The oldest remaining parts of St Michael’s church date from around 1200. It is the only remaining church within the old town walls. In the 16th century it was referred to as tanquam matrici ecclesie (mother church). After a period of decline when the fabric had become unsafe, the south aisle was rebuilt in 1748. From 1841 the Rectors embraced Anglo-Catholicism and this influence is seen in the remodelling and redecoration of the church which followed and included the addition of a chancel in 1878 and stained glass windows by Henry Holiday in the 1880s.

The modern period is represented by the sculpture of St Michael the Archangel on the tower which dates from 1976 and the east window from 1987.

Notable monuments include those of the knight John de Warenne, Sir Nicholas Pelham who repelled a French expeditionary force, geologist Gideon Mantell and militant pacifist Fr Kenneth Rawlings. The parish records include the marriage of the radical Thomas Paine.

The font

Early History

The tower which dates from around 1200 and the adjacent west wall are all that remains of the original church building.The dedication to St Michael is thought to derive from an early connection with South Malling where a Saxon monastery and College of St Michael were established and the church may have been founded by an early Archbishop of Canterbury. Some antiquarians believe that it was instituted as the church of the castle, and the use of the expression tanquam matrici ecclesie (mother church) in the 16th century does seem to imply that St Michael’s held a position of seniority in the town, or indeed more widely.

The arcade of octagonal piers separating the south aisle from the nave were built in the 14th century. By the time of the Reformation (16th century) St Michael’s was in a deplorable condition. Other churches within the walls of the town were lost but St Michael’s survived. The fortunes of St Michael’s suffered another serious setback during the Puritan revolution (1640-1660) and even after the Restoration (1660) the citizens of the town remained predominantly Dissenters so that the church continued to decline.

The tower

18th Century

By 1748 the fabric of the church had become so dilapidated that “the parishioners could not attend services without great danger to their lives”, and extensive building works were necessary which reputedly cost £1,366. The south aisle was rebuilt with flintwork facing onto the High Street. At this time wooden piers were installed on the north side of the nave to match the stone pillars on the south side.
18th Century piers

19th Century

 From 1841 the Rectors of the church embraced the Oxford Movement which promoted a return to Catholic doctrine, ritual and spirituality. This Anglo-Catholicism was pioneered by the Reverend Frederick Woolley, and still underpins worship at St Michael in Lewes today. Edgar Herman Cross, Rector of St. Michael’s between 1877 and 1890, instigated (and partly paid for) the extensive changes which gave the church much of its present-day character. In 1878 the galleries were removed and new pews were installed, the chancel was lengthened by a twelve-foot apse housing a raised high altar, and the choir was separated from the congregation by a dwarf stone wall with lectern and pulpit.

Over the next few years the work of beautification continued with several stained glass windows by Henry Holiday, the stone reredos (ornamental screen covering the wall at the back of the altar) by J L Pearson, and the re-opening of the 15th century doorway which today forms the principal entrance to the church from the courtyard. Church House to the west was built in 1881 to serve for church functions and the Sunday School. It incorporates the Town Clock which overhangs the High Street.

Henry Holiday window

Click here to read more about some people connected with St Michael’s down the years…