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Press release

  • 11 December 2007

Student sleuths solve riddle of no-name church

Picture puzzle: the 13th century glass at St Marys North Stoke depicts a scene from the life of its patron saint, the Virgin Mary

Picture puzzle: the 13th century glass at St Mary's North Stoke depicts a scene from the life of its patron saint, the Virgin Mary

Some serious digging in the archives by church archaeology students at the University of Sussex has solved a centuries-old mystery surrounding an ancient church.

Husband-and-wife history sleuths Tony and Lesley Voice, from Horsham, uncovered a letter written in 1275 to King Edward I, while researching the history of North Stoke Church, near Arundel, West Sussex, at the National Archives at Kew. The couple are keen historians and were searching the archives as part of a church archaeology course with the Centre for Continuing Education at the University.

They studied the building's carvings, stained glass and scoured records held at West Sussex Records Office and at Kew, to piece together the church's history.

When Tony voice discovered a 13th-century scrap of vellum - a letter from the Bishop of Chichester, Stephen Bersted, to the church's patron, Edward I - he realised that the church was dedicated to St Mary the Virgin - a fact lost since the Reformation. Medieval churches were normally dedicated to saints.

Rare medieval stained glass fragments at the church portraying the Annunciation to the Virgin Mary probably survived because it relates to the church's patron saint.

Tony Voice said: "I found the letter by accident really, as it was attached to another document. It was without doubt the most exciting discovery I have made in all my years of archival research. I am filled with a great sense of pride that such an historic building is regaining its true status."

Tony added: "The CCE courses enabled me to expand my knowledge and understanding. I always think the investigation of a building should be combined with in-depth documentary research to try to discover the reasons for a particular feature or, as in the case of North Stoke church, why it was such a richly ornamented church for a parish that always had a small population."

Royal clue: The letter that revealed the name of the church at North Stoke

Royal clue: The letter that revealed the name of the church at North Stoke

The Voices also discovered another intriguing connection for the building, now redundant as a parish church. Its aristocratic benefactor was William FitzAlan of Arundel, who was also patron of an important Augustinian abbey in Shropshire. Rather than travel north for the installation of new abbots, however, he held these important services in St Mary's in North Stoke. This explains why such ornate decoration - including the carved heads of some Augustinian canons (monks) - features in such an obscure location.

CCE tutor Bob Hutchinson, who taught Tony and Lesley Voice, said: "Church archaeology is a bit like detective work - it's real-life Da Vinci Code stuff. Buildings such as churches offer lots of clues about their past, but this find is quite special."

As a result of the research, the church's custodians, the Churches Conservation Trust, held a rededication ceremony at the church (Saturday, 8 December), which was carried out jointly by the Roman Catholic Bishop of Arundel, Kieran Conry, and the Anglican Bishop of Horsham, Lindsay Urwin. Guests included the Duke and Duchess of Norfolk, Mr Ian Field (High Sheriff of Sussex), Mr Hugh Wyatt (Lord Lieutenant) and Mr Crispin Truman, Chief Executive of the Churches Conservation Trust. Also present were Father Anthony Maggs, representing the Augustinian Canons, who owned the church for much of the Middle Ages, and Father Stephen Ortiger, formerly abbot of the Benedictine abbey of Worth. They were joined by Tony and Lesley Voice and Bob Hutchinson and David Rudling, representing the University.

David Rudling said: "This discovery is just one of many that have resulted from CCE's annual summer open course: The Recording of a Sussex Church. We'll be repeating the course again in 2008, at St Peter's Church, Parham.

"These courses, which take place at a different church each year, analyse and record the archaeology of a medieval church using written descriptions, drawings, measurements, photographs and, in some cases, geophysical sensing. We also run at various locations in Sussex a number of short part-time courses on different aspects of church archaeology and history."

Notes for editors

  • Open courses are run by the Centre for Continuing Education at the University of Sussex. They are open to anyone, irrespective of educational qualifications and experience and provide the chance to study in a relaxed and supportive environment. For more details see Open Courses
  • The Churches Conservation Trust is the leading body conserving England's most beautiful and historic churches which are no longer needed for regular worship. It promotes public enjoyment of these churches, and encourages their use as an educational and community resource. See:
  • For more information about St Mary North Stoke, see: St Mary

University of Sussex Press office contacts: Maggie Clune and Jacqui Bealing. Tel: 01273 678 888 or email

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