The English parish church is an institution - it is perhaps one of the great cultural symbols that defines Britain. These buildings conserve all the testimonies of the history of England. Whereas it would be impossible to write an article about them all, I have decided to analyse one particular case: Saint Andrew's church in Chesterton, Cambridgeshire.
This fascinating Medieval parish, just outside Cambridge is like many churches, located in a large church yard. Chesterton was initially an old Roman town, "chester" derives from the Latin word castrum, camp. Later, the Normans built a castle within the parish boundary. It is not clear when the church was founded but there is evidence in the Domesday Book that states that a priest has one virgate of land. Around 1200 we have the first recorded rector: Reginald of Paris (but then the Mass was in Latin wasn't it!). The Manor of Chesterton belonged to the King and the church was a subscription church which was built by the efforts of villagers, like most churches in England, the parishioners were mostly villeins or serfs who worked for the castle.
In 1216, before the death of King John, England almost entered a civil war and in order to avoid this unpleasant situation the Pope sent a legate, Cardinal Guala, to reconcile the parties, he eventually succeeded and on 8 November 1217 he was granted the church and living of Chesterton by King Henry III. Because the Cardinal from Vercelli had already founded an Abbey, the parish church became benefice of the Italian abbey for over 200 years.
In 1250 the church was rebuilt in the new Gothic style, known as Early English, not much remains of this phase but only a section of the chancel and the east windows of the aisles. In 1330 a new form of Gothic arrived, the Decorated style, and the church was rebuilt and expanded according to it. In the mid 1300s a church house was built in the grounds on orders from Vercelli and the beautiful Medieval building still stands.
The Medieval "Tower of Chesterton": the old church house
In the 15th century the chancel was rebuilt and the North porch and clerestory were added.
The Canons of Vercelli ended the two centuries' link with Chesterton as in 1436 Henry VI, with the aid of Pope Eugenius IV, seized the church and passed it on to King's Hall Cambridge (now Trinity College). There were subsequent efforts from the Abbey to regain the benefice but the Reformation intervened. By the end of the 15th century a wall painting representing the Last Judgement, a very popular theme, was commissioned.
It is known that on 25 May 1668 Samuel Pepys visited the church ... walked to Chesterton to see our old walk; and there into the Church, the bells ringing, and saw the place I used to sit in; and so to the ferry, and ferried over to the other side and walked with great pleasure, the river being mighty high by Barnwell Abbey; and so by Jesus College to the town…
Until the 18th century the vicars were fellows of Trinity College and lived there, until in 1803 Parliament passed an act that insisted on parish priests living within the parish premises. In the early 1820s a vicarage was built on Church Street.
The real gems of this church are the details that bring us back to life in Medieval England: the bosses in the forms of jesters or angels (within the sanctuary).
15th century boss
A very interesting feature are also the pew ends which are from the 1430s/1440s. The are several carved figures: from imaginary animals such as griffins, dragons, greyhounds as it was popular at the time, to men dressed in English 15th century fashion.
15th century pew end
The sanctuary is also an interesting part of the church that brings us back to the history of the Church in England. There are still traces that show where the rood screen would have been (the wooden "fence" that divided the church from the sanctuary); the roof bosses here are not mocking jesters but rather angels, and on the right is the piscina for the holy vessels and the sedilia where deacon, priest and subdeacon would have been seated during the Mass.
The whole chancel is opened by the real treasure of this church, the arch above the sanctuary is decorated with a rare Medieval wall painting representing the Last Judgement.
Last Judgement scenes, also known as "Doom Paintings", were very popular in the Middle Ages, and in England some have survived, not many are well preserved but the one at Chesterton is not in bad conditions. The whole scene is focused on the still whitewashed figure of Christ in Majesty, and the rood that was the focal point of churches before the Reformation, beneath him are Saint Peter and the Virgin Mary who welcome the just into the heavenly Jerusalem (on the left), St. Michael is sounding a loud trumpet reawakening the dead. Angels and demons fight over the salvation or damnation of souls. On the right are the devil and the unfortunate souls - there is no hierarchy here, the damned include popes, monks, kings, all entering hell's mouth. The whole scene though is tempered by a certain sense of humour.
A demon in the Last Judgement
The artist and materials were not standard but rather high standard as compared to other churches. Eventually the painting was whitewashed during the Reformation, there are still fragments of the Protestant decorations such as the ten commandments, the Tudor rose and the coat of arms of James II.
The Last Judgement
The Pulpit is Jacobean, carved with in the patterns popular at the time, in the back of the church are information boards from the 18th and 19th century and a painting of the Royal Arms.
The Jacobean Pulpit
As it was popular in churches, I think that this splendid building shows the continuity of the Church in England and it gives an idea of what churches were like and how they changed. Each parish church has a long story to tell, explore the one closest to you and you may find some interesting story or hidden treasure!
The interesting fact is that churches like St. Andrew’s never cease to amaze, here is another story, again linked to Italy, that is quite impressive: in 1871 the church restorers opened up a ogee-shaped 14th century window at the south-east end of the south aisle. They made an amazing discovery, they found a 14th century wall painting in the jamb of an old window, previously hidden in the 15th century to make room for a more “fashionable” Perpendicular window. The art work that had been hidden for public view for most of its life was eventually handed over to the Fitzwilliam Museum.
At first the Victorian historians identified her as Saint Dorothy, a 4th century virgin martyr, but later scholarship concluded that the small scythe (’sithe’ in middle English) in her right hand must be a rebus. In her left hand is the reference to a miracle: when she took some bread for the poor, her master eventually asked what she was carrying and the bread transformed into flowers.
Sitha was born in c.1212 in central Tuscany, and served in Lucca with the Fratinelli family until she died in 1272 - she lived a devout life as an uneducated lay-woman. She didn’t care for possession but gave herself entirely to prayer and the poor. When she died her employers treated her with honour as one of the family - she was then popularly acclaimed as a saint. Her fame was not great elsewhere - except in England, where she became a role model for those of all classes that went into service, even the wealthy ones, as it was part of their education. She is pictured carrying a bunch of keys, symbols of her office in the household. In England, but not elsewhere, she became the heavenly assistant in finding lost keys (and other things), much to the contempt of the Reformers! Another interesting link between Italy and England. Saint Sitha can now be admired at the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge, very close to its original home.