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St Mary, Rivenhall


Rivenhall Rivenhall chancel (north side)
foundations to the tower font (13th Century) the Rivenhall dead

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  A remarkable church. At first sight it appears an entirely Georgian confection, but this is not the case at all, for the church was given a new tower and the nave and chancel were encased in render and castellated in the late 1830s in a gothick style that was already old-fashioned. The tower had fallen in the early 18th Century and the new tower was slimmer, as the surviving foundations of the old one to the west of the tower reveal.

This is the site of a Roman villa, and probably a pagan temple before that. Under the skin of rendering cement is a church of the 11th and 12th Centuries that used surviving Roman brick and tile in its construction, as is revealed by the north side of the chancel, hidden from the road, from which the render has been removed. But this illusion of a Georgian gothick church is maintained as you step inside through Laurence King's 1960s extension, the chancel arch bizarre in its secular geometry. And yet even in the nave there are treasures of earlier ages, including one of Essex's few sets of royal arms for James II, and a series of 16th and 17th Century continental roundels - but are they all? For they were originally in the east window, and some appear as if they are early 19th Century copies.

Dominating the chancel is the remarkable memorial to Ralph and Elizabeth Wyseman, erected in 1598, after her death but before his. He lies on a rolled up rush mat, his sword by his side. The memorial is so good that it was removed to the Victoria and Albert Museum in the early 1990s for the Art of Death exhibition.

Sir Ralph and Lady Elizabeth Wyseman (1598) Sir Ralph and Lady Elizabeth Wyseman (1598)

And then to the great glory of Rivenhall church, the 12th Century glass in the east window. It was bought by the rector in 1839 while on holiday in France, from a church at Chenu on the Loire. There are four large cathedral-style roundels of about 1170 depicting Christ in Majesty, the Dormition of the Blessed Virgin, a Virgo Lactans scene depicting the Blessed Virgin breastfeeding the Christchild, and the Annunciation. Two contemporary bishops flank them as well as an armoured knight inscribed Robert Lemaire of about 1250. Above them, slightly bizarre in the context, early 16th Century Flemish-style glass of the Adoration of the Magi that looks as if it is on holiday from Kings College Chapel.

bishop (13th Century) Christ in Majesty (12th Century) bishop (13th Century)
Annunciation (12th Century) virgo lactans (12th Century) deposition (12th Century)
bishop (16th Century) Robert Lemaire (mid 13th Century) God the Father (16th Century)

Pevsner thought it all the best stained glass in Essex, which it is, but the 12th Century roundels are the best of their kind anywhere in England.

The modern glass in the nave is also rather good, an uncharacteristically restrained panel of St Alban by Ninian Comper. The font looks as if it came after the 1830s refurbishment, and the 13th Century font now standing in the churchyard which it presumably replaced looks as if it has been weathered for a good few hundred years, so perhaps something else was used in the meantime. Above the west gallery is an oddly set black-lettered stone of the mid-19th Century remembering five young men sons of James and Susannah Davey, their surviving parents. Two of them were local agricultural labourers, but as a reminder to us of the call to to the rural working class of the British Empire during that century the other three were soldiers who died variously in Bermuda, Australia, and lastly in Bulgaria while serving with the allied armies in the Crimean War.

Simon Knott, May 2020

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looking east looking west
font (19th Century) James II royal arms William and James Western, 1720 Samuel Western, 1699
female martyr, St John the Baptist (17th Century, continental) Last Supper (17th Century continental)
St Alban (Ninian Comper, 1920) Adoration of the Magi (16th Century) fragments
coffin slab St Lawrence (continental, 17th Century)


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