The oldest building in Brighton

St Nicholas Church

Brighton’s parish church is a curious relic. It is the oldest building in Brighton. The church survived a raid by French pirates, who burnt the mediaeval town of Brighthelmstone in 1533.

Why was it built on a hill? To avoid coastal erosion? To be protected from French pirates? Probably so that a fire lit on the big flat church tower could provide a beacon for fishermen.

There are spectacular views from the churchyard. You’re standing on the spine of a ridge here. Lower down, the old town grew up on a defendable site by a stream.

Comments about this page

  • Churches were built on hills as they were considered to be the most important buildings. They could be seen from all around and going up a hill brought you closer to God.

    By Kate (06/11/2006)
  • I remember as a little girl, around 1940 I believe, a plane crashed into the church yard at St Nicholas Church. There was a lot of commotion in the morning and we had to walk the long way to school. I had some shrapnel for years afterwards and glass from the plane. Does anyone remember that incident? I also remember that the beaches were mined and we couldn’t use them until after the war, then they were demined. It was then that the people flocked to the beaches in the good weather.

    My mother and sister were out shopping, the siren went and a little later they were blown out of a store they had been in, fortunately they were just shaken up and not hurt. Maybe I will remember more next time I write.

    By Evelyn Collett (31/01/2007)
  • Hi Evelyn, I’ve found your air crash on the internet at the Aircrew Remembrance Society. The plane you saw was a Messerschmitt 410a Night Fighter, it was shot down by a Mosquito from 96 Squadron on the 19th April 1944 at 12.50 am, both German pilots were killed, one was hanging from tree branches, he was wearing an Iron Cross 1st class and he is buried in Bear Road cemetery.

    By Martin Phillips (01/01/2012)
  • Just seen this post by my auntie who now lives in Canada! What she didn’t mention is that it was my mum, her sister Kathleen Bailey, who was out with my grandmother. This article can be viewed by typing my mum’s name. My half-brother, Trevor, who died 4 years ago, was an amateur historian and put the article together. I see Martin Philips who I know from Fitzherbert School replied to this post. Mum is still going strong at 88 and has all her marbles.  

    By Jozef Kis (10/12/2014)
  • My Mum Kathleen Kis (Bailey) passed away on Saturday 19th October 2019. I got to see Mum’s sister Evelyn a couple of years after her post. Unfortunately Evelyn has also passed away, which means Mum was the last of the Bailey family. I have done some family research down my Nan’s side whose maiden name was Kelly! Amazing stuff as she he family were from Ireland. I visited Ireland in 2018 as I had traced my Nan’s great Grandfather to a place called Westmeath, where in 1843 was married in the local church. I located that church. Mum was 93 years old and had many stories to tell. R.I.P.

    By Jozef Kis (30/10/2019)
  • I was intrigued by the title for this section. I have been involved with this project since before it was actually live back in 1993 (I think) and could not recall this bit. I am sceptical about St. Nicholas as the oldest building! About 95% was demolished in the 1850s for an almost complete rebuild and really only the base of the tower is medieval. Why built on the hill? it is still open to debate; the earliest church in Romano-British times was presumably in the lower part of the Old Town and was long lost to coastal erosion. But why on top of a hill at the back of the town? One idea by a local archaeologist is that early 19th century prints of the church show a number of mounds or burial barrows around the church. There is a long Christian tradition of establishing a church on a prior religious site, so this may be a very long established worship site taken over by the early church. Another view is that with increased Saxon raiding along the south coast, the church with valuable artefacts within would be safer north of the town. The height above sea level certainly aided one other function, mentioned above in the string of comments, when the church functioned as a beacon for fishing vessels.

    By Geoffrey Mead (31/10/2019)
  • Now that Brighton has become the City of Brighton and Hove encompassing Ovingdean, I suspect that the oldest building is now the 12th century St Wulfrums Church. I have a family connection (albeit somewhat distant): My great uncle Thomas Macdonald 1884-1942 married Annie Elizabeth Dudeney. Her brother, John Dudeney, was killed by enemy action on 12/10/1942. He died as a result of being hit by a canon shell (possibly ricocheting off a plough) from a strafing German fighter plane. John Dudeney was married to Ada who died on 09/09/1952 aged 64. They are both buried in St. Wulframs Churchyard, Ovingdean.

    By David Ward (15/01/2020)
  • I believe the title of oldest building in Brighton and Hove belongs to St Helen’s Church, in Hangleton. Its earliest known reference being 1093.

    By Alan Phillips (16/01/2020)
  • I believe that the oldest building in Brighton & Hove is in fact St Helen’s Church in Hangleton. Its first written mention dates back to 1093.

    By Alan Phillips (19/01/2020)

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