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 Swaffham Prior

Dedication : St Mary; SS Cyriac & Julitta      Simon Jenkins: **                               Principal Features : Two Adjacent Churches with Octagon Towers; Brasses

It’s April 30 2013 and I seem to have spent weeks agonising over the meanings of some Norman carvings so it is a relief to be writing again about the simple pleasures of an English country church. Did I say an English church? Well actually it’s two English churches sitting right next to each other in Swaffham! This is not as unusual as you might think: this was the case in at least six Cambridgeshire locations.

The history here is fascinating. “Swaffham” denoted the territory of the Swabians - a tribe from western Germany that presumably settled in England along with the Angles, Saxons and Jutes after the Romans left the country. Swaffham Bulbeck also in Canbridgeshire bears the same name; there is another (larger) Swaffham in Norfolk; and Swavesey north west of Cambridge derives its name from the “Island of the Swabians”, presumably from when much of the county comprised wetland. So this is an ancient community and there was probably an Anglo-Saxon church at some point.

There are now two churches here because the lands were divided into more than one lordships. The monastery of Ely had lands in Swaffham and it was for this reason that the village became known as Swaffham Prior. Sy Cyriac’s is believed to be the older of the two churches because it grabbed the higher ground and is more centrally located within the churchyard. It was traditionally a richer church, but today it is St Mary’s that still functions as a parish church while St Cyriac’s is within the care of the Churches Conservation Trust.

St Mary’s

Lets begin with St Mary’s. The present church was begun in about 1100 and its glory is its tower. The base and the second, octagonal, stage date from the church’s foundation. The third stage has sixteen sides and dates from the c13 in Early English style with tell-tale lancet windows. The topmost decoration of forty eight blind arches is modern as is the rather incongruous needle spire. There is a Perpendicular style western porch sometimes known as a Galillee. Such towers were known as lantern towers and Pevsner remarks that it is a thrill to discover there was a lantern tower in the county that pre-dates the one at Ely Cathedral.

The tower arch is hefty but plain. We have to presume that the present arcade walls up to the level of the clerestory were once the external walls of the Norman nave. Blocked round-headed windows within the chancel show that this too was Norman in origin. The aisles and tall arcades are c15 and are with castellated capitals typical of the High Gothic period. The Church Guide notes that this part of the church is badly weathered because the nave roof was damaged in 1802 and not repaired for a century. The south aisle and south side of the clerestory were completely rebuilt.

The south aisle houses the Tothill Chapel, dedicated now as the Lady Chapel. The north aisle houses the Waters Chapel. Both have fine brasses from the Tothill and Waters families. Finally, there is a rather extraordinary set of stained glass in the north aisle that commemorates the First World War. tanks, aircraft, submarines and so on are very realistically portrayed interspersed with what the Church Guide calls “apt yet curiously inappropriate biblical texts”. They seem to admonish the participants rather than commemorate the fallen.

Left: The tower with is three stages, the lowest two Norman and note those raised pieces at each corner. Right: This is an unusual view indeed of the interior of a church tower, Normally our view would be obstructed by the bell-ringing floor but at St Mary’s we are able to get a perspective of the way in this extraordinary tower was put together. Arched “squinches” were used as a device to increase the tower’s plan from four to eight sides. Remember those raised pieces at each corner of the exterior? See how they form the squinches to the left and right of the lower window.

Left: The second stage of the Norman part of the tower. The two stages are separated by a course of billet moulding. The window opening is simple and appears quite late. Note the subtle change in the colour of the mortar between the two stages. I find myself wondering whether that the second stage might have been added some time after the first, albeit still within the Norman period. Right: The church from the south east. Apart from the tower, the church has little to distinguish it. It is the most “regular” of churches with the windows all very much of a type and all very simple. Note that the masonry of the south wall and clerestory differs slightly from that of the chancel and the east faces. This is attributable to the rescue work at the turn of the 19th and 20th century.

Left: Looking towards the east. There is a rood screen complete with rood and this must be modern. It is a poor substitute for the long-lost original. junction. The arcade arches are each surrounded by a continuous masonry course which has the effect of creating a rather streamlined look that is pleasing to the eye. Right: Looking towards the west. The tower arch is Norman and surprisingly large. Note the weathered castellated arcade capitals, graphically illustrating the way this interior was exposed to the elements before its restoration. Note also the string course at the junction between the nave and the clerestory denoting the height of the original Norman external walls.

Left: The chancel with it simple Perpendicular style window. To left and right is evidence of the original round-headed Norman chancel window. Right: A arcade capital.

Funerary Brasses of Mary’s Church

Left: The plain-as-pikestaff c13 font bowl mounted on a modern pedestal. Centre: One of two mediaeval faces scratched into the nave wall near the tower arch. Right: Grotesque carving on the east corner of the south aisle.

The First World War Memorial Window

This really is a most unusual composition. There are very realistic portrayals of many aspects of the First World War. We see an early tank, a zeppelin airship, a submarine and an aircraft, amongst other things. We can be sure that there is no intention at glorification of the allied “victory”: the aircraft has German markings and zeppelins were German weapons. Two submarines are shown (lower left picture). The topmost one seems to have an unfeasible row of portholes along its length - more “Nautilus” than U-boat! In the second depiction, the sub is negotiating anti-submarine nets while a surface ship steams above it. I had thought that in the panel to the right of it the same ship is now sinking, but in fact this ship has more funnels and below it there are depictions of mines. There is almost a documentary feel about this window. Accompanying the pictures are anti-war texts taken from scriptures. Whereas most war memorials are in the spirit of sorrow or even triumphalism, this window seems more in the spirit of “look what you’ve done”! Rather oddly, there is also a very detailed picture of the Statue of Liberty (upper right picture). What could be the intention here?

St Cyriac & St Julitta’s

These are dedications to Christian martyrs of the reign of the Roman Emperor Diocletian around AD304. They are unusual: this is one of only nine English churches to recognise the child martyr Cyriac and the dedication at Swaffham is thought to have been a Norman initiative since his cult was popular in Normandy and Provence. Of the nine dedications, six also recognise his mother, Julitta.

Being on the more favourable higher ground, St Cyriac’s is thought to be the older foundation of the two churches on the site. What we see today, however, is a church that was completely rebuilt in 1810 by Charles Humfrey, with the exception of the west tower that dates from 1493.

Ironically, it is this church that is now redundant and the much older St Mary’s is the parish church. With St Mary’s in a state of disrepair, St Cyriac’s functioned as the sole parish church for a hundred years after its rebuilding. It seems, however, to have gradually been regarded with some contempt. Its box pews (now removed) became very unfashionable and there was no provision for a pipe organ or a choir. One of its vicars, Lawrence Fisher called it “an almost grotesque travesty of a church, standing where once there was a beautiful one”. The writing was on the wall for St Cyriac’s. St Mary’s was restored and became the sole parish church in 1903 while poor old St Cyriac’s was left to decay again before being rescued by the Churches Conservation Trust in 1973.

Left: St Cyriac’s from the north. Right: Detail from the Perpendicular style tower.

Left: Looking towards the east end. Right: The west end with its minstrel’s gallery.

Looking at St Cyriac’s today, the judgement of Lawrence Fisher was surely too harsh. There is an elegant simplicity here that is not displeasing although its interior does seem to be more reminiscent of a nonconformist chapel than of an Anglican church. Perhaps this was the real objection?