By J D Whitehead
THE CASTLE OF Carisbrooke is so prime an attraction that visitors may well fail to appreciate the importance of the church which lies less than a mile away in the valley below.
St Mary the Virgin appears so solid, so well preserved and so thriving that it could be taken as out of place to refer to it as 'remains', yet this would be true. Once an imposing complex of buildings surrounded it, forming the earliest Priory in the Island.
It is quite probable that the site was a place of heathen worship in 530 AD under the Saxon conqueror, Cerdic, and was converted to Christianity some two hundred years later.
The present nave of the church was erected in 1070 by William Fitz-Osbern and he gave it to the Abbey of Lyra which he had founded in Normandy before the Conquest. It was the Abbot of Lyra who extended the church into a Priory, shortly after 1150, in order to meet his need for a base from which to collect the Island tithes and rents due from the many properties which had been given to his order as a result of the Norman conquest of England. Until that time all such dues had been collected by monks who made an annual pilgrimage across the Channel, landing usually at Bonchurch whose shore-line has been known as 'Monk's Bay' ever since.
The only religious centre in the vicinity, apart from Quarr which was founded in 1131, had been the church of Buccombe (Bowcombe) which also, according to Domesday Book, was in the possession of Lyra. A charter, signed by Baldwin de Redvers, Lord of the Island, in the reign of Stephen, and witnessed by Geoffrey de Insula of Wootton and Gervasse Abbot of Quarr, states the two 'clerkes', Gaulfride and Stephen, both serving the church - of Buccombe, were to be pensioned for life from the revenues of the living and, at their deaths, the monks of Lyra could 'do what they willed' with the church of Buccombe. What, in fact, they did 'will' was to pull the Buccombe church down completely and provide the parishioners with accommodation in part of the new Priory church at Carisbrooke.
To assist this move Walter de Insula gave an acre of land, in 1170, upon which to extend the south aisle of the church. This widening, however, went only as far as the third pier from the east end and the method of attaching the new arch to the old pillar can still be clearly seen and is worth attention. At that time the monks retained the nave and chancel for their own use and had the 'parochial' south aisle separated off with a screen to form a separate church, to be served by a separate priest. The holes cut in the pillars to support this screen, although filled in, can still be seen. It is very probable that the materials of the demolished Buccombe church were re-used in the building of chapels (later to become churches) at Newport and Northwood which were also staffed by monks from Carisbrooke.
A great deal of bitter animosity arose over the advowson of the 'parochial' south aisle. The Prior of Carisbrooke argued that the parochial church was under his roof and that he should have the right of appointing the priest. The de Redvers family hotly opposed this view and insisted upon installing their own vicar. The argument carried right through to the days of Isabella de Fortibus whose domineering character forced the Prior to complain of her 'intolerable injuries and molestations' and, in 1279, he sought the aid of the King who ordered the Countess to cease her persecutions.
More troubles arose in 1332 when Robert - Werner, 'Perpetual Vicar of the Church of Carisbrooke' (the parochial south aisle portion) was accused of causing violent and grievous bodily harm to a clerk named Johannem Willicticum. Werner was 'escorted' to Rome to obtain absolution.
During the reign of Edward III the Priory was confiscated by the Crown as being 'alien' and, while under royal control, the returns were suspected of shortages. An investigation was set up under Thomas de Aspale, Sherriff of South Hampshire, William de Dale, Constable of Carisbrooke Castle, and Henry Romyn.
As a result Richard II removed the Priory from the possession of Lyra altogether and gave it to the Yorkshire Priory of Montgrace which had been founded by Thomas Holland, Duke of Surrey. This action, however, set up such additional friction with the French that, in an attempt to smooth things over, Henry IV restored the Priory to Lyra though he retained the advowson of the 'parochial' south aisle which, by then, had become known as the Vicarial Church.
In 1403 Odo de Ulnis, Prior of Carisbrooke, is recorded in William of Wykeham's Register as having been suspended, a commission having proved him guilty of 'fornication and other infamous crimes'. Henry V again claimed the Priory as an alien foundation and, with other Lyra possessions, gave it to his new Charterhouse at Sheen. This was a disastrous move for Carisbrooke since the Carthusian monks of Sheen were only interested in what revenues could be gained and gladly agreed to the Priory of Carisbrooke being dissolved by act of Parliament. This having been done they pulled down the greater part of the monastic buildings and leased the remainder to civilian tenants. One of the first of these was Sir James Leigh of Appuldurcombe. Through his daughter's marriage to Sir James Worsley the tenancy passed to their son, Sir Richard Worsley, whose widow passed it to her second husband, Sir Francis Walsingham who was Secretary of State to Queen Elizabeth. Sir Francis became Lay Rector of the church and it was he who, in 1570, pulled down the chancel rather than expend money on its repair. He had the chancel arch blocked up and debased windows inserted in the east walls of the nave and south aisle and, in an endeavour to hide his vandalism, made a gift to the church of the 100 marks which were realised by the sale of old building materials. The outlines of the original windows and chancel roof can still be clearly seen outside. At this time also the south porch was replaced by a new one.
The remains of the Priory, by that time, had become no more than a farm and, according to a survey of the time, consisted of a hall, buttery, three 'chambers' a kitchen, larder and loft, one stable, one 'oxehouse', a 'Maltinge house', one barn and 'one Doue house adjoyninge, all ruinous and in decaie'. They appear to have remained much like that until 1845 when all but the actual dwelling house were demolished. All that is now certain is that the original Priory buildings lay to the north of the church. The lower part of a door jamb found at the east end of the north wall probably opened into the original 'cellarium'.
In the summer of 1891 Mr Percy G Stone, the Island architect and antiquarian, opened up the middle of three 'sepulchral' recesses in the north wall of the church and thereby proved that our modern habit of 'graffiti' is by no means new. On the back of the recess a whole art gallery of random scratchings, apparently made with the point of a nail, came to light. They showed a sailing ship, a male figure carrying an axe, two female heads dressed in the fashion of the early fifteenth century , and numerous meaningless sentences of script. The recess had, probably, been walled up at the time of the insertion of the late 15th century windows.
The tower was built by the Sheen monks on the instructions of Anthony Wideville, Lord of the Island, and the date 1470 was re-cut on a panel in the west face by masons doing repairs in 1806. It was re-faced externally in 1902. It is one of the finest towers of its period in the south of England, having perfect proportions and simple lines with massive buttresses projecting into the church. The Gatcombe and Newport towers were based on the same design.
The only tomb of interest is that of Lady Margaret Wadham, wife of Governor Sir Nicholas Wadham, and aunt to Henry VIII's Queen, Jane Seymour. It was erected in 1550 and has, unfortunately, suffered considerable damage.
There is also a wooden memorial tablet hanging in the nave to commemorate 'the right worthy William Keeling Esq., groom of the chamber to our Sovereign Lord King James, General of the Hon. East India Adventurers'. The tomb itself, which dates from 1619, is marked by a brass in the centre aisle.
Through time the church has acquired three different roofs as shown by the internal corbels which supported them. The first was steep pitched; the second, raised at the time of widening the south aisle, was low sprung and raftered, four large cross beams being added in 1460; the third, which still exists, was built in 1710 as shown by the date on the south buttress of the east wall. This buttress was added to withstand the thrust of the south arcade on the removal of the chancel.
Two sepulchral slabs, regrettably mutilated, have been found. One is from the grave of a prior but has since been used as the threshold of a door in the Priory farm at the south east corner of the church. It is thought to be 12th century workmanship. The second, which was found in a recess of the south wall and is now situated in the porch, is 13th century and has moulded edges and a foliated cross in low relief on the upper face. In the porch also there is a stone sarcophagus which is in good condition, the inside being shaped to accommodate the head of its occupant.
During the excavation of the middle sepulchral recess in 1891 a fine slab of Purbeck marble was found opposite the recess and at the level of the cloister floor. It was 6ft 6in long and tapered from 2ft 8in to 2ft 6in wide. It was broken in half but the inscription 'CUBE AVELINE DAME EWE' was readable suggesting that it was a sepulchral slab to a lady named Aveline who came from Eu in Normandy.
Some restoration in 1872 brought to light the original floor of the church and the bases of the columns. A new window was inserted in the south wall, west of the porch, at this time. In further restorations in 1907 two original round-headed win- dows were uncovered between the arches at the west end of the old south wall of the nave.
The Cromwellian font and pulpit date from 1658 and the Communion vessels from 1750. The bells were re-cast in 1770. During the Reformation the niche and statue of the Virgin in the east wall of the south aisle were destroyed and they were not replaced until, in 1964, subscriptions enabled a new statue to be sculpted and installed.
The Parish Registers, which date from 1672, record the death of 'Sir Edward Horssie', Captain of the Wight, on March 21st 1583. Another entry in 1648 refers to the King's attempt to escape from the Castle and records that 'on Captain Powley being taken and emprisaned at Carisbrooke (Castel) and sent to Woortone and the 26th day of Janafear hanged and cawertered'. A further entry says that 'In the year 1641 hapned a most cruell and bloddy mourder upon the wedowe Kitle of the Forrest, having her braynes and her cosle beast all in peisses, and robed and found dead in her house, and buryed the 13th day of April'.