Sunday 30 December 2018

My cult is bigger than your cult: judging the popularity of saints in the Middle Ages

December the 29th was the feast of the martyrdom of St Thomas Becket. Just in case you didn't know. You might not I suppose. It is possible that there are those out there who don't spend their lives dealing with medieval saints and pilgrimage, and therefore might have missed this momentous event. However, if you have an interest in medieval history, and happen to be on social media, then it was pretty difficult to miss. There were medievalists tweeting and posting images of beautiful pilgrim badges, amazing stained glass, and a few rather gory wall paintings, whilst others discussed the location of his shrine at Canterbury cathedral, or the archaeology of cathedrals themselves. It was rather like Christmas day all over again for the average medievalist. However, it left me with something of a question. It was clear that the cult of St Thomas was incredibly popular during the later Middle Ages, with all these works of art, written references, and archaeology telling us so, but how do we judge the popularity of lesser known saints from the period?

So how do you judge exactly how popular a saint was during the Middle Ages? The obvious thing to do was ask the experts, and garner a few opinions from others as to how they would determine the general popularity of a medieval saint? So, in time honoured tradition, I posted the question to twitter. The results were certainly plentiful, and there were a wide variety of answers soon filling my twitter feed. However, it soon became clear that nothing was really very clear at all. That there was no single answer, and that each source of evidence was likely to produce different, and sometimes outright contradictory, results.

One of the first suggestions was that the number of churches dedicated to a particular saint could be deemed a general indicator as to how widespread was the devotion to that particular cult. Churches, unlike works of art or manuscripts, are fairly solid and enduring pieces of evidence. However, it was also pretty clear that, what seemed at face value a fairly straightforward indicator, was anything but clear. In the first instance there is the little known fact that church dedications are nowhere near as stable and unchanging as many people perceive them to be. In short, they changed. South Lopham in Norfolk began life dedicated to St Nicholas, but today stands as St Andrews, Binham Priory is today dedicated to the Holy Cross, but undoubtedly began life as St Mary's. Studies of Norfolk church dedications (we have 650+ surviving medieval churches after all) have suggested as many as 20% of modern church dedications are not the same as the original medieval dedication.

Binham Priory

There are also still churches today where we are a little unclear as to what the original dedication was, or if there even was one. Take Great Witchingham in Norfolk, commonly referred to today as St Mary's - the most common dedication in England. However, it has been argued that the original dedication was to the Assumption of the Virgin Mary, a dedication you will find in several guidebooks and websites, whilst others argue, based upon the evidence of the carved porch spandrels, that the original dedication was actually to the Annunciation of the Blessed Virgin Mary. Exactly what it was in the medieval period - we don't know. It has also been a long held belief amongst some scholars that church dedications may have had nothing to do with the veneration of a particular saint, but rather reflect the name-saint of the principal donor, or even the saints day upon which the church was consecrated.

Then there are the saints that we know were popular in the late medieval period, and yet almost never appear as church dedications, or amongst most surviving art works of the period. The most obvious is perhaps St Christopher, whose image was to be found upon the walls of most medieval English churches, and is the most common single saint to be found amongst surviving medieval wall paintings. Reference to these images are also frequently to be found amongst the written records, and yet, despite this near universal popularity, you will find a bare handful of churches dedicated to the saint, and even fewer depictions in the other surviving artworks of the period. For example, you will look in vain for the saint on East Anglian rood screens. The same is true of St Barbara, who is commonly depicted on rood screens and panel paintings, and is amongst the most popular saint depicted on late medieval copper alloy pilgrim badges, and yet has only two known medieval churches dedicated to her - both now lost.

It is also worth remembering that a church dedication represents only a single moment in time. St Remigius for example, has no less than four medieval churches dedicated to him in the county of Norfolk (out of only six in the whole of England), and yet you will hunt in vain through the documentary records and wills, the images on rood screens and wall paintings, for reference to this fifth/sixth century evangelist who reputedly baptised the king of the Franks (or was Bishop of Lincoln, or rector of Hethersett - depending upon which source you choose to believe). If church dedications alone were an indicator of popularity then Remigius can be regarded as being far more popular than St Christopher or St Barbara.

Almost all of the arguments above can also be applied to other strands of evidence, such as the time taken to officially recognise a saint, or precedence of festivals and feasts. This is particularly true when looking at a period when 'unofficial' cults could take a firm hold in a very short space of time, and yet never resulted in the formal acceptance of the potential new saint. Consider for example the popular cults of Richard Caister of Norwich, John Shorne of Long Marston, and king Henry VI. All three of these individuals had popular cults grow up around their memories in the fifteenth century, and yet none of the three were ever formally canonised.

All of these informal cults are exceptionally visible in many of the strands of evidence, with all three attracting pilgrims to their sites, having pilgrim badges created in the honour, and being depicted in stained glass, on rood screens, and in wall paintings. However, you'll find none of them amongst the lists of the festivals and feasts of the medieval church. You'll find no formal and orthodox dedications to their memory. As saints, they do not formally exist, and yet we can see evidence of their popularity on myriad levels. There are almost as many surviving medieval pilgrim badges attributed to Richard Caister of Norwich as there are to St Alban, and Henry VI appears nearly as often on East Anglian rood screens, and amongst references to church statues, as Mary Magdalene.

So where then does that leave us?

One would consider the documentary evidence, particularly at a parish level, to be a fairly solid source of evidence, but even here things are not always as they seem. Take for example the tiny Devon parish of Morebath, whose accounts and records have been subject to detailed study by Eamon Duffy in his excellent book - 'The Voices of Morebath'. On the 30th August 1520 the village welcomed a young and enthusiastic new priest, ChristopherTrychay, who was to remain in the parish for the next fifty-four years. However, the priest brought more than just zeal and enthusiasm with him to his new parish. In his first year it is recorded that he personally paid for the creation and gilding of a statue of St Sidwell, a local saint popular in the Exeter region, that was placed within his new church. Over the coming decades Trychay fostered the cult of the saint in the parish, encouraging gifts and small acts of devotion, bequests and benevolences, so that by the eve of the reformation the cult of St Sidwell in Morebath was almost as prominent as that of the Virgin Mary - with at least two young girls within the parish having been named after Sidwell.

Seen from an outside perspective, the growth of the cult of St Sidwell within the parish would appear to clearly evidence the local growth in popularity of what was clearly a local saint. A superficial examination of the paperwork would support this, and might even lead a historian to ponder how such localised cults become established? However, the deeper research into this particular parish has allowed us to understand that the growth and popularity of this particular cult was actually the direct result of the personal zeal of one particular parish priest; one man whose own devotion to the saint has led to a complete bias of the written evidence. If this was the case in Morebath it raises the question of how often this may well have been the case elsewhere?

It becomes perhaps more complex still if we consider other areas of written evidence. My own research has clearly indicated that even such seemingly straightforward sources such as post-mortem pilgrimage bequests - when an individual left money in their will for others to undertake pilgrimages on their behalf - were more likely to appear within surviving wills from particular locations than from others. In essence, such bequests appear in geographical clusters, suggesting either that those making their wills were influenced by the individuals writing them (scribal influence), or they were simply emulating the actions of others in the same locality - a post-mortem 'keeping up with the Jones'.

And if you think all that is just a bit confusing - it actually gets even worse. Certain saints appear largely in only one strand of evidence, and are almost entirely absent elsewhere. Take for example the late medieval cult of Catherine of Sienna. Jennifer N. Brown has convincingly shown that the saint became incredibly influential in the fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries, particularly amongst literate female followers, with extracts of her writings surviving in numerous sources. However, the saint almost completely fails to make the translation from the written works to being depicted in popular religious art. Despite Catherine's demonstrable importance she appears only on a single retable (the Dartmouth, or Battel Hall, retable), and a rood screen in Devon. A third possible depiction, on the rood screen at Horsham St Faith in Norfolk, now appears more likely to be a depiction of the Virgin as Queen of Heaven - and why anyone ever thought it might be Catherine is something of a mystery.

In complete contrast to Catherine of Sienna is the story of 'Mistress Ridibowne'. She appears on the fifteenth century painted rood screen at Gately in Norfolk, with additional references to pilgrimage bequests in a very small number of Norfolk wills, and the 'possibility' that there was a further image of her at Hackford church - also in Norfolk. The thing is, we have absolutely no idea who she was. Although it has been suggested it might be referring to Christina of Markyate, and it is clear that the cult involved a minor site of pilgrimage, she really is a complete enigma. What is perhaps worse is the fact that she isn't alone. We have references to other bequests and offerings to minor shrines and cults that are just as much of a mystery.
Gateley rood screen figure

So where then does this leave the original question I asked on Twitter? How is it possible to judge the popularity of an individual saint in the medieval period? Well, I think the only true answer is that there is no one clear way; no single strand of evidence that can reflect the reality of late medieval piety, particularly on a parish level. We can say the St Thomas Becket and St Mary were incredibly popular in the later Middle Ages, and judge other cults from relics, pilgrims, and bequests, but once you get down into the nitty gritty of judging actual popularity, no one single strand of evidence will ever tell us more than a single 'version'; a truth that may well be supported by other forms of evidence, or, as we have seen, may well be totally contradicted by them.

There were other suggestions made by those on twitter that I do particularly like. For example, if the number of supposed relics claimed by various churches adds up to more than one whole individual - and I'm thinking of multiple claims to objects such as Aaron's rod, or the foreskin of Christ here - then they were undoubtedly popular. A saint with eight arms, three skulls, and five legs was undoubtedly a sought after individual. Likewise, I see a bright future for the idea of Medieval Saints Top Trumps.

Monday 3 December 2018

After all, it is only graffiti...

Over the last eight years St Mary's church at Troston in Suffolk has received a fair amount of media attention. Whilst the church was already known for its really quite spectacular medieval wall paintings, much of the new media attention has been focussed upon the regionally significant collection of early graffiti to be found on the walls. Today was the turn of TV presenter and generally sound chap Clive Anderson, who was there to film a short section for a new documentary. You may not all rate him as a presenter, and you may not all find him funny (although his take-down of Piers Morgan to his face still ranks as one of the high points of modern television in my eyes), but you have to admire his courage - for today he was subjected to four hours in a cold church, listening to me rant on about how wonderful the medieval graffiti there really is. And the graffiti at Troston REALLY is that good. It has everything. Animals, people, faces, ships, dates and demons. Lots of demons. It really is rather special.

However, it soon became apparent on today's trip that not everything was well with the Troston graffiti, and that something very serious is taking place at the junction between the tower and nave. These two images show the same wall only two years apart - the image on the left having been taken this morning. The fifteenth and sixteenth century graffiti inscriptions (as well as later examples) are literally crumbling to dust, and flaking from the walls. Having survived for over five centuries something has changed, apparent by the very obvious damp levels rising through the stonework. The result is a mass of mineral salts leaching from the stonework, and some very serious delamination of the stone of the tower arch on the north side.

Luckily the graffiti at Troston is well recorded, and has been previously published - but that is all that will soon be left of this regionally significant collection of medieval and Tudor graffiti. The published record.

The problem of course is that this isn't just happening in Troston church, but at dozens of other sites across the region. These inscriptions are being lost at a fantastic rate. Some are being lost to development, where the church undertakes 'improvements' without first surveying for significant graffiti. Others are lost due to changes in the church environment, often the result of poor maintenance and lack of funds to repairs the churches. Sometimes the losses are just through carelessness.

However, it is wrong to blame the churches and churchwardens. In most cases they are underfunded and over worked - with many churches now looked after by a tiny team drawn from a tiny, and shrinking, congregation. They are largely doing what they can with the resources that they have available to them.

In terms of getting their graffiti recorded, particularly prior to building works or renovations, a lot of churches have never even considered the concept. It simply isn't on their radar. And why would it be? They aren't experts in church archaeology, or buildings surveyors. They are just a bunch of good people doing what they think is best - and they'd be as horrified as anyone else out there if they thought they were doing long term damage to the buildings they so very clearly love. So where then does the blame lie - because it really is finger pointing time. Because I'm fed up with walking into churches to find our history literally falling from the walls. I'm fed up with picking up the fragments of the past from the floor; fragments that didn't have to be there in the first place. I'm fed up with the look of horror on the churchwarden's faces when you have to break it to them that their own parish past is literally slipping through their finders, and that what they now see before their eyes will be lost long before their own grandchildren ever have a chance to see it for themselves.

So where then do the problems lie? Well, if we are honest here, the main problem (and it certainly isn't the only one) lies with the planning process. A lot of people may not realise it, but historic churches don't actually have to follow the traditional planning process. Unlike us mere mortals they don't have to apply for planning permission via the local authority, and follow national planning legislation. Instead, due to an agreement drawn up way back in the mists of time, churches have to submit their plans to their local Diocese Advisory Committee (DAC), who will, if they are satisfied, issue a document known as a 'faculty' (essentially the equivalent of planning consent issued by a local authority). As part of the faculty process the DAC should also issue guidelines and conditions - such as mitigation measures based upon the likelihood of things like medieval wall paintings being present. Unfortunately, even after nearly a decade of ranting on about the importance of historic graffiti, you won't find too many DACs that give any thought, let along conditions, relating to historic graffiti.

Now don't misunderstand me here. We do have some wonderful DACs across the country, full of technical experts who really do their utmost to preserve the historic environment. However, we have some really shockers too. Truly. Horrifyingly corrupt. DACs that include barely any archaeological representation, yet are loaded instead with architects. No doubt they are good architects, with many years experience of working on churches, but these are also the same individuals who are working with local parishes to draw up plans and schemes that are eventually submitted to the DAC for approval. The same DAC that they sit upon. The same DAC that all their architect mates sit upon. You'd be amazed at the percentage of their schemes that get passed and have a faculty issued. Or maybe you wouldn't. Indeed, there are a number of DACs across the country that need completely disbanding - quite possibly with an axe - and being reformed. Preferably with new members who don't have a financial interest in passing their own, or their mates, schemes.

Sadly though it isn't just the DACs that are the problem. The blame also lies slightly higher up the ladder, with those statutory organisations who are meant to be issuing guidelines and advice when dealing with historic fabric. There are guidelines issued for just about everything in the historic environment - the care of wall paintings, care of monuments, care of stained glass, etc, etc. Lots and lots of guidelines. You might think then that, after nearly a decade of me and others banging on about historic graffiti, and half a century after Pritchard published 'English Medieval Graffiti', someone out there might have noticed that we have a rather massive corpus of early and often unique material scattered across the walls of our churches and cathedrals - and that it is at risk. That it is in danger of literally falling from the walls. That some form of guidelines might be in order.

The reality is that historic graffiti, for however many reasons, still isn't seen as a mainstream historic resource. It isn't seen as something worth issuing guidelines for. It isn't seen, by the powers that be, as important. Indeed, it can be argued that it just about the only area of true heritage at risk in the UK that isn't receiving any special attention whatsoever. There is no risk register, no guidance on protection, and certainly no money available for recording or even archiving purposes. If a bat decided to crap on it, that might be a different story, but as it stands any builder, churchwarden, or even architect, can destroy it, or allow it to be destroyed, at will.

Think about that for a moment. If this had been a medieval wall painting that was falling off the wall, or that someone (God forbid) had tried to repaint, then there would be an outcry. There would be guidelines and processes, and quite possibly funding (I did say 'possibly'), to actually do something about it. In this case there isn't even a process. It is, after all, only graffiti.

Thursday 8 November 2018

Messing about in church: the sublime AND the ridiculous

North west Norfolk. You tend not to expect too much from churches in this small corner of the county. There are undeniably some real masterpieces, and a good number of truly pleasant churches, but the closer you tend to get to the Sandringham estate the more likely it appears that the churches will have been heavily restored. Restored to death. Like Sandringham church itself, they suffer almost from too much attention. Too many well meaning restorations. Too much money lavished on the gilding and stained glass. They almost glow in the dark, and in many of them even the most modest medieval survivals are a bit of a novelty.

I am sure that it was - and is - all very well meant, with many dozens of private benefactors spending vast wads of cash purely to glorify God etc. I am also sure that it is entirely a coincidence that it largely only takes place in these few churches clustered around the Queen's Sandringham estate, and not in the many hundreds of other churches across the county. Churches that would be only too grateful to accept a hefty donation or two, in the hope of keeping the rain from entering through the roof, or replacing an ageing bell frame. Instead this small pocket of churches does seem to have rather a large proportion of the country's gilding on show. Quite possibly the country's.

It is therefore a really quite refreshing change to walk into a church like Wolferton, only a stone's throw (gilded stones are optional) from the Sandringham estate. The outside of the church is typical of this area of the county, with liberal use of the gingerbread coloured carrstone, and the well tended churchyard that just begs to be visited by royalty. It all feels just remarkably 'neat'. It is therefore a wee bit of a surprise to wander in through the porch and find a church that still has so much of its medieval past on show - amongst which are some truly remarkable items.
Wolferton. The repainted doom. Just put down the paintbrush, and step away from the wall with your hands where I can see them...

Admittedly the church has been restored in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century's, and many may find some of the Victorian fittings a little heavy and cumbersome. The church may also be the perfect lesson in exactly why you shouldn't let early restorers of medieval wall paintings actually try their hand at full restoration, and the repainted Doom above the chancel arch is truly a sight to behold - if not entirely for all the right reasons. However, even this has a certain charm, having been recreated so many decades ago that now, as the colours begin to fade a little, it doesn't even feel 'too' out of place. Okay, it does - but I'm trying to be nice here. Even the Victorian font cover is a fairly good pastiche attempt at recreating a medieval marvel, and if you don't look too closely it really has a charm of its own. You might have to squint a bit.

However, as restorations go, I have seen far, far worse. They may have 'embellished' - and how they did love that word - but they didn't feel the need to create a clean slate upon which to build. What was of value from earlier times they tended to leave alone, or at least repair as best they could. A few things may well have been embellished, but not overly so.
The true secrets of this church take a little time to discover, and most are concealed in the woodwork. Close examination of the carved timbers in the roof is a good way to while away half an hour, and although there has been much restoration done even here, it has been done sympathetically and with a certain style. The timber screens though are what the guidebooks will direct you to examine - and rightly so. In the chancel arch are the remains of what was once a very fine fifteenth century rood screen, with the painted figures of saints - now sadly bedraggled - still clear to make out. To the north of this is another very fine fifteenth century parclose screen, that once separated off the east end of the north aisle as a separate chapel. The carving is still crisp and clear even after more than half a millennia, and although the pigment has now all but gone, it still feels an imposing sight as the sunbeams highlight the intricate carvings.

Wolferton. South aisle parclose screen.

However, in my eyes, the real hidden gem of this church lies not in the north aisle, but to the south. Here can be found yet another parclose screen, that separates the eastern end of this aisle off to form yet another chapel. Although the church records suggest that the man who created this chapel died in the opening years of the sixteenth century, the screen was already well over a century old by that time. It's exact date is unknown, but the style of decoration and carving would suggest the middle two quarters of the fourteenth century - a fifty year span bitterly and irrevocably divided by the terrible destruction and human decay known today as the Black Death. My own feeling is that it sits in the two decades after the coming of the pestilence; when church decoration and manuscript illustration reacted to the near destruction of the known world with an outburst of ingenuity, humour, quirkiness and, upon occasion, elements of downright blasphemy.

Wolferton parclose screen detail.

And that is what is captured in this screen. A moment in time - when a resigned population took stock of what God had sent their way, and what the church had failed to protect them from, and carved, painted and gilded their own reactions to events in the very fabric of the church itself. A stark irreverence combined with open elements of humour and parody. Fat friars and stupid priests, lecherous monks and harlot nuns, green men and grotesque beasts - all thrust into the very body of the church. Gone is the quiet reverence, and instead flows out a stream of self expression that obliquely questions the very structure of the church and the society in which they lived.

Wolferton. Laughter and misery?

All of this is captured in the parclose screen at Wolferton, in minute detail, but you have to look for it - and once you start to see it you simply can't stop. The more you stare at the screen, and its truly exquisite and tiny carvings, the more you become aware that the screen itself - or at least the dozens of leering faces that are hidden away in its decoration - are staring right back at you. Tiny imps carved into the head rail, green men with protruding tongues where ball-flowers might usually rest, leering grotesques of faces peering through the tracery. The screen is alive with a vibrant community of tiny faces. A chubby cheeked man rolls his eyes and pulls a face high up on the screen, whilst a near neighbour side-eyes the grinning demon carved a few inches to the right of him. It is the world made small, and a canvas for a wood carvers caricatures. It is, in my own humble opinion, a masterpiece - and the craftsman or craftswoman who made it a complete genius.

Wolferton. Parclose screen detail.

Exactly who they were we will probably never know, as no records relating to the screens construction survive. They are lost to us. I have only seen one other screen that is, without question, the work of the same craftsman - and that is to be found over thirty-five miles away in the south aisle of Mattishall church. It too is a work of art, but it lacks the humour and humanity of the carvings at Wolferton. For me the person who carved this screen is someone I'd really like to get to know. Someone I'd be happy to spend some time with. They were, in my own humble opinion, a wee bit good.

Wolferton. Parclose screen face, top rail.

You may be able to tell, but I rather rate this screen. The fifteenth century screen in the north aisle is good - a technical achievement of symmetry and rather orthodox carvings - but the screen in the south aisle is a thing of wonder. It has life. It has passion. It has humour. It has the story of an entire community, and entire congregation - the good, the bad, and the downright daft - locked within its tiny carvings. It tells a tale, and who, after all, doesn't like listening to a good tale. And yet, it may not be a tale that really belongs in Wolferton.

Wolferton. Parclose screen, top rail. I know how this one feels.

The thing is nobody quite knows where this fourteenth century screen comes from. It certainly shouldn't be from Wolferton itself, as the church suffered a devastating and massive fire in the fifteenth century, with the deep pinking of fire damage still evident on many of the stones. And it was a very big fire indeed. The upper levels of the south arcade still show bright pink, where the stones have been superheated, whilst the piers below, including that which the screen now abuts, were so badly damaged as to require almost complete replacement. If the screen had been in the church at the time it would have been turned to nothing more than a heap of ashes - unless of course this master craftsmen also managed to make his screen, not only sublimely beautiful, but fireproof as well. I expect even he had his limits though.

Oh, and there are also some nice mason's marks and a few compass drawn bits of graffiti there too. Just saying.

Friday 2 November 2018

Getting your kit off in a Nottinghamshire church: why attitudes have to change

So a couple of weeks ago the local mums of East Markham got their kit off. The ladies of the village were to be found hanging around in the fields, wandering through local orchards, and even propping up the bar in the local pub - all in what can best be described as 'a state of undress'. And why were the good ladies of this Nottinghamshire village getting all 'cheeky' in the church? Is this a normal activity for the locals? The answer is that they were putting together a charity naked calendar.

You've all seen the sort of thing, made famous by the blockbuster film 'Calendar Girls'. Where local ladies come together to produce a photographic calendar, largely featuring them and little else (particularly noticeable is the lack of clothing), to raise money for a good cause. It is to be praised. It is to be considered most commendable. A local community coming together to raise money to help good causes. However, what makes this particular calendar so different is that it is designed to raise money for a cause that didn't even exist a month ago.

On the night of October 5th the church of St John the Baptist in East Markham was only one of the latest churches to be targeted by criminals intent on stripping the lead from the roof. Over four tons of lead was stolen that night, netting the thieves approximately £3500 in scrap value - at best. However, their crime has had a far higher cost for the parish itself, with repairs estimated at upwards of £50,000.

Damage to East Markham church roof. Image copyright: Tom Freemantle

Sadly, the villagers of East Markham aren't alone in having suffered at the hands of these vile little shits. This year has been a slightly busier year than average for metal theft from churches. Not massively so, but slightly busier. A quick trawl of the news feeds produced stories about lead theft at the following churches:-

Gamlingay,Houghton ConquestLindsayWilloughby WaterleysSudbury (Derbs)WilsfordSwarbyKelbySt James, BristolSt George Colegate, NorwichBarton upon HumberPewseyMeltonTwyfordTilton on the hillWhitwell (Leic)GlastonBorough on the hillEmpinghamEdith Weston

This isn't a comprehensive list, just what turned up on a quick Google search - it also only covers the LAST SIX MONTHS. The damage has been estimated in the millions of pounds in last six months - and yet the criminal gangs have likely only netted a tiny fraction of that value illegally selling on the lead as scrap. Approximately 5% - 10% of the costs of the damage they cause. Not exactly the most cost effective of criminal enterprises. Let's face it, they'd make far more cash repairing church roofs than stealing the lead from them.

However, it isn't all about the money. Believe it or not, church roofs tend to be fairly fragile objects. They may have elaborately carved angels supporting massive timbers and hemmer-beams, but above that is nothing more than a few thin boards and a sheet of lead. Once the lead is removed the boards, and all the time opened gaps between them, are exposed to the elements - as is everything within the church below. One good downpour can cause further tens of thousands of pounds worth of damage. More importantly, some of the damage can be beyond something that you can put an actual price on. Medieval wall paintings can be literally washed from the walls. Pigments that have survived in the parish church for centuries, with bright images of saints glaring down upon generations of the congregation, can be lost forever in a few good rain storms. Angels weeping real tears as their colours pool on the floor beneath them. And that is not even to mention the early graffiti often to be found on this lead - some of which can date back to the seventeenth century. This is not a victimless crime.

There are ways to protect churches from this crime - or at least limit the likelihood of it taking place. Roof alarms are seen as an effective method. However, even they rely upon someone being able, and willing, to turn out in the middle of the night to answer an alarm, with the potential for meeting a gang of metal thieves at the church. Something of an alarming prospect in itself for many of our more elderly churchwardens. In addition, it isn't much use having an alarm if the nearest company operative charged with answering any alarm call is actually several hours away from the site. And the thieves are getting wise to the alarms these days. A number of alarmed churches have had their rood lead stolen, with the alarm sensors carefully removed before the lead was stripped.

Other methods tend to be only seen as a deterrent that becomes effective only AFTER the lead has been stolen. Things such as CCTV recording, or marking the lead with 'smart water', may both help eventually convict the culprits and recover the stolen lead (which largely cannot be re-used), but they don't stop the crime happening in the first place. All a very sad state of affairs.

You cannot help but feel sorry for these communities, and the massive financial challenges that they suddenly find themselves facing, but to a certain extent many of these crimes are simply ones that should never have taken place.

The current advice being given out by heritage organisations such as Historic England is that if a church suffers a lead theft then the lead roof must be repaired 'like for like'. Where lead was taken, lead must be used to replace the missing roof. To some extent there is a good conservation argument behind this advice. Lead is hard wearing, has a long lifespan, and has been used as a church roofing material for many, many centuries. Conservation principles advise that all replacements should be as close to the original material as possible.

The problem with this approach, reiterated again by Historic England earlier this year, is that you simply make the church a further target for the lead thieves. Not only do you put valuable material back on the roof, but you do so for thieves that are actually experienced in stripping lead from that particular church. You may as well just leave the cash in the church porch. Indeed, it might even be cheaper in the long run. Harpley church in Norfolk, was attacked three times in four years. Icklingham in Suffolk - twice in four years. Dunton Bassett in Leicestershire - three times in five years. The list goes on and on.

The thing is that there are other materials that can be used to cover church roofs - ranging from various types of polymer coating, to cheaper metal alternatives - all of which have about zero scrap value to any potential thieves, and look pretty much like the lead roof that they are replacing. If used to replace a stolen lead roof they simply don't make further attacks worthwhile. There is no cash in it for the scumbag lead thieves. The question has to be, do such alternatives actually deter further theft? The answer is an unequivocal yes. Cowlinge church in Suffolk was attacked by thieves a few years ago, who managed to strip much of the lead from the south aisle roof. After a long debate with the authorities the church managed to secure agreement that the replacement roof would be lead-free, and tens of thousands of pounds was eventually spent repairing the damaged roof. Earlier this year thieves returned once again to this remote church, and again targeted the south aisle roof. They began to remove the roofing material from one corner, but upon discovering it wasn't actually lead, they fled the scene. Admittedly the aisle roof was damaged, but this time only to the tune of a few thousand pounds, rather than the tens of thousands of pounds worth of damage that had been caused previously. Lead-free roofs work.

Medieval Latin text graffiti from Cowlinge church, Suffolk

The problem is that the heritage organisations really don't like these roof coverings being used. Despite looking like a lead roof, they aren't the real thing, and their use reduces the historic aesthetic and significance of the building. A number of organisations and diocese are coming around to realising that the use of lead-free roofing materials does actually provide a long term solution for many churches. However, Historic England are less convinced. Whilst they 'recognise that in certain circumstances following theft like-for-like replacement would not be prudent', they still argue that lead should be retained wherever it is deemed practical.

Well times change, and everyone who spends a good deal of time in churches knows that they too are buildings of change and evolution. They have to be. As most heritage professionals and church archaeologists already accept, these buildings may be a fantastic resource for studying the past, but they also need a future. That future can only really be secured by the communities to which they belong. People like the naked mums of East Markham. And to do that these buildings need people inside their walls, they need facilities to make those people welcome, and most of all, they need a bloody roof.

If you would like to support the East Markham appeal, or buy a calendar of the East Markham mums in the nip, more details can be found here

Friday 26 October 2018

Castle Rising font: bringing a light to dark places

I have a really long list of academic articles to write. I usually have three or four on the go at any one time, as well as a couple of books. Anyone who knows me also tends to know that this is how I work. I discover something new, or a new perspective on something old, and will then draft out the article. Usually in a day or two. Sometimes an evening. I wouldn't say it is the most efficient way of working, and it does create a bit of a backlog of 'nearly finished' works, but I know rather a lot of academics who work in pretty much the same way. If you can call it work obviously. So today when I nipped in to a church and made a rather interesting discovery I thought 'here we go again'. Another 90% finished article will be on my desk very shortly...

And then I decided not to. I decided I'd blog about it instead. Why not? Make the information quickly and freely available to everyone. And save me a bit of bother at the same time.

The west front, Castle Rising

The church in question was Castle Rising in west Norfolk, known as one of the Romanesque gems of the county, despite having suffered from quite extensive restoration and rebuildings. It's always a lovely place to visit, and as churches go, it has one of the finest settings I can think of. Even the rebuildings don't look too much out of place. Almost. The original church is thought to have been constructed in the mid-twelfth century, on the orders of William d'Albini, and at the same time as he built the magnificent castle just a stone's throw away from the church. The twelfth century work that survives at the church is, without question, of magnificent quality. The west front includes stunning stonecarving, a truly beautiful symmetry, and some wonderfully precise blind arcading. However, I wasn't visiting to admire the west front, but rather one of the great treasures of the interior of the church - the carved stone font.

The font is sublime. Truly fantastic. Bloody wonderful. It is one of five in west Norfolk that are generally described as belonging to the 'Norman' period, with the most detailed and elaborate decorative carving around the bowl. Words can't really do it justice - so you can look at a picture instead.

Castle Rising font

See. I told you it was a stunner. However, slightly unusually, only two sides of the bowl are carved, suggesting that the font was originally meant to sit in the corner of the church, rather than being placed centrally as it is today. This isn't actually as unusual as it sounds, and numerous medieval fonts are to be found that have one or several blank faces. What is unusual is for this to have been the case with such an early font, when most contemporary fonts have carving all around the bowl. If you feel like going and looking at a couple I can really recommend those as Toftrees and Sculthorpe. Both different, and both beautiful enough to take your breath away.

The font at Castle Rising is a bit of an enigma though. According to some early antiquarians, writing in the middle of the nineteenth century, the font may not have originally belonged in the church. It has been suggested that it pre-dates the building of the current church, and was originally from an earlier church whose ruins are still to be seen in the inner bailey of the nearby castle. Exactly why these early antiquarians believed this to be the case remains a little unclear. In the most general terms they appear to believe that the style of carvings on the font better fitted an earlier period than the middle of the twelfth century. They didn't really offer a great deal of evidence to support this theory - but it is one that has been repeated, almost unchallenged, right down to the present day. It is even listed on the Norfolk Historic Environment Record as so. In fact it is a really good example of just how these historical stories get started and are then perpetuated down the centuries.

So I went to have a really good look at this font. I've seen it before, on several occasions, but this time I took with me one of the key weapons in any good church archaeologists kit. A really big torch.

Sounds daft I admit. But churches are gloomy places - in lighting terms at least (a nod to the spiritual amongst you) - and a really good torch can reveal things that you may previously have missed. That generations of antiquarians may have missed. That dozens upon dozens of church crawlers may have missed. And once again, the benefits of having a really big torch paid off.

The first thing it revealed was that the font had once been painted, and close inspection revealed fragments of the pigments in several areas. A deep red ochre was present on the bowl, with a lighter red pigment also visible in a number of places, and clear evidence of a carbon black. All these pigments were in areas that might be considered backgrounds to the main decoration, and it is unclear whether all the decoration was painted, or whether it was only the background - designed to act as a backdrop and highlight the main carved decoration.

Pigment and inscribed decoration, Castle Rising font

What was really surprising though was the pedestal. The whole of the circular pedestal was covered in a compass drawn design. Whilst such designs on fonts aren't very unusual, particularly in East Anglia, it was clear that this was a little different from the average hexfoil. Indeed, it was clear that these markings were architectural in nature, and set out a whole design of blank arcading that ran all the way around the pedestal. What is more it was clear that these inscribed lines had actually been created to act as a guide for a painted scheme; a scheme that was still visible in a number of areas across the pedestal, where lines of black pigment are still really clear to see - as long as you have a big torch.

Inscribed arcading on the font base, Castle Rising

It may not sound like much of a big deal, but this blind arcading is significant. It is the same design that features on the mid-twelfth century west front of the church. The same design that features upon the mid-twelfth century fore-building of the neighbouring castle. It is the same design found on the mid-twelfth century parish chest at Hindringham in north Norfolk. The fact that it was also clearly marked out on the base to the font also rather strongly suggests that this too belongs to the mid-twelfth century - contemporary with both castle and church - rather than having been brought from elsewhere.

All in all not a massive discovery, but another early example of inscribed decorative schemes having been used as painting guides for subsequent painted schemes. Nice. Oh, and next time you go and take a look at a church - take a torch.