From ‘England’s Thousand Best Churches’ by Simon Jenkins
Published by Allen Lane, 1999
The church lies on a slope of the Downs near where the de la Beche family built their castle after the Conquest. The manor remained in the male line until the Black Death when, whether from piety or egotism or both, the family commissioned a set of memorial effigies and installed them in a new south aisle of the church. They have no parallel in England, although the Lumley tombs in Chester-le-street (Durham) are similar.
The church has been heavily restored outside and in. There are 8 tombs in total, of which 6 are under decorated canopies along the side walls and two under the central arcade. In the early fourteenth century, the de la Beches appear to have been keen to emphasise their ancestry. The niche canopies were restored in the 1870's, so we cannot be sure whether the unusual forked cusps, reminiscent of Kentish tracery, are original. The exact dates of the various tombs and niches may differ, but most of the set would appear to date from that most innovative period of English architecture, the late thirteenth and early fourteenth centuries.
We are thus looking at faces, garments and weaponry of a dormitory of knights and ladies of the time leading up to the Hundred Years War. The men were known locally as the Aldworth Giants. A Cromwellian officer recorded them as nicknamed John Long, John Strong, John Never Afraid and (outside the church and am now vanished) John Ever Afraid. Three of the group are unusually animated for the period. The knight in the northeast corner may be in the act of rising and drawing his sword to fight for Christ, in the manner of the effigy in Dorchester abbey (Oxon). He is believed to be Sir Philip de la Beche, valet to Edward II. Seven feet tall, he is accompanied by a page at his feet to emphasise his height.
The paired effigy is of Sir John and Lady Isabella, builder of the chapel, both sadly headless. Her robe is earlier, thirteenth century in style, further confusing the dates. Under their feet are their dogs. Equally developed drapery graces the figure of Lady Joan de la Zouche in the south aisle. On my visit the tombs were covered in flowers hiding their more battered parts, a thoughtful touch.
Some benches have carved poppyheads, but these have, for some reason, been banished to the back of the nave. The ancient yew in the churchyard, thought to be a thousand years old, was blown down in 1976 but part of its ruin is (or on my visit was) sprouting again.
Buried in the same spot is the poet Lawrence Binyon, author of the poem 'For the Fallen'. It might be an epitaph for the de la Beches, indeed for all England's parish churches: ' At the going down of the sun and in the morning,/We will remember them. '