Inside Churches

Click to a larger version of Chaldon, Surrey (Church of England): photo © Mick Sharp

Chaldon, Surrey (Church of England): photo © Mick Sharp

Earth pigments of pale yellow and red smoulder on the dimly lit, west wall of the Norman church of SS Peter and Paul. One explanation of how a subject popular with the Eastern Orthodox Church - the ‘Ladder of Salvation of the Human Soul’ - came to be so vividly depicted here, is that it was ‘painted by a travelling monk with an extensive knowledge of Greek Ecclesiastical Art.’ Chaldon may well have received cosmopolitan visitors as it lies close to a branch of the Pilgrims’ Way: a route allowing those landing at the ports of Southampton and Portsmouth, to travel to the shrine of St Thomas of Canterbury via shrines at Chichester and Winchester. Thomas Becket was canonized in 1173, the painting is dated c 1200 and a ‘T’ monogram was carved on one of Chaldon’s pillars by a pilgrim or crusader. One reason to go on pilgrimage was to obtain pardon for sins and so avoid some of the torments shown in the ‘Doom’. The vertical ladder and horizontal cloud layer form a central cross. Above the cloud souls of the dead, represented by naked human figures, may ascend to Heaven where Christ is seen between sun and moon. Some struggle on the lower rungs, fall and are seized by demons. In the Tree of Knowledge, bottom right, the serpent hides and souls are punished for committing one or more of the Seven Deadly Sins. Bottom left is the boiling cauldron reserved for murderers. Above, St Michael weighs souls against their sins while the Devil tries to tip the balance. In the ‘Harrowing of Hell’, top right, Christ defeats evil and preaches to those who lived before him. The Devil is swallowed by a monster of the deep (leviathan), and the ‘righteous’ freed by hearing the Gospel are guided to Heaven by an angel.
Click to a larger version of Bodmin, Cornwall (Church of England): photo © Jean Williamson

Bodmin, Cornwall (Church of England): photo © Jean Williamson

Entry to a church is most often through the south door of the nave, and there too, at the west end, will usually be found the font which enables admission to the Christian Church through baptism. This 12th-century example, in the large parish church of St Petroc, has a cylindrical stone bowl supported by a thick central stem and four thinner angle shafts topped by angels. The vigorous early Norman carving includes symbolic representations of ‘Good’ on the east side, facing towards the altar and main body of the church, and ‘Evil’ on the west. Standing on its square plinth, this grand vessel of salvation has a dramatic sense of occasion about it. Jesus himself is described in two of the Gospels as being baptized in the River Jordan by John the Baptist, a controversial Jewish preacher who used total immersion as a purification ritual ‘for the forgiveness of sins’. In the early Church, adults were baptized with water ‘in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit’ and expected to receive a second baptism by the Holy Spirit, and to ‘speak in tongues’, as the Apostles had done at Pentecost. Infant baptism became increasingly important as a way of restraining evil and of counteracting ‘original sin’, the state that all humans were believed to be born into since Adam’s fall from supernatural grace. Up until the reign of James I (1603-25), infants were immersed in the holy water in the font as part of the ritual of exorcism and admission. In medieval times fonts were provided with locking lids to prevent the consecrated water - rarely changed and sitting in a lead lining - from being stolen and used for ‘superstitious purposes’.
Click to a larger version of Stackpole Elidor, Pembrokeshire (Church in Wales): photo © Mick Sharp

Stackpole Elidor, Pembrokeshire (Church in Wales): photo © Mick Sharp

Stackpole Elidor church was founded in the 12th century and is dedicated to St James and St Elidyr. Elidor is the name of the Norman crusader-knight who founded the church and became one of its patron saints. An effigy believed to represent Sir Elidor de Stackpole lies stiffly on a tomb in the north side of the chancel close to the altar, the usual place of honour for a church founder. With him lies the tomb and effigy of his wife, the Lady Elspeth. However, the tomb chests date from some 200 years after their lifetimes, and the effigies are 50 years or so later than the tombs. Elidor and Elspeth were alive in the mid 1100s, the tomb chests have been dated to 1310-20, the knight’s armour is of the period 1359-70 rather than that of a 12th-century crusader, and Lady Elspeth’s distinctive head-dress, kirtle and tunic are of c 1370. She lies recumbent, hands together in prayer, her head on a pillow held by supporters. Despite damaged features the image makes us think of a spirited individual, but early effigies were not meant to be accurate portraits as personal details were indicated by heraldry, inscriptions, symbols and costume. If this carving really is meant to be Elspeth it may have been commissioned by distant descendants who had her clothed in the fashion of their own time - a little like someone from the 1960s making a memorial to a Georgian ancestor dressed as a hippy. By around 1370 the country was recovering from the ‘Black Death’ during which a third of the population had died. Was it considered a good time to make a new start by commissioning up-to-date effigies of the illustrious founders of Stackpole Elidor?
Click to a larger version of Hanbury, Staffordshire (Church of England): photo © Jean Williamson

Hanbury, Staffordshire (Church of England): photo © Jean Williamson

These two wall tablet busts, in the chancel of St Werburgh’s church, are most definitely portraits. Two Puritan ladies, Katherine Agard and her daughter Anne Woollocke, gaze down sternly from above the Vicar’s stall. Katherine, the mother of five daughters and six sons, died in 1628, aged 66, during the reign of Charles I. Anne died during the Commonwealth at the age of 71, in the same year (1657) as the lord protector, Oliver Cromwell, had refused the title of ‘King of England, Scotland and Ireland’. Puritans were usually enthusiastic iconoclasts, so it is rare and interesting that one should wish to have these images made. Anne left ten shillings in her will for annual cleaning of the monuments, ten shillings for a sermon to be preached against ‘Popery’ and the same amount to pay a congregation to hear it. These alabaster ladies in their steeple hats, white ruffs and black gowns seem determined to cock a snook at the hourglass and winged skulls - symbols of the swift passage of time, mortality and the vanity of earthly things - which adorn their tablets. Hidden from them in the north aisle is the tomb of Royalist supporter Sir John Egerton who died in 1662, two years after the restoration of the monarchy. He lies resplendent in Spanish-style clothes with long boots, curly locks and moustache. He had wished to be buried in the chancel the same as his father Sir Charles, but, the story goes, his sister Mary was so appalled by the idea of Anne and Katherine looking down on him that she had Sir John buried away from their Puritan scrutiny.
Click to a larger version of Ashbourne, Derbyshire (Church of England): photo © Jean Williamson

Ashbourne, Derbyshire (Church of England): photo © Jean Williamson

The model for Sir Joshua Reynolds’ painting, ‘Little girl in a clothe cap’ (The Mob Cap), was Penelope Boothby who lies sleeping on a mattress of Cararra marble in the north aisle of St Oswald’s church. The only child of Lady Susannah and Sir Brooke Boothby, sixth baronet of Ashbourne, Penelope died in March 1791 a few weeks short of her sixth birthday. Six little girls and six little boys, all holding umbrellas, carried her coffin in the rain. After the funeral her parents parted and Susannah returned to her family in Hampshire. Sir Brooke, already with a reputation for being artistic, emotional and self-indulgent, took to writing sonnets about his daughter. He also commissioned this moving memorial by Thomas Banks, RA, and a painting of Penelope ascending to Heaven (The Apotheosis of Penelope Boothby), by Henry Fuseli. Inscriptions on her tomb are in English, French, Italian and Latin, the four languages she was studying. There is a quote from Dante (‘Those who descend into the grave are not concealed from Heaven’), references to ‘her curling locks of shining gold and the lightning of her smile, which made a paradise on earth’, and the epitaph: ‘She was in form and intellect most exquisite. The unfortunate parents ventured their all on this frail bark, and the wreck was total.’ When Penelope’s monument was on display at the Royal Academy, Queen Charlotte, wife of George III, is said to have seen it and been reduced to tears.
Click to a larger version of March, Cambridgeshire (Church of England): photo © Mick Sharp

March, Cambridgeshire (Church of England): photo © Mick Sharp

In the church dedicated to local saint Wendreda, angels with dusty wings still hover over the site of her shrine which was dismantled at the Reformation in 1543. Constructed 1470-1520, the double hammer-beam roof sports 136 figures: 118 angels plus saints, apostles and martyrs. Wendreda was one of the daughters of the Saxon King Anna, based at Exning near Newmarket in Suffolk. Anna was killed c 654 in a battle with Penda, the pagan king of Mercia; his family dispersed and Wendreda came to live on an island called Merc (boundary) in the Cambridgeshire Fens, where she used her Christian faith and healing skills on the agues and malarial fevers of the marsh folk. Buried at ‘the village of Merch’ her reputation grew, and by the late 900s the Abbot of Ely desired the saintly virgin’s bones. King Ethelred the ‘Unready’ gave permission for the translation to Ely where her relics were ‘enclosed in a shrine of gold adorned with precious stones’. In 1016 Ethelred’s son, Edmund Ironside, marched against an army of Danes whose longships had penetrated the Essex waterways. For all of St Luke’s Day (18 October) the battle of Assandun ranged across fields beside the River Crouch. Monks carried Wendreda’s body against the ‘heathen foe’, but the Danes were victorious, the monks cut down, the captured relics carried in triumph to the Danish leader. But Cnut was so moved by the story of Wendreda’s selfless life that he became a Christian, built a Minster for the souls of the dead on the site of Edmund’s battle camp and, as the new king of England, had Wendreda’s relics enshrined at Canterbury. There they rested for some 300 years, before being returned around 1343 to the specially restored shrine-church at March.
Click to a larger version of Hythe, Kent (Church of England): photo © Mick Sharp

Hythe, Kent (Church of England): photo © Mick Sharp

In ‘The Crypt’ beneath St Leonard’s Church, skulls are arranged on shelves like reference books in a library: they may be read, but not without knowledge of the language of bones. I am indebted to ‘A Study of the Bones in the Crypt of St. Leonard’s Church, Hythe’, by Jack F Barker (1991) for information on this subject. The underground passage, or ambulatory, beneath the chancel contains a collection of some 8000 thigh bones (femurs), along with 2000 or so skulls plus smaller bones: the remains of at least 4000 people; men, women and a few children. Over 1100 skulls are on the shelves while the remainder and the bones are arranged in a long, freestanding stack like a bony drystone wall. The collection built up in the Crypt between 1200 and 1500, but some of the bones must pre-date 1200 and distinctive skull shapes suggest the descendants of people who originated in ‘that part of Europe centred on Italy’. The north transept of St Leonard’s started as a Saxon chapel, and when the Norman nave was built to its south early burials may have been disturbed. Bones from St Leonard’s congregation and other Hythe churches may then have been added throughout the Middle Ages. Early graveyards were generally too small, their burials mainly unmarked. The digging of new graves uncovered remains - mostly long bones and skulls - which were placed in a charnel house or crypt. The Hythe bones have traces of soil and wood, they are damaged in various ways and some have healed wounds, but they do not bear the signs of battle or an epidemic: they are accumulated bones from a longstanding community. It is a tradition to show the bones to visitors for a small charge. Mr Barker suggests this practice was initiated c 1200 as an attraction for Canterbury pilgrims passing by the church on their way to and from the port of Hythe.
Click to a larger version of Lanlivery, Cornwall (Church of England): photo © Mick Sharp

Lanlivery, Cornwall (Church of England): photo © Mick Sharp

From the lofty, 15th-century granite tower of St Brevita’s church, the bells still ring out across their moorland parish. At the bottom of the tower, beside the ropes with their coloured sallies, is a ringers’ rhyme board featuring five bells being rung by five men wearing shirts and breeches. The painted panel dated 1811 names vicar N. Kendall, churchwardens R. Treleaven & N. White, and lays out the rules and fines of the bell ringers’ company: “Hark how the chirping Treble sings most clear, / And covering Tom comes rolling in the rear: / Now throw them up on end that all may see / What laws are best to keep sobriety: / We ring the quick to church the dead to grave / Good is our use such usage let us have: / To swear or curse or in a choleric mood / To strike or quarrell ‘tho he draws no blood / To wear a hat or spur or overturn a bell / Who by unskilful handling mars a peal: / Such shall pay sixpence for each single crime / To make him cautious against another time: / And we the whole society do agree / To spend our fines in peace and unity.” Judging from other rhymes, such as that at Tong (Shropshire), wearing hats or spurs was particularly frowned upon and sixpence, or a ‘gun’ (large flagon) of ale, the going rate for a forfeit. Behaviour in belfries became so drunken and unruly at times that the ringers and their cohorts were locked out of the towers. In ‘Tintinnalogia’ (1668), Fabian Steadman outlined his system of change ringing. Each change consists of each bell rung once with every change rung in a different order without repetition. The maximum number of unique changes possible with five bells is 120, and in the ‘odd-bell method’ the tenor (Tom) would always be rung last as described in the rhyme.
Click to a larger version of Pistyll, Gwynedd (Church in Wales): photo © Mick Sharp

Pistyll, Gwynedd (Church in Wales): photo © Mick Sharp

St Beuno’s church on the Lleyn peninsula was one of the main stopping-places for medieval pilgrims on their way to Bardsey Island (Ynys Enlli). Pistyll had an inn, separate accommodation for lepers, a monastery and a hospice growing its own medicinal herbs. An unusually large range of plants still grows in and around the churchyard and these are used to dress the church at Christmas, Easter and Lammas. Lughnasa was a major pagan festival under the patronage of the Celtic god Lugh (Lugos). The Gauls celebrated the feast in the god’s own city of Lyon on what is now 1 August: the Romans claimed the festival and the month in honour of their deified emperor Augustus. In Britain under the Anglo-Saxons, the celebration of the start of harvest became ‘hlaf-maes’ (loaf-mass or Lammas Day), when the first ears of corn were plucked, ceremonially prepared, baked and shared. At Pistyll, reputedly first founded in the 7th century by St Beuno himself, loaves are placed on the altar for the nearest Sunday to 1 August. Rushes are strewn on the floor, and herbs and plants collected to decorate the church and its Celtic font. Amongst the apples and figs are local teasels, bulrushes, sea holly, heather, ling, fennel, wormwood, montbretia, rowan branches with berries, camomile, cow parsley, rosemary, wild hops and more.
Click to a larger version of Cawston, Norfolk (Church of England): photo © Mick Sharp

Cawston, Norfolk (Church of England): photo © Mick Sharp

St Agnes is one of the great ‘wool churches’, constructed mainly in the years 1350-1500 when sheep made Norfolk rich. Sir Michael de la Pole, first Earl of Suffolk, and his wife Catharine were largely responsible for funding the magnificent Perpendicular Gothic architecture. This view down the north aisle and nave to the tower, includes details of the 15th-century hammer-beam roof with full-length seraphim on the projecting beams. At the bottom of the tower are the remains of a plough gallery and screen which would have been maintained by the local plough guild (gild). Candles burned constantly before the plough rood (cross) and statue of the guild’s patron saint, as they did in front of other images in the pre-Reformation church. Ploughs were kept in churches, blessed and God asked to ‘spede the plow and send us ale corn [barley] enow’. Wealthy patrons aside, funds were raised for repairs and new building by holding parish feasts or ‘church-ales’ in the nave. Barley was donated, or bought by the churchwardens who had it turned into ale in the parish brewhouse which often stood in the churchyard. In the Middle Ages the centre of the nave was clear of seating - most parishioners stood or kneeled during services or came in just for the Mass - which left plenty of space for the dancing, singing and drinking. The next day someone was paid to clear up. The Reformation took away some of the vigour and splendour: images were removed or defaced, stained glass replaced by plain, deeply coloured and decorated walls painted pale. To hear the Word of God became paramount and pews filled the naves - there is seating for 700 at Cawston - for congregations now focused on the readings, preaching and sermons launched from lecterns and increasingly tall and elaborate pulpits.
Click to a larger version of Parracombe Churchtown, Devon (Churches Conservation Trust): photo © Jean Williamson

Parracombe Churchtown, Devon (Churches Conservation Trust): photo © Jean Williamson

St Petrock’s is justly famous for its unspoilt Georgian interior. It was saved from destruction in the late 19th century by a national appeal led by John Ruskin. It became redundant in 1969 and was vested in The Churches Conservation Trust in 1971. The arrangements to be found in any small village ‘prayer book’ church during the 17th and 18th centuries are preserved here. The three-decker pulpit, with sounding board above, has a reading desk for the minister and a seat for the clerk. Draught-excluding high box pews from the 1700s mix with older plain oak benches. The medieval chancel screen has a later tympanum painted with the Royal Arms, Lord’s Prayer, Apostles’ Creed and the Ten Commandments: displaying ‘the Sentences’ was made obligatory in 1603, the Royal Arms universal after 1662. The names of Walter Lock and Richard Harton appear beneath the Creed; they were churchwardens in 1758 when £1-11s.6d was paid for ‘cleansing’ the Commandments. Rails around altars were first introduced in the 1630s to prevent dogs approaching the Communion Table, before that the church dog tongues had been used to seize and eject disrespectful canines. This view was taken from the raised box pews used by musicians at the west end of the nave. One of the pews has been cut to allow free movement of the bass viol player’s bow. St Petrock’s was one of the last churches in Devon to retain a church band to accompany singing. In the 1830s Thomas Hardy, his brother James, their father Thomas and neighbour James Dart were the ‘music-men’ at Stinsford church (Dorset), wearing top hats and dark blues coats with gilt buttons, and carrying their cello and fiddles in green-baize bags. Hardy wrote affectionately about church musicians and greatly lamented their removal from worship.
Click to a larger version of Italian Chapel, Lamb Holm, Orkney (Chapel Preservation Committee): photo © Jean Williamson

Italian Chapel, Lamb Holm, Orkney (Chapel Preservation Committee): photo © Jean Williamson

This unique memorial to 550 Italian prisoners of war lies on the islet of Lamb Holm, linked to the south-east part of Orkney Mainland by a road running along the Churchill Barriers to the islands of Burray and South Ronaldsay. Prisoners captured during the North Africa campaign of WWII were sent here to work on the causeways designed to deny German submarines access to the fleet at anchor in Scapa Flow. Conceived by Domenico Chiocchetti, and built with the specialist help of fellow inmates, the chapel was created by placing two corrugated-iron Nissen huts end-to-end, and using scrap and salvage materials from the sea and East Mainland. It has furnishings made of wood or moulded concrete, and a wrought iron sanctuary screen. The plaster walls are painted with trompe l’oeil masonry and tiles, the sanctuary is decorated with religious scenes including a Dove of Peace, and a Madonna and Child surrounded by angels. Chiocchetti returned several times to restore and repaint the chapel. Many other former prisoners have also made return visits and helped to forge Italian-Orcadian links. This eloquent fragment of Roman Catholic Italy in the Presbyterian North is known as the Miracle of Camp 60. It is dedicated to Regina Pacis - the Queen of Peace.

Follow me on: Facebook Jean Williamson.