If we could step back into the mists of time, it is possible that we would see a small Druid sanctuary on the site of our present church. There is evidence to suggest that this later became a place of Roman worship. It is likely that what is now the Vestry and Gage chapel, was once a Saxon chapel built before the arrival of the Normans. We know for certain that there was a church here before 1066, and that the Church of Ferles (meaning oak tree) belonged to the Abbey of Wilton. In 1066 William the Conqueror gave Ferles to his half-brother Robert, Earl of Mortain whose son gave it to the Abbey of Grestain at le Bec Hellouin in Normandy, the mother house of Wilmington Priory. At this time, Firle Church was called “Grissens Minster”. Then, between 1197 and 1204, Abbot Robert of Grestain gave Firle Church to the Dean and Chapter of Chichester. To this day one of the prebendal stalls in Chichester Cathedral is labelled Ferles. There has been a vicar of Firle since 1197 by which time this was already an important church.
The majority of the rest church – the tower, nave and chancel – was built in the early 1200s and has been very little altered since that time. The South Door, by which we now enter the church, is early 13th century. Note the crosses cut in it by earlier pilgrims. Its fine porch is 15th century. Outside, to the right of the porch, you will see the remains of a Holy Water Stoup, smashed by the Puritans during the Civil War. This would be filled by water blessed by the priest so that worshippers could put their hand into the holy water and bless themselves as they entered the church. If you are thinking that this sounds more like a Catholic practice, you are right: Firle was Roman Catholic until 1730 when Sir William Gage, the then owner of Firle, finally decided to conform to the Anglican church. In the 16th century, the Gage Altar Tombs were placed in the Gage chapel (the Vestry). There has always been a very close relationship between the Gage family of Firle Place and Firle Church. Gage ancestors are buried in the Crypt.
CHURCHYARD In our lovely old Churchyard, just beyond the yew tree, by the north wall, you will find the graves of Vanessa Bell and Duncan Grant, stalwart members of “The Bloomsbury Group” who lived at Charleston Farmhouse, not far from Firle. For a time, Virginia Woolf lived in Firle in The Street at Little Talland. The Bloomsbury Group painted the wonderful murals at nearby Berwick Church. Interestingly, Beddingham Church, sister church to Firle, was clearly once painted with murals, and it is very likely that Firle Church was too, long ago. Also in the graveyard, to the north of the church, you will see 5 graves of the Booker family. In their benevolence, they have left a bequest which pays for the upkeep of our graveyard.