Our History

The Parish of St Mary Magdalene, Tortington

The major changes in the history of our parish are those of ownership – ownership of the farmed land, of the woods and of individual buildings – few outside the grounds of Tortington House (now known as Tortington Manor) have been built in the last 100 years. Little else has changed. Much the same acreage of farmland was tilled and grazed here in medieval Tortington and the woodland is only marginally smaller than it was then.  Even the population has changed little since the last Victorian census.

When William the Conqueror was crowned King of England on Christmas Day 1066 the farmland of Tortington was tilled by an Anglo-Saxon freeman called Leofwine. By the time William’s commissioners visited this part of Sussex just twenty years later to sit in the shire court and evaluate property for the great Domesday Survey, the land was worked by Ernucion, also a freeman but a tenant of Earl Roger de Montgomery whose loyal service to the Conqueror had been rewarded by the granting of huge tracts of land throughout England. Those lands included manors near Arundel in Sussex.

There was no church in Tortington at this time but one was built here sometime after the Domesday Survey and certainly before 1150 when a church was first recorded as a benefice or living held by a rector of the Church in England. By 1290 the church was recorded as a vicarage, the incumbents from this date onwards with only a few exceptions being described as vicars.  In 1380 the nearby Augustine Priory acquired the benefice and the right to appoint clergy. Like the Priory, it was dedicated to St Mary Magdalene but at some time in its early history it may have had a dual dedication as the parish, even as late as the 1911 UK census, was sometimes referred to as the Parish of St Thomas, Tortington.

From these early foundations until the 20th century, the history of the parish is closely linked to those of the church, the priory, the manor and the Earls of Arundel. A complex history of conveyances, grants, gifts and titles make this small tract of land little more than a token in the world of land ownership. But for all the fluctuations in the fortunes of faith and family, continuity can be found in this small parish church for here is the witness to one thousand years of Tortington history.

The Manor of Tortington
In the Domesday Survey of 1086 the manor of Tortington was assessed as having 3 hides, enough to support 2 plough teams, 6 villeins and 2 cottagers. In addition, the manor also had 30 acres of meadow and woodland grazing for 6 hogs. Through the collection of a tithe the church would have had a modest income.

As a manor in the Rape of Arundel, an ancient administrative unit of land-holding unique to Sussex, Tortington was part of the reward from William the Conqueror to Earl Roger de Montgomery for loyal service. However, Earl Roger’s son Robert de Bellême later became embroiled in a dispute with Henry I who stripped him of his title and lands. Then, around 1105, Henry ennobled William d’Aubigny as 1st Earl of Arundel and gave him Robert’s Sussex lands, including the manor of Tortington.

Hugh d’Aubigny, the 5th Earl, died without issue in 1243 and the king allowed the earldom and title to lapse. However Hugh’s sister had married John FitzAlan and the Rape of Arundel now passed to their son, also John FitzAlan. Fifty years later his descendant Richard FitzAlan became 1st Earl of Arundel when Edward I revived the earldom and its title. So began a family association with town and title that continues to this day.

Meanwhile ownership of the Tortington manor during the d’Aubigny and FitzAlan over-lordships in the Rape of Arundel was conveyed first Pharamus de Tracey and his descendants, certainly by 1216, and later to William of Bracklesham. He in turn conveyed the manor to Ellis de Cheyney around 1295 after which it became known for a time as Tortington-Cheyneys.

On Ellis’s death in 1327 his son and his widow Joan inherited the land, the latter selling her portion to Eleanor of Lancaster, niece of king Edward I and wife of Richard FitzAlan, now 3rd Earl of Arundel. With the sale to the FitzAlan’s in 1373 of the last portion of Tortington held independently of Arundel, the manor was once again under the lordship of the Earls of Arundel. However in 1415 on the death of Thomas FitzAlan, the 5th Earl, Tortington manor was bequeathed to Holy Trinity Hospital, Arundel and there it remained until the Dissolution of the Monasteries in 1536 when once again it became the property of the Crown.

However, soon after the sale and redistribution of church lands that followed the Dissolution, Tortington once again came into the possession of the FitzAlan family, only to be conveyed soon after to Roger Gratwick, whose descendants held the manor until the end of the 17th century and to whose memory a memorial window remains in the church. In 1706 Tortington manor came into the possession of William Leeves whose family remained lords of the manor until 1790 and landowners until 1839. With the title came the right to appoint clergy of the parish church and their close relationship with this office is reflected in the several memorial plaques in the church.

The demesne lands in the Rape of Arundel had been separated from Tortington manor in 1710 and although the Leeves family retained an interest in each of them, by 1790 the Duke of Norfolk, a descendant of the FitzAlan family, had acquired the Arundel portion and by 1879 had purchased Tortington as well, thereby acquiring a manor his family first became lords of  more than 500 years earlier.

There were by now two principal farms in Tortington, Manor Farm and Priory Farm, both farmed by the Duke’s tenants. Although the Arundel Estate retained woodland in Tortington, by the early-20th century those tenants had purchased their respective farms, thus bringing to an end almost one thousand years of manorial tenure.

Tortington House and Manor Farm
Entering the parish from the Arundel-Chichester road, Tortington Lane bisects the dense woods know as Tortington Common. Continuing southwards to the right of the fork in the lane the visitor emerges from the dappled light of woodland into the brightness of the open fields that lie before the stately facade in the middle-distance of what was once Tortington House.

The Manor of Tortington passed through many hands from 11th century.  Throughout the 17th century the Gratwicke family were Lords of the Manor living in the house now known as Manor Farm. However it was either Oliver Weekes or his son Carew Weekes, MP for Arundel at that time and Gratwicke descendant, who built a new house just to north of Manor Farm and called it Torton Place. In the 18th century the Leeves family acquired the Lordship of the Manor and gradually the new house became the de facto Manor House while the older building became the farmhouse.

And so it remained until 1879 when the Duke of Norfolk had purchased virtually all of the manorial land in the parish and Tortington House, as it had become known, had become a private residence without any connection with the ancient manorial lands or title.

The last private residents of the house were members of the Travers family after whom the house became successively Tortington Park School, a Catholic girls’ boarding school, and New England College, the UK campus for a New Hampshire-based college.

Following extensive redevelopment, by 2001 what remained of the original house and many of its auxilliary buildings had been converted to modern apartments and houses in 17 acreas of woodland and lawns.

Tortington Priory
An Augustinian Priory was founded at Tortington in the late-12th century on land held by the Norman Abbey of Sées half a mile north of St Mary Magdalene’s church. Although it has often been said to have been founded to serve the Priory the church in fact pre-dates the Priory by possibly 50 years although the living of St Mary Magdalene was by 1389 in the gift of Tortington Priory.

The founder of the Priory was probably Alicia de Corbet, a widow and daughter of the d’Aubigny family who had once been a mistress of king Henry I. She was also reputedly devoted to Mary Magdalene and this became the priory’s dedication as well as the church.

For the ‘Black Canons’ who lived there it was a small establishment, not unlike other Augustinian priories founded nearby at Pyneham (de Calceto) just to the east of Arundel and at Hardham, further up the Arun valley.  Occupied by only a Prior and four or five Canons at any one time, the Priory was gifted the advowson of church livings in Sussex, Dorset and London, including for a time that of St Mary Magdalene in Tortington. But successive visitations in the 15th and early 16th centuries reported a house in decay, lacking in books and whose servants were incompetent and unskilled. It gained a reputation as a house where errant monks were sent who were undeserving of a more prestigious or venerated establishment.

The religious house was dissolved soon after 1536, its goods sold off and the Priory sold to Lord Maltravers of Arundel within whose family it remained until the Catholic Howard family fell out of favour in the late-16th century. After this, though re-occupied for a time and known as Tortington Priory House, the old priory was plundered for building materials for several houses and farm buildings in the vicinity. This included a grand house nearby called Tortington Place, built in the 17th century by Roger Gratwick on the site where Tortington House would eventually be built.

What was left of the priory was by the late-18th century in use as a barn and so it remained until the late-20th century. When the property was bought in 1998 by Sir Arthur Watts what remained was little more than the nave wall of the Priory. His vision of conserving this and an enclosing wall of a courtyard and incorporating them in a private residence was realised in an award winning building project carried out by Neil Holland Architects of Arundel.

The Church of St Mary Magdalene
The nave and chancel have been dated to the 1140s but many alterations have been made to the church subsequently. A south aisle and chapel were added in the 13th century only to be demolished sometime between the 16th and 18th centuries. In a major restoration undertaken in 1867 the south aisle was rebuilt causing the 12th century doorway to be re-sited for a third time. The south chapel was not rebuilt, an aumbry or recess used to house vessels and items for the sacrament being all that remains of the original chapel, this now being visible in the exterior wall. Some other alterations were made in the 16th century and later, notably the enlargement of the two north windows in the nave and the single east window in the chancel. The bellcote was also rebuilt in the 16th century.

During the 19th century restoration, funded by local farmer George Coote, the roofs were stripped and the chancel roof probably completely rebuilt. But the rafters and the beams of the nave are of medieval origin. The vestry was added in 1892 and the bellcote was rebuilt once again in 1904 by Philip Mainwaring Johnston, the architect and historian, to whose scholarship we owe much of our knowledge of this and other local churches.

Amalgamation with the benefice of St Nicholas’ in Arundel in 1897 and a dwindling congregation in the mid-20th century led to the church being declared redundant in 1978. And though it is now in the care of the Churches Conservation Trust, supported locally by the Friends of Tortington Church, St Mary Magdalene is still consecrated and several services are held here every year conducted by the vicar of St Nicholas’, Arundel.

The Roll of Honour and the War Memorial
Two framed documents hang in the south aisle of the church today which bear witness to the small but significant part played by Tortington in the our country’s hour of need. One is a roll of men serving in the Great War, 1914-1918, the other a list of those men killed in that war.

One document calls on parishioners to ‘Pray for our men who are serving their King and Country at the Front’. This is followed by a hand-written list of fifty-two men, mostly in alphabetical order. Some of these men have letters after their names – W or M or P or RIP. We are familiar with the letters RIP – Rest in Peace – but less obvious might be W for ‘wounded’, M for ‘missing’ and P for ‘prisoner of war’.  The other document, headed by an image of the Crucifixion in a military cemetery, begins ‘From this parish the following gave their lives for King and Country during the war 1914 to …’. Then there are 4 hand-written names, followed by the date on which they died.

Hand-written and clearly maintained over the course of the war, these historic documents are a record of the commitment and ultimate sacrifice of local men at a time of national emergency. They also bear witness to the strength and solidarity of the women on the home front who prayed as a community for the safe return of their husbands, sons and brothers. We now know that the list of the dead was incomplete, one man, listed on the Roll of Honour as ‘wounded and missing’, had in fact been killed in action.

Those original documents were restored and conserved and have now been placed in the care of West Sussex Record Office. Officially recognised in 2008 as a War Memorial, two professionally reproduced facsimiles now hang in the south aisle of the church as a reminder of an almost forgotten rural Sussex community and its sacrifice.