Thursday, 8 September 2011

Widford, Hertfordshire

Without being rude St John the Baptist is a run of the mill Hertfordshire church which is set apart by the possession of three interesting wallpaintings (and a rather good chancel ceiling).

The most important is that on the north side of the chancel; dated by Professor Tristram as 1299, it is of "Christ at the Last Judgement", Christ seated on a rainbow, clad in a grey mantle, arms raised to display his wounds, and a two-edged sword issuing from his mouth. For some time the painting was thought to be of St John the Baptist.

On the left side of the East window, the painting shows knots of ribbons on the shoulders of a man, possibly representing a Knight of the Garter, dressed in the mantle of the order. On the opposite side of the East window a bishop holding in his left hand a pastoral staff, the right hand raised in benediction (J. E. Cussons. 1870).

ST JOHN THE BAPTIST. Unbuttressed Perp W tower with low rectangular stair-turret, characteristic tower arch, and recessed spire. Nave and chancel under one roof. S porch C19. In the nave above the S doorway a reset C12 zigzag arch. One S window with Dec tracery, the rest Perp and much of the tracery new. - PILLAR PISCINA. A Norman block capital with the front semicircle decorated; early C12, it seems. - DOOR, C14 with C13 ironwork (says the R. Commission). - WALL PAINTINGS. E; and N walls of chancel. On the N wall Christ of the Apocalypse with sword; c. 1500. - PLATE. Specially good Chalice of 1562 with Paten.

Wall painting (2)
Wall painting (5)

Wall painting (7)


Widford. We may think we hear his laughter echoing, for here he came often to laugh before he came to weep. At the great house of Blakesware his grandmother Mrs Field was housekeeper to the Plumer-Wards, and little Charles played in the park. It was all his, he said - his that gallery of good old family portraits, that marble hall with its mosaic pavements and its twelve Caesars in marble, that lofty Justice Hall with its high-backed chair of authority, terror of a luckless poacher, and his the costly fruit garden and the ampler pleasure garden rising from the house in terraces. Here Mrs Field was housekeeper for over half a century, and Lamb knew the old house and loved it as his home.

Then came the day when, going north, he turned aside to see the great house coming down; a few bricks lay about representing what was once so stately and so spacious. "Death does not shrink up his human victims at this rate," he wrote, and he was indignant then, as we are now, to see the vandal spirit at work in the countryside. Had he seen these navvies at their destroying work, he said, at the plucking of every panel he would have felt the varlets at his heart, and would have cried out to them to spare him something - at least a plank out of the cheerful storeroom in whose window-seat he used to sit and read Cowley. Every plank and panel of the house had magic in it for him. He had the range at will of every apartment, knew every nook and corner, wondered and worshipped everywhere.

Alas, the old house has gone.

Charles Lamb knew everybody here, all the villagers and the old cronies, some of whom come into his poems:

Kindly hearts have I known,
Kindly hearts they are flown.

He tells us in one of his poems of Kitty Wheatley who sleeps in the kirk house, and poor Polly Perkin who had gone to the workhouse; of fine gardener Ben Carter, in ten counties no smarter; and Lily Postilion with cheeks of vermilion; and in some verses which he afterwards suppressed he told of wicked Dorrell who lies in the churchyard here, declaring that had he mended in time he need not

Have groaned in his coffin,
While demons stood scoffing:
You’d ha’ thought him a coughing:
My own father heard him.

It is thought that Old Dorrell cheated the Lamb family of what would have been to them a small fortune, about 2000 pounds.

Many of these people lie in Widford churchyard, and in one corner lies Mary Field herself. She sleeps on the green hilltop hard by the house of prayer, Lamb tells us in his poem on The Grandame, and this is what he says of her:

She served her heavenly Master. I have seen
That reverend form bent down with age and pain,
And rankling malady. Yet not for this
Ceased she to praise her Maker, or withdraw
Her trust in Him, her faith, and humble hope;
So meekly had she learned to bear her cross -
For she had studied patience in the school
Of Christ; much comfort she had thence derived,
And was a follower of the Nazarene.

Truly poignant were his memories of this small place, for here too he had met Anna Simmons, who lived in a cottage, Blenheim, a mile from Blakesware. It was Lamb’s first love, an unrequited one:

Beloved! I were well content to play
With thy free tresses all a summer’s day.

The churchyard of Widford is speckled with primroses and wood anemones, under elms and chestnuts and ancient yews. Bounding it on the west is a 16th-century brick wall. The round archway in the wall is perhaps 17th century, of which time there are some remains in the timber-and-plaster house here. Near by is a pigeon house which may be older still, but it has come upon sad days.
Facing the lychgate to the churchyard is another set up in memory of men who fell in the Great War, opening to a burial ground.

Attractive with the colouring of its flint walls, red roof, and green copper spire, the simple aisleless church is chiefly 14th and 15th century, though the nave may have some Norman masonry. One of a number of Norman capitals found during restoration is now part of a stone table in the chancel. The 14th-century tower has a fine arch widened in the 15th, and the top windows are modern. The pretty oak porch is also modern, but it shelters a doorway of 1370 and an old door; a similar door in the old north doorway opens now to the modern vestry, in which hangs a drawing of the church’s finely chased cup and paten of 1562.

The chancel has old wall-paintings of about 1500 showing a bishop, a knight, and Our Lord seated on a rainbow, with a sword raised and an angel close by. In the 19th-century painting of the chancel roof we see St Francis, St Martin sharing his cloak, and the Crucifixion. Old tie-beams still remain. At the 15th-century font (which has heads of a lion and a woman among its carvings) was baptised Richard Whateley, a vicar’s brilliant son, who became Archbishop of Dublin and was one of the founders of the Broad Church Party. The glass in the east window, showing scenes in Our Lord’s life, is a tribute to John Eliot, the Widford yeoman’s son who left church and country for conscience sake, preached the Gospel to the Red Indians, and translated the Bible for them. His Psalm book was the first book printed in America.

John Eliot was born here in 1604, the son of a substantial yeoman. After taking his degree at Cambridge he entered the Church, but, being a Puritan, found his life in danger in the England of Charles I and fled to America, accompanied by three brothers and three sisters. He reached Boston in 1631 and settled as a pastor. Relations between the Red Indians and the Palefaces at that time were much as we find them in the pages of Fenimore Cooper, and to scalp a white invader was quite the proper thing for a brave to do. Nevertheless, Eliot determined to make his life among those fierce sons of the wilds.

He obtained a complete mastery of their language and in 1646 entered on his mission, taking his life in his hands and going boldly among the savages to preach the white man’s religion. To the utmost intrepidity of spirit he united a dignity and sweetness of manner that made him seem inspired. Immediate success attended his ministration, and he obtained a grant of land on which to build a town. He established the first settled institutions in which the arts of Civilisation were taught to the Red Indian. The movement grew, helped by funds from London, and Eliot soon had 14 communities of "praying Indians" under his direction, while still retaining his pastorate. His work necessitated repeated journeys through swamps and forest wilds, where his life was constantly in danger from jealous medicine men and suspicious chiefs. Often he travelled for a whole week, soaked with rain.

Having produced a metrical version of the Psalms for his converts he translated the entire Bible into their language, and America’s first home-printed version of the Scriptures was given her in the tongue of the Massachusetts Indians. Not only did he carry out this masterly work single-handed; he contributed to the cost of the printing, although all he had in the world was his salary of £50 a year.

He founded schools and trained schoolmasters, for whom he wrote a Red Indian grammar, and he taught his protégés to conduct the affairs of their own little townships. War brought disaster to his flocks, but Eliot laboured on, and extended his protection to the Negroes. He was the first man in the world to say a word for the slaves. He died in 1690, aged 80, murmuring, "Welcome Joy." He lives to fame as the Indian Apostle, and posterity has endorsed the saying of those who best knew his career and character, that since the death of St Paul a nobler, truer, and warmer spirit than John Eliot never lived. It was Widford that produced him.

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