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16 June 2015

Mysterious Mason's Mark and Masonry Find at St Nicolas Church, Portslade

Judy Middleton & D.Sharp 2016
 copyright © D.Sharp
Mysterious Mason Mark from St Nicolas Church, Portslade

Recently discovered in a vicarage vegetable garden is a remarkably clear incised mason's mark that probably came from the 12th century St Nicolas Church, Portslade when its ancient north wall was demolished in Victorian times for the building of the Brackenbury Chapel and the north aisle. Is there anybody out there who recognises the symbol? Or better still, does anybody know of a similar ancient church with a matching mason's mark?

  copyright © D.Sharp
The Portslade Mason Mark compared to similar Mason's Marks in France.
(The circa dates refer to when construction started and not dates for the mason's marks)

The Portslade mason’s mark (in total there are three exactly the same) is coincidentally similar to mason’s marks at some famous locations in France. Bearing in mind these buildings took many years to complete, it is possible that some of these marks could be contemporary with each other. The similarities may suggest these stonemasons, including the Portslade mason, all learnt their trade under the same Master Mason or were related or connected to each other in some other way

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The St Nicolas Church Portslade fragmented 'egg & dart' frieze (three parts of seven in total)

Also found with the mason’s mark stones were fragments of an 'egg and dart' frieze and a number of carved masonry building blocks of various shapes.

There are seven fragments of the frieze; some attached to a broken ‘table top or a recess side’, indicating this frieze was approximately 1.8 metres long if assumed to be one length.

The egg and dart pattern is sometimes also known as egg and arrow, egg and tongue, egg and spear and egg and anchor.

This egg and dart pattern originated in Ancient Greece and was then adopted by the Romans in some of their building designs and gradually spread throughout the Roman Empire e.g. Rome, Pompeii, Nimes, Chester and at Castlesteads near Hadrian's Wall.

The egg and dart design was most commonly copied from antiquity in medieval times and was incorporated in church designs all over Europe.

Some historians contend this ornamental design is supposed to represent either the duality of life (egg) and death (spear) or good (egg) and evil (spear).

The Possible Origins of the Portslade Frieze ? 

copyright © J.Middleton
 Romanesque chevron moulding once a part of a 
Norman apse
1) The frieze and associated masonry came from the original apse of St Nicolas which was built over when the present day chancel was built in the late Medieval Period ?

2) The frieze came from Portslade’s Norman Manor House which was partly demolished in the Victorian times to create a garden folly in the grounds of the ‘new’ Portslade Manor House which is ‘next door’ to St Nicolas Church

3) The frieze came from an unrecorded Easter Sepulchre or ornate tomb that may have been inset into the north wall of St Nicolas Church and ripped out and buried in church land at the same time as the Doom wall paintings were lime-washed over during the Reformation, alternatively this Easter Sepulchre or ornate tomb could have been removed in Victorian times when the north wall was demolished to enlarge the church to create a north aisle and the Brackenbury Chapel in 1869.
copyright © D. Sharp
The 1869 Brackenbury Chapel on the north wall 
of St Nicolas Churc, the remains of the Norman
Manor House are in the background

4) The frieze could be from the original medieval stone altar of St Nicolas Church. There is a small cross cut into the 'table-top' of one of the fragments. Medieval altars originally had five crosses in all, one at each corner and one in the middle which were cut at the time of Consecration. In the time of the Puritans, many churches had their stone altars removed, smashed and buried, as the Puritans favoured wooden Communion Tables rather than medieval ancient stone altars with their association to the Mass.

5) The egg & dart frieze could be from an unrecorded stone sarcophagus or a mausoleum that once stood on the north side of the Church and was destroyed to clear the way for the Victorian north side extension of the Church and the building of the Brackenbury Chapel in 1869.

6) Since the Portslade fragments display fine workmanship, it is worthwhile recording the fact that after the Priory of St Pancras at Lewes was destroyed in 1538, a cartload of stone from the Priory was brought to this neighbourhood and some stones were utilised at Hangleton Manor and can still be seen today in the east wall. Hangleton Manor is less than a mile from St Nicolas and the Vicar of Portslade was also Rector of Hangleton at the time of the building work at Hangleton Manor.
There was a pre-Reformation connection between Portslade and Lewes Priory, the ‘Calendar of Papal Registers’ (Lateran Regista) records a letter received in St Peters, Rome on the 7th September 1401 from John Oke the Prior of St Pancras, which lists the tithes required from 20 churches in the south of England, Portslade is named and was required to pay 20 shillings a year to the Priory.

7) Could the frieze be the work of the stone mason whose mark is shown in the above on masonry found with the frieze blocks ? and could he have learnt his trade in France ? egg & dart is more common in French Medieval Churches and Abbeys than in England.

8) Another possibility for the origins of the ornamental egg and dart frieze is a 17th or 18th century house shown on ancient maps which could be the former Portslade Parsonage House.

copyright © D.Sharp
Photo left:- Fragments of the St Nicolas frieze, a small cross has been cut into the 'table top', in the top left corner on the 'white stone' is another 'diamond' mason's mark. Photo right:- a part of the frieze showing a frame moulding

If these egg & dart fragments are of no religious significance, it would seem a strange decision to smash and bury this frieze and associated masonry blocks in Church land and not to use them in a new building or as an ornamental feature in another property.

In pre 18th century Portslade, the only natural building materials that were readily available was flint and wood, such masonry blocks would be too valuable a resource to merely throw away unless they needed to be hidden for a specific reason.

All the above are suppositions based on local knowledge, it will not be until the ‘Portslade Frieze’ and associated masonry is expertly examined by analysing the pattern and chisel tool marks that we will know its approximate age and origins.

 copyright © D.Sharp
Various masonry finds

*Please note the mason’s marks and frieze fragments are not available for public viewing as they are currently in storage.

When the artefacts have been expertly examined, and if authenticated as being medieval and their purpose, it is hoped they will be displayed in St Nicolas Church, Portslade, some time in the future if external funding can be sourced for such a project.

copyright © D.Sharp
St Nicolas Church, South Street, Portslade, East Sussex

To learn more about St Nicolas Church's ancient past see the History page.

For information on the present day St Nicolas Church, its Services, Parish Activities and the work of the Church in Portslade, please visit the Parish’s website at:-  The Parish of Portslade & Mile Oak 

An ancient example from France showing the egg & dart pattern from the days of the Roman Empire
copyright © D.Sharp
Maison Caree in Nimes, is considered to have one of the best preserved Roman Temple façades in Europe and was built in the 2nd century AD.

12th century former Benedictine Abbey of Saint-Gilles-du-Gard, Languedoc-Roussillon, France
copyright © D.Sharp
The tympana façade of the former 12th century Benedictine Abbey of Saint-Gilles-du-Gard, Languedoc-Roussillon, France, is considered to be one of the finest examples of Romanesque portals in Europe. 
Each tympanum is framed by arched and horizontal 'egg & dart' carved mouldings, and depict, left:- Adoration of the Magi, centre:- the Crucifixion, right:- Christ in Majesty surrounded by symbols of the Four Evangelists. The façade was built between 1120 to 1160. The former abbey church was listed in 1998 among the UNESCO World Heritage Sites, as one of the routes to Santiago de Compostela in Spain.

Local Examples of 'egg & dart'

There are various examples of 'egg & dart' carvings from the 18th, 19th and 20th centuries locally in Brighton, Hove, Portslade, and Shoreham by Sea, on houses and present and former public buildings. Most of the examples below appear to be mass produced and do not seem to have irregularities of the hand-carved 'egg & dart' samples of unknown antiquity and origin found in the vicarage garden.

copyright © D.Sharp
In the churchyard of the 11th century St Mary de Haura (New Shoreham) Shoreham by Sea there is a late 18th century tomb with an egg & dart moulding of very similar design to the examples found in St Nicolas’ vicarage garden. The St Mary’s frieze has a distinctive hole pierced in each of the ‘darts’ which are also found in the St Nicolas examples.

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St George’s Church of Kemp Town, Brighton, built in the neoclassical style in 1826 was designed by Charles Busby and Amon Wilds. The egg & dart moulding was incorporated in the Ionic columns and pilasters. 

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This circa 1880s house in Boundary Road Hove has an egg & dart frieze above its upper windows. There are 19 Victorian properties in Boundary Road with egg & dart friezes, remarkably there are none on the opposite side of the road, which is Station Road Portslade

copyright © J.Middleton
  The Andrew Carnegie funded Hove Library in Church Road, was built in 1907 and incorporates egg & dart moulding in the façade above the doorway and also above the upper windows.  

copyright © J.Middleton
The former Portslade Police Station in St Andrew's Road, was built in 1908 incorporates egg & dart moulding in the façade above the doorway. 

copyright © J.Middleton
Brighton, Hove & Sussex Grammar School  in Dyke Road, Hove, was built in 1912 incorporates egg & dart moulding in the pilasters on both sides of the doorway. 
 (In 1975 the school became Brighton, Hove and Sussex Sixth Form College, popularly known as BHASVIC)

copyright © D.Sharp
The former Brighton Borough's Electricity House in Castle Square built in 1933 incorporates egg & dart moulding above all upper windows. 

Kewley, Joyce  The sculptured decoration on roman votive altars and pedestals from northern Britain
Middleton, Judy A History of St Nicolas Church Portslade
Middleton, Judy Encyclopaedia of Hove and Portslade
Marquardt, J.T. & Alyce A.J.  Medieval Art and Architecture after the Middle Ages
Nairn, Ian & Pevsner, Nikolaus Sussex (Buildings of England)
Salzman, L.F. A History of the County of Sussex
Stalley, Robert Early Medieval Architecture

Copyright © J.Middleton 2016
page layout by D.Sharp