History of the School
This school may be unique in owing its existence to a picnic. On May 26 1863 Mother Cornelia Connelly, who had founded the Society of the Holy Child Jesus in 1846, escorted a small group of girls from the Holy Child school at St Leonards-on-Sea to the ruins of the Old Palace of Mayfield, where they would enjoy a picnic. The peace of the countryside and the elegance of the ruins must have left their mark on Cornelia, for within a matter of weeks the estate had been purchased by the Duchess of Leeds and presented to the religious order. On the morning of 18 November 1863 Mass was celebrated at Mayfield for the first time since the mid-16th century.
Restoration of the Old Palace began in 1864 and the ruins of the 14th-century hall had been transformed into a church within 14 months. Although the nuns educated a small number of orphans on site almost immediately, it was not until 1872 that young girls from St Leonards were brought over to be the first pupils at the school. The Old Palace was also the order’s Novitiate, that part of the convent devoted to the Novices (those of the religious order who were in training).
Development of the school continued in order to meet the needs of the growing number of pupils at Mayfield: the Victorian red-brick school building had been added by 1897, the Concert Hall by 1930, and a suite of other facilities were constructed throughout the second half of the 20th-century and beyond.
In 1953 the schools at St Leonards-on-Sea and Mayfield merged to form St Leonards-Mayfield School. Pupils remained at St Leonards up to the age of 13 and then transferred to Mayfield to continue their education to 18. In 1975 the junior school at St Leonards closed and Mayfield became the school it is today, educating girls from 11 to 18.
The headmistress of St Leonards-Mayfield School was drawn from the Society of the Holy Child Jesus up to the end of the 20th-century, at which point the school appointed its first lay headmistress. The links with Holy Child, however, remain strong: three members of the Governing body are nuns and three nuns live in the school grounds, supporting the pastoral work of the Chaplaincy and boarding houses.
History of the Old Palace
The Old Palace of Mayfield served throughout the 14th- and 15th-centuries as a residence of the Archbishops of Canterbury. The great hall was built by Archbishop Reynolds c. 1325, although Archbishop Islip (1356-1366) enlarged it and built the greater part of the Palace. Seventeen Archbishops are known to have visited the Palace from 1274-1530. At the Reformation, the Old Palace was handed over to Henry VIII and a new phase in its history began. It was gifted to various leading noblemen, one of the most famous of whom was Sir Thomas Gresham, an advisor to Queen Elizabeth I. In 1573 Sir Thomas entertained Queen Elizabeth within its walls. In 1617 the estate came into the hands of the Baker family, owners of several iron foundries in the county. As the iron industry declined in the 18th century, so too did the fortunes of the Bakers. The Old Palace was abandoned in 1740 and thereafter fell into ruins.