St Margaret's Churchyard or Litten

by RW Standing

God's Acre, Church Litten, or Church Yard, but never cemetery.  That is how the burial grounds surrounding our ancient parish churches were known and for nearly a thousand years. From late Saxon origins, they were small plots of land in constant use and reuse generation by generation.  Anyone who enters a burial ground that has subsequently been enlarged, may easily trace the old litten, perhaps by finding out the remaining 17th century headstones, but otherwise from the perceptibly higher level within the old ground. 

Besides a few churchwarden’s presentments, the earliest references to churchyards in Angmering is in the Glebe Terriers of 1615, 1635, and 1663.  Unfortunately there are no descriptions and not even areas, only mention of the properties surrounding the plots on each side.  East Angmering is named “the Old Churchyard”, having been abandoned long before, while West Angmering, or St Margaret's, is named “the West Churchyard”.  It can only be assumed that, so early in the 17th century, it is unlikely there were any stone memorials in either place, and they would have presented the appearance of small meadows, often enough grazed by sheep.

Presentments, or reports made by churchwardens, often mention the churchyard fence, which by tradition was maintained by the landowning ratepayers in the parish.   Each one had his stint, or section to repair.  In East Preston and elsewhere there are reports in which every one responsible is named, but no such list has been found for Angmering. As usual, disrepair was reported early in the 17th century, but two years after the Restoration the 1662 presentment is typically conformist: 'To the 1 Article our Churchyard is Sufficiently Fenced with walls & Pales'.  This does at last confirm that part of the boundary was walled at an early date, and perhaps the pales were only at the entrance.

There can be endless speculation about the origin of the litten, but an earlier date than the church is quite possible, as a Saxon burial ground, and maybe the moot court meeting place. A churchyard cross cannot be proven either way, but may have sanctified the ground before the Reformation.

What can be deduced is the area occupied by the ancient litten, a mere 2 roods and 19 perches (or 0.619 acres), and in this very similar to other local village churchyards.  Was there anything significant about two thirds or so of a statute acre?  It is just possible these plots were originally considered to be an acre in extent, in the traditional measure, so often used in surveys through to the 17th century.

The other local and presumably Sussex feature, is that more of the litten stood north of the old church than to the south, in relation to the original building of nave and chancel.   The idea that the south side was more salubrious and the place for burials, seems not to have been a universal tradition.  Perhaps more correctly the largest area was east of Angmering church.

It is quite easy to trace this ancient burial ground, especially as the northern and eastern boundaries, with their flint walls, are still intact.  The western boundary is around ten yards from the tower, impinged on to the north today by half of the church hall (built in 1976).  To the south there is a much steeper bank, marking this boundary, in line with the end of what is today a car park outside the churchyard.  Churchyard extensions

All of the surviving memorials through to the early 19th century will be found there, a few having been removed by the building of the north aisle in 1853.  An interesting characteristic of the earliest headstones is that the inscriptions were not placed so as to face over the grave but away from it towards the passer by.  Thus the Thomas Lambart memorial of 1735, faces directly over the path at the tower entrance, but the inhumation would have been on the west side.

As elsewhere, a thousand years of tradition did not serve the modern age, both because of population increase and also due to greater wealth for expenditure on stone memorials from the late 17th century.  Many of these stones still stake a claim to land that would once have been recycled. The great enlargement of littens that has taken place does at least provide the opportunity to preserve these works of art and records of history.

The need for more space at Angmering became urgent in the early 19th century, and it was in 1837 that a small addition was made south of the old litten, with a gift of a third of an acre by George Pechell of Castle Goring, conveyed by 1841.  This was taken from the hemp plot that surrounded the church. The burial field thus created is that shown on the Tithe Map of the period.

Only thirty years later in 1867, a much more extensive addition was made on the west side, by the gift of Lady Pechell.  This brought the graveyard to its present extent on that side.  Although not specified, this addition amounted to over half an acre.  The whole area now amounted to almost one and a half acres.

The largest and final addition is yet to be placed in date, but was evidently in hand by 1874 when it was let out for farm use, not yet being required by the church. Lady Burrell of Castle Goring was the donor, and at some time before the 1932 OS map had been drawn up, it was taken into the churchyard, although the first burial there does not appear to have taken place until 1936.  This covered two thirds of an acre south of the 1837 addition, which took the burial ground down to the site of the Village Hall.  This final extension made the total area what it is today -  2.12 acres - not far short of an hectare.  The ancient litten, largely occupied by the church, had been less than a third of that in extent.

RW Standing
June 2007

[August 2007]
The last extension to the churchyard employing land given by Lady Burrell in circa 1874, did not come into use until the 1930s.
As yet the dedication date has not been found. But in the PCC Minutes for November 1930 it was decided to take this area into the churchyard, and demolish the old wall and rebuild around the new boundary.  Dedication by the Bishop of Chichester no doubt took place in the following year or so.
[Any information would be gratefully received RWS]