Selborne Church may claim to be a Royal Foundation because it was
in the year 1049 that King Edward the Confessor gave the land on
which the first Church was built. There is a record of that Church in Domesday
Book (1086) together with the name of the priest, Radfred, who served it.
Of this original building
nothing remains, except, perhaps the Font. Some 130 years after
its foundation the Church was rebuilt, but for what reason is not
known. This building is what substantially we have now, and is
dated about 1180.
The outstanding feature is the Norman Pillars with their simply
carved capitals, and solid base plinths. On the north side at the
corners of the bases of the pillars are carved curious pairs of
wings. The arches are a good example of the 'Transitional' style,
but the roof is 19th century. Some old rafters may be seen above
the arches on the south side.
This is contemporary with the Nave, and here the original barrel
roof timbers have been retained, but the roof itself is 18th
There has been some rebuilding, particularly of the East wall,
which originally had only two lancet windows. Also the North wall
had to be broken into when the Organ chamber was added in 1910.
The dominant feature is the great painting which forms the
reredos to the High Altar. This is by the Flemish artist Jan
Mostaert and is dated c.1510. It was presented to the Church in
memory of Gilbert White, by his brother Benjamin in 1793. (Benjamin
was a Bookseller with a business in London).
The wainscotting is 18th century and the two seats have been made
from the remains of 15th century benches. The AJtar Rails are
Elizabethan and were brought here from a Church in Cornwall and
installed as a memorial, as recorded on the small plaque attached
to them. They were too long to fit into the Chancel and from the
balusters which were cut off were made the altar and standard
candlesticks. The piscina on the south side is 12th century, but
the altar is a modern memorial gift with a fine consecration
stone set in the mensa.
Outside the Altar Rails on the south side is the only remaining
complete 15th century bench. On the north side will be seen a
fine piece of Flemish wood-carving depicting the Descent from the
Cross, (c. 1520) In the north pillar of the Chancel Arch is a
curious niche. This may have been a small aumbry (cupboard),
perhaps for keeping the Holy Oils, but there is no trace of a door: possibly
it could have been an Easter Sepulchre, but it is rather small;
its origin is really a puzzle.
In the centre of the floor will be seen a grave stone slab to 'Gilbert
White' - this was the Grandfather of the Naturalist, and he was
Vicar of the Parish 1681 - 1727.
The fine modern oak Choir Stalls and Pulpit were designed by Sir
Charles Nicholson and put in during the restoration of the
interior between 1937 and 1939. Inscriptions commemorating
important events connected with the history of the Church have
been carved on the back of the stalls, and the bench ends have
appropriate coats of arms. The Reading Pew, like the seats in the
sanctuary, has been made from an old bench.
THE SOUTH AISLE
Originally (his was probably similar to the north aisle, but when
the Priory was founded in 1232 it quickly acquired a good deal of
property which included (in 1234) the Church with its revenue. In
return it had to supply the Priest for the Church. About 1284
Ella Longspee, Countess of Warwick gave to the monks a large sum
of money to say Mass for her soul every day, whether she were
alive or dead. To carry out this bequest the monks built a
Chantry Chapel at the east end of the south aisle which may
account for its rebuilding. Certainly it was rebuilt in the 13th
century, and while there was further rebuilding in the 19th
century, the east window, piscina, and niche on the north side of
the altar belongs to this period. The dedication of the altar is
in honour of St. Thomas of Canterbury, and presumably the niche
originally had a statue of the saint.
The easternmost window of the south wall is filled with very fine
stained glass representing St. Francis preaching to the birds.
The birds are almost all of those mentioned in Gilbert White's
famous book: in the background can be seen the Church, the great
Churchyard Yew, and the old Vicarage where the Naturalist was
born. This window in honour of Gilbert White was designed and
executed by two Nottingham Artists, Gascoyne and Hinks, in 1920, paid for by public
subscription, and is now known in many parts of the world.
Set into the Altar Pace (or step) are a number of mediaeval tiles
which came from the Priory when it was closed, by the Bishop of
Winchester, in 1484. The Altar Rails are the original ones from
the chancel, but unfortunately the balusters have been removed
and wrought iron work inserted.
In the space between the two eastern-most arcades can be seen
some rough plaster work which indicates where the original chapel
screen was fixed.
THE NORTH TRANSEPT
This was originally a complete chapel, built about 1305. Corbels
on the East wall would have supported statues. On the south side
is a contemporary piscina. The framework of the great north
window is original, but the mullion is 19th century Traces of
original colouring can be seen on the corbels and tlie window
frame. The four roundels of coloured glass in tlie window are old: the top
one about 1560, the two side by side are English 17th century,
and the bottom one is Flemish of the late 17th century.
The present chapel, the back of which is used as the sacristy is
divided from the church by a parclose screen of oak, erected as a
memorial to tlie men of Selborm who fell in both world wars.
The top of the altar table is formed by the mensa on which
Gilbert White would have celebrated Holy Communion when he was
Curate of the Parish.
Beneath the Chapel are buried tlie remains of Sir Adam de Gurdon,
a wellknown Knight who lived at Temple Manor. Possibly this
chapel was erected as his Chantry.
Also to be seen in this Transept are some Crusader-Knights tomb
stones. Tlie Knights Templars occupied Temple Manor for some time
during tlie 13th century.
In the display case are various editions of Gilbert White's Book,
a sermon by him, and various items of correspondence. A large dog
collar is also on display: this belonged to a huge mastiff owned
by the Vicar (William Cobbold) in 1830, as a protection against
the local labourers who had attacked him during a riot against
This is a later addition to the Church, probably 17th century,
and contains five bells and an old clock. Originally there were
three bells, which were taken down and re-cast into four in 1735
and at the same time the fifth was added. The Clock is about 1680,
and was possibly made by a local blacksmith. It was originally at
Hartley Maudit House and was brought to the Church when the house
The main, south door is worthy of notice as the iron work is fine
13th century and probably made locally.
THE GREAT YEW TREE is a magnificent specimen,
and its age is about a thousand years. Some experts think it is
older, and some say it is not quite so old!
THE GRAVE OF GILBERT WHITE is on the north-east
side of the Church, close by the outside vestry door, and is
marked with a simple head-stone with the initials 'G.W.' and the
date of his death.
THE MEMORIAL TO THE TRUMPETER (under the Yew
Tree) is a modern stone commemorating the burial of John Newman
who was the leader of the rioters mentioned above, and summoned
them by blowing a trumpet or horn. He escaped arrest and lived in
the woods on the Hanger by day, coming to his cottage at night,
and eventually died in his own bed.
THE YEW ALTAR
The altar is made from the largest boughs of the Yew tree whose massive
trunk can be seen outside the church. The tree was blown down on 25th
January 1990 and is estimated to be 1400 years old. A section of the main
bough from which the altar was made can be seen in the church porch. The
growth rings of this section go back to 1549, a few years after the Reformation
of the Church of England.
The altar was designed by Philip Hussey of Buckinghamshire College, High Wycombe
and Peter Legg of the same institution all without cost to the church. The whole
process of planking, seasoning and construction took eight years and the
finished altar was dedicated and used to celebrate the Holy Communion on
Sunday, 25th January 1998.
The yew was brittle and unsound and posed many difficulties which were
overcome by using birch in hidden places to provide stability. The altar
rises from a massive pedestal made of seven overlapping sections receding
from the centre like a tree trunk. This branches out to support an equally
massive top or mensa eight feet long. There was only one sound piece of
yew the full length of the altar and this was used for the front. The top
surface consists of narrow sections up to half this length, bonded together.
The whole has a weight and solidity in keeping with the simple and sturdy
architecture of the church. It stands on a pavement of fourteenth century
Panels carved in the seven sections of the pedestal echo the gothic panels
of a few surviving mediaeval pew-ends which furnish the chancel of the
church. Subtle variations in the shape call to mind the tombstones of the
churchyard, the rising and setting of the sun and the seven ages of man. In
this way the altar commemorates the generations of men, women and children whose lives are bound up with the church and village and whose
remains rest under and around the tree and the building. We hope it will
serve many generations to come.
Around the top of the altar are triangular drops derived from the classical
decoration known as guttae. Examples may be seen in an eighteenth century
memorial to a former Vicar, Andrew Etty, in the North transept. The
line is incomplete and on the right, detached elements seem to be rising to
join their comrades like swallows on a line in autumn or the birds which
once flew among the branches of the great tree. The number of the detached
guttae is the same as that of the fallen in the two world wars whose names are
inscribed on the screen of the Peace Chapel. In this way the sacrifice of the
village community is honoured in the altar.
The function of an altar is to enable the supreme sacrifice of Christ, offered
on the cross, to be renacted and to be a focal point, a Holy Table around which
the Christian community gathers to eat and drink bread and wine, consecrated as
the body and blood of Jesus. In some moods therefore, the drops may seem to be
falling like the blood of that sacrifice or the tears of the disciple or any
mourner. In a joyful mood they may signify the rising of souls to join "the
whole company of heaven" around the throne of God, which is in large measure the
purpose of Christ's self offering, or the prayers of the people ascending to
It is a Christian tradition to carve five crosses in the top of an altar,
symbolising the five wounds of Christ. The five crosses in this altar are
derived in form from the cross on the stone coffin lid of a Knight Templar on
the right of the altar, in which four hearts converge on the centre.
It is not the intention of the designer to lay down a cut-and-dried "meaning"
for every feature of the altar but rather to feed the imagination with a variety
of suggestions. He himself sees in the decoration the end of mediaeval natural
history derived from Greek and Latin authors and the start of the modem science
based on observation as practised by Gilbert White. You may be stimulated to
further reveries or you may simply enjoy the glowing colour and silky texture of
the polished yew.