May 20th, 2017

A Prince Of Denmark

The story goes that the leader of a Viking raid (or a "prince of Denmark" as my guide rather sweetly put it) got captured by the Saxons and was treated so well by them that he converted to Christianity- and- more than that- became an anchorite, living in walled up cell attached to the little church of St John-sub-Castro in Lewes.

The Saxon church was demolished in the mid-19th century to make way for the existing great barn of a place, but an antiquarian rescued the anchorite's memorial and placed it- partially restored- on the south wall of the new church, in an artistic arrangement that also features a medieval grave slab.

The inscription (courtesy of Wikipedia) reads...

"Clauditur hic miles Danorum regia proles Mangnus nomen ei mangne nota progeniei; deponens mangnum se moribus induit agnum, prepete pro vita fit parvulus anachorita",

Which- minus the clever wordplay of the original- translates as

"There enters this cell a warrior of Denmark's royal race; Magnus his name, mark of mighty lineage. Casting off his Mightiness he takes the Lamb's mildness, and to gain everlasting life becomes a lowly anchorite"

Architectural Salvage

These days a seismic wave would pass through the nation if anyone proposed knocking down a Saxon church but our self-confident Victorian ancestors had no such qualms. The old church of St John-sub-Castro was far too small for the needs of the growing parish so they demolished it and replaced it with something that looks like a neo-Gothic engine shed. Luckily an antiquarian (who may have been the barbarous architect- in which case he had a conscience after all) collected up the jollier bits of the old building and incorporated them in the replacement. As well as saving the Magnus inscription he saved the old south doorway and embedded it in the north wall- in an arrangement that combines it with a badly eroded medieval gravestone and a 17th century plaque recording an earlier, less drastic act of restoration.

I didn't take a picture of the existing church- not only because it's so ugly but mainly because it's encased in scaffolding and corrugated iron. When this latest restoration is complete it will function as both a place of worship and a performance space. It may be a blot on the townscape of Lewes but it happens to have marvellous acoustics. I know all this because I happened to meet up with one of the churchwardens who very kindly gave me a guided tour.