One of the most difficult things about working on parish churches is dealing with the general misinformation that surrounds them. So often the interpretation in the building is composed by its well-meaning guardians who only have a vague idea of the significance of their church. Not everyone can be an expert, sure, but when you are faced with multiple instances of “hoverers” – a custodian who insists on accompanying you around the building and regaling you with the same old clichés – means you need the patience of a saint to endure a day’s fieldwork. And I mean a proper saint, like John the Baptist, not one of those rubbish bishops of nowhere in the first millennium whose only miracle was coaxing a few swans.
A great many persistent factoids resonate around parish churches, some that I feel damage the general understanding of the history and practice that the rich material culture they consist of represents. So here is a collection, presented in true Huffingfeed listicle style, of my top bits of guff you will see spouted by church guidebooks that you should be very cautious in believing.
1. This church was founded 823 years ago last Tuesday
You will nearly always see something like this as soon as you open the door of the church: a sign proudly declaring the date that the building was founded. This is because it answers the question most people will inevitably have, and it allows them to declare that the site has been occupied for an impressive amount of time, such as nine hundred or one thousand years. It means that most visitors will gaze around a run-of-the-mill fifteenth-century Perpendicular church cleaned up in the nineteenth century with the impression that it’s more than twice as old as it actually is. The story, as any churchkrawler kno, is much more complicated than that.
The dates that tend to be incorrectly given for the foundation of a parish church usually come from two types of sources. If they’re a specific date, like 1123, then they are probably the first time a church in the village is mentioned in a legal document. If they’re more vague, like twelfth century, they probably refer to what can be observed in the fabric of the church, even if it’s just a bit of Romanesque chevron built into the vestry wall.
The reality is that the parish system as it was in say, 1500, was basically established during the tenth century. After that, except in rapidly-growing cities, parish churches were very rarely built from scratch as they were in the nineteenth century. It is almost certain then, that any medieval church has pre-Norman Conquest origins. The famous Domesday Book is frustrating to church historians because it very rarely mentions churches or priests: it was really only interested in indexing taxable property. It is kind of a big deal if a church can say it was mentioned in Doomsday, but it doesn’t really mean it’s older than most other English churches.
2. The chancel was rebuilt by the monks of Xey Abbey in 13xtyx
This is the same sort of thing, where a piece of documentary evidence is seized upon to put a date on to something. When a date and monastery are mentioned in a parish church guide, it refers to when the advowson of the parish was transferred to them. The advowson was the legal right that allowed someone to appoint the new rector of the church: a highly sought-after job for a priest, as it was a steady source of income for life. It was recorded by the diocesan cathedral and nomially approved by the bishop, but it was very rarely turned down, which meant it gave the advowson holder – often referred to as the “patron” – a great deal of power and influence. It originally was usually held by the lord of the local manor, but this power that it represented meant it quickly became an object that was traded, for money or goodwill.
A lot of patrons gifted their right of advowson to monasteries. The monasteries however, quickly realised this was very convenient for them if the community had a cashflow problem. A parish rector had to a be a Religious man – an ordained cleric – so a normal lord of the manor could not rector himself. Unlike lords, monks of course were priest, so exploited the loophole to appoint themselves rector, which meant all the tithes – the taxes of the parish – went directly to them. As rectors, they were supposed to maintain the chancel and provide divine service, but it was more likely they would put a vicar in, supported by a small fraction of the tithes, or even a chaplain, on a measly stipend.
The last thing a monastery would do after getting the money from the tithes, is pour it back into the parish. Monks made themselves institutional rectors because they needed the dosh to support their house, not because they had some zeal to go round rebuilding parish churches.
3. Saxon fonts
Fonts were an important part of Early Christianity because they represented conversion and entry into the faith. No doubt there are a lot of impressive ancient fonts in churches, but the amount of times you hear about a font being discovered in the vicarage garden gets very suspect. Baptism remained an important part of post-Reformation parish life, so fonts are one of the few free-standing fitting to remain unscathed in English parish churches. If you see something that looks like an extremely crude thing for washing pigs in, then high chance that’s what it is, not a thousand-year old font.
4. Crusader tombs
The main story with these is that if a knight has his legs crossed, then he died in the Crusades. This is, of course, a load of rubbish. The reason effigies have their legs crossed is because they look pretty silly with their legs straight, as if they’re lying in bed, depressed and not wanting to get up and go to work. With their legs akimbo they look ready for action. It’s not a special cipher ready to be decoded.
5. Ancient stone seats
Same with the fonts. There are ancient “frith-stools” and Beverley Minster that are connected to the right of sanctuary granted to these places – that is the right to be tried under Church, rather than state law. These however, were special churches, and there is no evidence that it extended to ordinary parishes. Any sort of “armchair” you see in a parish church is unlikely to have the same significance. Most of them were mocked up from fragments by Victorian restorers – my theory is that the arms we used for very simple bench ends for the western half of the chancel.
6. Our stained glass window by Sir Edward Coley Burne-Jones
Burne-Jones was a prolific designer for Morris and Co. The firm kept pumping out poor-quality versions of his cartoons well into the twentieth century after anyone connected with them in their heyday was long dead. Unless it’s an early, bespoke piece of work, it’s very unlikely Ned saw the piece of glass, let alone visited the church. In most cases, claiming your glazing is by Burne-Jones is like saying you often host concerts by Bob Dylan because you have a 1992 CD remaster of Blonde on Blonde.
7. The Easter Sepulchre
This is quite a serious and complicated one, so bear with me. Any feature built into the north wall of a chancel is usually called an “Easter Sepulchre”. It is symptomatic how a label can become received opinion, with no questioning as to its veracity.
What is an Easter Sepulchre? Well, it is part of the liturgical elaboration around the Holy Triduum of Easter, first recorded in the Regularis Concordia, an ambitious text intended to consolidate monastic practice in England in the tenth century. In this, it is described that on Good Friday, a sepulchre would be used for symbolic burial of a cross (the Depositio). Early on Easter morning, the cross would be removed from the sepulchre and placed on the altar (Elevatio). Then would follow the Vistatio, when the monks were supposed to re-enact the visit of the Three Maries to the tomb. Because the latter step was, as it involved a trio of priests dressing up as women, potentially a little bit silly, it seems to have been rarely enacted. However, the Despositio made its way into the Sarum Rite (the closest thing medieval England had to a Book of Common Prayer), so was known to clergy in parish churches as something they should be doing.
The Regularis Concordia describes the structure as being curtained, and a representation of such a structure has been convincingly argued to be shown in the twelfth-century Romanesque wall paintings at Kempley in Gloucestershire (Stephen Rickerby and David Park, Burlington Magazine 133, 1991, available on JSTOR). By the later Middle Ages, they seem to have been commonly in the form of ornate wooden chests commonly recorded as such in church inventories, especially in the Reformation clear-outs under King Edward VI, when they were put to all sorts of domestic uses, even chicken coops. The only such Easter Sepulchre to survive – although admittedly with no documentation as to its function – is at Cowthorpe (North Yorkshire).
We know that the Easter Sepulchre was always set up on the north side of the chancel because of the huge amount of medieval wills from the fifteenth and early sixteenth century that stipulate that individuals want their tombs set up there so that the sepulchre can be placed upon it at Easter. These tombs, when they survive, can be seen to be specifically designed for the purpose of having a chest placed on them: with flat incised brasses rather than sculpted effigies. There’s even a whole type of early sixteenth-century tomb that you find in the London area that is primarily designed as a console for the chest. But these tombs are NOT Easter Sepulchres. They are convenient places to put the Easter Sepulchre.
The textual evidence suggests that Easter Sepulchre itself was something you need to lie an altar cross down in once a year, probably shielded behind a curtain. Why then, does everyone call the features in the north walls of the fourteenth-century chancels of Heckington and Hawton Easter Sepulchres? Veronica Sekules convincingly argued (BAA Conference Transactions 8, 1986) that these were primarily conceived as Tombs of Christ. As the consecrated Host was actually the body of Christ, by placing it in what medieval people actually perceived as a “copy” of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem, you were essentially making an actual tomb of Christ. The other prominent features in the north walls of these chancels are the founder’s tombs. It was always considered beneficial to be buried in good company, but what better grave-mate than Jesus Christ Himself?
Sekules goes on to argue that these Tombs of Christ were installed in certain parish churches because of the cult of Corpus Christi which spread across Europe in the fourteenth century. As well as giving himself the prestige of a tomb next to the Son of God, the rector who commissioned the Tomb of Christ would also be creating a Sacrament Shrine, that would contain the Host all year round. We can assume that laity would be admitted into the chancel outside of services to be able to pay devotion to the Blessed Sacrament outside of the Mass.
The possibility that the features at Heckington and Hawton were used as Easter Sepulchres in the Paschal liturgy is at best, a tertiary one, and certainly less based in real evidence than the idea that they were an all-year-round Sacrament Shrine. A recent PhD thesis by Christopher Herbert (Leicester University, 2007, available online) actually set out to show how most so-called “Easter Sepulchres” were completely useless for putting a cross inside (essential for the public spectacle of Depostio and Elevatio), and confidently concludes that the stone Easter Sepulchre was never a widespread tradition in medieval England, but a Victorian misconception. But yet people will still stubbornly insist that they were, and the term remains de rigeur for describing any sort of niche in the north wall of the chancel. It’s essentially the fault of Nikolaus Pevsner, who, as an avid digester of Victorian literature and a formalist essentially uninterested in liturgy, sprinkled it liberally around the Gospel of church crawlers, the Buildings of England. At best, “Easter Sepulchre” is a neologism that represents the multivalent functions of architectural features. But at worst, it’s an entirely incorrect moniker that misrepresents medieval practice, puts simple holes in the wall on the same level as true works of art such as Heckington and Hawton, and draws attention away from the actual Easter Sepulchres such as Cowthorpe which have vanished from thousands of parish churches at the Reformation. If you actually look at the textual and material evidence a priori and ignore the distorting effect of Victorian Tractarianism on assumptions about the Middle Ages, you will see the whole idea of permanent stone Easter Sepulchres built into chancel walls crumbles.
8. The church is the people, not the building
The Church (big C) is the people, and the church (little c) is the building, I’m interested in both; but please don’t demean the latter as an object of aesthetic and historic interest by sticking this needlessly iconoclastic statement in Comic Sans MS font on a big ugly noticeboard right in front of some fascinating dado arcading.
9. Leper squints
Apparently, if you believe English parish church lore, medieval England was a bit like Dawn of the Dead, with walking corpses shambling around churchyards. Of course, leprosy (now generally refered to as Hansen’s disease – don’t want to be caught leper-shaming) was a widespread debilitating disease in the Middle Ages, but to think that parish churches actually modified their fabric to cater for this is quite ridiculous. Ridiculous enough in the eyes of academics, who realise that monastic hospitals would give ostracised lepers opportunity to receive the sacraments and would never think of bothering to write an article to debunk it; but not ridiculous enough to mean people don’t think twice before accepting it.
There are three things that usually get labelled as “leper squints” in English parish churches. (I may be pushing my luck here sub-dividing a listicle into letters)
9a) Low side windows
These are usually found in the south wall of the chancel, towards the west end. They often have evidence for shutters on their jambs. The problem is, unless you stood on a stool and stuck your head right in, you can’t see the altar from them. Paul Barnwell has argued – mainly because they are also used in secular buildings – that they were used as ventilation, to let air in when the oxygen levels inside were becoming rather asphyxiating (Ecclesiology Today 36, 2006, available online). This is very reasonable when you think of all the candles that would be burning, especially on dull winter evenings.
9b) Altar squints
Often, in the jambs of the chancel, there are holes often quite unartfully, smashed through the fabric. These are often called “hagioscopes”: a total Victorian neologism but not a bad one. The function of these is fairly obvious, because they always are positioned so someone standing in front of a subsidiary side altar has a good view of the high altar. This is probably so that a chantry priest can sync the all-important elevation of the Host with the main ceremony, almost like a monitor at a sporting event to allow the crowd to see a close-up view of what’s happening on the pitch. In this case it’s the body of Jesus Christ, not someone getting kicked in the balls during a vicious tackle.
9c) Blocked-up aisle windows.
Here’s a supposed persons-afflicted-with-Hansen’s Disease-vision-enabling-aperture at St Michael-on-Wyre (Lancashire). It’s not to allow an outcast to see inside, but actually the window of the original thirteenth century aisle. When the aisle wall was built further out in the later Middle Ages, a bigger window was put in and this one blocked up.
10. You might want to take a look at our delightful Millennium window/tapestry by the mothers’ union/prayer tree