The Devil, a witch and a saint have all played their parts in a colourful past. St Dunstan, who built Mayfield’s first wooden church in AD 960, seems to have been a versatile Sussex saint, becoming Archbishop of Canterbury and also finding time to be a skilled statesman, reformer, musician and metal worker.
He had constant trouble with Old Nick and it was while working at his anvil in Mayfield that the Devil came to tempt him in the guise of a beautiful young woman. Dunstan noticed hooves sticking out from beneath the dress and grabbing his red hot pincers from the forge fire seized the nose of the Devil with them. He, understandably, let out a blood-curdling screech and resumed his proper form. In a cloud of smoke he flew away to cool his nose, first in a village spring and then in one at Tunbridge Wells, giving both a sulphurous taste and chalybeate qualities.
According to another legend, he returned in the form of a weary traveller who needed a horseshoe. The saint saw through the disguise again and beat the Devil until he begged for mercy and swore never to enter a house with a horseshoe above the door.
Dunstan is also credited with founding the Palace of the Archbishop of Canterbury beside the church, where the successors of the saint lived at intervals. When it ceased to be an ecclesiastical residence it was sold off and in 1567 Sir Thomas Gresham, founder of the Royal Exchange, bought the property and entertained Elizabeth I there. In 1864 it was purchased by the Dowager Duchess of Leeds who presented it to the Sisters of the Holy Child Jesus. It was converted into a Roman Catholic boarding school for girls, a purpose it still serves today.
Mayfield’s Norman church was destroyed by fire (along with much of the rest of the village) in 1389 and the replacement continued to be a chilly place on a wintry Sunday until two large coke stoves were installed in 1882. One old gentleman was said to have felt the cold so acutely when he took his hat off that a local barrister took pity on him and gave him his old wig, which the rustic sometimes wore sideways by mistake.
The Victorian era saw the end of the feudal custom of ringing the curfew bell each evening at 8 o’clock from Michaelmas to Lady Day (29 September to 25 March). The bell was rung by the sexton who was paid by the churchwardens out of the church rates. There were no funds available to pay the sexton after the Church Rate Abolition Bill was passed, and though voluntary contributions towards his salary kept the bell ringing for a while these soon dried up and a tradition unbroken since Norman times ceased.
Four Protestant martyrs were burnt to death in the churchyard here on 24 September 1556, during the Mary Tudor persecutions. Two of their names were recorded, John Hart, a shoemaker, and Thomas Ravendale, a carrier. Mayfield must have something of a record in that every vicar from 1780 to 1912 was a member of the Kirby family. There were four of them, starting with the Rev John Kirby (whose fatal flaw was a love of public houses and whose parishioners petitioned for his removal). He was replaced in 1810 by his son, another John, incumbent when the local labourers rioted in the 1830s in protest against their poverty; and the third Rev Kirby was Henry, launcher of the parish magazine, keen ornithologist and a man of considerable courage. In the 1870s he personally nursed back to health a tramp found in a barn suffering from smallpox. Henry was vicar for 52 years, being succeeded at his death in 1897 by his son John, a prominent figure in church affairs who with his wife donated the old village hall.
In 1950 there was a spectacular pageant in the village to mark the bicentenary of the founding of the school. Its first headmaster was Walter Gale, a hard drinker whose favourite tipple was gin by the quartern and whose friends gave him Christmas gifts such as a book entitled A Caution to Swearers. He supplemented his original wage of £16 per annum by such diverse activities as painting pub signs and carving tombstones, and kept a diary whose pages were in later years saved from being used as firelighters. ‘July 2d, 1750 – I went with Master Freeman to Wadhurst; we went to the Queens Head, where we had a quarter of brandy. I went to the supervisor’s house, and returned to the Queen’s Head, and had three pints of five penny between myself and three others; we set out together at 8 o’clock, and being invited to a mugg of mild beer, we went in to Mr Walters’. We left him with a design to cross the fields through Mepham Gill; but it being extremely dark, we kept not long the right path, but got into the road, which, though bad, we were obliged to keep, and not being able to see the footmarks, I had the mischance of slipping from a high bank, but received no hurt. Old Kent came to the knowledge of the above journey, and told it to the Rev Mr Downall, in a false manner, much to my disadvantage; he said that I got drunk, and that that was the occasion of my falling, and that, not being contented with what I had had, I went into the town that night for more.’
Queen Victoria came here as a girl, leaving her silver-topped riding crop as a memento, and the sculptor who engraved the portrait of Victoria which was used on coins in the latter part of her life was Sir Thomas Brook, who is buried in Mayfield churchyard.
The village sign is superb to look at (it won second prize of £500 in a national newspaper competition in 1920) but probably inaccurate. It depicts a young woman and children in a flower covered meadow and indicates that the original name of the village was Maid’s Field, though the Saxons knew it as Maegthe (chamomile) and it was Maghefeld in 1295.
The village has remained unpretentious despite its picturesque qualities. The Victorian writer Coventry Patmore describes it as ‘the sweetest village in Sussex’. The Timbered Middle House, now a hotel and restaurant, is a real eye-catcher with a tale to tell of matrimonial imprisonment. A landlord of the past had a secret room there where he kept his wife locked away for four years, bringing food up to her on a tray. One version says she died there and that the room is haunted by her thin cries; but the more popular version states she eventually discovered the hidden latch, cracked hubby smartly on the head with the tray when he brought in lunch and made her escape.
By the standards of her time, Alice Casselowe must have considered herself lucky to have got off so lightly when she was accused of being a witch. The records of 1577 state: At the Assizes at Horsham Alice Casselowe of Mayfilde, spinster, on the 6th June 1577 at Mayfilde bewitched to death one ox valued at £4 of the goods and chattels of Magin Fowle, gentleman.’
Another indictment: ‘also on the 1st of June at Mayfilde bewitched to death two pigs at 10s the goods and chattels of Richard Roose. Sentence, one year.’
Fred Wicker was one of the great village characters of more recent years. This blacksmith and sweep also used to help carry the coffins at funerals, rushing in at his rear entrance to remove the soot and coming out at the front suitably attired in black, wearing a top hat or bowler according to the status of the deceased. Then there were the brothers Percy and Jim Skinner, who ran a fish and poultry shop. Knowing that for old ladies with pet cats money was short, Percy would always make sure there was a little extra fish wrapped up in the parcel.
Mayfield’s Bonfire Boys and Belles are one of the oldest bonfire organisations in the county. Half the money raised at their autumn celebration goes towards providing a Christmas party for local old folk.
The unusual post mill on Argos Hill was recently restored and has been a feature of the area since 1834, but narrowly escaped demolition during the First World War when it was considered too good a landmark for German Zeppelins!