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  • Writer's pictureGethin Thomas

Shalfleet The Fortress Church

The church we see today is only a mere thousand years old, presumed to be built on an earlier Saxon church. This is Shalfleet on the Isle of Wight in England.


Excavations carried out in 2003 and 2005 in the vicarage gardens revealed the remains of Christian burials from a much larger graveyard than that of today. One skeleton has been carbon dated to the late 7th or early 8th centuries. Skeletons found, were reburied in the existing churchyard near the north porch. These discoveries pushed back the dates of known early Saxon settlement on the site.


The existing church is Norman, constructed very quickly after the invasion of 1066. The tower is the oldest part of the structure, dating from 1070, and it was built as a defensive structure. Originally it contained no door at ground level but was entered via a ladder to the roof where the main entrance offered refuge within the tower from French marauders.

The tower is remarkable and a rare example, it's walls being five feet thick. It is thought to pre date the church itself.


The name "Shalfleet" means "shallow stream". The stream in this case is the stream passing through the village, the Caul Bourne. It was recorded as "Aet Scealdan Fleote" in the 838. In 1086, in the Domesday Book, Shalfleet was called "Selceeflet".


The Church of St. Michael the Archangel, Shalfleet was dedicated to St. Michael the Archangel in 1964, as any earlier dedication was long lost in the mists of time.


These decorated capitals are in the porch either side of the door, which is the north side of the church.

The only parts of the original church are the north door and north wall of the nave. Over the north door is the stone carved tympanum. It is thought to depict a bearded man resting his hands on the heads of two lions. This carving sparks an unresolved debate about the origin of the image and its meaning, due to its great age. Is it Adam naming the animals beneath the Tree of Knowledge in The Garden of Eden, or Daniel in the Lion's Den, or St Mark with lions, or even David overcoming the lion and the bear? We'll probably never know.


Tympanum - is the semi-circular or triangular decorative wall surface over an entrance, door or window, which is bounded by a lintel and an arch.




The church was remodelled and enlarged in 1270 when the south aisle was added, seen here on the right. The Chancel was added slightly later in 1290, seen here through the large arch.


The simple Rood Screen separating the Chancel is early 20th century, while the oak pulpit to the left is from the Charles I period.

The south aisle piers are one of only three examples of using Purbeck Stone on the island and they are very finely carved, not looking their over 700 years of age. The south aisle was occupied by manorial tenants while the main body of the nave was occupied by the Lord of the Manor and his family. It suggests a large growth in both population and wealth at around this time.


Purbeck stone refers to a building stone taken from a series of limestone beds found in the Upper Jurassic to Lower Cretaceous Purbeck Group, found on the Isle of Purbeck, Dorset in southern England. The best known variety of this stone is Purbeck Marble. The stone has been quarried since at least Roman times up to the present day. The source of the stone is 50 miles from Shalfleet but would almost certainly have travelled by boat along the coast.


The box pews with H hinges are 18th century. The general rule in early churches was to stand, while those too weak to stand leaned against the walls or sat on ledges set into those walls. This gave rise to the phrase "The weakest go to the wall".


Before the rise of Protestantism, seating was not customary in churches and only accorded to the lord of the manor, civic dignitaries and finally churchwardens. After 1569 stools and seating were installed in Protestant churches primarily because the congregation were expected to listen to sermons, and various types of seating were introduced including the box pew. Box pews provided privacy and allowed the family to sit together. In the 17th century they could include windows, curtains, tables and even fireplaces, and were treated as personal property that could be willed to legatees. Sometimes the panelling was so high it was difficult to see out, and the privacy was used as a cover for non-devotional activity. William Hogarth satirized the trend in his paintings and sketches. By the eighteenth century it became normal to install formal box pews instead of random personal constructions. (As seen here in Shalfleet) With the mid-19th century church reforms, box pews were generally swept away and replaced by bench pews. This makes the Shalfleet pews rare.


The Piscina in the south aisle is 13th century. Piscina - a stone basin near the altar in Catholic and pre-Reformation churches for draining water used in the Mass.


The organ was replaced in 2009 by an organ of 1885, made by Father Henry Willis which came from a private house in Scotland. The Coat of Arms above the door is of George IV (1820-1830)



This nameless mural tablet is dated 1630 and is presumed to be dedicated to a member of the Worsley family.


The Pennethorne window depicts The Nativity by Ward and Hughes 1888. The family were the adopted children (his wife's second cousins) of John Nash, the architect, who rebuilt Hamstead farmhouse.


John Nash was one of the foremost British architects of the Georgian and Regency eras, during which he was responsible for the design, in the neoclassical and picturesque styles, of many important areas of London. His designs were financed by the Prince Regent and by the era's most successful property developer, James Burton. Nash's best-known solo designs are the Royal Pavilion, Brighton; Marble Arch; and Buckingham Palace.



The font is a combination late 16th century bowl married to a Doric column which has worked quite well.

In the Chancel are several memorials by Jones and Willis in memory of members of the Wilkinson family of Parsonage Farm who were the Lay Rectors.

Not much Shalfleet news in the archive but I did find this interesting snippet.


Hampshire Chronicle - Monday 01 June 1778


WHEREAS we Thomas Hayles, James Osborne the younger, and George Lock of Carisbrooke, labourers, being employed to fetch faggots from a wood in the parish of Shalfleet the Isle of Wight, belonging to Sir Fitz Williams Barrington Baronet, did unlawfully cut and bring away from thence three ash trees, for which the said Sir Williams Barrington ordered prosecution against us, but, on our paying three guineas for the said trees, and making this public acknowledgement of our offence, and promising never to be guilty of the like for the future, he has contented not to proceed against us, for which we are very thankful, Thomas Hayles, his mark, X, James Osborne, George Lock, his mark, X

In August 2009 metal detectorists searching near Shalfleet discovered an Iron Age hoard, the Shalfleet Hoard, consisting of four large bowl-shaped silver ingots, six small silver fragments, and one gold British B (or, 'Chute',) stater. The discovery of this hoard contributes to the evidence that the Isle of Wight was occupied by the Celtic tribe, the Durotriges, during the Late Iron Age.

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