Monday, 17 October 2011

Danbury, Essex

I've been busy elsewhere so it's taken me almost a week to process the photos of my last trip which was planned to run as follows: Danbury, Bicknacre, East Hanningfield, Woodham Ferrers, West Hanningfield, Galleywood and Highwood. I couldn't find Bicknacre church nor Highwood (the SatNav, and road map, refused to acknowledge the existence of Highwood in Essex)so I had time, just, to add Margaretting to the trip.

All of these villages being south of Chelmsford I was expecting to be disappointed with both the architecture and the locked status of these churches but St John the Baptist, Danbury, surprised me on both counts.

The overwhelming feature of interest are the Gilbert Scott designed pews each with a set of poppyheads. These were based on a block of three surviving medieval pews and are very good replicas - the workmanship is outstanding.

On top of this are three wooden effigies of knights, two dating from between 1272 and 1307 and the other a little later, and some nice brasses to members of the Mildmay family.

All in all a promising start to the day!

ST JOHN THE BAPTIST. The church and its churchyard lie within a roughly oval, poorly preserved Earthwork. The church is remarkably roomy. Nave and aisles together are wider than they are long. Chancel, S chancel chapel and N Vestry form one straight E end. The oldest part is the N aisle wall with cusped two-light windows with a quatrefoil in the spandrel. This must be c. 1300. The rest is essentially C14, the arcades of three bays with the typical quatrefoil piers and double-hollow-chamfered arches (on the N side dying into a  vertical continuation of the pier), and the W tower with diagonal buttresses, a W door with niches to the l. and r., a W window with two ogee lights and a quatrefoil in the spandrel, and a later recessed, rather tall, shingled spire. In the tower arch towards the nave is a pretty GALLERY of c. 1600. The N aisle has its original early C14 trussed-rafter roof, boarded over later in the E parts with ribs resting on oak head-corbels. The S aisle and S chancel chapel were rebuilt by Gilbert Scott in 1866. Squint from N aisle to chancel, and small squint-like window from Vestry to chancel. - BENCHES. Four in the nave with poppy-heads and various beasts on the shoulders. - PAINTING. At the E end of the N aisle remains of the original ornamental painting, a frieze of scrolls with little leaves, red, black, grey and yellow, c. 1300. - HELM in N aisle, late C16. - PLATE. Paten of 1667; foreign; Cup of 1771; Spoon of 1774; Paten of 1808. - MONUMENTS. In low recesses in the N and S aisles three oak effigies of Knights. All these are cross-legged, the N aisle ones earlier than that of the S aisle, late C13 and very early C14. They are all three remarkably different in attitude and mood; not at all shopwork. The earlier ones have their hand on the sword, but one of the two is bent more lyrically than the other. The younger one is in an attitude of prayer.

Poppyhead (70)

Poppyhead (76)

Wooden effigies (4)

Here lyeth

DANBURY. It is over 600 years since the funeral processions of the three knights of St Clere drew all the neighbourhood up the deep fern-lined lanes to the hilltop church. It is over 600 years since the medieval craftsmen laid on their tombs these oak sculptures which are the admiration of all Essex.

Each of the three knights lies with his legs crossed and his feet resting on a lion, his face peeping out from the close-woven meshes of chain mail. Each wears a tabard with its folds realistically carved. But each knight has a different aspect, an attitude which may have some forgotten meaning. One is drawing his sword, the second is vigorously thrusting his sword back into a sheath which a little dragon is biting, the third has his hands folded at prayer.

The story of the embalmed knight of Danbury begins in 1779, when a lady of the manor, Mrs Frances Ffytche, died and a grave was dug for her near a recess containing one of the wooden figures. At about 30 inches below the pavement the workmen laid bare a huge flat stone under which was a lead coffin. There was no name on the coffin and the workmen hurried for the rector, who called a conference with his churchwarden and a Mr White, who has left a record of this discovery.

It was decided to open the coffin, in the great expectation of seeing the bones of the knight whose statue in wood they knew so well. Inside the lead coffin they found an elm coffin, firm and entire, and inside this was a shell three-quarters of an inch thick and covered with cement. The lid of the shell was removed and to the great surprise of all there lay revealed, not his bones, but a man in the vigour of youth, his flesh firm and white. He was clad in a shirt of linen, round the top of which a narrow piece of crude lace had been sewn with bold stitches. The man was five feet long, his limbs were in excellent symmetry, his teeth were perfect. The preservation of his body was due to a curious liquid which half-filled the coffin. Flowers and herbs in abundance, perfect in form, were floating in the liquor.

After some of the villagers had been to see this ancient inhabitant of Danbury the coffins were replaced, soldered up in the leaden cover, and lowered once more into the grave. Those who had seen the coffin opened had looked upon the perfect figure of one of these three knights, 500 years old.

The knights rest by the foundations of the Norman church they may have seen taken down, to be rebuilt in the 13th century and re-fashioned in the 14th, when the nave arcades and the tower were added. From the battlements of this tower springs a spire cased in copper, wooden shingles, and lead, a landmark for miles, for the church stands on the summit of a hill 365 feet high, in an old encampment used by the marauding Danes and possibly furnished with its rampart by the Romans, or inhabitants long before then.

There is carving 500 years old on four benches with moulded rails, and three poppyheads with weird beasts. Modern lovers of this church have carried on the medieval craftsman’s idea, so that today all the pews are ornamented with lions and dragons. The gallery in the tower is a good example of 15th century woodwork; the balusters are Elizabethan. There is a 13th century piscina with quaint masks and neat 14th century niches on either side of the fine tower doorway. A helmet enriched with a lion rampant hangs in the aisle above the Mildmay tombs, and there is a brass alms dish of 1631 with Adam and Eve carved on it. In the lovely park at the foot of the hill the bishops of Rochester lived for 30 years, and the east window, with the Crucifixion, was Bishop Claughton’s gift when he celebrated his jubilee. Hanging here is a piece of the wooden walls of Old England, an oak tablet cut from the battleship Britannia and inscribed with the names of the 250 men from the village who did not come back from the war. It is a lovely village they laid down their lives for, with old houses which have stood for generations looking down on England over commons on which dwarf oaks and stunted holly trees brave the winds from the North Sea.

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