ST MARY'S CHURCH
By Barry Jobling
While maintaining a sense of serenity and peace, St. Mary’s warm character reflects the spirit and care of parishioners over many hundreds of years to the present day.
A BRIEF HISTORY
Buckden Church is recorded in the Domesday Book of 1086, within the jurisdiction of the Bishops of Lincoln, whose palace stands a few metres to the north; and from Saxon until Georgian times, the church was well endowed by them. A few traces of the Saxon and Norman church survive.
The structure of the church as you see it today is almost unchanged from when it was rebuilt between 1435 and1440 by Bishops Gray and Alnwick of Lincoln; only the pews would be unfamiliar to them.
The porch was added around 1485 and the vestry and organ were replaced in the 1880s. The last major works, involving the stripping of the plaster and the renewal of pews, were completed in 1909 and a Living Stones room, kitchen and toilets were added along the north side in 2011 to celebrate the second millennium of Christianity.
WELCOME TO ST ST MARY'S CHURCH
While the main body of the porch dates to 1485, including the ceiling boss of the Assumption of St. Mary and a very early example of a Tudor rose, it also contains the oldest part of the church, the doorway. The two stone columns on either side of the doorway are from the original c1215 entrance and were relocated here in 1435 when the church was extended. And as the fine oak door has welcomed parishioners and visitors for over 580 years it can be forgiven for creaking a little! At the top of the door can be seen the outline of its original decorative wooden tracery, now long gone.
The initials inscribed in the wood and stone mainly attest to commercial and private agreements sworn in church, but some may have been scratched by children attending Buckden’s earliest school held in this porch from about 1600.
Outside, beneath the porch parapet, is a string of carved animals including geese being chased by a fox, a muzzled bear, dogs, a pig and a horizontal owl; and ten squirrels climb the main arch.
This font was carved at the beginning of the 15th century and its now blank side shields would once have been brightly painted with the coats of arms of benefactors and patron saints. The base and cover are Victorian. Although records show that it has been moved at least four times, to and from the tower room, it is now back in its original location by the door, symbolising entry into the church via baptism.
THE PARVIS CHAMBER DOOR
This lovely old door, next to the font, has given access to the small parvis chamber, above the porch, since 1485. Especially notable is the original handle crafted and painted by a blacksmith 530 years ago. Behind the door is a narrow circular staircase up to the chamber, primarily built to store church goods, but occasionally used to house travelling priests. In Buckden’s case it also once safely housed a precious medieval library.
The nave was rebuilt during Bishop Gray’s time, starting in 1435 using the plan of the Norman nave, then adding the south aisle. The north aisle was built about 50 years later. The clerestory (the windowed upper part of the nave) was completed by Bishop Alnwick around 1440, as witnessed by his shield of arms, a cross moline, being held by the stone angel corbels supporting the wooden roof.
Notice how the nave is offset against the pre-existing tower. The intention was probably to match the north and south aisles, but perhaps the contemporary digging of the palace moat, lapping against the north wall, obliged the builders to squeeze the north arcade and aisle further into the nave than planned. This moat section was drained and filled in 1788.
On the south arcade are carved stone grotesques, as a warning to potentially erring parishioners, while on the north arcade are carvings of ladies’ heads wearing hairstyles that well pre-date the arcade itself; possibly reused from the earlier church.
High in the wooden roof, opposite the main door, is an inscription inserted by the then churchwardens, John Jackson and Cadwalader Powell (II & CP), commemorating the restoration of the roof in 1649, probably following damage caused during the Commonwealth.
THE HIDDEN FACE
Recently discovered, there is inserted among the building rubble high up at the western end of the north aisle wall, the carved face of a bearded man. It is possibly that of Christ, dating to around the 1080s from the late Anglo-Saxon or early Norman church and reused when the aisle was built in the c1480s. As the walls were then covered in plaster, this face did not see the light of day for another 500 years, still he continued to keep watch over his congregation as he does today.
THE BELL TOWER
The lowest courses of the tower are 13th century, but most of it including the spire is 15th century work. It still contains the oak bell frame constructed in 1637 and our ‘Catholic’ bell cast in 1510, which survived the confiscation of its five neighbours at the time of the Reformation. The current six bells, including that cast for the second millennium, were rehung in a steel frame, and are still rung for services.
BISHOP PELHAM’S MEMORIAL
The sculpture to Bishop Pelham (died 1827) by EH Baily RA was removed from the chancel to the north aisle in 1884 when the organ was installed. Baily carved the statue of Admiral Nelson on top of the column in Trafalgar Square, London, in 1842.
The Puritan pulpit has been moved and reduced in size several times in its 380-year life. It may have been built standing against one of the columns in the south arcade, later moving to the south side of the chancel arch before finally coming to rest in 1909, where we see it today.
The panels and newel post retain the fine, simple geometric carving of the Commonwealth days.
In 1437, while retaining the original wall structure of the Norman chancel, Prebend John Depyng inserted the larger windows and raised the height of the walls. Originally, there was some stained glass in the east window, including a dedication by Depyng himself.
Note the carved wooden angel choir, holding tablets and psalters, high above your head; they too date to the late 1430s. Like much of the church this choir would formerly have been brightly painted and gilded.
This doorway near the high altar is unchanged from c1270 when it was the entrance for officiating clergy, out of sight of the congregation. Before the 1560s, the congregation were not permitted beyond the chancel step, and for about eighty years prior to that a rood screen partitioned the chancel and nave.
THE TWO UNRELATED BISHOPS BARLOW AND DR. SANDERSON
Bishop Thomas Barlow’s fine, large 1692 memorial is on the north wall of the chancel, incorporating the remains of Bishop William Barlow’s earlier 1613 monument. The Latin inscription refers to the puritan ‘rabid fanatics’ who destroyed Bishop William’s tomb during the Commonwealth period.
Beneath the altar lies a memorial slab to Bishop Robert Sanderson, (1587-1663) the favourite preacher of King Charles II, and author of the Preface to the 1662 Prayer Book. His dying wish was that he ‘be buried beneath the altar of Buckden church without pomp or ceremony’, and his wishes were carried out.
THE PISCINA AND SEDILIA C1270
The 13th century piscina or washbasin is located close to the high altar and is still used to cleanse the holy vessels after communion, the holy water draining into consecrated ground. Adjacent to it is a simple yet stylish sedilia (three seats) clearly showing the pecking order for presiding clergy, the highest seat being for the priest, the middle for the deacon and the lowest for the sub-deacon; the bishop having a separate throne.
THE BRASS LECTURN
The Victorian brass eagle, the largest and most glorious of birds, is depicted as flying out to the world with the word of God. Buckden’s lectern was donated in memory of Canon Henry Linton of Stirtloe and was used for the first time on Easter Sunday, 1st April 1888.
THE ROOD LOFT DOOR
To promote worship of the holy cross or ‘rood’ in the 15th century, a gallery was inserted in the chancel arch above the rood screen. The recesses where the gallery’s support beam rested on the arch columns may still be seen. The choir and musicians gained access to the gallery via a spiral staircase within the south side of the arch. The rood loft door here in the south aisle is original and was made about the time of the battle of Bosworth Field in 1485. The rood screen and loft were probably removed around 1560.
THE STAINED GLASS
In the south aisle, at the top of the east and west windows, are what little remains of the original 1440 stained glass, probably crafted by the school of Norwich glaziers. The eastern scene shows the Coronation of the Virgin, and the western scene depicts the Annunciation of the Virgin. Delightfully, they avoided destruction although some panels were defaced.
THE KING CHARLES II ALTAR
At the east end of the south aisle is an ancient altar, rediscovered in the old vicarage in 1921 and refurbished in memory of George Page, churchwarden, in 1929. Records show that it had been the church’s altar from the time of the restoration of the monarchy in 1660.
The oak top, legs and base are original.
THE ANGEL ORCHESTRA
The winged musicians in the roof of the south aisle have provided the accompaniment for their angel cousins in the chancel choir for 580 years. The now unfamiliar instruments they are playing are (left to right) the lute, viol, shawm, psaltery and hurdy-gurdy; and it is believed that they were modelled on those played by the Buckden church band at the time.
The churchyard contains 383 gravestones, and their inscriptions have been recorded by surname and location, in a reference book on the cabinet by the font. The churchyard may contain about 10,000 burials.
In a medieval tabletop tomb, fifteen metres south-east of the porch, lie the remains of the young Dukes of Suffolk. On 10th July 1551, Henry Brandon, the 15-year-old Duke of Suffolk arrived at the Bishop’s Palace with his 13-year-old brother, Charles. Four days later, he succumbed to the ‘English Sweat’ (a virulent and highly contagious hantavirus) and within thirty minutes his younger brother had also died. Thus poor Charles became the shortest-lived peer on record.
John Newton (1725-1807), a former slave-ship captain, was ordained priest in Buckden Church in 1764 and went on to write many hymns including ‘Amazing Grace’ and to work actively with William Wilberforce to abolish slavery.