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Changing Times | The history of the oldest building in the city

A small church on North Street, sandwiched between retail units, is believed to be the oldest building in Chichester still in use.


St Olave (often shown as ‘Olaf’ or ‘Olav’) was King of Norway from 1015 to 1028. In 1028, he was forced to flee to Russia by Canute, King of England and Denmark, who was attempting to conquer Norway.


In July 1030, Olave attempted to regain his control of Norway but was defeated and killed at the Battle of Stiklestad. Olave’s popularity, his church work and the ‘miracles’ credited to him meant that he was canonized one year later by his friend and clergyman Grimkell.


This was later confirmed by Pope Alexander III in 1164. His sainthood encouraged the widespread adoption of the Christian religion among the Vikings and Norsemen in Scandinavia and England.


In England there are several other churches that bear his name including in York, London and Cumbria. Some believe that the church of St Olave in Chichester may have been established by Scandinavian merchants who had settled in the city; another theory is that Olave’s friend Grimkell, who later became Bishop of Selsey, founded the church and dedicated it to his friend and hero.


It is believed that the original church was built in around 1050, although it is not mentioned in the Domesday Book. The nave is the oldest part of the church still standing.


The walls of the church are made of flint, however much of the church contains evidence of Roman building material, such as tile, which suggests that the Saxon builders recycled building material from the earlier Roman settlement.


An extension was added in the 13th century, including the expansion of the chancel. The church underwent extensive restoration in 1851. Many of the 13th century features were replaced including the chancel arch and a number of the windows, the chancel floor was also lowered and the doorway was replaced. During the restoration, two Roman urns were discovered.


The church was converted into an SPCK (The Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge) bookshop in 1956. Much of the interior was altered, including plastering and painting, for use as a retail space. Many of the architectural details were hidden.


SPCK suffered substantial financial difficulties and eventually went bankrupt which led to the closure of many of the 23 branches that it managed UK-wide.


The Chichester bookshop was then taken over by new management. In December 2008 a petition was raised that urged ‘the Bishop of Chichester and the Diocese of Chichester to rescue this once outstanding bookshop’


The petition stated ‘we urge you, please: take back control of this building. It would be better for the shop to be closed than allowed to carry on in its current state. Then, as we see happening elsewhere around the country, people will be free to work together to create something new and bring light to this community’.


The shop was eventually closed but re-opened in December 2009 with a short service of dedication led by the Rural Dean of Chichester. The shop now trades as St Olav Christian Bookshop.


The shop is owned by the St Olav’s Trust, a registered charity made up of representatives from local churches, including the Cathedral. The shop has an ‘open and available to all’ ethos and stocks books that cover all traditions within the Church of England and other Christian Churches.


In order to stay a consecrated building, a service of worship must be conducted annually. This happens on July 29, which is the Feast of St Olave and coincides with the date of this death.


By Amanda Rogan, learning and community engagement officer

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