A Short History Of St Mary’s, Speldhurst

The people of this parish have been coming here to worship for over 900 years. A charter book compiled in 1115 names the church at Speldhurst and suggests that it was founded before the Conquest.

During the late 13th Century and early 14th Century the early church was replaced by a locally quarried sandstone church in the early gothic style.

This early Church stood until the 14th century, when the Tower, at any rate, must have required rebuilding. The label of the West Door, as well as the mouldings of the base of the Tower, are of this date (circa 1320). 

The 15th Century church

But by 1415 the church had fallen into a bad state of repair. When Sir Richard Waller of Groombridge (in the parish) returned home from the Battle of Agincourt in 1415, he brought with him a royal prisoner, Charles, Duke of Orleans, and tradition has long declared that, from his share of the prisoner’s ransom and the monies he received for his maintenance, Sir Richard Waller rebuilt the Church of Speldhurst, placing the Orlean’s Arms which had been granted to him by his prisoner to quarter with his own upon a stone over the South Porch.

More recent research suggests that if was the Duke’s younger brother, the Duke of Angouleme who was held at Groombridge Place and the Duke of Orleans himself was held at various other locations.  In any event, Sir Richard Waller contributed greatly to renovating the church 

The 15th century Church lasted 370 years, only to meet with a tragic end. On October 20th 1791 the entire church, with the exception of the lower portion of the Tower, was destroyed by fire. This was caused by a lightning strike, or perhaps a thunderbolt. 

An eyewitness account talks of a ball entering the shingled part of the roof after ‘the most awful clap of thunder’, whilst other accounts suggest that the vane on the wooden spire was first struck, which then began the fire. However it began, it took only four hours to reduce the church to ruins. The heat was so intense that the six bells melted and the molten metal ran down the hill.

The 1805 church

The loss of the church was a serious blow, for Speldhurst was a very large parish, taking in part of Tunbridge Wells. However, there was a lack of both funds and design sense and this led to a new and apparently ‘wretched’ church being opened in 1805. It was too small and much less elegant than the previous building, and it fell into disuse very quickly. 

After 65 years, with dry rot showing and in a state of some disrepair, this church was pulled down and the present Church, following the same design and dimensions as the medieval church, was erected.

The 1871 church

The first stone of the present Church was laid in June 1870 and the Church was dedicated on May 6th 1871. The architect was Mr John Oldrid Scott and the Church was built by Hope Constable of Penshurst.

The ‘meanness of design’ of the old building was counteracted by having a famous architect to recreate the medieval church, and by having nine windows installed based on the designs of Sir Edward Burne-Jones. 

Remarkably, a few relics of the old church survive, including the coat of arms of the Duke of Orleans over the South door, a sundial and the very weather vane which was struck in 1791. Various additions have been made to the church over the years, including the vestry in 1897, and the Priests’ Vestry and the Sussex spire in 1923.

The Church consists of Nave, North Aisle, Chancel and Tower, all in Early English style. The pillars are of great elegance, with fine mouldings. The lower portion of the Tower escaped the fire and, together with the West Door, is 14th century work, with portions, probably, of an even earlier date. 

Features of the church

Within the Tower have been collected the monuments rescued from the previous Church, among them a brass plate to the memory of the Waller family, including the captor of the Duke of Orleans and the builder of Speldhurst’s 15th century Church.

The reredos (altarpiece) of carved oak, presented to the Church in 1925, is unusual in design. Dedicated in memory of one whose name was John, the central Annunciation is flanked by four Saints of that name – St John the Baptist, St John the Evangelist, St John whose surname was Mark, and St John of Beverley. It was designed by Mr Charles Oldrid Scott and is the work of Robinson of Westminster. 

The same designer and artist executed the altar rails, the sedilia and the episcopal chair in the Sanctuary, the chancel screen and the priests’ chairs, and in 1929 and 1930 the Chancel Wall and the Arches of the Organ were panelled.