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Changing Times | The history of St Nicholas Church in Lavant

THIS ARTICLE discusses the history of the Church of St Nicholas, Mid Lavant, in order to provide some context for next week’s article, which focuses on the Lavant History Project.


The project, undertaken by volunteers, has brought to life the stories of people of the past through looking at the information and inscriptions on their gravestones.


The church, which dates from the 12th century, has gravestones within its churchyard dating from 1724 through to 21st century interments of ashes. Its history and that of the stones reflects changes in social attitudes and lifestyles.


Watched over by the 1,000-year-old yew tree in the churchyard, the earliest reference to the church being dedicated to St Nicholas comes from the will of William Arnold, dated 1545. William asked that “his body be burid within the church yearde of Syent Nycolas of myd lavant”. Over time, the church building has been substantially modified so that nowadays there are only parts of the nave and chancel from the 12th and 13th century.


The parish of Mid Lavant was historically very poor in the 16th and 17th centuries, and there are a number of references to the church and porch being in a state of decay. However, after the restoration of Charles II in 1660, things changed and the May family, who were Lords of the Manor of Rawmere (as they spelled Raughmere), paid for restoration work to the church, as well as for the construction of a vault, in which 20 members of the May family were buried. After the May family left the village in the 1720s, the church once again experienced a period of decline.


However, patronage by the Duke of Richmond’s family and a close connection with the Theological College brought restoration. Henrietta Dorrien, the illegitimate child of the 3rd Duke of Richmond, asked the 4th Duke to help fund the rebuilding of the church as “it is so small that not only the body and gallery are completely fill’d but the Chancel cram’d in no very decent manner”.


In 1844, re-modelling of the church began, largely paid for by Charles Dorrien, Henrietta’s son, although the Duke of Richmond did contribute £10 to the cause. The north aisle was expanded, however, most of the other alterations were more decorative in nature, including one of Dorrien’s own paintings which the Duke later insisted was removed.


Further work was undertaken by the Rev Wood Stephens in 1871. The shingle bell-turret was built to take the place of a ‘wretched little wooden belfry’ and the nave was lengthened by 12 feet to accommodate the rapidly growing population of Mid Lavant.


This was partly paid for by The Incorporated Society for Promoting the Enlargement, Building and Repairing of Churches and Chapels’, who granted St Nicholas’ £25. A board hanging in the interior points out that: ‘The sittings are all free, and subject to allotment by the churchwardens, suitable provision being made for the poorer inhabitants.’


The west gallery was removed and new arches were made connecting the nave and chancel. Mary May’s 1676 Monument, considered a “lugubrious memorial” by one commentator, was placed in the Vault. The architect was Henry Woodyer, of Grafham, in Surrey, while the builder, John Ellis, lived in Portfield, Chichester. The work, which cost somewhere between £600-£700, was paid for by the 6th Duke of Richmond. The triple lancet east window was filled with striking stained glass in memory of the Rev Pater and family, all of whom died within two years of each other. The parents were in their 30s and their son 33 months.


A grand reopening was conducted by Bishop Durnford of Chichester. The ecclesiastical parishes of Mid and East Lavant were merged in 1880, and have remained so ever since. The last major rebuilding work to St Nicholas church took place in 1986 when a vestry was added to the north side of the church and a niche was also created for the monument of Lady Mary May which after 100 years’ banishment was hauled up from the vault.


Today, St Nicholas’ is a place of worship and a community space. It plays host to the Toddler group, a Brunch café, meetings, films, talks and the Post Office. The graveyard is no longer used for burials


In next week’s article we will look at some of the stories which emerged as a result of the Lavant History Project.


This article has been compiled from information within the publication, Four hundred years of Life and Death in a Country Parish.


Many more stories and a guide to all the stones are included in this booklet which is available to purchase from the Lavant History Project.


All images are also courtesy of the Lavant History Project.


By Amy Roberts, collections officer at The Novium Museum and Caroline Reynolds, Lavant History Project


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