Saturday, 16 October 2010

Isleham, Cambridgeshire

St Andrew is justifiably ranked as one of England's Thousand Best Churches by Simon Jenkins but strangely he only gives it one star. It is huge and is rather incongruous as a village church. The body of the church is 14th century but the tower was rebuilt in 1863 after its predecessor collapsed two years previously and for once the Victorians got it right. For all its vastness the exterior is fairly unprepossessing - it is too big for it's churchyard and looms, actually lurks might explain it better, over you and the village.

The interior on the other hand is a treasure chest only let down by some pretty crass Victorian glass. It has everything and I spent far longer here than I have in any other church - I also took considerably more photos than normal ending up with 199!

ST ANDREW. An excellent early C14 church of flint and pebble rubble, built on a cruciform plan, splendidly remodelled late in the C15. One does not expect this, as one approaches the village and is put off by the crude and insensitive W tower by Street with its tiled pyramid roof. The interior comes first; the exterior can only modify and enrich that remarkable impression. The nave is long and wide and has tall vigorous early C14 piers of quatrefoil section with thin diagonal shafts, the latter without capitals. The arches go with them,* but above them the late C15 work begins. This was paid for by the Peyton family - see their shields (and also those of allied families) in the quatrefoils and other tracery motifs which fill the spandrels of the C14 arches. Above these runs a fleuron frieze, and then follows the uncommonly big and tall clerestory with three-light windows. The roof belongs to the clerestory. It rests high up and is constructed with alternating tiebeams and hammerbeams. The tiebeams carry fourteen queen-posts each, the middle pair forming an arch. The hammerbeams are enriched by angel figures. Recorded on the roof is its date, 1495, and the name of its donor, Crystofer Peyton. After this main impression has been taken in, the details can be examined, the E.E. S doorway (one order of colonnettes), the plain N doorway, the tracery of the N transept of c. 1300 (renewed), the Dec windows of the chancel which was rebuilt c. 1331 (E window C19), the internally shafted Dec windows in the N and S transept, and the noble ashlar-faced and gabled S porch with an exceptionally tall and wide doorway and beautiful blank arcading inside (cf. Soham, Little Chishall).* Perp several windows (N aisle; S transept - renewed) and the lovely decoration of the E wall of the S transept with a frieze of vine scrolls. - FONT. Octagonal, Perp, with traceried stem and quatrefoils on the bowl. - SEDILIA. Perp with later depressed segmental arch. - CHANCEL STALLS of c. 1400 with Misericords with heads. - BENCH-ENDS with poppy-heads, a shield, a mitre, a pelican, a lion, a camel etc. - LECTERN. In the usual form of a brass eagle, made originally as a receptacle for donations. Found in the mid 19 in the Fen. Of exactly the same type the lecterns at St Mark’s in Venice, at Christ’s College Cambridge, and at.Peterborough Cathedral. - COMMUNION RAIL. Jacobean and full of character. Alternating turned balusters and a kind of stalactite and stalagmite forms nearly but not quite meeting. Little pyramids on finials on the top—rail. - HELMETS. Italian helmet of c. 1500 in the Priest’s Chamber. - C17 funeral helmet; S transept. - MONUMENTS. A very large number. Topographical arrangement may be useful. Chancel N wall: Recess with four-centred arch, panelled back, big leaves in the spandrels, a quatrefoil frame, and a cresting. On the tomb-chest brasses to Thomas Peyton d. 1484 and his two wives, the wives in fashionable dress and elegant attitudes, the figures 23 in. tall. - N transept: Effigy of a Knight, defaced, perhaps Sir Godfrey Bernard d. c. 1275 3 in a low C14 recess. - Barbarie Themilthorpe d. 1619, large monument; recumbent on her side, cheek on hand. - S Transept S wall: Defaced effgy of a Knight under ogee recess. - Brasses in the floor: Sir John Bernard d. 1451 and wife under canopies with tracery; Sir Richard Peyton d. 1518 and wife (4 ft figures). - Late C14 efiigy of a Knight (bearded). - Wall panel with broad ogee arch and indents of brasses to Robert Peyton d. 1514. - Tomb-chest with three quatrefoils with shields on the face. - Two big six-posters with recumbent couples against the S wall, nearly hiding the recess behind: Sir Robert Peyton d.  1590, two tiers, with thick bulbous columns; Sir John Peyton d. 1616 with Corinthian columns and big achievement on top flanked by allegorical figures. Neither monument favours strapwork; scrolly foliage instead. - LYCHGATE in the churchyard, late medieval, of good solid elementary construction, with diagonal strutting.

* And also those from the aisles into the transepts and from the nave into the chancel.

* One should try to overlook the mean external brick facing of the sides.

ISLEHAM. Closed in on three sides by the fens, it is a big quarrying village known for its limestone. We see it like a sentinel in the flat countryside, with an old windmill and an imposing church helping to make the picture.

More than a thousand years old is Isleham, and here for most of the time has stood a little Norman chapel, built for a small priory founded in the 11th century and abandoned by the monks as long ago as 1254. It has narrow windows in deep splays, and an apse at the east end, and after long use as a barn is waiting for its day of restoration.

An ancient lychgate (here called the Stockhouse, because it has a small bay which once sheltered the stocks) points the way to the stately church close by, majestic enough in its proportions to be something of a village cathedral. Most of it is 14th century, but the tower with its pyramid cap has been rebuilt. We come in by a great porch with a medley of old glass in its windows. It is a veritable treasure house of beauty and interest, the nave striking with fine arcades, the chancel with a lofty arch which saw the dawn of 15th century building. The rich font is 500 years old, and so are the stalls, with their heads of women for arm-rests and their misereres showing a king and a queen, a bishop with a fine mitre, and a woman with a garland of flowers. Fine, too, are the Jacobean altar rails, with their carved borders and very effective balusters. In the north transept are old benches with poppyheads of leaves and quaint animals. 

A great treasure is the fine eagle lectern, which was found about 70 years ago in the fen dyke, where it had lain for generations, buried for safety in some dangerous time. We are not surprised that another village claimed it too, for it is so good an example of 15th century brass work that a lectern at Ely Cathedral was copied from it. The eagle has outspread wings, and in its beak is an opening for Peter’s Pence, which were taken out from the tail. Three lions guard the foot.

Other treasures are at the vicarage, cups and flagons valuable for their gold, an Elizabethan charter with the queen’s seal, and a copy of the charter King Alfred gave for the building of a chapel here in
895. But the oldest of all has come from the vicarage to the church, a table black and brown with age, made by a vicar in 1918 from an oak dug out of Isleham Fen, the very wood of a tree which must have been growing nearly 2000 years ago.

Two ancient village families are with us as we walk about this fine building, the Bernards and the Peytons. The arms of both are among the carvings on the walls of the 15th century clerestory, and an inscription round the cornice tells us that Christopher Peyton gave the lovely hammerbeam roof in 1495. On a fine tomb lies the first of the Bernards to be lord of Isleham, Sir Geoffrey of the 13th century, one of the Crusaders who went with Prince Edward to the Holy Land. The moulding of the canopy above his tomb is like that of Edward’s Coronation Chair in Westminster Abbey. A worn figure of a Crusader in the other transept is thought to be Sir Geoffrey’s son, and another knightly figure is Sir Gilbert of 1349. The last male of the Bernards is portrayed in brass, Sir John of 1450, who fought at Agincourt and was one of those ordered to kill the French prisoners. He is shown in plate armour, with his lady in a long gown and a horned headdress. Finer, however, is the brass of Sir Thomas Peyton and his two wives, one of them Margaret Bernard who brought Isleham to the Peytons. A charming 15th century trio they are under their handsome canopy, Sir Thomas in armour with great elbow guards, and Margaret in a rare gown patterned like brocade. Also in brass is Sir Richard Peyton of 1574, a Reader at Gray’s Inn, his wife with her skirt open to show the crown on her petticoat, signifying that she was a Lady—in-Waiting to the Queen.

For 300 years the Peytons were here, and we see sculptures of them on two Elizabethan tombs, knights and ladies, one perhaps the foundress of the almshouses in the village. Still another lady lies stiffly on a nameless monument on the wall. A portrait in the vestry shows Richard Thomas Robins of our own day, who read the lessons here for 50 years, and lived in a house on the site of the old home of the Peytons, St Bernard’s Hall. Still to be seen is a barn from the old homestead.

One more name must be added to those of the men and women who have passed this way. It is that of Charles Haddon Spurgeon, who a year or two before he began his famous preaching ministry in
London, was baptised in the River Lark near Isleham. It was the beginning of the most extraordinary preaching career imaginable.

Flickr set.

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