Friday, 13 January 2012

Faversham, Kent

On a whim and because I didn't have to get home until 3.30pm I decided to stop of at Faversham - no articular reason just a whim - which was very nearly a mistake.

The first thing to say is that St Mary of Charity is a huge church, I shot 134 memorials alone, and didn't do all of them, and 206 in total! This meant that I spent a lot longer than intended here and only just got home in time to collect the youngest from school swimming.

The elegant ‘crown’ spire was built in 1794-7. The architect was Charles Beazley, who drew inspiration from Wren’s St Dunstan-in-the East, in the City of London.

The sheer size of the church is impressive (claimed to have seated up to 1,400). The only larger churches in Kent are Canterbury and Rochester cathedrals, and Maidstone parish church. It had reached its present dimensions by the middle of the 14th century, a sure indication of the town’s importance in the Middle Ages.

The church is one of the few dedicated to ‘St Mary of Charity’. This dedication would seem to be one of the town’s surviving links with Faversham Abbey (originally a Cluniac monastery) whose mother church in France was dedicated to St Mary of Charity.

In 1753 the central tower was condemned and the Norman nave declared unsafe. George Dance Snr (architect of London’s Mansion House) was commissioned to design a new nave. The massive
Norman arcades were replaced with Tuscan Doric columns, a straight architrave and a frieze of fruit and flowers. Revived classical styles were very much the fashion of that time.

The transepts are an extremely fine feature of the interior. Looking across the 38 metre span, you are almost in another entirely medieval church. Here, as throughout the church, we discover many fascinating and beautiful monuments honouring people who have left their mark on the town. One of the greatest treasures of the church is the painted column in the north transept. This is original, dating from c. 1306, and is one of the 5 few to survive in Britain. Most were  destroyed, or defaced, during the Reformation. It depicts 10 events in the lives of Our Lord and the Blessed Virgin Mary, from the Annunciation to the visit of the three Marys to Christ’s tomb.

In the chancel are 16 medieval stalls with finely carved misericords. All are imaginative, some a little gruesome. They must have been the work of a very gifted and dedicated woodcarver of the 15th century. They were probably removed from the Abbey before it was destroyed. On the south side of the choir is the Trinity chapel. Legend has it that when the Abbey church was destroyed the remains of King Stephen were transferred to this chapel.

The south chapel was being re-roofed following a lead theft so I missed some monuments and brasses but next time I go down I shall leave early and re-visit not least as I missed the misericords and some of the bench-ends in the chancel. Hopefully  the roofing will have finished and I can do the chapel properly.

St Mary of Charity (8)

Pillar painting (6) copy

Edward Fagg 1618 (1)


FAVERSHAM. It is one of the few towns in which a king of England sleeps. King Stephen, the Conqueror’s daughter’s son, lies in a simple canopied tomb by the altar of the church. Eight hundred years have passed since, after waging civil war with Queen Matilda, he died at Dover, and was thrown into a creek at Faversham by robbers who wanted the lead from his coffin. They laid him in the abbey he had founded here, a ruin with but a few stones left.

Even long before Stephen this town goes back in history; long before Becket’s Shrine was raised in Canterbury pilgrims were flocking to the altar of St Crispin here. A refugee driven from Rome by the persecution of Diocletian, he settled down to make shoes in Faversham and became for all time the saint of little cobblers.

Another king there was who came to Faversham, for there is still in its wide streets a house to which a company of fishermen brought the runaway James the Second, who had slipped down the roads of Kent and taken a boat off Sheppey, to be captured by the fishermen on his way to France. Fifty Faversham fishermen brought James ashore thinking him a Popish priest. "Let me go," he cried, "get me aboard; the Prince of Orange is hunting for my life." For half an hour he argued with the crowd - an extraordinary scene. "What have I done?" he would say; "let me go; he who is not for me is against me." The story goes that in the marketplace a greater king than either of these was seen, for Shakespeare himself is said to have been here as a strolling player.

Everywhere about us here is something rich and old and good. From under King’s Field Terrace came to the British Museum one of its richest Saxon collections. Ancient houses line the streets, with plastered walls and ceilings. There are crypts and courtyards, massive beams, and splendid doorways. There is a chemist’s shop with Norman walls and frescoes centuries old. There is a Tudor house built in 1570, with gables and oriels and fine carved brackets looking down on the old town hall. There are still the old walls of the abbey crumbling away, and here is the gateway through which they brought the body of Thomas Arden on that grim night when they threw him into the meadows and prepared the way for one of the great pages of tragedy in English literature.

Close by this gateway is the fine old grammar school of Faversham, now kept in good condition as the Masonic Hall. It is a lovely place 400 years old, with the old seats and the usher’s desk and a fine barrel roof painted blue. Among the names scratched on the oak panels is one of 1699, and there are the initials of Nicholas Upton, who was mayor when the Armada came. One of the treasures in this schoolroom is an admirable piece of oak panelling, with heraldic arms and quaint figures, among them a king and queen supposed to be Stephen and Matilda.

Built about the same time as the grammar school were the pillars on which the Guildhall stands; the neat and white little hall is about as old as Waterloo. It crowns the marketplace, and has been a centre for Faversham folk at least since Elizabethan days. The proud possession of the hall is a piece of oak carving in 12 panels, copied in Tudor days from the original in Flanders, and found in an old house here as a mantelpiece. It is splendidly preserved, and the carving of the six heraldic arms and the six figures is excellent. One of the figures is a remarkably line Saint George and the Dragon.

Hanging in the hall are witnesses of two of the greatest wars in which the nation has been involved; four helmets worn by soldiers in the Civil War and a bell from a British ship in the Great War. There is a burghmote horn which has been blown at elections in Faversham for 600 years, an ancient mahogany staff, a mayoral chair, and a dignified oak panel with a list of mayors since 1272.

While one 12th-century abbey has vanished from Faversham, its companion in those distant days still remains a gracious place. Davington Priory, founded for 26 nuns in the middle of the 12th century, is still a house and a church, with a tower 800 years old crowned with a new cap. It has still the magnificent doorway set up by its Norman builders, with a great arch and some windows as they left them. It has a 12th century arcade, and cloisters with a walk roofed in with chestnut timbers heavily moulded 600 years ago. At one of the cloister doors is a small oriel spy window.

Two very fine brasses have been here since the days of James the First. One shows John Edwards kneeling with his wife and two children, and the other shows Katherine Lyshford kneeling at a desk. She died in the same year as Shakespeare, and is shown kneeling in the middle of a black-and-white floor.

Davington church (now restored and made a very handsome place) is small and rich; Faversham’s great church lies back from the street, its ornate modern spire seen attractively from the distance on the road to Canterbury. Its spacious interior (160 feet long with transepts 124 feet wide) has been ruined by the destruction of the Norman nave and the raising of a great number of unnecessary pillars; but we have only to forget these aggressions to discover that it is actually a delightful place.

We come into it through a porch with a finely vaulted roof, and are consoled for our disappointment with the interior by a closer inspection of its ancient remains. At the west end are three deeply splayed Norman windows, a Norman doorway into the vestry, and another Norman doorway through which the old sexton would go to the watching tower in the days when the church was rich with treasure on its many altars. In the vestry is an altar-table of those days, and there are fragments of ancient glass. An unexpected possession of the church is a slip of paper, kept secure in the vestry, which has on it the handwriting of James the Second, who was held captive here on trying to escape to France. They gave him a Bible, and on the slip of paper he wrote a list of the chapters he read.

On each side of the 14th-century chancel is a chapel, and on the north wall is an Easter sepulchre built in 1535 for John Norton, who was never laid in it. It is an empty tomb and has pillars six feet high bearing a canopy of three arches. A curious opening in the north transept was probably the home of an anchorite. In the peace memorial chapel are two statues of warrior saints, Michael and George. In the transepts are three sculptured groups of Faversham folk of long ago. Edward Fagg, a remarkable figure about seven feet long, lies in armour with his head on his arm, his wife in front of him, and their two daughters. A little painted Tudor knight at prayer has his wife and six children with him. Thomas Mendfield and his wife kneel at prayer in Tudor dress, with an odd-looking head peering down from above and draped figures of girls at the tops of the columns on their tomb.

An extraordinary collection are the choir stalls made by the monks of the abbey; there are 16 of the best in Kent, with misereres superbly carved, fine arm-rests, and poppyheads. A carving of the Trinity is of exceptional interest, and an admirable bit of craftsmanship is that of the monk who left us, under a seat, a fox carrying off three hens. There is an angel with a flaming sword, a man with a loaf and a cup, a wolf licking its paw, a griffin fighting a man, and a demon with a man in his clutches.

The old chest is the pride of the church. A remarkable piece of work of the 14th century, it has been to South Kensington and came back unashamed. It may stand with the great chests at Rainham, Graveney, and Harty. Like a child beside it is the smaller chest 100 years younger.

For an absolute surprise in a church it would be hard to think of anything more unexpected than the remarkable Treasury, a truly astonishing place. We pass through two rounded doors, cut solid from the trunk of a tree, into a small room with rough walls of stout chestnut timbers, like railway sleepers set upright. Here in olden days were kept the treasures of 13 altars, and in the room above sat watchmen looking down on all parts of the church. We have seen no room like it anywhere.

The collection of brasses is rich and varied, covering four centuries. A very fine brass is that of a merchant adventurer of 400 years ago, Henry Hatch, who is here with his wife under a double canopy with the Tudor rose. On a pillar by the lectern is a brass of Seman Tong, a baron of the Cinque ports in 1414; he has lost his head, but his little dog remains. Three 16th-century brasses are of John Redborne, a vicar here in 1531; Richard Colwell, a mayor of 1533, who has two wives and nine children; and William Saker, of 1595. Edward Hales has a brass of 1634, and John and Ann Ban have brasses in the chancel just a century old. A small man with a beard, with his hands in prayer, was probably Admiral Pay, who captured 120 ships in the French wars 500 years ago; but what is the pathetic fragment with the picture of a little bird? John Haywarde, a mayor of Shakespeare’s day, is here with six children, and another brass shows a 15th-century priest, John Thornbury, who gave up his post as vicar and lived eight years as an anchoritc in a little cell at the corner of the churchyard.

Curious and unusual is the painted pillar with figures still recognisable after 600 years. They run round a column, the colour being remarkably fresh, though the scenes are fading. They show Mary and Elizabeth, the women at the tomb, and a shepherd with a dog barking at angels. On the wall of the north aisle is the painting of a judge in scarlet, a pilgrim with a hat on his back, and a king (NB sadly these are now hidden by the organ).

A fine drooping elm and many fine drooping ashes throw their shadow in the churchyard, which has much interest. Near the south porch is a stone with two very queer faces engraved in the year before the Great Fire of London. The gravestone of old Michael Greenwood tells us that he was wrecked on the Barbary Shore and toiled among slaves for 17 months. A happier life, we may hope, had the local wit whose stone has on it those few words of Hamlet spoken at the grave of his poor Yorick:

Where be your gibes now? Your gambols? Your songs? Your flashes of merriment, that were wont to set the table in a roar?

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