THE CHURCH PORCHES AND DOORWAYS OF NOTTINGHAMSHIRE.
By Mr. Harry Gill.
THE south porch of a village church with its sunny aspect, its seclusion and shelter from the noise and turmoil of the world, is a fitting place wherein to sit and ponder over the long history of the past. In mediaeval England, the church stood for many things, and was the centre around which the life of the community revolved.
The proverb had it that "all roads lead to Rome," and we have coined a local variant which says that " all roads lead to London." With even more regard for literal accuracy, it might have been said in olden time, that all paths led to the church porch.
Village children received such education as the time afforded in the church porch, finding their way thither by the most direct route; the field labourer, on his way to and from his daily toil, continued to pass the ever open door of the church, and glancing in as he passed, obtained comfort and consolation from the pictured saints on window and wall; and "our ancestors left of their land a broad and sufficient bier-balk to carry the corse to christian burial" (Rog. Week. p.iv. p.443).
Every stage in the journey of life, from the cradle to the grave, was associated in one way or another with the church porch. As soon as might be, after an English child had been safely born into the world, it was brought to the church for its Christening, and in due time the mother came ante ostium ecclesiae for her Purification.
At Baptism, every child was brought to the font which "usually stands—at or near the church door to signify that Baptism was the entrance unto the Church Mystical" (Cardwell Conf. 355). The rubric of 1549 runs thus:—
Note that yf the numbre of children to be Baptized, and multitude of people presente bee so great that they cannot conveniently stand at the Churche doore : then let them stand within the Churche in some convenient place, nygh to the Churche doore ; and there all thynges be sayed and done, appoynted to be sayed and done at the Churche doore.
After the ceremonial marking of the cross on forehead and breast &c., the priest "so blessing the child, taketh it by the right hand and biddeth it enter into the Church, & so proceedeth to the font." (Lynwood 39, temp. Henry V.)
The marriage ceremony commenced in the church porch and was completed with the Benediction before the altar; hence the term "wedding porch," so frequently used in mediaeval documents.
Banns were published on three successive Sundays, the parties thereto standing "at the church door." When the happy day arrived, the service was begun in the porch, and it was not until after the ring had been blessed, sprinkled with holy water from the stoup, and placed on the finger of the bride, that the wedding party entered the church and proceeded to the altar, for the completion of the service with the Benediction. History records, that not a few of our English kings were thus married, in accordance with this ritual.
"William de Belew, son of Robert de Belew, who married Alice the daughter of William de Arnal, gave her in Dower at the Church door before marriage, all his lands in Lamcote." (22 Henry II.) Thoroton's History of Notts., p.235.
"She was a worthy woman all her live Husbands at church-dore had she five "
(Chaucer, Wife of Bath.)
Canterbury Tales 1384-1391.
The western doorway at Hawton, a beautiful example of 15th century workmanship, is in itself a memorial of the marriage of a patron of the church. Carved in relief, among the lines of flamboyant tracery, with which the upper portion of the oak door is decorated, are the words "JESU MERCY LADYE HELPE," together with the initial letter M for Molineux; while in the spandrils of the stonework armorial shields are introduced; a moline cross for Molineux on the dexter side, and the same impaling the rampant lion of the Markhams on the sinister side. Sir Thomas Molineux of Sefton (Lancashire) and Hawton (Notts.), who caused this doorway to be built, had married a daughter of Sir Richard Markham of Cotham. Approximately, this marriage fixes the date of this work. He died in 1491.
In the very earliest days of the Church in England, burial within a church was prohibited ; but under special circumstances, burial in the porch was allowed. As time went on, innovations were made, until eventually the whole area of the church, and especially the vicinity of altars and images, was eagerly sought as a place of sepulchre—the chancel by priests and patrons, and the body of the church by laymen. To quote but one well-known instance,—Was not "Holy George Herbert," by his own desire buried under the altar [at Bemerton? (3rd March, 1632). Nevertheless, the porch continued to be looked upon as a desirable place of interment by persons of eminent piety, as the following extracts from testamentary burials in this county will shew:—
Joh. de Gateford, in his will dated june 26, 1347, desired " to be buried in the porch" at Worksop.
John Younge of Burgh in the parish of Elton, "to be buried in the porch commonly called S. Maries Porch." Elton, 17 March 1429.
Henry Mylott, vicar of Attenboro', "to be buried in the porch." 7th October 1473.
Sir John Hardy, vicar, "to be buried in the church porch." Car Colston. 21 September 1520.
Failing the porch, it was a sign of humility to desire burial near to the church door.
Christopher Saureby, vicar, "to be buried before the chancel door," East Markham, 20 April 1439.
Hugh Smyth, rector, "to be buried in the churchyard, against the entrance of the porch." Saundby, 30 June 1467.
John Elston, parson, "to be buried in ye Kirke Yarde of Shelton afore the Kirk door, at the east side." 10th Oct. 1483.
And our own Dr. Thoroton was buried in a stone coffin, beside the chancel door at Car Colston, 21st November, 1678.
Beautiful and interesting specimens of ancient grave-covers, incised with Calvary crosses, border inscriptions, and in some cases with symbols to indicate the occupation of the deceased, may be found on the floor or the walls; but while some of these are in situ, in many cases they are but fragments which have been gathered together by loving hands, and fixed in the porch for their better protection—a practice to be highly commended.
In the floor of the north porch at Southwell, an incised stone, having an illegible inscription, a Tau cross, and date (1536), is supposed to be the memorial of the last sacristan who kept vigil in the church, and slept in the chamber above the porch.
In the south west porch at Attenborough, there are three incised stones. Two of these still lie in the floor, but one has recently been fixed upright against the wall for its better preservation. It is more than probable, that one of these commemorates the vicar before mentioned, who willed his body to be buried in the porch. The other two may also have covered the graves of former vicars, several of whom were canons of Felley, and are known to have died while serving at Attenborough.
At Papplewick, fragments of sculpture, which was probably a Norman representation of the patron saint, St. James, with pilgrim staff, together with a number of incised stones, have been built into the walls of the 17th century porch. On each of two of the grave covers, a pair of bellows is displayed, to indicate a worker at the forest forge; while another cover bears the baldric and horn, and the bow and arrow of a forester, on the dexter and sinister sides respectively of a Calvary cross.
In the south porch at Upper Broughton, which appears to have been rebuilt, c. 1733, in part with old material, a portion of an ancient grave cover bearing an incised cross, was built into the wall above the entrance door; and a curious and perplexing fragment of stone, with rows of "nail-head" ornament and a small crowned figure, was built into the eastern wall. There has been controversy regarding this stone, some authorities attributing it to Tudor times, while others look upon it as a remnant of greater antiquity, and say that the figure was intended to represent the Saxon saint, St. Oswald, king of Northumbria, who was slain by Penda, king of the Mercians, in 642, and to whom this church (now St. Luke's) was originally dedicated.
In the elaborate ceremonial ritual of the mediaeval Church, the porch also played an important part.
Let us imagine, that it is the festival of the patron saint, whose image is enshrined in a little niche above the entrance, or at the side thereof. The bell in the steeple proclaims a holy-day—a day whereon all labour ceases and bond and free are equal in the sight of the Lord. From all directions, parishioners of high degree and of low degree—the knight and his lady, the yeoman and his spouse, the bondman and his wife, accompanied by their children, wend their way by the nearest route, over footpath and stile, to the porch of the village church, where with great reverence and solemnity they cross themselves before entering the sacred doors. "At the entry of the church, or within the door of the same, an Holy Water Stock or pot, having in it holy water to sprinkle upon the enterer to put him in remembrance both of his promises, made at the time of his Baptism, and sprinkling of Christ's blood upon the Cross for his redemption," as a reminder to make his soul fair and think upon his life "passing and sliding away as the water does." (Cardwell Conf. I. 150.)
The stoup was a piscina-like bason of stone, lined with lead, but without any hole or drain. It was generally placed on a corbel or shaft, or within a recess "atte or near the church dore," on the right-hand side of the south entrance to the church. In isolated cases, a stoup has been found in conjunction with the west door, where it would be on the right-hand side on leaving the church.
The holy-water stoup, or stoppe, (the old name for a bucket1), still remains in a more or less mutilated condition in many village churches. There is a good 15th century example at Holme, near Newark. The exposed sides are panelled and cusped; the central panel bears a Tudor rose and the side panels have blank shields.
Stoups are also found at Hockerton, East Drayton, Everton, Fledborough.
When the festival service was over, the scene rapidly changed to one of pleasure and mirth. The churchyard was enlivened with shows, dances, wrestling-matches, and other sports, and the church-house ale was freely drunk. The consequences were sometimes shocking, and the other side of the picture was seen at the church door on the morrow. The following quotation is from the "Chronicle of Jocelin of Brakelonde":—"On the morrow of the Nativity of our Lord (A.D. 1196.) there took place in the churchyard meetings, wrestlings, & matches, between the servants of the Abbot & the burgesses of the town; & from words they came to blows, from cuffs to wounds & to the shedding of blood." Upon this being brought to the Abbot's notice, he determined to name and publicly excommunicate the offenders. "And it was done accordingly, we putting on our robes & lighting the candles. So they all went forth from the church, & being advised so to do, they all stripped themselves, & altogether naked, except their drawers, they prostrated themselves before the door of the church. More than a hundred men were lying down thus denuded of their clothing, whereat the Abbot wept, but making a show of legal severity they were all sharply whipped; penance was assigned to them, and thus they were restored to unity and concord."
Penance for every sin against Holy Church was done in the church porch. After being purged of the fault, the penitent, clothed in white or covered with a white sheet, was required to stand in the porch on a Sunday, from the commencement of the service until after the lessons were read, when he was allowed to go within the church again.
Jocelin's account closes with the words:—"further the Abbot publicly forbade meetings & shows to be had in the churchyard."
The incident referred to took place at the monastic church, Bury St. Edmunds, but the custom of holding sports in churchyards must have become general, and very deeply rooted; for in spite of the Abbot's prohibition, we find continuous references to the custom during succeeding years.
(1) O.N. staup, as well as stava, is a milking-pail or wooden vessel with one stave prolonged; hence the name.