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St Mary, Layer Marney

Layer Marney

Layer Marney Layer Marney

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  This splendid early 16th Century red brick church sits beside the contemporary and even more splendid Layer Marney Hall and Tower, an unexpected group in the quiet lanes of east Essex. Pevsner points out that the building of the Hall, which was at the expense of Henry, 1st Baron Marney, is unlikely to have begun before 1520 because of the use of Italian terracotta which first appears at this time. The rebuilding of the church was perhaps slightly earlier, for when Henry died in 1523 he left money to the completion of the north aisle as a chantry chapel. He had been created Baron just a couple of months before his death, and when his son John, the 2nd Baron Marney, died just two years later the line became extinct. John left instructions for his burial in the north aisle, and so we might assume that the church was relatively complete by 1525.

Layer Marney church then, despite the accretions of age and the reorderings and restorations over the years, gives us a brief snapshot of a wealthy family on the eve of the Reformation, still ordering their affairs in the Catholic tradition and rebuilding their church accordingly. The impressive south porch leads you into a quietly arranged interior under a lowish roof and arcade beyond. The exterior makes you expect to see something more dramatic perhaps, but in any case the nave and chancel are mostly of their restorations by CF Hayward in the 1870s and by Chancellor & Son as late as 1911 which gives a good date for the feel of the interior in general. The arcade was reused from the earlier church as you can tell from the single medieval feature in the nave, a wall painting of St Christopher looking a little out of place here perhaps.

It is when you step through the arcade into the north aisle that things get interesting. Chantry chapels and their priests were a thing of the past within thirty years of the deaths of Henry and John, but their impressive tombs still rest in the north aisle chapel, along with an earlier Marney, William, who died in 1414. James Bettley in the revised Buildings of England volume for Essex notes that the tomb was moved from the chancel in 1870 as part of Hayward's restoration. William lies in alabaster in the fashionable clothes of the day. To the south of him is the most impressive of the three tombs, because Henry lies under a terracotta canopy as with the Bedingfield tombs at at Oxborough in Norfolk. As James Bettley observes, the detail is all of the Early Renaissance. This is one of those brief moments when you can see what English church art might have evolved into had the Reformation not intervened. John's effigy of two years later stands on a more perfunctory tomb chest to the west of William's. The effigy is so similar to Henry's that they are clearly by the same hand.

Henry, 1st Lord Marney, 1523 Sir William Marney, 1414 John, 2nd Lord Marney, 1525
Sir William Marney, 1414 Henry, 1st Lord Marney, 1523 John, 2nd Lord Marney, 1525
a lion for Sir William Marney Layer Marney wary lion
Layer Marney veined hands Layer Marney

In most churches that have been in the patronage of a wealthy landed family we would expect to see their influence over generations, even centuries, but clearly that could not happen here. There are no other memorials of any significance, and this would perhaps be a dull church if it were not for some notable features of the 1870s restoration. One of these was decorative glass by William de Morgan. He was better known for the tiles and pottery that he designed for William Morris & Co, and, indeed, for a series of domestic novels that he published in the years before his death in 1917. His main window here is a simple yet floral Tree of Jesse with strapwork either side, conveniently dated for us in the inscription below as erected in 1870. His also are the floral roundels in the east window that flank an IHS monogram.

Powell & Sons' pairing of Eunice and Timothy with Elizabeth and John the Baptist is perhaps a little insipid by comparison, but of more interest is a brass of 1897 to the splendidly named Thomas Hermitage St John Boys, the son of the Rectory Henry Boys. Thomas died in Rio de Janeiro, and his brass was made by Matthews and Co in the brief fashion of the day, showing him kneeling at his bunk, a ship in full sail above. Meanwhile, outside in the churchyard, a well-preserved headstone of 1741 with a flaming heart above the inscription remembers Hannah Fox, wife of James Fox the blacksmith. It tells us that she was born in Stafford town in Staffordshire, as if anticipating the future visits of family history hunters.

Simon Knott, December 2021

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looking east flowers and IHS monogram (William de Morgan, 1870) font
St Peter (early 16th Century) Thomas Hermitage St John Boys St Elizabeth and St John the Baptist St Christopher
Layer Marney Timothy John the Baptist
David and Jesse font

Hannah Fox the wife of James Fox, blacksmith... she was born in Stafford town in Staffordshire (1748) Maud and Sylvia Ratcliffe



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