Thursday, 22 March 2012

St Bene't, Cambridge

St Bene't is absolutely the best of the Cambridge churches despite the fact that the venerable Simon Jenkins, bizarrely, overlooks it.

Pevsner: The oldest church in the town and the county. The tower is visibly Anglo-Saxon, but the corner of the originally aisleless nave and some walling of the chancel also remain. The tower is of three stages, each a little narrower than the one below. The long-and-short work of the quoins is eminently characteristic. The bell-stage has its original twin openings, with a short turned baluster carrying a big corbel to connect the diameter of the baluster with the thickness of the wall. The date of the Saxon work is uncertain, but some date between 950 and 1050 seems most probable. The round-headed openings on the bell-stage were put in only in 1586. Inside, the arch into the tower is completely preserved, a very valuable relic. It shows two things, both historically significant: that the masons had a notion of the construction and detailing of arches in Germany or France, and that their notion was vague and superficial. The cornice or entablature especially is obviously a rendering of something more correct by men to whom the logic of such a member meant nothing. The same is true of the weird idea of making the jambs of long-and-short work but placing a demi-shaft and a demi-pillar to the left and right of the arch. The arch mouldings moreover do not continue what goes on below, but rest on two barbaric beasts or monsters. The E face of the arch inside the tower is almost identical with the W face. Above the arch is a Saxon opening which originally may have led into the roof. In the C13 some rebuilding took place in the chancel; see the deeply splayed lancet windows (one blocked) on the S side. - The nave and aisles were rebuilt c. 1300. The arcade has quatrefoil piers with attached shafts in the diagonals and moulded capitals to the main shafts, whereas the diagonal ones run straight up to the abaci. The arches are two-centred and double-chamfered. Most of the outer walls date from the C19. The clerestory, however, is original Late Perp work.- SEDILIA AND PISCINA in the usual position, C14, with big ogee arches, not well preserved. - MONUMENTS. Brass to R. Billingford, Master of Corpus Christi College and Chancellor of the University d.1432, small figure, kneeling in profile; the big scroll above his head is missing.


Tower arch

Tower arch grotesque

St Benedict’s is the oldest church in the town; indeed Cambridge has no older building than this, for its story takes us back nearly a thousand years. The fine tower of three stages, one of the delightful peeps of the city, stands almost as it stood in Saxon days, with its walls of rubble, its long and short work, and belfry windows with baluster shafts. The round-headed windows at each side of these are said to be 16th century, and over them are blocks of stone pierced with round holes. The windows in the base of the tower are modern, but the fine leaning arch opening to the nave is Saxon, springing from imposts on which sit two quaint animals. In the tall window over the arch is a figure of St Benedict.

The plan of the nave and chapel is that of the Saxon church, but both were made almost new in the 13th century, when the arcades of pointed arches and clustered pillars were built. The Saxon cornerstones of the nave are still seen inside, and the south wall of the chancel is chiefly Saxon. There are small painted angels on the beams of the nave roof, and 18 gaily coloured figures, wearing crowns and holding shields, adorn the striking roof of the north aisle.

The church has an old ironbound chest and an iron fire-hook for dragging down burning thatch, an old altar stone by the vestry door, an early gravestone carved with a cross, and a small brass portrait of Richard Billingford of 1442, Master of Corpus Christi College.

With two chained books in a case are two Bibles, one of 1635, the other of 1611, given to the church a few years before he died by Thomas Hobson, the noted Cambridge carrier. He sleeps at the chancel, but has no memorial. A still more famous man, Fabian Stedman, the inventor of change ringing, was clerk of this parish about 1650. He was a printer who printed his changes on slips of paper and taught them to the bellringers in St Benedict’s Saxon tower. Every bellringer in England knows his name, for he it was who put the art of bellringing on a sure foundation. He is very nearly the patron saint of English ringers, and it was in St Benedict’s that he learned about bells. Therefore it is fitting that the bellringers have restored this old tower as his memorial. They gathered here one day in 1931 and rang from morn till dusk the very bells that Stedman rang, they having till then been long silent.

The blocked doorways to the structure on the south side of the chancel remind us that the church served as the chapel of Corpus Christi College till late in the 16th century. Built in early Tudor days, it consisted originally of chapels on the first floor, where the services in the choir could be witnessed by the Master and members of the college, connected by a gallery with the north range of the old court. Below the gallery was a covered passage. 

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