A Brief History of St Mary’s Church, West Horsley
There is evidence that there were Christians in this parish from at least 850 A.D., possibly earlier, so it is equally possible that there would have been a little church built of split logs standing on the same site as our church. Between Guildford and Leatherhead, this is the only church not built beside the old Iron Age road to the north of the A246. It was roughly parallel to the A246 and was known as the Lower Road, but instead, our church was built further to the south on a small promontory from which two streams once issued on what is possibly a former pagan site. It may even have been the earliest church in this line of villages.
The foundations of the present church were laid in 1030 by a Saxon thane called Thored. Built of chalk clunch and flint, it was the same size as the present nave, with an apse at the east end and a narrow chancel arch. There still remains some Saxon work in the east and west walls of the nave. After the Battle of Hastings, West Horsley was one of the villages burnt down by William the Conqueror, [in those days it lay near West Horsley Place] but he did not destroy any churches, so our church remained. William gave West Horsley to a Walter FitzOtha together with many other estates. When he became Governor of Windsor Castle, he took the surname of ‘de Windsor’.
The church tower was built in 1120 around a ladder which remained in situ until about the year 2000 when, by opening up a well in the floor in the nave, previously made for the church boiler, they were at last able to remove the ladder after nearly 900 years. It now hangs on the wall of the south aisle. Made out of a single tree split down the middle, it is almost fossilised as it is so hard.
The de Windsor family at first lived at Compton, but the first Sir Hugh de Windsor and his family came to live here in the late 12th century. They pulled down the north wall of the church and inserted the Norman pillars, a narrow north aisle, one window and a south door. This probably became their family pew, because a ‘squint’ was put into the east wall so they could see the altar. This still remains, although it is now filled in, and can be seen to the left of the chancel arch.
The second Sir Hugh de Windsor was both priest and later, Lord of the Manor when his elder brother was killed at the Crusades. He spent a great deal of his money on the church. He extended the chancel to its present length, and, in about 1210, he put a small roundel and a medallion of coloured Flemish glass into the lancet windows. These still remain although they have been joined by a Victorian one to balance up.
This Sir Hugh was also responsible for having the wall paintings done, a 13 foot St. Christopher and the Passion Cycle. The paintings once extended all round the church and date from about 1200. The font also dated from this time but has Victorian tooling around it now. Another gift to the church was the old parish chest dated to about 1220. There is a stone coffin in the wall near the altar which may be that of this Sir Hugh as he was such a great benefactor to the church.
The next family acquired the manor through marriage. They were the de Berners. There is a tomb in the chancel of a priest, thought to be a Ralph de Berners. It is the earliest carved representation of a priest in Surrey and is made of chalk clunch. Above it is a very fine medieval stained glass window showing Sir James de Berners who was beheaded in 1388.
In about 1370 there was a fine reredos made of brightly painted, carved alabaster. It may have depicted the life of Christ, but it was smashed up at the time of the Reformation. A fragment showing the nativity was found beneath the floor when a new floor was being laid, and it is now embedded in the chancel wall. The west porch was built in 1380.
The Bourchier family came next in 1441. At the Battle of Barnet in 1471, their only son, Humphrey, was killed, and they added a chantry chapel on to the south side of the chancel for a priest to say prayers for his soul. About 1530, the south aisle was built as an extension of the chapel. In 1532, the family became bankrupt and the manor was seized by Henry VIII.
Until the time of the Reformation in 1534, over the chancel arch there had been a heavy Rood Screen with a wide gallery above, entered from behind by a small spiral staircase, the exit can still be seen framed in wood. Above it there hung a huge Holy Rood (cross). Also, there would have been carved wooden statues on this screen, painted in bright colours and gold, but this was torn down and at the same time, the wall paintings were covered with lime wash. Then the Saxon chancel arch was widened to its present size and the present chancel screen was inserted.
There are three bells in the tower, dated 1621, 1645 and 1687. The first two were made by a Bryan Eldridge and the third by William Eldridge. We do not know what happened to the earlier bells.
The only surviving son of Sir Walter Raleigh, Carew Raleigh, came to live here during the Civil War. Under the floor of the chapel, Carew’s two eldest sons Walter and Carew, lie buried together with his baby granddaughter and the head of Sir Walter Raleigh which had been kept at West Horsley Place for a number of years. The Nicholas family who bought the estate from Carew Raleigh, made this chapel into their family pew and put in a marble floor and several memorial monuments to their family around the walls.
During the 18th century it was attempted to bring music back into the church, which the Puritans had forbidden, so a gallery was inserted at the back of the church for the orchestra and choir. A new arched doorway was opened up in the wall from the tower so the musicians could enter from the first floor, and a small window was inserted in the roof of the nave to give them light.
In 1849, during the Victorian period, a great deal of work was done on the church. The width of the north aisle was doubled, and a new north porch was constructed, but the original Norman doorway into the church was preserved and a replica Norman door was constructed. Two windows were let into the north wall of the aisle and the rose window was inserted as a memorial to the Rev. Charles Weston, who had been both Rector and Lord of the Manor. Also the north wall of the chancel was brought in by about a foot or eighteen inches in order to try and centralise the chancel arch. Before that the chancel had been the same width as the nave. A triple-decker pulpit was installed and a new vestry room built on the south-east wall of the chancel. The outer walls of St. Mary’s had been faced with flint but it may have been covered with the plaster dressing it has now at this time, which covered up many of the clues we might have had to its past structure.
There had been box pews which were removed in the early 20th century and new pews were put into the central part of the nave. The two lower parts of the pulpit were removed and the top of the pulpit lowered into its present position, and a Victorian wagon ceiling was removed in case of beetle infestation.
The diocese in which West Horsley came was changed from Winchester to Guildford in 1927. In the 1930s, electricity was put into the church to replace 20 oil lamps. In the 1970s, the wall paintings were discovered and restored.
After the second world war, a second-hand organ was purchased and put in the chapel. It was thought that it would be an improvement after the old harmonium which had been there for many years, but it continually needed repairing, so after a massive effort of fund-raising in the parish, in the year 2000, a new Frobenius organ was installed and there was no longer any difficulty in finding organists after that.
Pam Bowley © 2008
To read more about the church, see ‘The Story of West Horsley Manor and its Church’ – price £3 available at the church.
To read more about the people who lived at West Horsley Place and the house itself, see the book entitled ‘West Horsley Place’ – price £6. Both books by Pam Bowley.