All Saints Witley : A brief history
A Saxon church probably stood on the site from the 7th. Century AD. This would have been a wooden structure. The Nave of the present building was begun before 1066. Windows in the South and West walls are evidence of Saxon work. The South doorway is Norman and the doomsday record of the parish is shown on a board on the West wall.
The tower and transepts were added in the early 13th. Century with the Manor Chapel added a little later. This was a gift of Queen Eleanor of Provence, wife of Henry III. It puts the church into its historical context. The White Hart public house is probably on the site of a royal hunting lodge. Queen Eleanor allowed a weekly market in 1283 and Witley was briefly the centre of England when Edward I held court here for five days in 1305. The spire was raised in the late 14th. Century.
The church remained in royal ownership until the reign of Elizabeth I. The royal connections are evidenced by fragments of heraldic glass in the Manor Chapel, one depicting the arms of Mary Tudor and several monuments in the Chancel and Chapel including an inscription to the Duke of Clarence (granted Witley Manor in 1462), Thomas Jones, food taster to Henry VIII and Henry Bell, Clerk Controller to the household of James I. The West window and door are of the 16th. Century. A peel of eight bells hang in the tower, the earliest of which was originally cast in 1604 . Note the hatchment over the West window depicting the arms of George III.
In common with many other churches a number of changes were made by the Victorians. The North Aisle was added, together with a vestry and the North Transept extended to accommodate the pipe organ. The Chancel was embellished with the addition of an alabaster reredos, the laying of a symbolic mosaic floor (now largely covered by carpet) and the erection of a barrel vault ceiling with painted scenes, mostly depicting the beautitudes. Whilst these works were going on medieval wall paintings were discovered (1889) on the South wall of the Nave. These had been hidden under layers of limewash.
The paintings on the South wall of the Nave are true frescoes (ie. painted on wet plaster) and were probably done around 1130 and are typical of scenes to be found in many country churches. They depict the life of Jesus and are explained on a story board in the church. Since their discovery conservation work has been going on in phases almost continually. Sadly the work by the Victorian conservators was misguided as the paintings were covered by a protective coating which prevented the wall from breathing, causing the painted surface to blister. More recent work (1979/80 and 1991/2) has removed this coating and injected the wall with a lime water solution. During the second phase of this work further paintings were uncovered on the West wall and the return of the North arcade. In their original state the paintings would have been quite striking with red (now a faded pink!) and yellow being the predominant colours with black text on three white horizontal bands.
The Church To-day
In the last decade of the 20th century, in time for the Millennium, improvements included structural work on the tower and steeple, refurbishment of the organ and rehanging of the bells. Three of the bells were recast at the Whitechapel Bell Foundry and rededicated to the People of All Saints, the Friends of All Saints and the Ringers.
The task of conservation and repair continues on this Grade I Listed Building and in May 2009 a whole new area at the front of the church was commissioned for use by church and community. The new area is in fact an old area re-defined and re-furbished. It enables our parish church to go on serving the community of the 21st century. See here on for more information.
Notable graves in the churchyard include those of Miles Birkett Foster, the Victorian watercolourist and the financier Whittaker Wright who built Witley Park but was later disgraced and committed suicide.
A guide to the Parish Churches of Witley and Thursley was produced by Alan Bott in 2003 and provides a comprehensive record of church history, architecture, memorials and other contents of both churches. It is on sale in the church.