Sunday, 6 March 2011

Hauxton, Cambridgeshire

St Edmund was, without doubt, the highlight of the day.

This little church is one of the oldest and most interesting in Cambridgeshire and is dedicated to St. Edmund, King and Martyr. A church has stood on this site for over a thousand years. By 878 the Danes had been subdued by King Alfred the Great. During the next century Abbeys, including Ely, which had been sacked were restored and it is believed that a little wooden church was built about 969 in Hauxton or Hasucestune as it was then called. This was the forerunner of the later stone church dedicated to St. Edmund.

The oldest portions of the present church, early Norman work, were most likely built about 1109 when Herve le Breton, the first Bishop of Ely was consecrated. At that time the Abbey estates were divided and apportioned and the See of Ely was established. The church, built of clunch and rubble, stone and flint, then consisted of a small Nave, and an apsidal Chancel. The very fine and massive Chancel Arch is a splendid example of the original work. There are two very early Norman windows in the Chancel, and two of later Norman in the Nave. There is a plain Norman doorway on the north side of the Nave, and another of a more elaborate design on the south side, also Norman and not dissimilar to that of the Prior’s doorway at Ely Cathedral.

In 1229 considerable alterations were made to the building. The Apse was pulled down, the Chancel lengthened and finished off square with a triple window, and two new Altars were erected, north and south of the Chancel Arch. The mouldings of the Arch on the north side remain, the mouldings on the south side were cut away when the Rood Screen was installed in the fifteenth century. The Nave also was lengthened at this time by about 10 feet, and the original north lancet window still remains, although that on the south side was replaced in the eighteenth century.

In the middle of the fourteenth century two light windows were put in the Chancel, and two Chapels were built out on the north and south sides of the Nave near the Chancel. The north Chapel projected farther east than the south one, and abutted against the Chancel wall, and thus the bowtell of that angle has disappeared. These side Chapels were pulled down probably at the beginning of the sixteenth century, but the foundations of both of them have been traced and the Arches of both into the Nave, which were filled in when the Chapels were pulled down, are still to be seen. They show a width of about 10 feet.

In the fifteenth century further alterations and additions were made. The present beautiful and simple Nave roof was put on and a Rood Screen and Loft were built, although these latter were taken down again in 1860. The Tower also was built in the fifteenth century There is a date A.D. 1459 on one of the beams of its inside roof, together with mason marks and the name Jo Choil 29. He was probably a master mason and in charge of the work. On this beam too are the letters M.G. which could stand for Miles Graye who made the bells. In the centre of the inside roof of the Tower, an aperture had to be made so that the bells could be hoisted up to their present position, and when this aperture was again filled up, Miles Graye may have had his initials carved on the beam.

In the south aisle is a beautiful and rare thirteenth century fresco of Saint Thomas a Becket. This is one of the very earliest paintings of the Saint still in existence and is one of only two, or possibly three, of the period which do not show the martyrdom. On 13th March 1643 the notorious Puritan, William Dowsing, who had wreaked such havoc in the churches of East Anglia, visited St. Edmund’s church and continued his work of destruction. An extract from his journal reads “March 13,1643. We destroyed a crucifix, three popish pictures, an inscription on brass, and ordered the steps to be levelled." Fortunately the niche containing the fresco of St. Thomas had been walled up earlier and so the painting was saved. It came to light during further alterations in 1860 when the Rood Screen and Loft were taken down. The damaged section is the result of a squint being cut completely through the wall when the fresco was hidden from view. The following extract is taken from Bentham’s "History of Ely":

"At the neighbouring village of Hauxton, is to be found one of the very few remaining memorials of the devotion to him (Saint Thomas a Becket), so widely spread in Medieval England, and stamped out with such  thoroughness by King Henry the Eighth; in the little Norman church there, itself a rare sight in our county we may yet see depicted on the wall, the effigy of the Prelate, who beyond all others, was the very embodiment of Norman Ecclesiasticism."

ST EDMUND. Nave, chancel, and W tower. Clunch rubble. Norman nave and Norman chancel. Evidence the plain N doorway and the more distinguished S doorway with one order of colonnettes, a roll-moulding and a chip-carved lintel. Evidence also one S window. The SW angle of the nave is shafted. On the N side a lancet window. As for the chancel it has two Norman windows, and excavation has proved the existence of an apse.The chancel arch is the best Norman piece of the church: with two big semicircular shafts on each side, plain block capitals or cushion capitals (cf. Ickleton) and an arch with two roll-mouldings. To the N of the chancel arch is an E.E. niche for a side altar. A simple one also on the S side, and here instead of a reredos a PAINTING of St Thomas Becket has survived, a relatively early representation of the saint, c. 1250. The jambs of the recess are painted with red scrolls. To the Norman nave transepts were added later. They are now only represented by blocked arches. The semi-octagonal respond of one cuts into a Norman window. The W tower is Perp, including its arch towards the nave. Nice Perp nave roof with thin arched braces and high-pup collar-beams. - PULPIT. Plain, Perp. - BENCHES. Plain, buttressed, straight-headed.

St Edmund (1)

St Thomas a Becket (3)

South door arch

HAUXTON. Away from the road it lies, shepherded by a simple church with a medieval tower rising boldly from the meadows of the Cam. Here herons come to fish, here coaches used to change their horses, here the Romans would cross the river.

The church is a famous little shrine, for there are few in the county keeping so much of their Norman work. Everything is odd and charming within its white walls, windows of four centuries and at all levels, arches and niches squeezed in quaintly here and there, two Norman windows in the chancel and two in the nave, two Norman doorways and two mass dials. Noblest of all in this rich Norman legacy is the splendid chancel arch, massive for so small a place and with two pillars at each side, and cable mouldings in the arch.

In the days when this arch was barely a centenarian a recess was made on each side of it, and on the wall of one of these is Hauxton’s rare treasure, one of the very earliest paintings of Thomas Becket. It is 13th century and shows him in his mitre, with the cross in one hand and the other raised in blessing. It is in almost perfect state, and a remarkable survival of the saint whose pictures Henry the Eighth strove to drive out of every church. It is older than the portrait at Maidstone, and was saved by being hidden for centuries in the wall, Hauxton having the good sense to build up the niche to save it from the destruction of Thomas Cromwell and his king.

The medieval transepts have gone and we see their filled-in arches, but the font has been here 700 years. There are many 500-year-old benches, and the roof has delicately arched beams made by Tudor carpenters. We noticed that two vicars here covered a span of 103 years of service, through the French Revolution till after the Jubilee of Queen Victoria. They were Thomas Finch who came in 1788 and was followed in 1837 by George Williams.

Flickr set.

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