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St Mary Magdalene, Wethersfield


Wethersfield Wethersfield

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  Wethersfield is a lovely village, one of several in the area between Thaxted and Castle Hedingham. It is large enough to feel as if it has a life of its own, and it is hilly too, which I always like. The church sits more or less in the middle of the village, and is a curious sight compared with most of the village churches around here, for in a part of Essex which is wholly East Anglian it has an air of something more exotic about it. This is because of the bold tower, low and massive as Pevsner puts it, a work from the end of the 12th Century, late Norman just edging into Early English. The wooden bell stage narrows with dormer windows before straightening out briefly and then culminating in a squat broach spire. The church unfolds in chronological order from the tower eastwards, the nave with its arcades and aisles largely of the 13th Century and then the chancel coming in the 14th Century. The following century brought the rather alarming brick clerestory which finishes the effect of the curious, and yet it is not a large or grand church, rather a pleasing whole despite its eccentricities.

Through the 15th Century brick porch you enter a more harmonious space, thanks to the wide pointed chancel arch and tower arch, as well as the arches of the arcades. This is a light interior thanks to the large Dec windows, mostly clear except for bold, confident glass in the north aisle by Eric Dilworth of 1959. His familiar dynamic figures in the three main scenes depict the Nativity flanked by Christ in the Carpenter's Workshop and Christ Preaching in the Temple.

Christ in the carpenter's workshop, Nativity, Christ preaching in the temple (Eric Dilworth) Christ at work in his dad's workshop Christ at work in his dad's workshop the young Christ teaching in the temple
Mary with ox and ass infant Christ in the manger
sailing ship agnus dei

There was an 1870s restoration at the hands of Ewan Christian, which gives the nave the character of its date but without being overwhelming. The tiled floors and furnishings are of this date, the shallow-bowled 15th Century font set boldly in front of the tower arch. The arcades lead the eye eastwards towards a chancel which appears dark and perhaps even a little gloomy beyond the 15th Century screen which Christian restored, as if the sanctuary were intended for shadowy, incense-led worship. All the windows here are filled with 19th Century coloured glass, the most memorable of which is on the north side, a work of 1881 by the French firm of Champigneule in memory of Everard Marsh who had been killed at the Battle of Kandahar in Afghanistan the previous year. Marsh lies in his uniform surrounded by grieving and very feminine angels, while Christ descends dramatically from heaven to gather him up.

angels and the Risen Christ at the death of Everard S Marsh angels and the Risen Christ at the death of Everard S Marsh angels at the death of Everard S Marsh
Everard S Marsh Champigneulle

A later Everard Marsh is remembered by a wall monument bearing the crest of the Royal Air Force. He was killed by collision while flying on duty at Feltwell, Norfolk on December 20th 1918 in his 24th year. The inscription goes on to give a full account of Marsh's career in the Army Service Corps through the events of the Great War, finally concluding with his transfer to the newly formed RAF six months before his death. It is curious to think that fewer than forty years separate this memorial from the glass to his ancestor lying surrounded by angels on the blood-soaked fields of Kandahar.

The same firm of Champigneule was also responsible for the Crucifixion in the east window, another piece of exotica, and there is also more familiar glass in the chancel by Ward & Hughes and by Kempe & Co. The windows look down on one of the most battered and graffitied memorials I have come across in an Essex church, a tombchest bearing two alabaster effigies. it dates from the early 16th Century, and may well be Sir Roger Wentworth and his wife, although the inscription naming them does not survive. Their whole bodies are scored with deep scratches and inscriptions, including their faces where they look alarmingly like tattoos.

asleep asleep
tattoo ugly Thomas Crosby 1722

Broadly contemporary with the effigies is a series of fragmentary panels of glass, some of it English, some continental. The depictions include the head and label of the prophet Daniel, perhaps from a Jesse Tree, the bubble-haired head of an angel to which a crown has been added, a crowned eagle holding a sceptre and, perhaps most memorable of all, an ostrich with an iron horseshoe in its beak.

Daniel (fragment from a Jesse tree, 15th Century) angel head and crown (composite, 15th century) crowned eagle holding a sceptre (continental) ostrich with a magnet in its beak (continental)

There are several decent 18th Century memorials in the aisles, one of which gives a fascinating insight into not only infant mortality but also the effects of Empire on a well-to-do rural family of the time. Joseph Clerke died at the age of 81 in 1790, a magistrate and benefactor. His wife Anne had died almost half a century earlier in the child-bed of her twelfth child. The inscription notes that four of their children died in infancy, but goes on to recount the fates of those who attained maturer years. Among those mentioned are Sir John Clerke, their elder son, who was a Captain in the Royal Navy and died at Madras in India. Another son, Charles, was also a Captain in the Royal Navy who, after having with equal honours to himself and his country, completed three voyages around the world, died attempting a fourth with Captain Cook and was buried at Kamchatka, a bleak and remote peninsula in the far east of Russia. Thomas, another son, was sometime chaplain to the English Factory at Surat in India, and died there in 1773.

Nearby, the earlier memorial to Mark Mott and his family particularly mentions his widow Barbara, who faithfully practised all the duties proper to her sex and station through the several stages of a long life, and in the last scene of it shewed that Christian temper and resignation which the review of a virtuous course will naturally produce, and dyed in charity with all the world.

Simon Knott, December 2021

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looking east French Crucifixion looking east from under the tower
looking west looking west
angel angel greater love than no man Three Marys
stiff leaf capital flower carved in place of defaced head grief
completed three voyages round the world, died in attempting a fourth with Captain James Cook Mark Mott, wife and sons war memorial completed three voyages around the world, died attempting a fourth with Captain Cook
faithfully practiced all the duties proper to her sex and station killed by collision while flying


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