Travel to any rural locality in England and you can automatically guarantee to be within sight of an English church. Whether high on a hill or squat-towered nestling in a secluded hamlet, English churches are fascinating places to visit for their historical merit alone. Each is a time capsule of treasures; a tantalizing glimpse into the past.
Pushing open the heavy wooden door, that could well be as old as the church itself, the first thing you will probably see as you step into the nave is the baptism font. Some examples are plain, smooth-sided Saxon or Norman survivors, (such as those at Eardisley in Herefordshire, Walsoken in Norfolk and Clifton Hampden in Oxfordshire), while the majorities are from a later date.
Unlike today, where only the sign of the cross is traced on the forehead with holy water, in the early days of baptism people stood inside the font while the water was scattered over them. This explains why the earliest fonts are deeper than those followed afterwards.
These later fonts are noticeably smaller and smaller, often elaborately carved and standing above the floor level on a plinth or short pillows. Some examples still retain their original wooden covers, or holes in the stonework where the fixing ring for the cover had once been.
It was common practice in the Middle-Ages for superstitious healers to steal small amounts of the holy water to use in their treatments and potions, and for those working on the land to sprinkle some on the fields believing it would guarantee a good crop at harvest time.
At the opposite end of the church, near to the altar and above the heads of the congration, stands the wooden or carved-stone pulpit for the priest to preach his sermon.
During the reign of Elizabeth 1, sermons were of interminable length, reflecting anything from two to four hours. With the absence of clocks in churches at that time, (although a 17th century clock is on display in Grendon church, Northamptonshire), the priest regulated the duration of his sermon by means of an hour-glass (similar to a domestic egg-timer ) filled with sand. Sadly, many of these glasses have not survived the centers, although a few do exist, such as those at Amberley in Sussex, Bloxworth in Dorset and Compton Basset in Wiltshire. The brackets however in which they were once held are more common and can sometimes be discovered, fixed to a wall or pillar within arms length of the pulpit.
Before the 1400's, seating in churches was virtually unheard of, except for a few stone examples set against the wall for the sick and infirm. It was from the use of these seats that the common English saying “the weakest to wall” originated.In the mid-15th century wooden benches began to appear which incorporated carved ends. These bench end carvings, known as 'Poppy Heads', (from the French word 'Poupee' meaning puppet or figurehead), have full control of the local wood carvers to display their art. An infinite variety of beautiful and intricately carved Poppy Heads can be found through a large number of English village churches.
Nowadays the records of births, deaths and marriages are stored by government departments, but prior to this church records relating to a particular village were kept in the church chest . Although they may look alike each chest is exclusive, with the major being hundreds of years old and constructed by the village carpenter.
The earliest chests, known as 'dug-outs', (as at Curdworth, Warwickshire), are literally just that. A large rectangular hollow was dug out of a 'squared off' single log of hardwood such as oak, a cut was sliced through the full length near the top to form the lid, and hinges added. Later chests however were slightly more sophisticated. A lock, and in many instances up to five locks, was fitted with the front panel often decorated with iron scroll- work by the local blacksmith.
Throughout history it has always been the responsibility of the church to help the poor of the parish in whatever way they can. As a result it is quite common to find an alms box in many village churches. A particularly beautiful and original example can be found in the Northamptonshire village of Welton. Hand carved in a rich, warm, dark-brown wood it is a hand outstretched resting on a wooden box. A slot in the palm enables the donated money to drop into the alms box.
Bread was always needed by the poor in English villages, and for this reason a 'dole' cupboard can sometimes be found attached to an inner wall of a church. An excellent example of such a 'dole' cupboard or 'bread rack' as they are also known, is on display in the church of All Saints in the Bedfordshire village of Milton Ernest. An open-fronted cupboard, installed in the church in 1726, it contains twelve loaf-shaped recesses to hold the bread that was 'delled' out to the poor every Sunday.
With relatively plain white walls, the village church of today may appear to some to be bland and sombre, but centuries ago the opposite was true. In the Middle-Ages their interiors were once an inspirational riot of color. Looking like huge picture books, virtually every free space on a wall was covered with murals depicting a wide variety of religious scenes and themes. Professional traveling painters went from village to village, church to church, covering the bare walls with pigments made from natural substances such as iron oxide, candle soot, malachite and lime putty. The brushes they used were handmade. For the larger areas of an illustration they were made from hog's hair, while the more detailed, intricate areas were painted with brushes made from squirrel-tail hairs.
The demise of the era of the medieval wall painting began around 1547, a direct result of the 'Reformation', when the “obliteration 'of all' popish and superstitious images” was ordered. But, the final death knell for these beautiful paintings sounded one hundred years later in 1644 during the English Civil War.
Unbelievably, Parliamentary authorities appointed a 'Commissioner for the Destruction of Images'. Although a large number of wall paintings were totally destroyed, others were covered up with nothing more than layers of whitewash. Many historians and preservationists are of the opinion that instead of destroying the art, the layers of whitewash may have in fact preserved them. It would be interesting to know how many 'lost' medieval wall paintings still remain to be discovered.
In the scope of this article it would be impossible to highlight every interesting and historical item to be seen in the average English village church. However, here is a short list of unusual things to be found in some village churches.
Leather fire buckets dated 1743 – Kislingbury, Northamptonshire, an old manual fire engine of 1760 – Worlingworth, Suffolk, six popgun cannons – Fenny Stratford, Buckinghamshire, a huge leather mastiff dog collar – Selborn, Hampshire and village stocks at Alwington, Devon.
Although many churches may look similar in design, each building is in fact unique. For this reason alone every church is worth a visit. Whether large or small, plain or prioritize, each village church contains one or more items of historical interest simply waiting to be discovered and explored.