Flint, Frescoes and Fire: the History of St Peter’s Church in Preston Park

St Peter’s Church in Preston Park is a 13th century flint church with medieval wall paintings which have miraculously survived the Reformation and a fire.

Exterior of St Peter’s Church

The south end of Preston Park holds many of Brighton’s historical treasures including Preston Manor, an Edwardian-style manor house; the Preston Twins, two of the oldest surviving English elm trees in Europe; and St Peter’s Church.

Not to be confused with the city’s three other churches with the same name, this St Peter’s Church hides a rich history within its fresco-covered walls. Frescoes – a type of wall painting – became a common feature in churches during the Middle Ages and St Peter’s has some of the best preserved in Brighton.

The Domesday Book of 1086 mentions a church in Preston, or Prestetone as it was called at the time, but it was rebuilt in the 13th century and this is the structure which survives to the present day. Some more modern additions were added later including the bell tower and the north and south porches.

St Peter’s Church interior, three frescoes visible

Not long after the church was built, medieval frescoes lined the walls of the nave and originally they would have covered a large proportion of the building. This was until the 16th century Reformation. When England under Henry VIII was divided between Catholicism and Protestantism, many churches across the country faced the threat of growing religious conflict. The frescoes in St Peter’s were covered with a layer of plaster during this time and were not rediscovered until 1830.

On 23rd June 1906, the church was left with catastrophic damage after a fire. Perhaps the most significant damage was that of the frescoes. Where the nave was previously lined with murals, now only three survive.

The photographs below were taken shortly after the fire.

On the east wall of the nave, on each side of the chancel arch, are frescoes depicting St Michael weighing souls and the murder and martyrdom of St Thomas Becket.

Below is a picture showing the current state of the mural alongside a print illustrating its original design. The print portrays the hand of God reaching through the clouds, which is no longer visible in the painting.

In 1162, in an attempt to control the power of the church, King Henry II appointed his loyal chancellor Thomas Becket the Archbishopric of Canterbury. His plan backfired when it became apparent that Becket’s loyalties had changed to support the church, thus creating a long-lasting political dispute which led to the Archbishop’s murder in Canterbury Cathedral by four of Henry II’s knights in 1170. It is disputed whether or not this was done under the orders of the king, but it resulted in the canonisation and martyrdom of Becket, thus making him known as St Thomas Becket. The other people depicted in the fresco include Edward Grim, a monk who was injured trying to protect Becket, and the four knights with swords in hand.

St Michael Weighing Souls Fresco
St Michael Weighing Souls

On the other side of the chancel arch is a fresco depicting St Michael weighing souls. It shows the biblical story of St Michael the Archangel weighing souls on Judgement Day, measuring the weight of one’s sins against their good deeds, for which he is often represented carrying scales as is the case in this fresco. The fire damage has caused significant fading to this painting but the scales are still clearly visible.

Nativity fresco
Nativity

Similarly to the others, the fresco on the wall of the north aisle depicting the Nativity is not in as good condition as it once was. Unfortunately, most of the mural has faded beyond recognition but the manger – although easily mistaken for a fruit bowl – is still relatively clear.

St Peter’s was listed as a Grade II* building in 1952 and went into the care of the Churches Conservation Trust in 1990, two years after its last service was held. Although services are no longer run, the church is still open to the public and visitors are welcome.

Tasha Brown, Museum Futures Trainee

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