Gundrada Chapel, Church of St John the Baptist, Southover

© Lewes Priory Trust

Gundrada, wife of William de Warenne, died in childbirth at Castle Acre on 27 May 1085 and was buried in the chapter house of Lewes Priory. On the consecration of new monastic buildings c.1145, her bones were placed in a leaden chest under a magnificent tombstone; as presumably were those of her husband who had died in 1088.

The burial cists of William and Gundrada were discovered in October 1845 during the construction of the Lewes-Brighton railway line across the Priory site. The Reverend John Scobell, Rector of Southover, proposed the building of a chapel to accommodate the finds and formed a committee to raise funds. Members included the rector and churchwardens, the Earl of Chichester, Rev. W.H.Cooper, John Hoper (solicitor to the then owner of the Priory site), Mark Anthony Lower, a Lewes schoolmaster and notable antiquarian, William Henry Blaauw, an antiquarian who lived in Newick, and William Figg, son of the noted Lewes cartographer. Lower, Blaauw and Figg were founder members of Sussex Archaeological Society formed in 1846. Major contributors to the fund were the Duke of Norfolk and the Earls of Abergavenny, Amherst & De la Warr. The directors of the London Brighton & South Coast Railway Company gave £50 and a small charge was levied on those who flocked to Southover Church to see the “highly interesting remains”. The total raised by public subscription was £413.

“The remains of earl of the earl de Warenne and his countess, at the church of Southover, have been within the last week been visited by many hundreds of strangers, among whom were several parties in their private carriages. We are much pleased to find that steps have been taken to secure the remains from injury by having glass covers placed over them – a most necessary step, for although every precaution was taken, while affording the public free access to them, to prevent their sustaining injury, yet at first parties who had the privilege of seeing them were not restricted from handling them, a practice likely to have a mischievous effect. We cannot too highly appreciate the exertions of all those gentlemen who have busied themselves in preserving to posterity these valued remains, and we would suggest for their adoption the building of a suitable chapel in Southover church for their permanent resting-place, and which might be so fitted up as to secure them from decay and yet satisfy the sight-seeing visitor."
Mirror of Literature, Amusement & Instruction, 1845

Built as an extension of the parish church of St John the Baptist, Southover in 1847, and subsequently known as the Gundrada Chapel, it was designed in the neo-Norman style by local mason and antiquarian John Latter Parsons. Parsons had business premises in East Street, Lewes and later a yard in Eastgate Street which survived into the mid-20th century as C.F.Bridgman Ltd Stonemasons. Praised in the 19th century, the chapel interior has almost every form of Romanesque ornament. Nikolaus Pevsner, in his Sussex volume of Buildings of England, had little time for it:

“…the horrible neo-Norman chapel [dates] from 1847. It is by J.L.Parsons of Lewes, who was advised by Ferrey who should have known better.”

Benjamin Ferrey was a distinguished architect who studied under Pugin and, as Consulting Architect to the Incorporated Church Building Society (ICBS), restored many English churches.

Notwithstanding this, the Gundrada Chapel has continued to house the bones of William and Gundrada which were re-buried under Gundrada’s original tombstone. This was discovered in 1774 by Dr Clarke, rector of Buxted, in the Shurley Chapel of Isfield Church where it formed part of the monument to Edward Shurley, cofferer to Henry VIII. The end of the slab had been broken off to fit its new use. Sir William Burrell, antiquarian, paid for it to be removed to Southover Church.

The mid 12th century grave slab is of Tournai stone decorated with two bands of palmette-like plant motifs linked by finely carved lions’ heads. It is remarkably similar to that of Matilda of Flanders, the wife of William the Conqueror, who is buried in the Abbaye-aux-Dames in Caen. A partially damaged inscription runs along four sides and down the middle of the slab. Its meaning has been the subject of scholarly debate but one interpretation is:

Gundrada, distinguished offspring of dukes and noble shoot in her own time, brought to the churches of the English the balms of the martyr’s traditions [….] to those in misery she was in her piety a Mary. The part of Martha [in her] died, the greater part of Mary survives. O, pious Pancras, witness of piety and justice, she makes you her heir; may you in your clemency accept the mother. Her light faded on the 27th of May, when she broke the alabaster [vase…].

The broken tombstone was restored and there are modern full size replicas in the Barbican House Museum in the High Street, Lewes and in the Victoria and Albert Museum in London.

The lead cists in which the bones were found, decorated with rope-mouldings and diagonal ornamentation, inscribed WILLEMS and GUNDRADA respectively, are displayed in two arched recesses in the south wall of the chapel. The stained glass windows have images of the Priory founders and of St Pancras.

Visits to the Gundrada Chapel can be made by application to: 
Marcus Taylor (e-mail: marcusstaylor@btopenworld.com)