Earliest known drawing by James Lambert dating from 1782.  It shows the former Rector's barn, which was
pulled down in 1846 and also a dovecote whose site, 100 yards east of the church, was still visible until 1969.
British Library (Dept. of Manuscripts)



St. Helen’s origins can be dated to sometime between the Norman Conquest of 1066 and 1093. It was built as a centre of worship for a village community of about 200 – 250 who lived nearby. All the 53 householders were bound by feudal dues either to the manor of ‘Hangletone’ or to the manor of Benfield (then known as ‘Esmerewic’). Both appear in the Domesday Book of 1086 and must have originated in Anglo Saxon times.

The village remained reasonably prosperous until about 1300 when the church was given its new chancel and a tower at the west end. The population began to decline. The Black Death that first arrived in 1348/9 further depleted it. By 1381 there were only 30-40 inhabitants and in 1428 only 2 households. For more than 500 years it remained a small and scattered farming community whose economy was based on sheep-rearing and cereal-growing. Hangleton’s population languished at less than 100 until 1911 and its transformation into today’s populous suburb has occurred almost entirely since 1945.

Hangleton’s five centuries of near-total depopulation inevitably involved some damage to the church’s fabric and its contents but, remarkably, it escaped the fate that befell a number of other local churches of being reduced to ruin or near ruin. Essentially St. Helen’s remains today an unspoilt early medieval church, its exterior described by Pevsner as ‘mellow and humble’ with an interior of simple dignity.


The oldest part of St. Helen’s is the Nave, the larger part of the church where the worshippers sit (or, in earlier days stood). It survives from the original 11th century building and is the oldest surviving structure anywhere in Brighton or Hove. The small windows one on either side are two of the original nave windows. All four were blocked up when the church was reconstructed around 1300. Two were unblocked in 1969; the other two remain concealed.

The splays of one of these windows still retails scrollwork, of a reddish colour, with which there were decorated in the early 13th century. Wall Paintings may have decorated the entire north wall but, as a result of damp and neglect, only a few fragments remain. These are not easy to decipher but they include some river bank, some drapery and a large 13th century figure, immediately to the east of the north door, of St. Christopher. He is well-known as the patron saint of the traveller. It was believed in the Middle Ages, that anyone seeing his image would be protected from harm that day. The fragment to the west of the door is of a later date: it represents the rear quarter of a lion, part of the Royal Coat of Arms of early 17th century date.

The larger windows at the east end of the nave replaced the earlier ones in about 1300. Not only were they thought more attractive and fashionable but were also intended to improve the natural lighting in the nave. The southwest window is modern.

A medieval holy water stoup is built into the wall adjacent to the south door. People would dip their fingers in water, blessed by the priest, and make the sign of the Cross on entering and leaving the church.

A small 14th century piscina with an ogee head can be found in the south wall near the font. Piscinas are the basins where the sacred vessels that have held the bread and wine consecrated at the Eucharist were cleansed, usually seen near the altar.

The nave roof is of a simple construction: oak beams resting on wall plates positioned on the outside walls. The evidence of the carpentry technique used indicates that the roof structure is of 13th century date, though some of the original 11th century timbers may well have been re- used. Not all the timbers are original since beams recovered from another ancient building, then being demolished, were used in the late 1940’s during extensive repairs to the church’s roof.

The nave brick floor slopes from east to west, following the grounds natural contours. The builders thus avoided the considerable labour of levelling the chalk base. A memorial slab to Ann, daughter of John and Ann Norton of Portslade, who died aged 21 in 1749, lies in the aisle of the nave. She was probably the sister or niece of Robert Norton who was Rector from 1755 to 1757.

The Chancel, at the east end of the church is used primarily by the clergy. It dates from around 1300 when the original small chancel was pulled down and replaced, with windows of the same date giving a better light. The western window in the south side is lower, as commonly found in medieval churches. Their purpose was possibly to provide better light to the clergy when saying the daily offices (psalms, bible readings etc).

The wall monument commemorates Richard Bellingham, a former Lord of the Manor of Hangleton who occupied Hangleton Manor House in the latter years of the 16th century and died there in 1597. It depicts Richard and his wife kneeling opposite one another, a prayer-desk between them; 5 sons and 4 daughters are ranged behind them. Underneath 5 other children appear, 1 on the male, 4 of the female side: all are wrapped in ‘chrysom’ (christening) robes, a device that symbolically records the fact that they had all died in infancy. Although much damaged and neglected over the centuries, there is evidence that this was once painted.

The chancel roof dates from the late 17th or early 18th century. The east window and its glass dates from 1910; the reredos, the panelling and chancel screen, 1927; the altar, 1962; the pulpit and font are both also comparatively modern.


The church us built of flint, the natural (vernacular) building-material of Downland areas. The mortar that the flints are set in is made of aggregate of lime obtained from the abundant local chalk, mixed with sand and small pebbles from the seashore. The distinctive ‘herring bone’ pattern which can be seen on the south wall of the nave is a common feature of Norman churches.

The tower dates from about 1300, the same period as the ‘improved’ chancel and, like it, must have been built in part as an expression and reflection of the material success of the village community of that time. The tiled ‘cap’ at the top of the tower is, however, modern.

The church’s roof is pitched at 50 degrees, confirming that it was originally thatched. 45 degrees was the optimum pitch for tiles or slates. This particular and revealing feature has survived to the present day although the roof has been covered by a variety of different roofing materials over its nine centuries.

The vestry and porch on the north side are modern additions to the building though both the north and south doorways are mostly original. The south door has been restored.

The Churchyard

Its former isolation and appealing Downland setting made St. Helen’s churchyard a much favoured last resting-place in late Victorian times and in the early years of this century, even for non-parishioners. Among the graves on the north side can be found the stone commemorating Canon Samuel Barnett (1844-1913) and his wife Dame Henrietta (1851-1905), founders of Toynbee Hall, the Whitechapel Art Gallery and of Hampstead Garden Suburb. Henry Willett (1823-1905) is commemorated by both his gravestone and a Pieta in the church.  A great benefactor of Brighton, his gifts formed the basis of its Art Gallery and Museum and of the Booth Museum. The attractive headstone to the grave of Dame Flora Robson’s parents near the south west corner of the churchyard was designed and executed by Eric Kennington, better known as a war artist and for Lawrence of Arabia’s tomb in Wareham, Dorset. The elaborate marble tomb, dating from 1880, is of Edward Kenealy QC who was defence counsel in the celebrated ‘Tichborne Case’.


You can find a lot more about the history of our beautiful medieval church on the 'Hove in the Past' blog, written by local historian Judy Middleton and site designer Dave Sharp. Please click on the link below:

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