Register of ancient monuments
Reference number 1016948
Church Of St Thomas A Becket
DESCRIPTION OF THE MONUMENT
The monument includes the standing and buried remains of the Old Church of St Thomas Becket. The church stands in the same churchyard as, and approximately 60m north east of, its successor which was built between 1850 and 1854.
The original church was founded in 1260 as a chapelry of St Pancras Priory in Lewes. The building was severely damaged during a storm in 1847 when the outer face of the west wall of the tower fell away. Although the damage was repaired it was decided to build a new church which was opened in 1854. The old church was partly dismantled but the shell left standing.
The original church was aisleless with a simple nave and chancel and a squat tower. Of this date only the lower portion of the tower remains. In the 14th century the aisles and southern porch were added but many of the surviving remains date to the 15th century when extensive alterations took place. At this time the chancel was rebuilt with flanking chapels and a belfry stage was added to the tower. The tower arch was also raised and the tower itself was refaced.
The church, which is Listed Grade II*, is built in gritstone and survives up to roof height in most places, although the roof itself is missing. The north aisle is approximately 9m wide, almost as wide as the nave itself, with a chapel at its eastern end. The arcade piers separating the aisle from the nave are octagonal in plan with decoration of squares and circles at the top. The southern aisle is approximately 3m wide but with similar arcade piers. The central body of the church is approximately 8m wide. The tower, which is approximately 7m square, has a rectangular stair turret to its south east with a castellated top and perpendicular windows. The floor of the church is paved with a selection of 17th and 18th century tombstones.
All modern sign posts are excluded from the scheduling, although the ground beneath is included.
ASSESSMENT OF IMPORTANCE
A parish church is a building, usually of roughly rectangular outline and containing a range of furnishings and fittings appropriate to its use for Christian worship by a secular community, whose members gather in it on Sundays and on the occasion of religious festivals. Children are initiated into the Christian religion at the church's font and the dead are buried in its churchyard. Parish churches were designed for congregational worship and are generally divided into two main parts: the nave, which provides accommodation for the laity, and the chancel, which is the main domain of the priest and contains the principal altar. Either or both parts are sometimes provided with aisles, giving additional accommodation or spaces for additional altars. Most parish churches also possess towers, generally at the west end, but central towers at the crossing of nave and chancel are not uncommon and some churches have a free-standing or irregularly sited tower. Many parish churches also possess transepts at the crossing of chancel and nave, and south or north porches are also common. The main periods of parish church foundation were in the 10th and 19th centuries. Most medieval churches were rebuilt and modified on a number of occasions and hence the visible fabric of the church will be of several different dates, with in some cases little fabric of the first church being still easily visible.
Parish churches are found throughout England. Their distribution reflects the density of population at the time they were founded. In regions of dispersed settlement parishes were often large and churches less numerous. The densest clusters of parish churches were found in thriving medieval towns. A survey of 1625 reported the existence of nearly 900 parish churches in England. New churches built in the 18th, 19th and 20th centuries increased numbers to around 18,000 of which 17,000 remain in ecclesiastical use. Parish churches have always been major features of the landscape and a major focus of life for their parishioners. They provide important insights into medieval and later population levels or economic cycles, religious activity, artistic endeavour and technical achievement. A significant number of surviving examples are identified to be nationally important.
The standing and buried remains of the medieval church of St Thomas Becket, Heptonstall are well preserved, despite the partial dismantling which took place in the 19th century. Because the church fell out of use in the 19th century there have been none of the usual 19th and 20th century disturbances of sub-surface archaeological features for the installation of heating systems or drains. This has provided a rare context for the preservation of important archaeological deposits. The documented and unusual history of the site is particularly important in understanding the medieval and subsequent settlement of the village and its status within the wider medieval and post-medieval landscape.