Rather gruesome relics of King Charles I were kept in the village church here until late in the 19th century: the shirt, silk drawers and garters he wore at his execution, the sheet that was thrown over his body, his watch and a lock of his hair. They were held to have healing powers to those who touched them, a belief that persisted until 1859 when a sick child was wrapped in the King’s sheet at Ashburnham as a remedy for the scrofula.
The relics were brought here by John Ashburnham, for many years friend and servant to Charles I, who called him Jacko. This staunch royalist and former MP for Hastings was Groom of the Bedchamber, and accompanied the King on his flight from Oxford during the Civil War. At the Restoration in 1660 he got his old job back, serving Charles II, and Samuel Pepys records in his diary how Jacko berated a subordinate who allowed his royal master to run short of handkerchiefs one day. Ashburnham is a scattered and secretive community, hiding in its steep and twisting lanes two important reminders of the county’s industrial past. Near Ponts Green was a brickworks with the last wood-fired kiln in Sussex, still in use until 1968, and near Ashburnham Forge was the last iron furnace to be worked in the county, where firebacks were the speciality. Various dates are given for the year in which it was extinguished for the last time, 1828, 1820 and 1813. The last is probably the most accurate, for William Hobday, last surviving labourer at the furnace who died in 1883, asserted that work ceased forever in that year.
The history of the village is interwoven with the ancient family that bears its name. In the middle of the 12th century Reginals de Oseburnham was granting lands to the Abbey of Robertsbridge and seems to have been a considerable landowner in Ashburnham. Since then members of the family, with one short break of a few years, remained in occupation of the estate until Lady Catherine Ashburnham, the last of the direct line, died in 1953. Villagers still remember the beautiful coach, with a plush red velvet interior, she kept in her stables.
The church stands beside the family mansion, given to the Ashburnham Christian Trust as a centre for the training of lay members of the Church of England. The list of vicars begins in 1399 though there was probably a church here at a much earlier date because in 1374 one William, Vicar of Ashburnham, was excommunicated by the Bishop of Chichester for an unfortunate series of moral and ecclesiastical offences’.
Local youngsters found the wartime evacuees from London rather a soft lot. Ashburnham children were used to a walk of three miles or more to get to school every day but this proved too much for some of the guests from the city – they were provided with a taxi to get them to and from their lessons!