The Essex Churches Site

 

THE ESSEX CHURCHES SITE

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St Mary, Great Canfield

Great Canfield

Great Canfield Great Canfield Great Canfield

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It was a hot day in the summer of 2014, and I was cycling across Essex. I came up from the Roding plain through High Roding village. Despite its name I hadn't realised just how high I was climbing, but as I turned towards the forest I descended steeply for several miles to the very pretty village of Great Canfield with its boxy little church. The exterior is rather odd, because the north side of the nave is stark and windowless, the south side with just a small late medieval window beside the porch and a couple of Norman lancets. It was obviously going to be dark inside, which is sometimes atmospheric, but in fact I stepped into a rather dour Victorian neo-Norman restoration, the 1870s work of local vandal Frederick Chancellor, never the 19th Century's best contributor to the architectural palimpsest that is a village church.

However, all is not as it seems, because in fact Great Canfield church is full of interest and would turn out to be my favourite church of the day. The south doorway is a fabulous early Norman thing with carvings of men being pecked by birds and rows of swastikas. Inside, you turn your eyes away from Chancellor's dullness towards the east, and you are rewarded with Essex's finest 13th Century moment. Through the grand late Norman chancel arch is a chancel with arcaded Norman windows, and in the middle of them a remarkable wall painting of the Blessed Virgin and child, predating those not far off at Brent Eleigh and Little Wenham in Suffolk.

virgo lactans Great Canfield Great Canfield

The painting was rediscovered in the late 1880s when the hefty Wiseman memorial (now on the south wall) was moved out of the chancel. It must date from about 1250. The image is in the form of a Virgo Lactans, which is to say that the Blessed Virgin holds her breast and feeds the Christ Child. It is rare to find this image so early in English church art. It is more commonly found in glass at the end of the medieval era.

Another curiosity here is the 1550s brass to John and Agnes Wyseman set in the chancel floor. It is complete, showing them kneeling at prayer desks and facing each other with their children gathered around them rather than on separate plates. What makes it unusual though is the inscription partly in English and partly in Latin, which records that Here lyeth Jhon Wyseman esquire sutyme one of ye Audytors of ye Sovaign Lorde Kynge Henry the eight of ye Revenues of his crown & Agnes his wyfe, wch Jhon dyed ye xvij daye of August An Dm 1558 et annis regnarii Phillipi et Marie quinto et sept m. Thus, Wyseman was auditor to Henry VIII. Two things make this inscription very interesting. Firstly, 1558 is an early date to be written in modern figures rather than in Roman numerals Secondly, and even more unusually, from the Latin part of the inscription we learn that John died in the fifth year and seventh month of the reign of Phillip and Mary. This is of course Philip of Spain who married Mary I, and I can't think many people would consider him having been an English monarch today.

John Wyseman, 1557, 'in the fifth year and seventh month of the reign of Philip and Mary.' John and Agnes Wyseman, 1557, 'in the fifth year and seventh month of the reign of Philip and Mary.' Agnes Wyseman, 1557, 'in the fifth year and seventh month of the reign of Philip and Mary.'
'in the fifth year and seventh month of the reign of Philip and Mary.'

Jonathan Moor of the Monumental Brass Society tells me that the group of three mourning brothers now mounted on a board on the wall was an 1893 attempt to replace a missing plate from a floor brass with a near-replica. However when the original was returned to the church the replica was removed to the wall.

The dourness of Chancellor's restoration is ameliorated somewhat by some good 20th Century glass, especially the tall lancet by Brian Thomas whose work is more familiar on a grand scale in the City of London churches and the great scheme at St Nicholas, Great Yarmouth. The heraldic glass is by Farrar Bell. The older glass is less good, Heaton, Butler & Bayne's nave window commissioned for Chancellor's restoration, and not even Clayton & Bell's 1890s west window can put in a good word for the 19th Century here.

Simon Knott, May 2020

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Great Canfield
three mourning sisters (16th Century) Great Canfield war memorial
swastikas bearded man pecked by birds green man
Great Canfield Great Canfield west window

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