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The history of a church in Old Groombridge goes back to 1239 when William Russell and his wife Haweis were granted a charter to build the Chapel of St John the Apostle and Evangelist. This was a chantry, a small building within the moat of the manor house, consecrated for the saying of Masses for the souls of its benefactors. Lands were granted to Sir Robert, Rector of Speldhurst, to pay the stipend of the Chaplain performing this duty.
The present Church is built in the last stage of the Gothic style, known as perpendicular. It is a historic reminder of an event, more than three and a half centuries ago, when Prince Charles (later to be King Charles I) made a journey to Spain in disguise to try to persuade the daughter of the Spanish King to elope with him. The event caused great concern to the people of England who still had the memory of the Spanish Armada fresh in their minds. At this time John Packer, Clerk of the Privy Seal to Charles I, was living in the manor at Groombridge and he vowed that if Charles returned safe from Spain he would build a chapel in his park as a thanks-offering to God. When Charles returned safe in both senses, unscathed and unmarried, the Chapel was built and finished in 1625 and this is recorded in the Latin inscription above the porch. Although there was still the small chapel inside the moat of the manor house, which served for the family and its retainers, the villagers had up until then had to go to Speldhurst for Sunday worship and for baptisms, weddings and funerals. So the building of the new Chapel made it much easier for the villagers to attend church. With the chapel went a piece of land as a burial-ground, and the registers show that the first person to be buried there was John Lee on 13th June 1633.
John Packer’s Church remained a private Chapel from 1625-1872, and for a time it became known as St Charles’ Chapel. In later years, after the last male member of the Packer family had died, the estate became vested in Chancery and the Chapel fell into disrepair. When William Camfield, a Tunbridge Wells builder, bought Groombridge Place in 1754 he “repaired and beautified” the chapel “from a very ruinous condition” and he then added his name to the Packer stone over the porch in letters twice as large as the original inscription.

In spite of Camfield’s beautifying, by the beginning of the 19th century the building is described by Amsinck in his “Tunbridge Wells and Neighbourhood” as in a wretched state of dilapidation. It was subsequently re-roofed. In 1872 the Church was officially consecrated and dedicated, as in ancient times, to St John the Evangelist. In 1895 a fire caused by lightning seriously damaged the east end. This was repaired but in 1912 it was found that the roof had not been properly supported and was weighing too heavily on the top of the wall and breaking up the window arches. Some of the buttresses, too, were separating from the walls they were meant to support. This was put right at the cost of £300, a large sum in those days.

One of the main attractions of this Church is its wealth of stained glass, which was mainly introduced in the latter part of the 19th century. Six of the eight large windows are the work of the celebrated Sussex artist, Charles Kempe, but also of special note is the centre light of the S.E. window, featuring the armorial bearings of the Packer family. This is the original glass, dating from the building of the Church.

Another glory of the chapel is the brass-work. There are four brass chandeliers hanging over the aisle, one of them said to be Flemish 17th century work and the others copies. Also of note are the decorative candlesticks around the walls, the oak pulpit and font and the many memorials. The clock at the west end is very old. It is one of the few remaining one-handed clocks in the country and the space between the figures is divided into four and not five. The date on the clock face is 1792 but the clock itself is much earlier.

Click here to link to the KENT ARCHAEOLOGICAL SOCIETY visual record archive for St John's Groombridge