St. Wilfrid's Church, Wilford.


Read at the Society's Visit to Wilford, September 16th, 1921.


St. Wilfrid's church, Wilford. South West view.
St. Wilfrid's church, Wilford. South West view.

A little more than a hundred years ago a local antiquary described this church as "spacious and neat, the architecture plain but chaste Gothic" (Stretton 1810).

The words may still be appropriate, but the description is insufficient and many interesting things are left unsaid; for this has been a consecrated spot ever since the Saxon Heptarchy.

We know that a tiny church, whose genesis is shrouded in the mists of time, burgeoned with each succeeding century, until it has become a venerable parish church.

The name of the patron saint of this early church is retained in the name of the village, for Wilford is generally held to be a contraction of Wilfrid's ford, and suggests that a church dedicated to St. Wilfrid, the Saxon missionary bishop, gave the name to a Roman ford near which it stood, in order to distinguish it from the "bridge-ford" of Edward the Elder, a little lower down stream.

A fragment of walling at the east end of the nave, built with stones dug from the site, eked out with boulders from the river bed, is probably a relic of this pre-conquest church.

It was evidently enlarged and beautified during the "Transition" period (Henry I.). Proof of this isseen in the fragments of worked stone which have been built into the west wall of the south aisle and the porch for preservation; and in a portion of walling at the eastern end of the aisle, wherein is a piscina niche in situ ornamented with "sunk star" and "cable" mouldings.

The piscina owes its preservation to the fact that during 17th century decadence it was covered with stucco and whitewash, and only brought to light again in 1891.

The altar which it served was dedicated to St. Katherine, as we may learn from testamentary burials, in the archives at York.

A more extensive enlargement was carried out in the 14th century, when a new nave of three bays and a north aisle was built.

Whether it was that a flood which devastated the Trent valley in 1346 irreparably damaged this church, as it did at Barton; or whether the enlargement was due to the growing importance of the agricultural community; or to the prosperity of the knightly family of de Wilford, or de Clifton, as they were then variously styled; or whether it was that Gervase de Wilford—who was an ecclesiastic as well as a lawyer, and who had risen to be a Baron of the Exchequer, and Chief Baron in 1350, upon retirement from office in 1361 to Wilford, where his son was rector, had devoted his old age to church building; whether one or all of these causes combined to bring about the extension no one can tell us now.

An examination of the work in the nave will yield little whereby a definite date can be fixed.

Three pointed arches in two orders of chamfers, carried on octagonal piers, having moulded capitals and plain chamfered bases, are features common to many village churches of the 14th century and later, but there is nothing save the contour of the mouldings to give a clue. Seeing that the head moulding of the capitals is an advance on the all prevailing "scroll-moulding" of the earlier part of the I4th century, I should fix the date circa 1360.

The present chancel arch and the pier arcades of the nave were comprised in this 14th century re-construction. It should be noticed that the arches on the south side are spaced a little wider than the arches on the north side, so that the piers do not come opposite to each other; neither do the windows of the clerestory, which was added later (four on one side and three on the other) centre with each other or with the arcades below.

I think the stone for the nave was quarried at Cinder Hill and floated to the site via the Leen and tributaries, which made confluence with the Trent directly opposite to the church.

The inference is that the old chancel received no attention at that time, but was allowed to stand until it became derelict, for the eastern face of the responds of the chancel arch shew traces of having been external for a time.

The stones are scored with vertical grooves which were probably made by parishioners when sharpening their arrows, during Sunday afternoon archery practice in the churchyard.

Some fragments of stonework which lie about on the Glebe farm appear to me to be all that remains of the 12th century chancel.

A new and very beautiful chancel was built circa 1430 (Henry VI). The date of it is approximately fixed by two testamentary burials, (1) John de Eyton by will dated 1391, desired "to be buried before the high altar in the choir of Wilford," so that the old chancel must have been standing at that time. (2) William Clyfton by will dated 1456, desired "to be buried in the choir of Wilford church," so that the new chancel must have been completed by that time.

The erection would therefore take place between those two dates.

As William Clyfton was instituted to the Rectory by the patron, Sir Gervase Clyfton in 1426; and as the churches at Barton and Clifton, in the same lordship, had undergone repair and reconstruction, emulation appears to have spread to Wilford.

To say that when this chancel left the builders' hands it was a gem of architecture, would not be hyperbole: it would be only a simple statement of fact. Like its prototypes at Wollaton (32ft. by 16ft.) and Barton (36ft. by 18ft.) the plan is a double square (38ft. by 19ft.) and all the details proclaim that this chancel is the work of the Southwell guild, or band of Freemasons.

Internally it has been despoiled beyond recognition, but externally it still exhibits signs of its former gracefulness. The ashlar masonry is well and truly executed with selected coal-measures sandstone, quarried on Trowell moor and floated to the site via the Erewash and the Trent; the diagonal buttresses at the end and the rectangular buttresses at the sides are carried above the embattled parapet and finished with crocketed pinnacles; the windows, especially the south-west window, are elegant examples of their kind. The label moulding to these windows is not without interest to the student of mediaeval masonry, for while all appear to be alike, a close inspection shews that the inner member of the moulding is diversified in treatment according to the fancy of the workmen. (See sketch).

If we let imagination have play, and picture the chancel with a high-pitch lead-covered roof, rising behind the battlement, as it was aforetime, it will help to confirm the suggestion I have made, that the work here was wrought by the men who, having reached almost to perfection in the chancel at Tideswell (which is conventual in its size and proportions) adapted their lofty ideals to the requirements of a village church.