A brief history of St John's Church

Richard Field

Although the present building of St John sub Castro Church dates only from the 19th century, there has been a church on the site for over 900 years.


The Saxon doorway from the old church

At the rear of St John’s, embedded into the northern outside wall, is the oldest Christian relic in Lewes. It is an arched stone doorway, late Saxon in style. For over seven centuries it was the entrance to a church which once stood a few yards away.

That church was one of the first churches to be established in Lewes. We know that it was in existence some time after the year 1000 and before the Norman conquest, but it may have been built in the 9th century or even earlier on the site of an earlier fortification.
Two pre-Christian burial mounds stood nearby.1

In 1121, along with most of the other Lewes churches, St John’s came into the possession of Lewes Priory, the Priory of St Pancras, which, as the mother house in England of the Cluniac Order, must have had a dominant influence over the town until the Reformation. During that time the Priory, as patrons, held the right to appoint the Rectors. The name ‘St John in the Castle’ – or, as we have it, ‘St John sub Castro’ – is first used in a document of 1190. Presumably this was to distinguish it from the Priory Church at Southover, which was also dedicated to St John the Baptist.

The church had a mysterious resident at some time in its early years, most likely in the 12th or 13th centuries. He was a Danish prince named Magnus, known to us only from a semi-circle of 15 inscribed stones, now set in the eastern outside wall of the present building. They are thought to have originally surrounded the entrance to a cell, probably built on to the chancel, where he was walled up as an anchorite. The Latin words on the inscription can be translated as follows:

“There enters this cell a warrior of Denmark’s royal race: Magnus his name, mark of mighty lineage. Casting off his mightiness, he takes the lamb’s mildness, and to gain everlasting life becomes a lowly anchorite.”

The Magnus monument

There have been various theories as to who Magnus was – including a theory, now totally discounted, that he was a son of King Harold – and as to why he should have given up arms and taken up a life of solitary prayer. But it remains a mystery.


Rectors from 1559

Records of the Rectors of St John’s go back as far as the 14th century, although the board in the church porch omits those before the Reformation. Of the medieval Rectors we know no more than their names – apart from one who achieved notoriety. About 1386 ‘William, parson of St John sub Castro’ was arrested with others for stealing a chalice from Hamsey Church, and for highway robbery. For this crime he then received the King’s pardon!

By the 14th century Lewes was grossly overchurched. In 1337 some of the churches, according to the Bishop of Chichester, were ‘diminished and impoverished’. That was not the case with St John’s, and indeed this may have been its most prosperous period. In the 13th or 14th centuries the church was enlarged. A small tower was built at the west end, perhaps with transepts extending from it, and a new chancel was built.2


The Reformation must have brought vast changes to the life and worship of St John’s, along with the rest of Lewes. Some of the unwanted churches in the town were closed, among them St Mary-in Foro, which stood at the top of what is now Station Street. Its parish was taken over by St John sub Castro.

When the Priory was closed and demolished, the patronage of St John’s passed for the next 100 years into the hands of the Sackvilles,  who later became the Earls of Dorset.

The period immediately after the Reformation was a time of much instability for all the churches, with the resurgence of Roman Catholicism (and the persecution of Protestants), under Queen Mary, and then the return of Protestantism (and the persecution of Roman Catholics) under Queen Elizabeth. St John’s had no less then seven different Rectors between 1550 and 1560, no doubt of opposing religious persuasions. This was a time when many church buildings decayed or even fell into ruin, and St John’s was not exempt. In a book published in15863, the church was described as ‘one little one all desolate, and beset with briars and brambles’.

It sounds, however, as if steps were already being taken to put this right. In that same year the churchwardens wrote to the Bishop, “We want the Bible in the largest volume… and the walls of the church beautified with sentences of scripture.’4 They may or may not have been successful in this. The incumbent at this time was Thomas Underdowne, a ‘godly divine’ who was a leader of the Puritans in Sussex, and pressed for greater Reformation of the Church of England. Along with others, he was suspended by the Archbishop of Canterbury from his duties for what were held to be extreme views, but then reinstated.5

In 1586, when he was Rector, some repair work was done on the nave. The chancel, however (for which Underdowne as a Puritan, would have had little use), was pulled down, never to be rebuilt, and the stones of the Magnus monument were scattered. Fortunately they were later collected up by an antiquarian, John Rowe, and others. The first four stones were missing, and had to be replaced and re-inscribed. All the stones were then fixed in the outside south wall of the nave.

A full-scale restoration had to wait another 50 years. A stone tablet recording this, with the date ‘1635’ on it, can still be seen on the outside wall of the present church, above the Saxon arch. It bears the names of the two churchwardens of the day. The restored church consisted only of a nave and tower, and was a mere sixty feet in length.6


In the mid-eighteenth century a family came on the scene who were to have a great impact on St John’s. John Crofts, a lawyer of Lincoln’s Inn, in 1740 purchased (as could be done in those days) the ‘advowson’ or right as Patron to appoint the Rector of the church. He then chose his brother-in-law, Daniel Le Pla, as Rector.

Christ Blessing the Children – Frans Floris

John Crofts subsequently made a number of gifts to the church, Including a huge 16th century Flemish painting by Frans Floris from about 1553-4 of Jesus blessing the children. This painting apparently hung over the Communion Table in the old church.John Crofts seems to have come into possession of it as executor to Mrs Powlett of Halnaker House near Chichester. It is said to have been gained by her husband, Captain Powlett, as a prize in a naval engagement.

When Daniel Le Pla died, in 1774, John Crofts put in his own son, Peter Guerin Crofts, as Rector. Under Peter Guerin Crofts the Elder (as we must call him, to distinguish him from his son who also later became Rector), further repairs and alterations took place in 1779 – a ‘destructive reparation’, we are told, from which ‘brasses, stained glass and anything moveable’ suffered. The Rector, however, described how he had ‘beautified’ the church! A new entrance was made through the tower, and the old Saxon doorway was stopped up. Inside its arch, was placed, on end, a 13th century stone coffin lid which was found with a number of others during the alterations.

After 10 years as Rector Peter Guerin Crofts died, at the age of thirty-nine. His eldest son, only ten years old at the time, had identical names. Fifteen years after his father’s death, in 1799, Peter Guerin Crofts the Younger was himself appointed Rector – at the age of twenty-five and, unusually for an incumbency, only about one year after his ordination. He was to remain forty-eight years, the longest of any Rector. He married into the wealthy Campion family of Danny, near Hurstpierpoint, and eventually bought Malling House (the present Sussex Police headquarters) as his Rectory.


Up to this time the church had stood in an isolated position near the former Town wall, with open fields and only a few houses between it and the town. But there now came a period of unparalleled growth in the town of Lewes as a whole, and especially in St John’s parish. The so-called ‘New Town’ was built in the area running outwards from Market Street and Fisher Street, including roads such as Sun Street, Abinger Place and New Road. The population of the parish rose from a mere 659 in 1801 to over 2300 thirty years later.

St John’s Church, however, seated only 270 people, and must soon have become overcrowded. Plans were drawn up in 1818 to enlarge the church and provide an extra 180 seats, but for some reason they were never carried out. By 1838 the continuing growth of the population ruled out the possibility of simply extending the existing church. Peter Guerin Crofts decided there was no alternative but to build a new church. In a press announcement8 it was stated that ‘this parish is the most populous in Lewes’, its inhabitants being ‘chiefly mechanics and labourers’. And so, in May 1839, in what we should regard in our day would regard as an act of appalling vandalism, the 800 year old church was demolished.


The new church was to seat over 1000 people, making it much larger then any other Anglican church in the town. It had to be built to the south of the old church, and the adjoining ancient burial mound on the site had first to be levelled.10 Because space was limited, It was built not east-west, as was usual with a church, but north-south.

The architect was George Cheesman from Brighton, where around this time he also built Christ Church, Montpelier Road, and St John the Evangelist, Carlton Hill. It was ‘convenient and well-arranged’, according to the local newspaper. However, Gideon Mantell, the geologist, called it ‘an unsightly edifice which I fain would have passed by unnoticed’, while Mark Anthony Lower, a young antiquarian who a few years later was one of the founders of the Sussex Archaeological Society, described it as ‘a hybrid structure, half castle, half barn’.13 Inside, it was oblong in shape, with a flat ceiling, and a short extension to form a truncated chancel. On three sides were galleries, supported on cast iron pillars, manufactured in Brighton, not (as might have been expected) at the recently opened Phoenix Ironworks in the parish.

St John sub Castro 1840

The corner-stone was laid in June 1839, and the church was consecrated one year later, on 3rd June 1840. The cost of £3,300 had been full paid by that time – a remarkable achievement, especially since (as a board in the porch records) three-quarters of this came from voluntary local contributions. An attractive feature, mentioned in the the sermon at the consecration, was that over half the seats in the church were free, no pew rents being charged. Moreover, unusually for those days, many of these free seats for ‘lowly occupants’ weren’t in the side aisles but in the middle of the nave.14

Some relics from the past were incorporated into the new structure. The Saxon doorway, as has been mentioned, was set in the outside wall on the far side, with the 1635 stone above it and the old coffin lid inside the arch. The inscribed stones from the entrance to the anchorite’s cell were nearly discarded, for the second time in their history. They were rescued by the same Mark Anthony Lower. Like the Saxon arch, they were set in the outside wall, in this case on the eastern side, together with another 13th century coffin lid (not that of Magnus) which for many years stood underneath it. The three bells, dating from 1734, were re-hung in the new tower. The font, which dated probably from the thirteenth century but had a base of later date, was also brought from the old church, as were the picture of Jesus and the children, and a number of wall monuments to the Croft family and others. The church plate going back to the eighteenth century continued to be in use.15

Croft burial vaults on the site of the old Chancel

Several of the Crofts family graves had been inside the old church, and it was presumably at this time that their remains were moved to a new family vault on the site of the chancel of the old church. Peter Guerin the Younger was also buried there when he died in 1859. A paved platform still marks the spot, although the railings which once surrounded the vault were removed in the Second World War and never replaced.

A measure of the strength of St John’s in this period is provided by the national Religious Census of 1851 (the only one ever taken) in which the average Sunday attendance at the church is given as 800.


St John’s, between 1840 and 1890

Although the new church had been built at the start of Queen Victoria’s reign, it had little, except in its tower and its window tracery, of the Victorian Gothic style of church architecture which later came into favour. By the 1880’s the Rector, the Rev. Arthur Perfect, and the Churchwardens decided that improvements were necessary, “the chancel being inadequate and devoid of architectural character”. Under Philip Currey as architect, an apse was built on to the chancel.16 Three stained glass windows by the celebrated artist Henry Holliday were installed there. He was a friend of Burne-Jones, and his firm was one of the pioneers in the recovery of medieval methods of stained glass manufacture. At the same time, the south gallery was taken down, and the organ which had stood there was moved to a new organ chamber in the chancel. The box pews were replaced by open benches.

Various other changes took place during the forty-two years (until 1910) of the incumbency of Mr Perfect, described as “evidently a model parish priest” working in “the largest and also the poorest parish in Lewes”17 One of three stained glass windows in the nave, by Walter Tower of the famous firm of Kempe & Co., was given in Arthur Perfect’s memory. The brass lectern was given in the 1880’s, and one of the three bells was replaced in 1886. A new more ornamental font was installed in 1892, and the medieval font was moved to the porch; it was later brought back to stand opposite the Victorian one. In 1903 the old flat ceiling, which had become unsafe, was replaced by the present barrel-shaped ceiling of pine and plaster.

St John’s responded quickly to the passing of the 1870 Education Act, setting up St John’s School (later closed) in St John’s Street in 1871. Twenty-five years later Pells School (later moved to Landport Road) opened in Talbot Terrace.


Further changes to the building took place after the First World War. A wrought iron chancel screen  was erected in 1921 as a War Memorial, along with a tablet recording the names of the dead, with further names being added after the Second World War. New clergy stalls were installed 1923, and new choir stalls and a new pulpit in 1932. In 1927 the organ was rebuilt, at a cost of £1135. New wrought iron gates, made at the now defunct Phoenix Ironworks in the town, were set up outside in 1929. Oak panelling in the sanctuary was given in memory of Arthur Uridge who died in 1940.

Major structural repairs were carried out at the time of the 150th Anniversary of the present church, but in spite of that the condition of the building deteriorated badly. By the beginning of the twenty-first century it was in a very serious condition. At the same time, the congregation was growing older, and had become insufficient in number to maintain what was much the largest church building in Lewes. Because of the numbers, in 2010 the parish was joined up with St Michael’s, South Malling, but that gave the one vicar an impossible task. It began to seem that there was no future for St John’s.


It was at this point that the Rector of Southover, Rev. Steve Daughtery, put forward an ambitious scheme to amalgamate that church with St John’s and South Malling to create one new church and parish, which would be called ‘Trinity’. At the same time he proposed remodelling St John’s to be suitable for both Sunday worship and midweek activities and lettings. The scheme received strong backing from Chichester Diocese, and after much discussion over several years it was unanimously agreed by the members of all three churches in 2017. Finance for the scheme was made possible when the Diocese offered half the proceeds of the earlier sale of St John’s Rectory in the Avenue, to which was to be added the proceeds from the disposal of St John’s Church Hall in Talbot Terrace.

The plans drawn up involved the removal of almost all the pews and choir stalls, the taking down of the chancel screen, the removal of the pulpit and Victorian font, and the transfer of the medieval font to the porch. A new gallery was to be installed across the back of the church, joining the side galleries. The nave, with a new floor, was to be separated by a glass partition from a new meeting area at the back of the church, where a new kitchen would be built, to create what would become a cafe for use during the week as well as on Sundays. The porch area was to be reshaped, and additional toilets were to be installed.

At the same time a programme of total structural repair was drawn up, with a new slate roof, stonework restoration and drainage renewal. The cost of this was covered by large grants from the Heritage Lottery Fund, together with other grants from charitable bodies.

The work was carried out over a three-year period, and was completed at the end of 2017. The result is, effectively, a new church building of the highest quality. Not only the building but also the congregation was renewed. As part of the amalgamation, a Sunday morning all-age service which had outgrown Southover’s Church Hall was transferred to St John’s. Here it has brought new life and new numbers, with the existing more traditional worship continuing alongside in the afternoons.

St John’s has, amazingly, been totally transformed to serve the Kingdom of God and the community in the twenty-first century.


Principal source: The Church of St John sub Castro, Lewes. A Historical Record collected and  arranged by L.S. Davey (1933) (LSD)

Other sources:

Biographical Dictionary of British Architects 1660-1840 (BDBA)

Chichester Diocesan Faculties (at West Sussex Record Office, Chichester) (CDF)

Jeremy Goring: Burn Holy FireReligion in Lewes since the Reformation (2003) (JG)

Richard Gilbert: The Old Church of St John sub Castro, Lewes                                           (Typescript in Barbican House Library, Lewes, with reproductions of various 18th-19th century engravings of the church. Some of the material is contained in his articles in SAC 112 pp.44-47 and 123 pp.268-270.) (RG)

R.B. Manning: Religion and Society in Elizabethan Sussex (RM)

St John’s Magazine (at St John sub Castro Church) (SJM)

Sussex Archaeological Collections (SAC)

Sussex Express & Weekly Advertiser (SEx)


John Bleach in SAC 135, pp.133-135

2  RG pp.70-78

3 Camden’s Britannica, published (in Latin) in 1586

4 Presentment by the Churchwardens 1586, quoted in SAC 50 p.3

5 RM pp.193-196, 201, 214

RG p.23

SJM Feb. 1889

Entries for Crofts family in Baptism and Burial Registers from 1828; and manuscript letter from Miss E. East (in possession of South Malling Church)

9   SEx 29.12.1838

10  SEx 25.05.1839

11 BDBA under Cheesman

12 SEx 09.05.1840

13 LSD p.13

14 SJM May 1890

15 Davey states (LSD p.14) that the weathervane was also brought from the old church; but none of the late 18th/early 19th century pictures of the old church in RG shows this weathervane.

16 CDF: Faculty dated 29.08.1883

17 JG p.123



This page was added on 10/07/2017.

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