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St Michael, Berechurch, Colchester


Audley chapel

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For anyone exploring Essex with an enthusiasm for the past, it must be said that the larger towns are generally not as fulfilling as the smaller ones. But Colchester is the great exception, even away from the historic town centre. The southern suburbs are mostly interesting and attractive, some of them former Roman settlements with wharves onto the River Colne which empties out into the sea to the east. Indeed, it would be true to say that in general the settlements are more interesting than their parish churches. But Berechurch is today an uninspiring sprawl of housing estates, while its church has a singular feature of great interest.

The derivation of the name 'Berechurch' is uncertain, but it might simply mean a place with a boarded church, although such a thing would of course not be unusual in Essex. The church sits on a busy road, and it might surprise you to learn that in 1975 it was declared redundant. But in those days the church was out in the fields, the large garrison separating it from the town centre, and all this development has taken place in the last forty years or so. The church had been built as a chapel of ease to Holy Trinity in the centre of town, but after the Reformation it became a parish church in its own right. Perhaps this was an affirmation of a major rebuilding programme of the late 15th and early 16th Centuries, of which the mostly red brick tower survives, albeit restored. Certainly, none of it is boarded now. The rest of the church was almost completely rebuilt in the 1870s by Charles Pertwee, also in red brick, with the exception of the early 16th Century Audley Chapel which sits on the north side of the chancel and to which we will come back in a moment.

The church lay empty and abandoned for several years after redundancy, but underwent a furious wrecking spree by vandals in 1981. After this, the Diocese of Chelmsford hurriedly obtained a demolition order, but before it could be carried out there was a campaign to save the church which was successful thanks to the co-operation of Colchester Borough Council and the then-Redundant Churches Fund. The Borough oversaw the restoration of the nave and chancel, converting it into office space and splitting it into two levels which make it hard to appreciate the integrity of the interior. At the time of my visit in 2013 the upper floor was home to a firm of solicitors and the lower floor to a firm of architects. The exception to all this was that the Redundant Churches Fund, today the Churches Conservation Trust, took on the Audley Chapel, and still maintain it today.

You enter the chapel through its exterior door on the north side (the entrance from the chancel is now blocked off) and step into an intimate space that is wholly dominated by the substantial memorials of the Audley family. The most impressive of these is to Sir Henry Audley, installed in 1648.

Sir Henry Audley, 1648 Sir Henry Audley, 1648 Sir Henry Audley, 1648
left holding the skull two Audley sons three Audley daughters

As James Bettley points out in his revision of the Buildings of England volume for Essex, Sir Henry's memorial was installed while he was alive - indeed, he was still alive at least twenty years later. The date is a couple of years after the death of his first wife Anne, and perhaps this was the impetus for the installation of the memorial. He lies on his side in armour, leaning on his elbow in the fashion of the day. His five children kneel beneath him, all facing east but as usual separated into his daughters Katherine, Marian and Abigail behind his sons Thomas and Henry. Henry holds a skull to show that he died before his father, although these figures are likely to have been installed later than 1648.

The other substantial memorial with an effigy is that to Charlotte White, who died at the age of 33 in 1845. Her inscription tells us that she was only daughter and heiress of Sir GH Smyth, Bart of Berechurch Hall. The scene above the inscription is odd. Pevsner observed that she lies on a couch, with two angels hovering near her. And yet they are not angels - or, at least, they do not have wings, and are clearly young women. It is as if they are waiting for her to join them. On the edge of her bed are the words her sun went down while it was day but unto the upright in heart ariseth a light in the darkness which seems to be a reference to Psalm 112.

Charlotte all that yet is mortal of Charlotte Audley memorial

Other memorials in the chapel include that to Robert Awdley, Henry's father, of 1624 with familiar skulls and hourglasses, and Sir Robert Smyth, Charlotte's grandfather, who died in 1802. His memorial is a prim and proper classical affair, an urn set within an arch. I'm assuming that some of the others at least were moved into the chapel from the nave or chancel when the church was restored in the 1980s. Nicholas Tomlinson, Lieut Colonel in charge of HM 18th Regiment of Royal Irish was 38 years old when he fell at Chapoo in China 18th May 1842. The Battle of Chapu, the modern Zhapu, was fought between the British and forces of the Qing dynasty in the First Opium War. Some eighty years later, William and Annie King had the sad duty of putting up a memorial to their sons William and John, who were killed just two weeks apart in April 1918, one near Mendinghem in Flanders and the other in France. Two lives laid down, a victor's crown gained, as on Calvary, through suffering, a home bereft, a rift in life no other life can fill reads the inscription, words that seem unlikely to be intended to bring comfort. In 1937, a smaller tablet remembering Annie was added to the base by her remaining children.

With all these memories of death around this can hardly be anything other than a sombre place, but there is one more survival, perhaps remarkable under the circumstances, for the early 16th Century roof of the chapel escaped both the 19th Century restoration and the vandalism of 1981. You look up into a delightfully intimate space, the carved beams and crucks almost within reach.

Simon Knott, January 2022

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Audley chapel roof buried in Highgate Cemetery Ho, every one that thirsteth
our two boys fell at Chapoo in China possessed of an opulent fortune, he made that use of it which was dictated by an enlightened understanding
his only son



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