Tuesday, 14 June 2011

Benington, Hertfordshire

St Peter is at the far end of my self imposed limit of churches that I can get to within fifty minutes of home and thank goodness it does since it is gorgeous. The last day of March saw glorious spring weather and a churchyard full of daffodils showing St Peter at its best.

Positioned besides Benington Lordship, which itself looks like it would reward a visit, the church and churchyard exude class. While the exterior is lovely the interior is interesting, with two fine table tombs, one to Sir John de Benstede, who died in 1359, and his wife,the other to Sir Edward de Benstede, 1432, a brass to an unknown priest and a fine set of sedilla with a piscina however I was drawn to a peculiar plinth carved with a strange looking man resting his hands on his knees.

ST PETER. Essentially a late C13 to early C14 church, although the W tower with angle buttresses and a Herts spike belong to the C15, as do the clerestory with big two-light windows and the chancel S windows. The Sedilia in the chancel are the earliest pieces in the church, much restored, but certainly made some time before 1300: stiff-leaf, and crocket capitals and cusped pointed arches. The Piscina is a little later; it has an ogee arch. Its style goes with that of the nave N windows. The N chancel chapel was added yet later, say about 1320-30. It is the most important part of the church. The windows have modest flowing tracery, the arcade to the chancel quatrefoil piers with thin shafts in the diagonals and simple moulded capitals (cf. Ashwell and Baldock). The labels rest on excellent corbels (head of a woman wearing a wimple, man piercing his body with a sword, etc.). The arches are of finely moulded sections. Under one of the two arches stands a MONUMENT with two more than life size effigies, a cross-legged Knight and a Lady wearing a wimple. The figures are defaced. On the sides of the tomb-chest mourners in arcades with triangular heads. The arch above is surrounded by a big crocketed ogee canopy flanked by thin buttresses on which some tracery is exactly identical with that of the windows. The style seems to exclude a date later than c. 1330; yet the heraldry is supposed to point to 1358. To the E of this chantry a smaller opening with a four-centred arch was pierced through early in the C1 for the placing of another MONUMENT with two efiigies. The heraldry here indicates the date 1432. Ogee niches on the tomb-chest. The arch is panelled inside and has in the centre of the panelling the figure of an angel holding the little souls of the deceased in a cloth. Between the two openings BRASS of a priest, upper half only, C15. - FONT. Octagonal, with projecting, coarsely moulded shafts in the diagonals (cf. Walkern). - BENCHES. Simple C15. - PLATE. Chalice and Paten, 1639.

Sir John de Benstede 1359 (4)


Hinge (2)

Corbel (54)

Benington. The road climbs up a green and pleasant hill to where a tall willow weeps over a pond behind the green, while a timber-and-plaster row of 16th-century cottages looks on, and an attractive old inn cheerfully declares itself twice as old as it is.

We see the little medieval church on a steep bank by the roadside with a yew collapsed from old age beside it; but what stranger would guess that behind the tall trees topping the church hides the keep of a Norman castle? It stands four-square on a moated mount, the only one of its kind in Hertfordshire, but the water has drained from the moat and the strong walls have crumbled. This forgotten place came early into history, for here lived the kings of Mercia, and on this hill Berthulf held a council in 850 when news came that the Danes had captured Canterbury and London, and that their fleet was in the Thames. He met the invaders in battle, but failed to stop them.

All this is written in the ancient chronicles, but much more of Benington’s story is set forth in the church. The chancel and the nave were finished about 1300, the chapel and the porch were added in the 14th century, and from the 1 5th come the tower, the clerestory, the south windows of the chancel, and the roof of the nave. A battered St Michael continues his 600-year·old fight with the dragon in a niche over our heads as we push open the 14th-century south door, and inside and out are numerous other small stone carvings, many of them grotesque. But the most beautiful stonework is the row of three magnificent arches between the chancel and the chapel built about 1330 by Petronilla, the widow of Sir John de Benstede, who was one of the envoys sent north to draw up the peace treaty between Edward I and Robert Bruce. We see his knightly figure lying on a tomb under one of these lovely arches, his wife in her long veil beside him and their feet on lions. The third arch, panelled and pinnacled, was added during the next century as a canopy for another knight and his lady sculptured on their tomb, an angel in the point of the arch holding miniature copies of their figures.

These were the Benstedes, whose arms are with the Moynes on the buttresses of the tower and on the bosses of the nave. There are some 16th-century benches, a chair and an altar table in the chapel are 17th century, the excellent screen and rich gilt reredos belong to our own day, and there is one brass portrait, a small figure of a 15th century priest with a rose badge on the shoulder of his cope.

A stone on the floor of the chancel describes Sir Charles Caesar, a judge of Charles I’s reign, as an equal distributor of unsuspected justice, but the man who lies beneath it seems to have been a far less capable figure than his father, Sir Julius Caesar, the great legal light of the reigns of Elizabeth and James. The epitaph, as epitaphs will, unduly flatters the judge, who bought his position of Master of the Rolls for £15,000 and a loan to the king of £2000 trust money left by an uncle to found university scholarships. The loan was never repaid, and though Jesus College, Cambridge, received annuities for these scholarships from the family till 1668, that was all that was done about it. Sir Charles Caesar died of smallpox in 1642.

The 17th-century rectory has seen many changes, but keeps the old staircase leading up to elegant rooms with powder closets.


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