Friday, 29 October 2010

Newport, Essex

When I visited St Mary the Virgin I came away thinking that it had been utterly destroyed by the three usual suspects: the Reformation, Dowsing and the Victorians but a subsequent reading of the church guide reveal a more complicated story and Arthur Mee adds more intrigue. His Essex visitation was first published in 1940 and subsequent editions were not updated to reflect war damage to buildings; when he visited St Mary there were poppyheaded stalls in the chancel which are no longer present. This poor church has a long and, apparently, continuing (although thankfully no longer) history of neglect and destruction.

The chancel, nave and transepts of the church were built in the early 13th century giving the building a cruciform shape. The chancel had a low steeply pitched roof, the outlines of which can be seen externally at the east end, and was possibly thatched. There may have been a central tower between the transepts.

Today you enter the church through the south door, passing through the 15th century porch. Over the porch is a priest’s room, or parvise, which in the past probably provided living quarters for a priest and now houses one of the four Bray libraries in Essex, established in the 18th century for the use of the local clergy. The church doorway is 14th century restored – this could be said of any part of the fabric of the church.

This is another village church which is huge - the nave is 66 feet long and 22 feet wide. The chancel arch dates from c.1240 and the tower arch at the west end from the 15th century, with graceful slender lines which symbolically lead the eye towards Heaven. I’d put good money on a Doom originally and equal amounts that it has not survived.

The clerestory is late 15th or early 16th century and was restored in 1858-59.The angel roof is late 15th century with some later oak timbers. The north transept arch dates from 1220-1240 and the pillars of the north arcade are c.1390.The south transept arch is 1220—1240 and the pillars of the south arcade are c.1320.

The oak chancel screen is early 15th century as is the oak lectern, which swivels and can be adjusted for height, and still retains the ring and chain to which the Bible was once attached. The pulpit is 19th century and was given to the church at a cost of £45. It replaced a three tier pulpit with clerk and reader’s desk which formerly stood at the south end of the screen.

The south aisle was added, or possibly rebuilt, early in the 14th century. The windows in this aisle are 19th century reconstructions, except for the rear arch and splays of the western one. The font has a 13th century bowl, a 15th century oak cover but a Victorian base.

On the floor of this aisle, near the organ console, is a brass commemorating Thomas Brond and Margery his wife. The inscription under the figures reads ‘Here lieth Thomas Brond whose soule God pardon 1515’.

The south transept was built in 1220-1240.The present roof and the east window date from the 15th century. The curved braces of the tie beams rest on roughly carved head corbels on the east wall and moulded corbels on the west. The arch to the south aisle is c.1320.

The altar chest in the south transept, known as the Newport Chest, is a portable altar of the late 13th century with space for communion vessels, vestments and missals. The false bottom conceals a secret compartment. The lid is raised to form a reredos and the panel depicts, from left to right, St Peter, the Virgin Mary, the Crucifixion, St John and St Paul, and these are some of the earliest known oil paintings on wood. I think this must have been hidden several times in its lifetime to have survived the various religious pogroms.

The chancel was completely restored in 1911, but contains much older work. The lower walls date from 1220-1240 and the upper walls were last rebuilt in the 15th century – no mention of the stalls.

The paving throughout the church dates from the major refurbishment of 1858-59, which was made necessary by the fact that the building had deteriorated to a very poor state. The nave roof was restored and the clerestory walls rebuilt, the internal walls were re-plastered and the pillars and the porch restored. Unfortunately during this restoration work many of the ledger stones over the vaults were removed or destroyed, and no record was kept of the actual location of the intra-mural burials in the church.

The tower was completely rebuilt in 1858-59 as the former 15th century tower had been struck by lightning and was dangerously cracked.

At the base of the tower but not presently accessible to visitors there is a memorial brass to Katharine Nightingale, who died in 1608, and her husband Geoffrey.

It seems to me that the crux of St Mary’s desecration was a combination of poor, not to say appalling, priests, the triumvirate aforesaid and the poverty of the living.

For example Brian Hughes (incumbent 1779) was an eccentric vicar who cut the heads and wings off the angels on the nave roof as he insisted that they were idols in God’s house; Thomas Bell’s (incumbent 1794) relationship with the people of Newport was acrimonious and he was not on speaking terms with his churchwardens for many years, and was sued for libel by Mr Pochin, the local magistrate. During the incumbency of Bell the church building again fell into a bad state of repair.

Newport was not a wealthy parish. Prior to the Reformation the ‘great tithes’ went to St Martin le Grand, and the vicar received the lesser tithes and the income from obits and chantries. After the Reformation, when these were abolished, the income of Newport was so low that the parish was without a priest for much of the 17th century and the church building became neglected. The registers are blank for the period of the Civil War – from 1636 to 1690 there are no records which seem to indicate a similar lack of incumbent over that period.

Almost 50 years without an incumbent would, surely, have taken its toll on any church; more so with a church fabric of this size. Add to that the Commonwealth, the prior ravages of the Reformation and the Victorians you end up with a church in peril.

On top of all these tragedies at some stage in the last 70 years, and I suspect somewhat recently, the chancel stalls have gone, along with nave pews which are replaced with 1970’s looking stackable chairs – it might as well have become a Bingo Hall.

ST MARY THE VIRGIN. Big church, formerly collegiate. It lies back, away from the main road. W tower of 1858 with embattled polygonal pinnacles, the chief accent of the church. It has a crossing and transepts, dating from the C13, as is shown by the forms of the arches separating them (responds with nailhead ornament) and the two N and one S lancet windows. The chancel is wide and not too high and in its masonry also C13. S arcade early C14 with octagonal piers and double-chamfered two-centred arches. To the same time belongs the S aisle W window. N arcade Early Perp with sturdy quatrefoil piers with hollows in the diagonals, slightly decorated capitals and double-wave-moulded arches. - C15 S porch and nave clerestory, later C16 brick clerestory over the chancel. - FONT. Octagonal, with heavy gabled trefoil arches, an unusual design, probably early C13. - COMMUNION TABLE, with three Flemish early C17 reliefs. - SCREEN. Fragments of a C15 screen with six-light divisions with broad panel tracery. - LECTERN. Oak, with octagonal base and stem, tracery panels on it, and tracery in the triangle between the top book-rests. - CHEST. An extremely interesting later C13 piece. The front has three friezes of ornament, circles, lozenges, and shields. Paintings inside the lid (Crucifixion, the Virgin, St John, St Peter, St Paul), coloured chiefly in red and green. - BENCHES. Some poppy-heads survive. - STAINED GLASS. N transept, with several whole figures (St Katherine, St Michael), early C14, bought about 50 years ago. - BRASSES of 1515 (Thomas Brond and wife, S aisle floor, 18in. figures) and 1608. 

St Mary the Virgin

St Mary the Virgin (3)

St Mary the Virgin (4)

Thomas Brond 1515

NEWPORT. Standing by the River Cam on the Roman road to Cambridge, it has taken toll of the centuries as they passed, and stops us, too, with its display of old houses and its wonderful church treasures, the earliest English oil paintings among them. Monk’s Barn and the Priory are characteristic tributes from the 15th century. The timbered Monk’s Barn is a charming house overhanging the pavement on each side of coved eaves, with carving in the wooden arch of its studded door, and under the oriel window a bold bracket showing the crowned Madonna rising from the clouds, a sceptre in her hand, and two angels making music for her Child. The Priory has another wooden-framed oriel window, and close by is the graceful Crown House from the 17th century, with a plaster front and a lovely shell hood over the door. Even the chimney which collects the smoke from four 16th century fireplaces in Martin’s Farm is a work of art. Set in a wall by the road are stones carved 700 years ago for the hospital which once stood close by in the park of Shortgrove House, a home old and new, which has been growing for 300 years.

The spacious church on rising ground in the middle of the village has been growing more than twice as long, the chancel and transepts being 13th century, the aisles 14th, the clerestory and the two-storeyed porch 15th, the two doors to the upper porch room 16th. The transept roofs and the angel-borne roof of the nave are 500 years old. The chancel roof, the poppyhead stalls under it, and the panels in the altar table are all 400 years old, the panels of Flemish carving showing the Cruciiixion with Mary Magdalene kneeling, and in the background two men in high pointed hats, a crowded Epiphany scene, and Christ triumphant over Death.

The light and graceful screen was made 500 years ago when the cover was made for the 13th century font, and the oak lectern was carved with its double book-rest turning on a swivel, the Old Testament chained on one side and the New on the other. There is a tablet in memory of Joseph Smith of Shortgrove House, Pitt’s private secretary, and 16th century brass portraits of Thomas Brond with his wife and four children, and later ones showing Geffrye Nightingale in a Jacobean cloak and ruff and his wife in an embroidered pannier skirt.

But the great rarity here is the portable altar in one of the transepts. It was made 700 years ago to be carried from place to place and set up in camp or battlefield. For this alone it would be remarkable, but on it are the earliest oil paintings on wood known to English art. The altar is made as a chest, with three handles and five locks, and a false bottom with a secret sliding panel. The vestments and books would be kept in the locker and the altar stone in the secret place. A fine band of metal tracery ornaments the outside, and the 13th century paintings are on the inside of the lid, which lifted up to form the reredos as we see it today, with its five panels of the Crucifixion, showing three saints and the Madonna at the foot of the Cross, the heads undoubtedly drawn from life, probably likenesses of the artist’s friends. Each saint stands on a mound in a strikingly dramatic pose, delightful representatives of a now old art in its infancy.

Flickr set.