St John's Church, sub Castro, 1776
Samuel Hooper


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 in1586, 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.’ 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.

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 reinscribed. 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.

The story of St John’s is continued in the post St John’s under the Crofts family

Click The Story of St John sub Castro Church to see the complete story in one post, together with Sources, Bibliographical notes and List of Rectors.

This page was added on 07/08/2017.

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