Shalfleet Church

The church is well worth a visit by hall users.

History of Shalfleet Church

The name “Shalfleet” means “shallow stream”. The stream in this case is the stream passing through the village, the Caul Bourne. It was recorded in 1086, in the Domesday Book, Shalfleet was called “Selceeflet”. In Adam and Charles Black’s guide book to the area published in 1870, there is a note that Shalfleet is “not too lively”. It still has only one street with a traffic light at each end. Church of St. Michael the Archangel, Shalfleet was dedicated to St. Michael the Archangel in 1964.

The origins of the church are not precisely known and its original dedication has been lost. It may indeed have been dedicated to a Saxon saint. 

The existing Norman Church was founded sometime in the years between 1070 and 1086 and is built on the site of an earlier timbered Saxon church, its tower is one of the earliest Norman buildings on the Island.

Apart from the tower the only existing portions of the original church are the north door and the foundations of the north wall of the Norman nave, built in 1150.

Over the north door is the quaintly carved tympanum, whose subject of a bearded man apparently resting his hands on the heads of two affronted lions has exercised many scholarly minds:  Adam naming the animals beneath the Tree of Knowledge and the Tree of Life in the Garden of Eden;  Daniel in the Lions’ Den;  St Mark with lions;  or David overcoming the lion and the bear?

In 1270 a great remodelling and enlargement of the church took place. The south aisle with its fine arcade of Purbeck stone piers added as a vicarial church. This was likely to house the manorial tenants as the original nave would have been reserved for the Lord of Shalfleet Manor and his family. The aisle is remarkable for being the only one on the Island, apart from Arreton and the domestic chapel at Carisbrooke Castle, where Purbeck stone was used, and for its south windows which have a possibly unique oval tracery in their heads. As late as 1796 the arms of Isabella de Fortibus appeared in one of these windows, Lord of the Island from 1283 to 1293, she may well have commissioned the work herself.

War Memorial Window: by Jones and Willis, the notable church furnishers; dedicated in 1920;  St George for soldiers and St Nicholas for sailors are depicted.

The early 17th century oak pulpit, with its carved designs and a bookrest on brackets all round, is of the time of Charles I.

The altar rails are of the eighteenth century and the reredos, designed with the help of Percy Stone and installed in 1908, incorporates the Elizabethan communion table with its inscription and the paneling includes oak from Arreton church, St Nicholas Chapel at Carisbrooke Castle and HMS Nettle.

The box pews with their H-hinges are of the eighteenth century.

The rood screen was erected as a memorial to Thomas Hollis, the sexton from 1854 to 1909.

The two-manual organ, built in 1866 by H.C. Sims of Southampton, and until 1920 placed at the east end of the nave where the pulpit is now, was replaced in 2009 by a two-manual and pedal pipe organ of 1885, the work of celebrated organ-builder, “Father Henry Willis” for a private house in Scotland

Two bells are hung: the Tenor is 35 3/4″ diameter and 9 cwt in weight; its note is B flat; cast in 1815 at the foundry of Thomas Mears in Whitechapel, London; inscribed – ‘May all whom I shall summon to the grave the blessings of a well spent life receive’. Thos.Way ]as.Street Churchwardens 1815. The Treble was cast in 1807 by Mears; J.Jolliffe G.W. 2.0.3 J.Cooper

The north porch was built in 1754 and the door has that date roughly cut on the inside of it. In the same year a cupola (a domed shaped cap) was added to the tower. 

Many repairs were made in 2003 and 2006, including the rehanging of the two tenor and sanctus bells. The 13th century piscine remains in the south wall, the font has a 16th century bowl. Other features include Elizabethan linenfold panelling and an ancient and rare sculpted tympanum. There are four stained glass windows of excellent quality, including a nativity scene featuring the adopted children of the architect John Nash.

An informative guide book is available.

The church is normally unlocked between 9.00am and sunset.


Shalfleet Church Tower

The tower is the oldest part of the church and is remarkable for its massive structure, the walls being over five feet thick. It may in fact pre-date the church to circa eighth century and served from the start as a stronghold for local inhabitants when threatened by invaders or piratical marauders. It must have been almost invulnerable as there were no openings at all at ground level and access was gained only by climbing an external ladder and scrambling over the parapet. The structure may occasion comparisons with the strongly built tower keep of Chepstow Castle, the stronghold of William Fitz Osbern who had responsibility for the Welsh border area.

The need for such a stronghold is made clear by the vulnerability of the Newtown River and the surrounding area and its attractiveness to seaborne raiders over the centuries, in particular the Danes at the end of the tenth century and culminating in the frequent French attacks of the fourteenth century – especially in 1377 when Yarmouth, Newtown and Newport all suffered much destruction. Defence of the Island against invaders remained a constant preoccupation, hence the provision of a 3-pounder gun, inscribed ‘Schawflet’, which was kept in the tower until 1779, and which must have been ready for use when the Spanish Armada threatened the Island in 1588.

In 1800 the cupola was replaced by a wooden, tile-hung steeple, the subject of a well-known rhyme about Shalfleet people:-

‘Shalfleet poor and simple people  Sold their bells to build a steeple.’

In 1912 the steeple was removed. When it was taken down it was found to be so rotten that the workmen said they didn’t know how it managed to keep from toppling. The spiral staircase has 57 steps to the top.  First you climb to the floor where two bells are hung.  You then climb a short vertical metal ladder of 7 rungs that came from a railway signal box then climb through a trap door onto the roof of the Tower.

The Tower is usually only open once a year during the annual Village Fete on August Bank Holiday Monday. 

It is well worth a visit, especially for the views over the rooftops of Shalfleet.


Click here to visit St.Michael the Archangel.