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St John the Baptist, Thaxted


Thaxted Thaxted< Thaxted
Thaxted angel and wild men Thaxted

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The best church in Essex, and one of the best in England. The great spire rises above the gorgeous, prosperous little town, the big church surrounded closely on all sides by its busy life and a reminder that, like Lavenham in Suffolk, this was once a much more important place.

One of the touchstones of 20th Century Anglo-catholicism, with an influence which even today reaches out over adjoining parishes, this is a church full of light and space in the full confidence of its late 15th and early 16th Century rebuilding. The high, wide aisles extend to the full length of the chancel creating three parallel sanctuaries separated by the yawning of leaping, delicate arcades. The gathered paraphernalia of the Anglo-catholic tradition is shunted into corners and set boldly before pillars, details standing out in the white light, most notably the furnishings coloured by the Marquis d'Oisy in the 1930s.

And yet, this does not feel like an urban church. Here, the wide spaces seem not to notice what has happened elsewhere. There are earlier details as well as later ones, among them late medieval glass, some of it repaired and enhanced by Kempe & Co. The most memorable of the glass is the sequence of the Fall from Paradise. Four panels depict Adam and Eve tasting the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge, hiding their nakedness when they hear God moving in the garden, expelled from Paradise by an angel with a fiery sword, and last of all a fragmentary panel depicting Adam digging and Eve spinning.

Eve gives Adam the fruit of the tree of knowledge (15th Century) Adam and Eve hear God moving in the garden and hide their nakedness (fragmentary, 15th Century) Adam and Eve expelled from Paradise (15th Century) Adam digging and Eve spinning after the Fall (fragmentary with interpolations, 15th Century)

Also memorable are the 15th Century font cover and case, and the splendid 17th Century continental stalls brought here from the chapel of Easton Hall, but the overall impression is of serious High Church worship set within the frame of late-medieval Perpendicular harmony. And, perhaps also a sense of remoteness and distant loss, a recognition of what happened here once in another world, the world of lost Catholic England, an open airy emptiness which, as Pevsner observed, comes from the dearth of monuments as much as anything else. There is a sense here that there has not for a long time been a class in possession, and all in all it is a church which is much greater than the sum of its parts.

Like most of north Essex, the church and its town fell into a long sleep in the 18th and 19th Centuries, especially during the long agricultural recession in the second half of the latter century, but in 1910 a young London priest was appointed to the living of Thaxted. He was a man of enormous energy and talent, and transformed Thaxted town and church into a maelstrom of political and cultural activity. His name was Conrad Noel, and he remained vicar of Thaxted until his death in 1942.

Father Conrad Noel set about galvanising the little town, making it a national centre for the English Crafts movement. When Arthur Mee visited Thaxted church in the 1940s he found the church hung and carpeted with colour, its tapestries, banners and vestments being the magnificent work of modern craftsmen inspired by the enterprise and fine judgement of the late incumbent (Conrad Noel) and his wife. Some of them we have all seen, for they were exhibited at the Wembley Exhibition (the Empire Exhibition of 1921). The surviving banners, now kept in storage to preserve them, are occasionally displayed and used in the church.

he loved justice and hated oppression till we have built Jerusalem the aim of music is the Glory of God and pleasant recreation (Alec & Margaret Hunter, 1920s)

The parish became a centre for other revived English traditions. Fr Noel's undoubted charisma, and his insistence that Christianity was about beauty and ritual, attracted many well-known artists, musicians and folklorists to Thaxted. The folk revival was happening across Europe in the 1920s and 1930s, and it is no coincidence that the Morris Ring found a friendly home in the town. English Morris Dancing still sees Thaxted as its home.

The composer Gustav Holst moved to Thaxted, and Holst and Noel collaborated on musical events, creating the Thaxted Festival which still takes place every summer. Holst regularly played the organ at Mass in Thaxted church, and his compositon Thaxted, a reworking of the Jupiter theme in his Planet Suite, is best known today as a setting for the words of I Vow to thee my Country. When it was reused by the BBC for the Rugby World Cup anthem World in Union, the royalties went to Thaxted church.

Working with them was Percy Dearmer, another left-wing Priest and musicologist. He was responsible for popularising Anglo-Catholic forms of liturgy and worship based on his research into the music and liturgy of the medieval church. He was also editor of the Oxford Book of Carols which almost single-handedly reintroduced the idea of Christmas carol services to English churches.

Other musical figures who became associated with Thaxted included the composers Ralph Vaughan Williams and Martin Shaw. Vaughan WIlliams already had a considerable track record in collecting English folk tunes and working them into his own compositions. Shaw, best known today for hymn tunes including Little Cornard ('Hills of the North Rejoice') and Bunessan ('Morning has Broken'), wrote an Anglican Folk Mass for Thaxted church.

Another prominent figure in the Thaxted Movement was Joseph Needham, Cambridge professor and expert on Chinese Medicine, whose intellectual rigor gave a backbone to the folk tradition which Noel was allowing to live and breathe in his parish. Needham and his wife Dorothy were promoters of the Gymnosophist movement, in which young gymnasts would perform their routines naked, as in Ancient Greece. Gymnosophy was very popular in Germany in the 1920s and 1930s, but perhaps it is as well that it did not catch on in Thaxted.

Conrad Noel had been one of the founders of the Church Socialist League in 1906, but he left it in 1918 to found the Catholic Crusade. Like several Anglo-catholic Priests, Noel was also a member of the Independent Labour Party, and in 1911 he became a founding member of the British Socialist Party. In the 1920s, his most notorious action was to hang the Socialist Red Flag, the Irish Tricolor and the English Flag of St George side by side in the south transept.

It is worth saying that, even today, hanging the Flag of St George in a parish church is unusual, and in Noel's day it was considered suspicious, for the more usual flag to be hung in parish churches is the Union flag as a sign of the protestant credentials of the Established Church. The flag of St George was considered evidence of Anglo-Catholic sympathies. The Irish Tricolor was even more controversial of course, for Ireland, although not yet a republic, was a newly independent nation which had broken away from the Union, an aspiration which some in the Thaxted Movement held for their beloved England.

Flying the red flag was an act of provocation, and flying the three flags together was quite outrageous, and unforgiveable. On at least one occasion, Cambridge undergraduates travelled to Thaxted church to remove the flags, ceremoniously pulling them down, sparking off fist-fights and other disturbances. Noel himself was accused of sedition in the House of Commons. Eventually a consistory court ruled against his displaying the three flags, and Noel obeyed the ruling. Conrad was inevitably dubbed "The Red Rector" by the popular press as a result of his actions and beliefs.

Conrad Noel is almost forgotten today outside of church circles, but his influence on English culture and the revival of tradition in the 20th Century was immense. If England ever becomes a nation independent of the Union again, I hope that someone will remember him and put his face on the bank notes.

Simon Knott, May 2018

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looking east high altar looking east in the south aisle
looking west in the nave looking west in the north aisle looking from chancel into crossing
lady altar Our Lady of Walsingham north chancel aisle altar
pick and spade on a bench end (17th Century, from Easton Hall) royal arms of Queen Anne and south doorway chancel north chancel aisle cupboard (Marquis d'Oissy, 1930s)
Thaxted lectern (Marquis d'Oisy, 1930s) hour glass on a stall (17th Century, from Easton Hall chapel)
St Philip (fragmentary, 15th Century) St Catherine (fragmentary, 15th Century) looking west from chancel into crossing Blessed Virgin and Christchild banner St Margaret (fragmentary, 15th Century) St Christopher (fragmentary, 15th Century)
lectern and crossing intercessions altar high altar pulpit Crowned Queen of Heaven
font case and font cover (15th Century) Abraham (15th Century, restored) St George (late 14th Century) wingless angel holding a cartouche (south aisle)
sanctuary lamp

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