The settlement at Freefolk is very ancient and its name is
thought to mean either 'the free people', i.e. a settlement
outside the feudal system, or Trigs people'. The latter could
signify worshippers of the pagan goddess Frig; indeed, it is
possible that the church occupies the same site where Frigs
temple originally stood. It is a delightful spot, tucked away
between two houses and their gardens just above the infant River
Test but with open fields to the south.
Freefolk church is a simple and very small single-cell structure,
with walls of flint rubble and a tiled roof, standing in a tiny
churchyard. Following a Papal Bull of 1265, it was built by
William of Chabegrave, then owner of the manor, as a chapel to serve a small population;
and it has never subsequently been enlarged. In the 15th century,
however, the building was completely re-fenestrated and re-roofed,
and provided with the fine oak screen which is now at the back of
the nave but previously separated nave from chancel.
About 1703 there was another remodelling, marked by the oval
plaque bearing that date above the door outside. A new, tall
wooden bell-cote was constructed, the 15th century roof was
covered by a plaster ceiling with deep cornices, the screen was
moved to enclose a new family pew at the west end, and the church
was entirely refurnished in the fashion of that time. This work
was almost certainly promoted by the Deane family,-who owned the
manor of Freefolk from 1682 to 1766. Most notable among the
furnishings (the pulpit and pews have gone) was the ensemble at
the east end: this included the Ten Commandments, Lords Prayer
and Creed, all painted on wood in a grand but endearingly rustic
manner, and a quatre- foil-shaped window which can be seen in old
photographs of the church.
When in 1904 the east wall was rebuilt, the 18th century window
was replaced by the present east window; and the Ten Commandments
were moved to the south wall. Of similar date are the buttresses
which strengthen the leaning walls - two at each end and three on
the north and south sides - but they are built of old bricks.
Later, the ceiling was taken down, revealing again the mediaeval
roof timbers but retaining the early
18th century cornices.
Freefolk was united with the adjoining parish of Laverstoke in
1872: the old church of Laverstoke, which stood in the park, then
became a mausoleum for the Portal family (but was largely
dismantled in 1952) and St Nicholas' became for a short while the church for the combined
parish. In 1896, however, a new Laverstoke church, dedicated to
St Mary the Virgin, was built a stones-throw from St Nicholas'
and that then became the parish church. It is a modest design by the well-known
Victorian architect J L Pearson, perhaps best known as the
designer of Truro Cathedral.
By the 1970s the local community was finding the maintenance of
two places of worship too heavy a burden; and in October 1976 St
Nicholas's came into the care of what was then known as the
Redundant Churches Fund, now The Churches Conservation Trust. A programme of repairs
was immediately put in hand, initially under the direction of the
architect Robin Freeman of Winchester but more recently under
that of Mrs Penelope Adamson of Guildford. Major items were the repair and re-covering
of the roofs, reusing as many as possible of the old tiles, and
the reconstruction of the severely decayed bell-cote.
Outside, the white-painted, boarded bell-cote is the most
distinctive feature. Though extensively renewed it retains its
characteristic early 18th century form. The rubble walls of the
church remain lime-plastered and limewashed, as they have always been, and the roof is covered
with mellow red tiles. Apart from the east window, all the
windows are 15th century, retaining their original ironwork (ferramenta)
and glazed with mostly 18th century clear glass in rectangular
panes. The west window is of two lights with a square head and
the others are each of a single cinquefoiled light. The east
window, though 15th century in appearance, was made in 1904 to
replace a small 18th century window; it is said that stones found
then provided the evidence for an accurate reconstruction of the
The simple south doorway is probably 15th century like the
windows, though its pine door is much more recent. The low recess,
apparently also 15th century, in the north wall opposite is
unexplained: it seems much too low to have been another doorway.
The inside of the church takes its character largely from the
remodelling of 1703, but the mediaeval framework of walls,
windows, roof and screen is still evident.
The fine stained glass, by JCN Bewsey, in the east window is 15th
century in style to match the stonework. It depicts in the main
lights Christ in Majesty, flanked by St Swithun and St Nicholas.
St Swithun reflects the ownership of the manor of Freefolk by the Priory of St Swithun in
Winchester until the Dissolution of the Monasteries; and Nicholas
is the saint in honour of whom Freefolk church is dedicated. The
glass was given in memory of Wyndham Spencer Portal (1822-1905) of Laverstoke
House by his son William Wynclham Ferial in 1913. The Portals
were originally a Huguenot family and became well known for the
manufacture of watermarked paper in particular, banknotes.
The Lord's Prayer .and Creed of 1703, shown on banners each held
by a pair of cherubs, remain on the east wall; but the impressive
'reredos1 portraying Moses and Aaron holding the Ten Commandments,
flanked by pilasters and with a serpentine pediment, was
displaced by the new window in 1904 and moved to a new position
against the south wall.
At. the back of the nave is the 15th century rood-screen which
originally formed the only division between nave and chancel -
there being, of course, no arch - but was utilised in 1703 to
form the front of the squires family pew. It is a good piece of mediaeval carpentry, divided
into 17 openings with simple tracery, and boarded below. The
boarding in particular retains much of the original red and green
colouring, long concealed under later white paint such as still covers the back of the
Above the squires pew is the belfry, containing a single small
bell cast by John Cor of Aldbourne in 1729.
On the west partition wall of the nave, above the screen, are
hung the royal arms of William III dated 1701 and two funeral
hatchments thought to belong to members of the Pearse and Portal
The octagonal font, the six plain pine pews and the elaborate
reed organ all date from the latter part of the 19th century.
However, the white-painted communion rails with simple balusters
survive from the 18th century.
On the western part of the north wall are the remains of three
layers of wall paintings. The uppermost layer may have been
either an 18th century royal arms or a frame for a biblical text;
below this is an earlier text and frame, likewise fragmentary.
The earliest layer is a large, late mediaeval subject on a
pinkish background: it is much damaged, but what is left shows
the upper half of St Christopher.
A striking feature of the church is the fine Jacobean monument to
Sir Richard Powlett of Herriard, dated 1614. Sir Richard was the
son of John Powlett and his wife Catherine, daughter of Richard
Andrews, lord of the manors of Freefolk and Laverstoke. The monument is now set,
behind its contemporary iron railings, against the north wall
between the two windows; originally it stood on the north side of
the sanctuary where background painting on the wall still shows its outline. The monument
was moved from there to the new church in Laverstoke but later
brought back again. It is a large and colourful structure with
Corinthian columns and entablature, surmounted by a coat of arms. The stiffly composed
figure of Sir Richard lies on a tomb-chest and his two daughters
are portrayed below.
On the south wall near the door is an attractive memorial to
Thomas Deane, who had bought the manor of Freefolk in 1682 and
who died in 1686, and his wife Anne who survived him by 20 years.