The ancient Church of St Peter, Hamsey stands on its hillock in a curve of the river Ouse, just north of Lewes. It served as the parish church from before the Norman conquest in 1066 and part of the church was certainly standing at the beginning of the second millennium. In 925 King Athelstan had a meeting of his counsellors here and the Domesday survey of 1086 not only gives details of the manor, but adds “there was a Church”. In 1321 a large manor house was built to the east of the church in the area now occupied by the graveyard. Traces of this building were still visible in 1777.
The religious census of Sussex on 30th March 1851 states there were two well-attended services at Hamsey, with a congregation of 121 in the morning (including 34 “Sunday Scholars”) and 58 in the afternoon. Revd George C. Shiffner, the then Rector, wrote in the census: “The present Church is most inconveniently placed, being so remote from the habitations of the people as to be inaccessible to the old and infirm, and to render the attendance of the rest almost as variable as the weather. ... a new church is much needed.”
In the Victorian era, when much money was spent all over the country on restoring or rebuilding churches, the parishioners of Hamsey decided to demolish their church and to build a new parish church at Offham, which had now become the major centre of population. In 1860 St Peter’s Church, Offham, was consecrated. Hamsey church was demoted to the status of chapel-of-ease and was used as a mortuary chapel because the parish burial ground continued to be there.
Fortunately, the original intention to demolish Hamsey church was never carried out. It fell into increasing neglect until, in the 1920s, considerable sums of money were raised to repair it. Much of the church’s charm derives from the fact that it escaped restoration at the hands of the Victorians, so that what one now sees has the feel of a medieval church. This is accentuated by the fact that there is no heating or electricity in the church, so it is only used for regular services in the summer months and for a very popular carol service in December, when it is filled to capacity by people with their candles and rugs. Services take place at Hamsey church on the first Sunday of each month from May until September with Evensong at 6 p.m. During the summer months, concerts are held which are most enjoyable and help towards the upkeep of the church.
The basic structure of Hamsey church is Norman, having been built in the 12th century. This includes the walls of the nave, the chancel arch and the north and south walls of the chancel. Two hundred years later the chancel was extended in the 14th century and the massive tower erected. The porch was added in the early 15th century. Details of the ages of the various parts of the church are shown in the plan below.