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Visiting the Church of St Mary the Virgin, Rye, East Sussex, England: looming over the town since the 12th century

Updated on May 23, 2013
Flag of England
Flag of England | Source
St Mary's Church, Rye. Viewed from the road leading up from Ypres Tower.
St Mary's Church, Rye. Viewed from the road leading up from Ypres Tower. | Source
Rye town rises behind the Fish Quay
Rye town rises behind the Fish Quay | Source
Map location of Rye, East Sussex
Map location of Rye, East Sussex | Source

Recalling French raiders who stole its bells in 1377!

St Mary's Church — more fully, the Church of St Mary the Virgin — has stood on a hill at Rye, in England's East Sussex, since the 12th century. I have supplied a picture (right), which shows the ancient church tower looming over the town, situated on the Rother River. This tower is not very tall, at least, from its base, but the building's situation on a hill gives the tower considerable prominence in Rye's skyline.

This imposting, stone structure was originally built between 1150 and 1180. North south aisles were added in the 13th century. Features include prominent buttressing, a 16th century clock, which is still in working order; and a set of 8 bells (not the stolen, Medieval ones!) weighing 5 about tonnes, which date from 1775.

There is an an extensive churchyard, but this has been closed for burials for about 150 years. A group known as the Friends of St Mary's (1) was in recent years involved in restoring a more than 100 year old pipe organ. This venerable instrument has no less than 1668 pipes.

Rather exciting events in relation to visitors from Normany, France occurred in the Middle Ages. (In the first place, the land around the church building was owned by the Abbey of Fécamp, Normandy.) In 1377, raiders from Normandy arrived, attacked the town, causing significant fire damage, and the church's roof was destroyed. The raiders even stole the church bells, and took them back to France with them!

Not to be deterred, in 1378 men sailed to Normandy, burned some towns there, located the lost bells and brought them back to Rye! (As the saying goes, No hard feelings!)

When I visited the vicinity of the church, I took away with me a sense of 'sleepiness' and historical continuity, as if nothing very much had changed through the mists of time. Indeed, the town of Rye itself may be said to exude this sense. For North American visitors, such impressions can be particularly striking.

Links are maintained with Rye, New York, founded in the 17th century by settlers originating from this town in Sussex. A commemorative inscription at St Mary's marks this centuries' old connection.

May 23, 2013


(1) Further information about the Friends of St Mary's may be accessed at:

Also worth seeing

In Rye itself, Mermaid Street has an old Inn linked with pirate lore; the cobbled street is often photographed. Lamb House, a National Trust museum, is the former residence of American novelist Henry James, naturalized British shortly before his death in 1916; Ypres Tower is Medieval in origin.

Winchelsea (distance: approx. 3 kilometres); small, picturesque town (a village in all but name) which was already recorded in 1130.


How to get there: United Airlines flies from New York Newark to London Heathrow Airport, where car rental is available. There are rail links from London to Rye. Some facilities may be withdrawn, without notice. You are advised to check with the airline or your travel agent for up to date information.

MJFenn is an independent travel writer based in Ontario, Canada.

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