History of the Parish
Throughout its long history our small rural parish has been linked to an impressive number of notable personages and events. The village of Fletching is mentioned in the Domesday Book of 1085. Its spacious parish church of St. Andrew and St. Mary the Virgin dates from the late 12th century, completed in 1230. It was here, in 1246, that Simon de Montfort with his barons held a vigil of prayer on the eve of the Battle of Lewes, while his men camped on Fletching Common. They defeated the allpowerful King, and it was their victory which bore the seeds of England’s democracy.
It is said that a number of de Montfort’s barons are buried beneath the church, in full armour. In the Middle Ages Fletching was noted for its production of arrowheads, which are believed to have been used in the battles of Crécy, Poitiers and Agincourt.
The south-west side of the parish lays within the ancient estate known as Sheffield Park, which is also mentioned in the Domesday Book. It has been in the ownership of, among others, the Dukes of Norfolk, the Lords De La Warr and the Earls of Sheffield. In 1538 Henry VIII was entertained there by the 3rd Duke of Norfolk.
In the late 18th century, the house (as we still see it today) was enlarged and remodelled in the newly fashionable gothic style (by James Wyatt); the garden was also extensively landscaped with the creation of the stepped lakes (by Capability Brown and Humphry Repton). At this time the first Lord Sheffield bought the estate. A regular guest was his friend the historian Edward Gibbon, famed for his book Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. Gibbon was staying at Sheffield Park when he died, and is laid to rest in the mausoleum of the Earls of Sheffield, in the north transept of the parish church.
Nearly a hundred years later the 3rd Earl laid out a cricket pitch in the Park, famous in the annals of sporting history: the first ever match between England and Australia was played there on 12th May 1884, and the Sheffield Shield was inaugurated; it is still today Australia’s main cricketing trophy. In recent years this historic cricket pitch has been restored, and commemorative matches held in Fletching in 1990 and 2009, when the Sheffield Shield itself travelled with the Australian team – the only times it has ever left Australia.
Edward, Prince of Wales was a contemporary of the 3rd Earl of Sheffield and a frequent visitor to Sheffield Park. Upon the Earl’s death in 1910, the estate was bought by his friend Arthur Soames, who planted hundreds of the trees and rhododendrons we see there today. The estate then passed to a nephew, whose son Christopher Soames was married to Sir
Winston Churchill’s daughter Mary: once again, Sheffield Park had the most illustrious of visitors.
A rival estate, Searles, comprising the north-east of the parish, had been owned since the 18th century by the Maryon Wilson family, many of whom are commemorated in the south transept of the church with tablets and a fine stained glass window. The Maryon Wilsons and Lord Sheffield were well known for their long-running feud. During World War II, Canadian troops were billeted both at Sheffield Park and at Searles. The vast mansion at Searles was demolished in the 1950s, when both estates were broken up and sold in lots. At this time the National Trust acquired Sheffield Park Garden, which (after Stourhead) is Britain’s most visited garden.
In 1912 skull fragments were supposedly discovered in Piltdown (by Charles Dawson and Arthur Woodward): Piltdown Man was solemnly hailed as the ‘missing link’ between man and the apes; in the 1950s however - much to the embarrassment of the scientific community - tests exposed Piltdown Man as an elaborate hoax.
For many years, until his death in 1988, the comic actor Jimmy Edwards and his brother Alan lived at Atheralls Farm in Fletching, where they enjoyed life as ‘gentleman farmers’. The village became known as a hub of riotous conviviality, especially the Rose & Crown pub where the Edwards’ and fellow legendary film and radio stars were frequently to be found - yet another colourful episode in Fletching’s history.