In ‘England’s Thousand Best Churches’ Sir Simon Jenkins ranks St Thomas’ among the top six in the whole of Sussex.
Building started in the 1280s with stone from Caen in Normandy, marble from the west of Sussex and timber rafters made of sound Sussex oak. A foundation, says Jenkins, ‘intended to dazzle the French’.
Fourteenth century war damage, and the decay of the town in Tudor times saw the building reduced to its current dimensions – the chancel used for worship, the remains of the transepts outside, and the nave totally gone. John Wesley preached his last outdoor sermon under an ash tree in the churchyard and wrote of ‘that poor skeleton of Ancient Winchelsea with its large church now in ruins’.
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Put back in good order during the nineteenth century, what remains is magnificent. Simon Jenkins writes, ‘Winchelsea’s glory is its medieval tombs… a superb display of English carving’. There are five effigies, each under a lavish canopy.
The interior was transformed after the Great War by the insertion of some of the finest stained glass of the modern era – a complete set of windows by Scottish artist Douglas Strachan. These were dedicated in 1933 by the Archbishop of Canterbury in a service broadcast to the nation by the BBC.More on Stained Glass
Leading Victorian artist, Sir John Millais, painted several pictures in and around the town, most famously The Blind Girl. This painting, L’Enfant du Regiment, is set against the background of the Alard tomb.
Spike Milligan spent his last years in nearby Udimore and is buried in Winchelsea. Strict churchyard rules banned his dying words from the gravestone. ‘I told you I was ill’ was carved in Gaelic translation instead.
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