SCM 24 Coombes and its Church
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THE hamlet of Coombes must surely be one of the most retiring in Sussex. What little there is of the parish is spread over the Downs; the tiny settlement itself shelters in a deep valley near the River Adur, the church all but hidden by a group of noble trees. It is the first point of interest on the road between the chapel of Lancing College and the ancient remnant of Bramber Castle.

It was a Saxon settlement, as its name implies, and when Domesday Book was compiled it was divided into two parts, "Cumbe" and "Apelsham." The former was held by William Fitznorman, from one Guest, who held it of King Edward the Confessor (and, of course, of King Harold, but the Normans refused to recognise his claims, roundly con­demning him as a usurper). "It was then assessed at ten hides, it is now rated at five. The arable is eight plough lands. There are two ploughs, twenty-seven villagers and four cottagers, with ten ploughs. Saltpans at 50s 5d, and pannage for four hogs." William also held "Apelsham," the previous owner being Lewin of Earl Godwin: there were three ploughs in the demesne, and seven villeins, seven cottagers, and two ploughs. There was a mill worth 6s, five acres of meadow and pannage for five hogs.

After the death of Fitznorman, the estate was taken over by the family of Combes. In the Chartulary of the Priory of Sele the family is mentioned several times between 1095 and 1252, in each case as a witness. The first is that of Hugh de Cumbes; in 1150 another Hugh; in 1250 Michael; and in 1254 Hugh and Michael de Cumba.

The family appears to have been ill-fated, as all that is recorded of it is a series of court actions by one or other of its members.

On the lands of Mazeline de Cumba a dead man was found one night. Hatred or envy may have incited slanderous rumour, for she and her sons were accused of the man's death. The result of the action is not known, and there is no proof whether the family was cleared of the deed. More trouble followed, for some years later Sybil, daughter of Ralph de Icklesham, complained that Sybil de Dene, her grandmother, allowed Robert (her son, brother of Ralph) to receive the homage of the tenants of her lands instead of herself. Again, we do not know the result.

When, however, in 1279 Robert de Combe claimed that William de Braose (Lord of the Rape of Bramber and owner of Bramber Castle) and John de Combe had seized his freehold of four tenements and four virgates of land in Coombes, he was condemned for making a false claim.

Eighteen years previously John de Gaddesden invited Michael de Combes to his manor at Broadwater, plied him with wine until he became intoxicated, and then con­veyed him prisoner to his own manor of Applesham. John then stole Michael's seal, and affixed it to a deed by which he took possession of all his lands and manors. Not content with this, he commandeered corn and hay to the value of 20 marks. A jury, taken from the Rapes of Lewes and Bramber, countered John's plea of defence (what can it have been ?) by proving that in addition to these unlawful acts he had taken a chalice, vestments and ornaments from the chapel of Michael's house at Applesham, and presumably he was given his deserts. There may have been other violent deeds in this peaceful spot, for it is known that sheep (sensing former tragedies) always avoid certain plots in the neighbourhood of Applesham.

In 1336 Nigel de Combes died seized of the manor of Applesham, "held of John de Mowbray (successor to de Braose at Bramber) by the service of two Knight's fees," but in 1405 the estate passed to the Halshams, after two lawsuits. They held it until 1485, when it passed to other hands, until the early days of Henry VIII when it was owned by John Shelley: and was purchased in 1785 by the Earl of Egremont.

The Knights Templars held some portion of ground here, for in the Clergy Subsidy of 1380 they were taxed 16s on the value of Combes, which was rated at £12.

The only other names of Coombes' worthies which have been preserved are those of John Alwayne, who in 1280 bought an acre of ground from Symon atte Putte and Christian his wife; William atte Welle, who settled on William Bonet and his wife one messuage and one virgate of land in 1328, and John Courtnay who in 1329 settled the manor of Coombes on Alicia, the daughter of William Radmyld. Lastly, in 1288, Thomas de Marwe refused to pay the rent of one messuage and six virgates of land to the Priory of Merton in Surrey, who owned lands in the parish.

These worthies, and many others, must have worshipped and confessed in the tiny aisle-less church hidden in the trees. It is mentioned in Domesday Book as having "two servants," and about this time Richard de Cumbes, William atte Welle, William de Merwe, and Robert Daniel attested that the vicar had the "tythe of milk, valued at 18s.; of calves at 18d.; of pigs at 12d.; mortuaries estimated at 2s. per annum; oblations at 10s. per annum; of vetches at 2s.; of young pigeons at 4d.; of honey at 19d.; of hemp at 5s.; of eggs at 4d.; and of hay at 8s. per annum".

The church is one of the smallest in Sussex, being merely a tiny chancel and a nave only a little larger, a small porch and a miniature bell cote. The chancel arch, south doorway, a blocked semi-circular headed doorway and some small blocked windows remain substan­tially as they were when erected, but the main fabric shows some signs of early restoration. The wall dividing the chancel from the nave is of unusual form, the central narrow arch being flanked by arched recesses on the eastern side of the wall, and not on the western side, as is usual.

The low-side windows are most interesting and unusual, and those who wish to delve deeper into this fascinating off-shoot of ecclesiology would be advised to read the article on them by Mr. P. M. Johnston in Sussex Archaeological Collections volume XLII.

There is a communion cup of silver, and a Paten cover, both dated 1568.

Nearby stands the beautiful little Priest's House, half-timbered, heavily-slabbed as to the roof, and set in its kitchen garden.

Until last year that was all there was to be seen in Coombes, but by one of those accidents which make church history so fascinating, there will in the future be another reason for visiting the village for in 1949 traces of medi­aeval paintings were discovered. The nearby church of St. Botolph's has some, so had Steyning, and now the modest church of Coombes of unknown dedication will take its place in the long list of buildings bearing traces of what was a normal medimval method of making the church the artistic centre of the community, and at the same time a picture story that could be read by all.

Early in the fourteenth century when the de Combes were living, travelling mural painters were adorning the whole of the chancel of the church with a simple masonry pattern with double vertical and horizontal joints, and pierced cinquefoils or roses in most of the spaces. At one point they inter­rupted the pattern by a panel (possibly with a canopy above it) to accommodate a large single figure. This is now very fragmentary, and not yet completely uncovered, but it appears to be holding a staff or spear.

Near the East window they painted a figure (unfortunately now damaged) with a cruciform nimbus; in front of the body is a scroll. Is it too much to suspect that the scroll bore the inscription "Noli me tangere," and that the figure is that of Christ, and that there may be another of St. Mary Magdalen ?

Earlier by a century than these paintings are those on the east face of the chancel arch. The effect when the colour was new must have been brilliant in the extreme, as even to-day the elaborate design of red and yellow boundary lines enclosing a key pattern of red, pink, grey and white is clearly seen. Not content with a single design, the artists painted another and more intricate one on the soffit of the chancel arch, consisting of opposed wavy lines crossed by others at right-angles and with white dots, and lines of red, pink and white, all within red and yellow bands.

The Nave appears to have been painted and repainted at different periods, and the succes­sive layers are at present a mumble of uncon­nected, partly discovered fragments. One figure, however, can be recognised as that of St. Christopher, and towards the east end of the north wall there is a series of twelfth-century murals. This may represent a pic­torial life of Christ, or possibly a Nativity series, as the Virgin and Child, and St. Joseph can be identified. The early form of the draperies, the drawing of the hands, and the free use of solid white as an impasto appear to place the work at about 1170.

The work of restoration is in the hands of a well-known ecclesiologist. He begins his task early next spring.

The areas so far uncovered prove that the work is of first-class quality, and as such is of the greatest importance. Mural paintings of the twelfth century are normally in a very fragmentary state, but even the smallest areas are extremely valuable in view of the scarcity of wall-paintings of the period, and it may well be that Coombes will emerge with Clay-ton and Hardham as a unified Sussex group of early painting.

From Sussex County Magazine Volume 24 1950 - Page 552

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Updated October 28, 2005