The Drowning of Kingston Chapel

The Drowning of Kingston Chapel

by Stephen Webbe

They’re not as beguiling as Wild West ghost towns with tumbleweed blowing down the main street, rickety boardwalks and swing doors on abandoned saloons creaking in the wind. But they’re every inch deserted settlements. Of the Sussex variety, that is.

West Sussex can claim at least 50 villages that vanished in the 500 years after the Norman conquest. Nearly all were on the South Downs and coastal plain. Today most of them are only detectable by field names, pottery finds and crop marks on aerial photographs.

But several of the vanished settlements drowned under the English Channel, victims of the sea’s remorseless assault on the Sussex coastline over the centuries. One of them lies some 200 yards off the coast of West Kingston half way between Kingston Gorse and Angmering-on-Sea.

It was called Kingston, or more precisely Kingston Manor, and belonged to Tewkesbury Abbey in Gloucestershire from around 1100 until it was sold in 1540 with the Dissolution of the Monasteries. For over four centuries its chapel was a comforting landmark for coastal mariners.

In 1623 the so-called ‘water poet’ John Taylor and companions rowed  past ‘Kingston Chapelle’ in a wherry on a madcap voyage from London to Salisbury via the English Channel and River Avon. Battling ‘winds and storms and many a churlish gust’ they struggled on to ‘Rushington…Little-Hampton…Middleton (and) Bognor’s fearful rocks.’

Regrettably, very little is known about Kingston Chapel today. No sketch or picture of it has ever come to light. Even the identity of its patron saint remains a mystery. (It might have been dedicated to St. Christopher or St. Nicholas, both patron saints of mariners.)

According to local historian Richard Standing, the long lost chapel may well have dated from the mid-12th Century. As the foremost authority on Kingston and adjoining East Preston, Standing thinks it most probably resembled the latter’s 12th Century Norman church of St. Mary. If it did, he feels it’s likely to have had ‘a simple flint rubble nave and chancel’ under a ‘Horsham stone slab roof’ along with ‘externally whitewashed walls of flint cobble’ and ‘window and door surrounds in dressed stone.’ He believes it may even have received a new chancel in the 13th Century.

According to The Victoria County History for Sussex the chapel was in existence by the 1160s but seems to have lacked burial rights. It claimed the services of a chaplain called John Gore in 1380 and an unidentified curate in 1563.

The fact that Kingston had a chapel and a congregation to worship in it may indicate that it was a more significant coastal settlement than has previously been realised. There is compelling evidence to show that the village clustered around the chapel and that, in the Middle Ages, it was endowed with a small harbour where sturdy medieval cogs with their single, square sails, high sides and flat bottoms may well have tied up at its wharves.

Given the linear nature of the present coastline, that seems extraordinary. But some sort of inlet – possibly a survival of a deeply-indented Neolithic coastline – or a stretch of water sheltering behind a shingle bank or barrier island could have provided a suitable site for a harbour.

But as with Kingston Chapel, precious little is known about the port which, in its early days, could be approached in deep water. Indeed, in the reign of Edward I it was deemed important enough to be included in a coastal defence scheme to resist French invasion.

According to a single, tantalising sentence in the Victoria County History, coastguards were dispatched to Kingston in 1295. Edward I, England’s greatest warrior king, had ordered them there as part of a wider plan to prevent Philip IV of France falling on England’s virtually undefended southern and eastern coasts.

The vulnerability of the English south coast had been only too apparent in August 1295 when 10,000 French raiders swooped on Dover to rampage through its streets, killing, looting and burning.

Edward I, the tall, temperamental Plantagenet known as ‘Longshanks,’ was concerned that Philip IV might descend on England while he was eyeing an uneasy peace with the Welsh, contemplating renewed war with the Scots and struggling to regain his duchy in Gascony.

In the mid-1960s Edward I’s coastal defence scheme attracted the attention of American historian A. Z. Freeman. In the course of researching it, Freeman discovered that in October 1295 a Sussex landowner called William de Hauterive had been charged with the defence of the west Sussex coast and allotted three mounted officers and 44 foot soldiers for the purpose. As Freeman later wrote in an article for the Medieval Academy of America, that part of the coastline was ‘one of the most likely areas for combat should the French try an amphibious assault on England.’

Freeman’s article reveals that while the three officers were assigned to Chichester, Arundel and Bramber, the 44 infantrymen were distributed along the coast between East Wittering and Kingston Buci just east of Shoreham. As befitting its port status, Kingston, with its familiar chapel, received two of the soldiers who acted as coastguards. Freeman, who went on to become a history professor at The College of William & Mary in Williamsburg,  Virginia, noted that “a general mobilization” of cavalry and infantry stood ready to reinforce the coastguards in the event of a French landing.

Just how busy and prosperous the small port of Kingston was will almost certainly never be known. An entry in the Sussex Subsidy Roll for 1332, noting that a shipmaster called “Martino de Kyngeston” was taxed to the tune of two pounds, suggests it may have been reasonably well-to-do.

According to the Victoria County History, ‘the port of Kingston’ or “Kingston Haven at Goring” (not Ferring, oddly) was exporting and smuggling wool in the 1390s when it was treated as an ‘outport of Shoreham’ as it had been for the previous century.

The wool, the principal source of English wealth in the Middle Ages, was most likely of the exceptionally fine South Downs variety. Given the extensive cereal farming nearby, Kingston may even have traded in grain.The History adds that coastal erosion eventually put paid to Kingston’s maritime career, it being ‘last reckoned a port in the 1410s.’ But another account has it functioning into the 1500s.

Precisely when the pitiless English Channel began its assault on Kingston’s village, harbour, chapel and fields is unknown. The process was clearly underway in the late 15th Century as Tewkesbury Abbey, lord of Kingston Manor, recorded the loss of meadows, fields and pastures to the encroaching waves in 1494.

The sea’s attack on Kingston Chapel appears to have begun in earnest in the 16th Century. Quite possibly the religious upheavals of the times and a consequent failure to maintain the chapel abetted the onslaught.

In 1553 a Kingston resident called Alice Cole was sufficiently concerned about its condition to leave  ‘a bushell of barley’ in her will ‘to the reparaçons of the chapell.’ That same year Willian Grene, another villager, left 12 pence in his will for ‘reparaçons’ to it.

But the chapel was intact enough in 1555 for Thomas Spring to request in his will ‘that a priest shall say masse for my sowle, and all christian sowles, in the chappell of Kyngston one day in the wyke during the whole year.’ The priest was to receive 4 pence a day for ‘his paynes.’

The pitiless destruction of Kingston surely tested the faith of inhabitants and clergy alike . Curates and chaplains must have drawn on biblical inspiration to console their increasingly alarmed flock. But it was to no avail.

In 1573 Kingston’s churchwardens reported that ‘our chauncell is in great ruyne and decay and lyke to fall downe.’ According to the Victoria County History, communion was regularly celebrated in the chapel around 1580 and, some six years later, parishioners complained about the lack of quarterly sermons. It seems the chancel remained upright.

Kingston Chapel featured on several maps of Sussex in the 16th and 17th Centuries. It’s there on Christopher Saxton’s famous map of 1575 and on the equally celebrated Armada Map of 1587 drawn up by Sir Thomas Palmer and Walter Covert. The latter accords Kingston a ‘stade’ (a landing stage or wharf) which could well hint at its former role as a small port.

The chapel is also to be found on John Norden’s map of 1595 and John Speed’s map of 1610. Speed probably had no idea just how dilapidated the chapel was and that, in 1602, its churchwardens had declared “’whole Chappell’ to be ‘unpaved, the seats ruinos, (and) the covring (of the roof) greatly decayed.’ To complete the scene of destruction, they noted that the pulpit had gone and that ‘the glasse windowes and doores need mendinge (and) the walls whitinge.’ Moreover, the chapel wanted for a bible and ‘linnen clothes for the communion table.’

In 1626, the year Charles I was crowned, Kingston Chapel was finally drowned by the English Channel and all religious services came to an end. The parishioners petitioned the bishop to move their pews to St. Andrew’s Church in Ferring and they were later accommodated in its north aisle.

According to a churchwardens’ register, on December 8th 1626 the ‘Wardens of Kyngestone’ informed the Bishop of Chichester that ‘our chappell is much decayed and out of repayre by reason of the sea’ – a sea that ‘hath wrought away the land…to the very chappell so that it is not repayrable.’

The register came to light when the Rev. Frank Fincham, who served as vicar of East Preston with Kingston from 1936 to 1969, was exploring the contents of the safe at St. Mary’s, the parish church. Its initial entry was dated 1570. Many of its pages were missing but as Rev. Fincham carefully turned those that remained he came across the doleful entry for December 8th 1626 when Kingston Chapel gave up the ghost.

The dismayed churchwardens went on to record that the congregation had been ‘allotted to the mother Church of Ferring’ and sought permission to preserve “the stone and timber worke for the yearly and continuall benefitt of the poore, for suddaynly the chappell will be ruinated by the sea.’ They were particularly anxious “to take downe the covringe and healing[1] of the chappell which is of very good and large Horsham stone.’


In the course of researching the chapel and its fate, Rev. Fincham came across a letter thought to have been written by Jeffrey More, vicar of Ferring from 1611-32. Undated and unsigned, it stated that ‘the last service has taken place in the Chapel, as the waves are washing up the sides of the walls, which is almost surrounded at high tide.’


In 1627 Kingston Chapel, now submerged, was formally dissolved by the Bishop of Chichester. Dissolution by the sea would take longer.


Fourteen years later, in 1641, John Bennett and William Druett, the last ‘Wardens of Kyngestone’ issued a final report. In it they declared that ‘our chappell is utterly ruinated and demolished by the sea and wee doe constantly resort to Ferring to service being ye mother Church’ where, according to The Victoria County History, ‘christenings, marriages, and burials of Kingston people took place.’


So where precisely is Kingston Chapel today? Its remains have traditionally thought to be a clump of seaweed-festooned black rocks visible at neap tides some 400 yards south of the beach where a grassy byway leads north to Peak Lane, the truncated survivor of what was once Kingston Street. Today the rocks are regarded as slabs of conglomerate, possibly Ice Age erratics, nothing whatever to do with the chapel.


Historian Richard Standing believes the chapel stood roughly half way between the beach and the black rocks at a point less than 250 yards due south of the present shoreline at Peak Lane ‘and perhaps a lot less.’


A Kingston parish survey for 1635 indicates that a lane at the bottom of Kingston Street led away eastwards to the Manor House known today as East Kingston House.  ‘There is little doubt that the chapel would have been adjacent to this village road junction’, Standing noted in an online article in 2001.


In the historian’s 2006 book on East Preston and Kingston he provides a sketch map that places the chapel at that precise point. ‘This is where all the villagers appear to have had their houses, with their lands in surrounding open fields or commons,’ he notes. ‘Even in 1671,’ he continues, ‘one of these fields was called Undertown”, which suggests it was a remnant of the field that extended south of the original settlement,’ confirming  that the chapel and village were to be found at the southern extremity of Kingston Street.


In that position, the chapel would have stood a little southwest of where, in 1980, the remains of a medieval well was excavated by the Worthing Archaeological Society. Clearly a village well, it yielded two virtually intact wooden buckets and what appeared to be a number of flint loom weights.


According to an online article that Richard Standing wrote in 2002 the well, just east of the point where Kingston Street met the chapel ‘is approximately where I would suppose the coastline was…at the time the chapel was lost.’


Quite when the houses that clustered around the chapel finally succumbed to the sea is not clear. But it was presumably in the mid-17th Century. In 1848 a certain Rev. Arthur Hussey claimed to have recognised the earthworks of Kingston’s houses near the presumed site of the chapel while compiling a book on churches in Kent, Sussex and Surrey.


Charles Gibbon, Richmond Herald of Arms in Ordinary, also paid a visit to what was left of the village while recording ‘monumental inscriptions’ in west Sussex churches and churchyards in the mid-19th Century. When Gibbon published his findings in the Sussex Archaeological Collections in 1860 he noted that, according to tradition, ‘a village existed to the south of the very few houses now remaining in Kingston.’ He said he had seen ‘the foundations of buildings, just above the high water mark’ and agreed with the notion that the ‘houses were about the church [and] more or less nigh to it.’


Gibbon discovered that when the few villagers still living on Kingston Street walked to the ‘one solitary homestead’ remaining ‘unswallowed’ at its seaward end, only ‘a few yards of road and land’ lay between it ‘and the seventy odd miles of water across the Channel.’


Given the English Channel’s powerful, scouring currents and its tendency to sweep sand and shingle eastwards in a process known as longshore drift, some trace of the chapel and village may some day come to light.


It was impossible to grow up in Ferring in the 1950s and 1960s and not to have visited the black rocks and know about the drowning of the chapel. It was equally impossible not be charmed by the whimsical story of its bells tolling wildly from beneath the sea whenever storm and spring tide battered the coast.  In the end nothing could restrain the waves as King Canute memorably demonstrated centuries earlier at Bosham.

Today, nothing would be more fitting than a monument on the greensward opposite Peak Lane that tells the story of the Sussex village that drowned, disappearing  under the waves with its harbour, houses, pastures, fields and chapel.

The bells deserve a mention even if they never did toll distractedly from the deep. They’re just too romantic to leave out.

Stephen Webbe, who grew up in Ferring, is a member of the Ferring History Group and Sussex Archaeological Society.

[1] roofing