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The history of Alfriston Clergy House

Sundial surrounded by topiary yew hedges at Alfriston Clergy House, East Sussex
Sundial surrounded by topiary yew hedges at Alfriston Clergy House | © National Trust Images/James Dobson

Alfriston Clergy House is a Grade II* listed building which was built as residence for the parish priest of the neighbouring 14th century St Andrew’s Church. The house is over 600 years old and one of a handful remaining Wealden Houses in Alfriston village. The structure of the Clergy House was intended to display the owner’s wealth and significance, certainly a high contemporary standard of living. Through a series of changes and renovations across the centuries it has become the picturesque house seen today in its idyllic setting with views across the River Cuckmere.

Saved for the nation

Alfriston Clergy House in East Sussex was the first building saved forever for the nation by the National Trust. This early 15th-century Wealden hall-house was bought as a restoration project in 1896 by the newly formed National Trust for Places of Historic Interest or Natural Beauty.

Construction of the house

The plan is simplicity itself: a central communal hall open to the rafters, flagged to the east by the priests rooms, comprising of a living room and a bedroom with lavatory (garderobe) attached. At the opposite end of the house were two floors of humbler service rooms were food would have been prepared and stored and the servants would have slept above.

The timber-framed building was built predominantly of young oak which we now know, from dendrochronology work, were felled between 1399 to 1407. The house was built for the priest of St Andrew's Chruch by Michelham Priory who held the advowson at that time.

A priest's residence

The Clergy House was used as a residence for Alfriston’s parish priest until Michelham Priory was dissolved by Henry VIII in 1537. Then the Clergy House was granted to Thomas Cromwell until he was attained for treason in June 1540 when it became part of the estate of Anne of Cleeves. After her death in 1557 it became the property of the Church of England until it was sold to the National Trust in 1896. The charity’s experiences in conserving and finding a use for the building helped to shape the organisation’s future operations and purpose. Originally rented out to tenants, the house and gardens were opened as a visitor attraction in 1977.

Copy of an 1894 black and white print of Alfriston Clergy House
Copy of an 1894 black and white print of Alfriston Clergy House | © National Trust Images

Accurately dating the Clergy House

For over 120 years the exact date of Alfriston Clergy House was a mystery. In 2019 tree ring dating known as ‘dendrochronology’ finally solved the mystery.

Studying the rings

The National Trust commissioned the Oxford Dendrochronology Laboratory to sample the building’s timbers. Dendrochronology involves taking cores of wood (which look like cigars) from buildings and then studying the tree rings to provide accurate dates for when the tree was felled.

The rings can then be matched to chronologies of sampled trees to establish the years in which this example was growing and when it was felled. Each ring marks a complete cycle of seasons, or one year, in the tree's life. Dendrochronology is useful for determining the precise age of samples of wood, especially those that are too recent for radiocarbon dating.

The conclusion

The sampling for Alfriston concluded that the trees used to build the original house were felled between 1399 and 1407.

'We’ve always known that in later years it had been a house for the clergy, this accurate dating changes our long-assumed position that it was originally built for a farmer. Instead, we now see the house being used as a vicarage from when it was first built in around 1400.’

– George Roberts, curator for Alfriston Clergy House

A timeline of Alfriston Clergy House


Medieval Clergy House

A rare surviving example of a priest's dwelling  built in the 15th century during medieval times and the reign of Richard II.    


According to a dendrochronology report carried out in 2019 the house was built during this period for the priest of St Andrew's church who was appointed by Michelham Priory. 

The design of Afriston Clergy House consisted of four bays including the double-heighted hall and with two staircases, one in the parlour and one in the hall.

The west-facing front of the 14th-century timber-framed Alfriston Clergy House, East Sussex. The deep eaves of the thatched roof cast shade on to light-coloured walls. Crosses of an old graveyard lie in front.

Discover more at Alfriston Clergy House

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Copy of an 1894 black and white print of Alfriston Clergy House

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