The Church At Willingham
The church at Willingham is really something special. The outside is attractive but does not give a clue as to what treasures lie within. Well, lets go inside and take a look.
The inside is unusually colourful and warm-looking. Regular travellers "by Stargoose and Hanglands" will have spotted what I'm getting excited about. Yes, it has lots of medieval wall paintings.
These two paintings, decorating either side of a lancet window are St Etheldreda and her sister St Sexburga (that really was her name!). Etheldreda was the foundress of the monastery at Ely which later became the Cathedral. The paintings date from 1244.
This splendid painting of St Christopher, done in 1380 or thereabouts, is considered to be the finest in the country. Click on it to enlarge and you'll be able to see the expressions on the faces and little details like the fish swimming in the water around the saints feet.
This remarkable painting of the Virgin Mary and Elizabeth (soon to be the mother of John The Baptist) shows both women heavily pregnant, something which is hardly ever depicted elsewhere.
More painting can be seen above the Chancel Arch. This shows the entire scene of the Last Judgement, complete with Paradise on the left and Hell on the right, just to remind the congregation what fate might be awaiting them. The lower part of the Rood Screen is original 15th century work, while the upper portion was reconstructed in the 19th century from old drawings.
The wooden screen above dates from 1320 and is the oldest in Cambridgeshire. Even more remarkably it retains much of its original painted decoration. What look at first glance to be rough crosses are in fact made up of four green popinjays or parakeets.
Another beautiful wooden screen stands around the Lady Chapel. It is richly and somewhat idiosyncratically carved with some very odd symbols including this depiction of two gossips...
...see their long pointed tongues extending out to the left and right corners! there are also depictions of a Green Man, a rooster and assorted heads.
Further interesting little heads, one of which is shown above, adorn the armrests of the choir stalls. These heads are only about 6cm high.
This head is carved high on the wall. It shows the Rev John Watkins, the Rector of Willingham from 1890 to 1906, who donated £20,000 of his own money to restore the church. That's £1,800,000 at today's prices! Having let our eyes stray up so far shall we look at the roof? I rather think we should.
The magnificent oak roof is of a double hammer-beam construction and thought to have been made in the 15th century. But it was not made for this church. It was acquired when Barnwell Priory was knocked down in 1613. The angels, however were added in the 19th century.
I wrote in an earlier post about church musicians playing instruments including the serpent. Scott (the writer of an excellent blog "It Just Comes Naturally" ) asked what sort of instrument a serpent might be. Well, the carvers of the angels anticipated Scott's enquiry and helpfully provided the illustration above.
Back down at ground level there's an interesting14th century font with an elaborate wooden cover which was made to celebrate Queen Victoria's golden jubilee.
And the sedilia (seating for the clergy) and piscina (used for washing communion vessels) are of particularly elegant design. We could go on looking at more details in this splendid church, the leaflet which is available in the church for a very modest price points out many of them. And there is one very intriguing theory which it puts forward about the Sacristy (where vestments and parish records were kept).
This tiny annex, standing on the north side of the chancel, is a unique little piece of architecture . It was in existence in the 13th century and there is evidence that it was originally built as an Anchorhold where an Anchorite, or indeed Anchoress, was enclosed for a life of prayer and dedication. The booklet puts forward a rather compelling argument for this origin:
I suppose we'll never know but whatever the truth behind the this and the origin of other features in the church we can't help but be impressed by the workmanship and faith which went into the construction of each church. Most of the people involved, nameless and forgotten, lie in the churchyard.
- there is a narrow doorway, only opening to about 45 degrees, which would have allowed the recluse to take part in services.
- a small window on the north side where food and drink could have been given.
- the location on the north side would have meant that the penance would have been increased by receiving no sunlight.
- a floor area of 140 square feet conforms to the Anchorite rule book.
St.Etheldreda rang an instant bell since I love Ely Cathedral. Thank goodness Oliver Cromwell did not live near this church so it has bor been desecrated like Ely. A really delightful romanesque church and so many in England are.ReplyDelete
Have you investigated the little church at Trumpington? Many, many years ago I did a rubbing of Sir Roger de Trumpington, unfortunately it burned down with our house in the major bushfire of 1983. It had the most wonderful things on the floor. I walked there from Cambridge while the Prof. was at a conference.
I know the Trumpington church as it's only a mile or so from my Mother's house, the house where I grew up. I'll put it on my list of places to write about. I did a post about Ely Cathedral a while back, you should find it if you click on the Churches label.Delete
This church remains open to the public but not used for worship any longer? Paintings dating back so far; it's remarkable..oh I see you say this yourself when I look at the next painting :) Oh the roofing timbers, exquisite. Considering the age, it really looks to be in good nick.ReplyDelete
The church is still used for worship, Carole, and is open to the public every day. Several people came in while I was there.ReplyDelete
An excellent church with a most impressive ceiling.ReplyDelete
I like the old paintings - It's a wonder they didn't come to grief at some point nor are they faded beyond seeing. Have they spent some of their life underneath whitewash - redecoration is often the unlikely saviour of old murals.
I think you may be right about the paintings having been hidden by whitewash, though I'm not really sure. Also they are unusually high up, tucked beneath the dark ceiling - it was certainly very tricky to take photos of that ceiling!Delete
You've done it again, John! I marvel at your photos and well-written narratives. I also marvel at these old churches, in use and elaborated over centuries. The architectural detail wouldn't be possible if the structures were in use for only a few decades. And how did a cleric amass the equivalent of 1.8 million Pounds?ReplyDelete
Okay, that last part...to me no different than a prison? That is weird and difficult for me to understand. Enough reason for me to become a heathen at the time.ReplyDelete
It certainly seems a weird idea today, doesn't it? What could one contemplate when shut away from both the works of God and the doings of humanity?Delete
Amazing that so much of this has been lovingly preserved. The old timbers of the ceiling with carvings is beautiful.ReplyDelete
I especially love that amazing roof. Amazing that's lasted so long!ReplyDelete
Living in western rural American we have absolutely no structures with any history, past the late 1800’s, if that. We live in a small town that was not even on the map until the building of Grand Coulee Dam during the Great Depression. It is a desert town and without irrigation this land was unlivable, except for the jack rabbit, dear, elk, coyote and rattle snake. Most of our earliest buildings where built in the forties, with the exception of a few that were moved here from neighboring towns. They were pulled here by mule and horse teams. Therefore; when I see this gorgeous old church in all its glory, my heart almost stops at the thought of so much traceable history. Here we tear down and build again, there you preserve the beauty of the past and all the history that goes with it. Bravo! Thank you for taking these lovely photos, and thank you for doing so much research and sharing it with us. Connie :)ReplyDelete
The continuity of the saints - the communion of saints. An old, old church certainly makes me think about that. I'm so glad the church is still being used for worship. Wonderful that the ancient paintings are still visible. All the various architectural features give different flavours of their time. The parakeets are quite intriguing, and the angels in the rafters - well, I would imagine that you'd get quite a crick in your neck trying to see them.ReplyDelete
Gosh what an amazing place to explore John, like you I would have been fascinated with the ancient paintings, just imagining what it would have been like when they were first painted. Laughed out loud at sister St Sexburga REALLY if only they knew how that would cause many a chuckle. The story about the tiny annex at the end did freak me out a little also, they really were a touch fanatical in those days!ReplyDelete
What a wonderful post John, the wall paintings are just phenomenal especially St Christopher, I don't think I've ever seen so much surviving and the colours are still so vibrant. The theory about the vestry having originally been Anchorhold is both fascinating and logical. Some wonderful carving too - you find such interesting places.ReplyDelete
Marvelous. St. Christopher particularly...my son's name and patron Saint. Feel as though I had visited myself.ReplyDelete