Originally called St Mary’s, the church was founded between 1180 to 1204 by William de Braose, the great-grandson of a powerful Norman Baron who fought alongside William the Conqueror at the
Battle of Hastings. Some time before his death in 1204, Bishop Seffrid of Chichester persuaded William de Braose to transfer his patronage of Warnham Church (and others) to Rusper Nunnery, which
he had also endowed. De Braose was a ruthless baron and it is thought his religious foundations were acts of penance in a conflicting age of feudal power and chivalry.
It was not until 1247 that the Bishop of Chichester, Richard de Wich, enforced the appointment of Warnham’s first vicar, an old friend of his, Robert de Dorking. The original building was probably subsumed within the enlargement works in the fourteenth century when the new pillars and Gothic arches were built to support two new aisles either side of the original nave.
The Caryll Chapel was built or restored by John Caryll in about 1480 and dedicated in memory of his second wife Margaret as St Margaret’s Chapel; over time St Margaret became the new patron saint of the Church. The Caryll family were the squires of Warnham for over 150 years and built up great wealth from the Sussex iron industry, including Warnham Mill (which was sacked by Oliver Cromwell for producing cannon for the Royalist cause). The Carylls lived at Warnham Place (later destroyed and rebuilt nearby).
After nearly 300 years, patronage was removed from Rusper Nunnery in about 1536 under King Henry VIII’s dissolution of the monasteries and passed to the Dean and Chapter of Canterbury before being acquired by Charles Thomas Lucas in 1866 with the right to appoint the vicar.
St Margaret of Antioch became the patron saint of expectant mothers (although ironically a virgin saint) after allegedly refusing marriage to a prefect during the reign of Roman Emperor Diocletian (284 - 305 AD) resulting in her beheading after a series of extravagant trials and tortures. The tribulation for which she is known was to be swallowed by Satan disguised as a dragon and then coughed up unharmed. This story is of course now thought to be fictitious.
In 2004, to mark the 1700th anniversary of her martyrdom, a specially composed opera, Margaret of Antioch, was staged in Warnham Village Hall. The libretto for the opera was written by our late Vicar, Christopher Loveless, and the music was by Mark Browse. In 2014 the opera was revived in a concert version to mark its own 10th anniversary.
The font dates from the twelfth century, constructed of Purbeck marble, of a massive square design with a pattern of early Norman arches all round.
The Shelley Chapel (now the vestry) was built in the early sixteenth century from a legacy left by Richard Mitchell of Field Place who died in 1523. Under the floor are buried many members of the Shelley family who became the owners of Field Place. Charles Shelley who died in 1826, the only son of the (atheist) poet Percy Bysshe Shelley (1792 - 1822), is referred to in the wall tablet as Sir Timothy's grandson, such was their outrage at their famous son's appallingly rebellious life-style. An earlier flagstone on the Caryll chapel floor commemorates the death of Timothy Shelley in 1771 and his wife Joanna who interestingly had been born in Newark (USA) in 1696.
The poet was born in Field Place near Warnham in 1792. He was baptised in St Margaret’s Church and his earliest education was from the Vicar of Warnham.
A facsimile of his baptism record is on display in the Church.