cup of 1624 (James I) are both still in use today. The communion cup is 6 inches high and weighs 6oz 15 dwts. The maker was Mark HS over a mullet. It has a bell shaped bowl decorated immediately under the lip with an arabesque divided six times, the stem is divided by a knop and joins the bowl and foot by a reed moulding. The foot is decorated with egg and line. It is inscribed round the centre of the bowl "The communion cup of Whatlington exchanged by L.D. 1625". The silver paten has a diameter of 4⅛ inches, weighs 1oz 10dwts and has no hallmarks.
It was once the middle of a pre-Reformation paten, the centres from which the sexfoil depressions were struck by the original makers are very prominent and the spandrels are in perfect order. The central device has disappeared.
The parish register begins with the reign of Elizabeth I in 1558 and is complete to date, except for the years 1649 and 1650. This may be because of the extension of the Civil War . It contains the names of parishioners who supported the Grand Remonstrance in 1641. The names of several families still resident in the parish or surrounding areas, are to be found in the first volume.
In Kelly`s Directory of 1887 (Sussex) it reads” The church of St. Mary Magdalen is a small building stone in the Early English style, consisting of chancel and nave and a tower with spire on north side containing three bells, the lower part of the tower serving as a porch: the east window is stained and the pulpit is of richly-carved oak, with figures of the four Evangelists in panels: there is a brass to Alice, wife of Richard Dunck, of Vine Halle, of April 22nd 1627: the church was restored in 1862 by voluntary subscription and has 120 sittings, all being free. The register dates from the year 1558. The living is a rectory, tithe rent-charge £221, net yearly value £207 with 9 acres of glebe, in the gift of Lord Sackville, and held since 1877 by Rev Frederick Moor MA of New College, Oxford, who resides in Battle. The church is again mentioned in Kelly's Directory in 1903 & 1938.
The church also receives brief mentions, both in Arthur Mee's “The Kings of England, Sussex” and in Nikolaus Pevsners “The Buildings of England, Sussex”.
You may also like to know that Mrs Winifred Williams ( Patience Strong ) was a Sunday school teacher at this church. She left in 1962.
Transcribed by Hilda Aplin