St Simon and St Jude Church, East Dean
St Simon and St Jude Church, East Dean

The parish church of East Dean, East Sussex, is an ancient building, with a three-stage tower dating to the late Saxon or early Norman period. The north nave wall is Norman, while the south wall dates to the 14th century.

Historical Features

The chancel is late Norman and the south porch is late medieval work. The newest part of the building is the west wall, rebuilt in 1885. The church is built of flint with stone dressings and a tile roof.

Vestiges of the Saxon church can be seen in two blocked round-headed arches in the west wall of the tower, while there are more round-headed blocked arches in the south chancel wall. The double arch to the left is 12th-century work while to the right is a 14th-century arch.

The medieval king-post roof
The medieval king-post roof

Set into the half-arch on the north wall of the nave is a fragment of a carved tomb slab bearing the coat of arms of the Bardolph family. This may be the grave marker of Hugh Bardolph, the 1st Baron, who died in 1304. The Bardolphs, or Bardolfs, were lords of the manor of Birling from 1239-1461.

The font is modern but incorporates fragments from an earlier 12th-century font.

The most impressive interior feature is also one of the most modern; the superb organ dates to 1960.

The 1304 Bardolph grave slab
The 1304 Bardolph grave slab


The parish of East Dean historically held two manors, that of Birling and Peak Dean. The largest of the two manors was Birling, which was held by the Morton family, Lords of Pevensey, from 1066-1106. Sometime before 1106 Robert, Lord of Pevensey, gave the tithes of East Dean to the abbey of Grestain in Normandy. To manage their English estates, the monks of Grestain built a new priory at Wilmington.

In 1414 Henry V dissolved all alien priories such as Wilmington and the tithes were used to create a chantry chapel in Chichester Cathedral where two priests were provided to say masses for Nicholas Mortimer, a royal servant who died in 1413. The two priests were given special privileges and were known as the King's chaplains, a sign of the high regard in which Henry held his former servant.

The magnificent organ, 1960
The magnificent organ, 1960

Parson Darby

Jonathan Darby became Vicar of East Dean in 1706. At the same time, he served as Rector of Litlington and Vicar of Friston. Darby was troubled by the number of sailors who lost their lives on the rugged coast between Birling Gap and Eastbourne, and he vowed to do something about it.

According to tradition, he hewed a wide chamber into the chalk below Belle Toute Cliffs, extending an old smuggler's hiding place, well above the high-water mark and reached by a sloping tunnel and steps carved into the rock.

Here, sheltered from the wind, he would sit alone on stormy nights, with a large lamp to guide struggling sailors and emergency supplies should he be called on to perform an emergency rescue. Parson Darby saved untold numbers of sailors from certain death, on one occasion bringing to safety a brig with 23 sailors aboard.

Tradition also says that Darby was moved to his selfless act because it got him out of the house and away from his shrewish wife. This seems to have been a tale invented long after the fact and seems unlikely to be true.

Medieval arches, north wall
Medieval arches, north wall

Getting There

The Church of St Simon and St Jude stands in a large churchyard on Gilberts Drive, the main route to Birling Gap. There is no obvious dedicated parking at the church, however, there is a large, free car park just north of the church, at the village hall.

Do not confuse this East Dean in East Sussex with the village of the same name in West Sussex! The 'other' East Dean church is dedicated to All Saints, while this East Dean church is dedicated to St Simon and St Jude.

The church was open when we visited and, as far as we can determine, is regularly open to visitors. Just half a mile away is another late Saxon church at Friston.

More Photos

About East Dean, St Simon and St Jude
Address: Gilberts Drive, East Dean, East Sussex, England, BN20 0DL
Attraction Type: Historic Church
Location: The church stands on Gilberts Drive, just south of the village hall car park.
Website: East Dean, St Simon and St Jude
Location map
OS: TV557976
Photo Credit: David Ross and Britain Express


Heritage Rated from 1- 5 (low to exceptional) on historic interest

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