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Brookland

Dedication : St Augustine              Simon Jenkins: ***                                                            Principal Features : Detached wooden belltower; Norman Lead Font

Brookland must be the most most instantly recognisable church in England. The bell tower is completely detached from the rest of the church, is made entirely of wood and looks for all the world like some kind of oversized teepee (the excellent Church Guide compares it to a candle snuffer! This is quite unique. To me it is reminiscent of the wooden “stave” churches of Norway. It was originally just an open wood framework to support a single bell and this skeletal structure is believed to date from 1260, contemporary with the building of the present church. It is believed to have been changed from a square to an octagonal plan in 1450 when it was also clad for the first time. The cedar cladding we see today dates from 1936.

The present church is believed to date from around 1250 but there are a few masonry fragments from an earlier Norman church. Much more important, however, is the Norman lead font. It is not overstating things to say this is not only the foremost example of the 30 lead fonts in England but also one of the most important of all Romanesque features of any English church. It  portrays the “labours of the months”, using signs of the zodiac to represent the 12 months. There is some debate about the origins of this font, please see the footnote below.

Others don’t remark on it, but to me Brookland is a curious-looking church even without its unique bell tower. It has a south aisle running parallel with the entire length of nave and chancel and at much the

same height, a style more reminiscent of Cornwall than of Kent. The north porch is mainly constructed of timber and has curious half doors, a little like a Wild West saloon! There is a peculiar little tower - with a small clock - next to this porch. Put this all together take away the bell tower and you have what looks rather more like a manor house than a church!

The nave and chancel here flow seamlessly one to the other without any chancel arch. The chancel is c13 Early English, although the east window is a c16 replacement. It would be fair to say that throughout this church the windows are models of plain and restrained functionality and to my eye are in keeping with the somewhat austere feel of the main body of this church. Elaborate window tracery and stained glass would have changed this church very much for the worse, In my view. The nave is also c13, although the aisle arcades are probably c14. The arcades are oddly - and surely unnecessarily, asymmetrical with seven arches on one side and six on the other. On both sides the aisles lean alarmingly due to long-standing problems with uneven settlement of the subsoil Apparently. the south aisle already leans beyond its point of theoretical collapse - and the church is still subsdiding!

In 1964 wall repairs uncovered a superb fargment of wall painting depicting the martyrdom in 1170 of St Thomas a Becket in Canterbury Cathedral. No details is spared: we see a sword entering the unfortunate Thomas’s skull; all four murderers are depicted as is Thomas’s chaplain. The Church Guide (a remarkably authoritative one) puts this painting on the seond half of c13 with repainting occurring in each of the two succeeding centuries.

Brookland is charming little church. Bright and airy within and spared constant “improvements” over the centuries, it is like a shabby old lady that extends warmth and hospitality to those that visit. Yet the font and bell tower are amongst the most instantly recognisable icons of the English mediaeval church. Oh, and there’s a pub right next door.....!

Views to the east end (left) and the west end (right). Note the canted aisles. Note also the rough and ready floor and box pews that date from around 1738.

The Early English chancel. Note the masonry courses around the east window that show that there was an EE triple lancet window arrangement here originally.

This external view of the somewhat “unchurch-like” west end shows the unusual cross section formed by the nave and the aisles.

The two sides of the Norman lead font. The upper of the two main courses of decoration shows the signs of the zodiac. Above each is the name of the sign. The lower course has the Labours of the Month - a kind of mediaeval agricultural text book! Within the arch at the top of each labour the month is spelt out - in early French leading to the believe that this font was originally in France.

Leo and Virgo. The lion looks more like a South African Springbok! The months are “Juillet” and “Auout”. July has a man working the hay with a rake. August is a somewhat indistinct man working with a sickle.

Libra and Scorpio. Libra is very nicely drawn but Scorpio looks even more like a frog than Cancer does! Presumably the artist had never seen a scorpion or even a mediaeval manuscript that depicted the zodiac more accurately. The months are “Setenbre” and “Vitovvre”. For September a man is threshing corn with a flail. October sees a man inside a vat examining grapes - a reminder that viniculture was by no means uncommon in mediaeval Northern Europe.

Gemini and and a distinctly bizarre Cancer that looks more like a frog than a crab! The months are “Mai” and “Juin” For May there is a knight on a palfrey with a hawk on his arm. June has a man mowing with a long scythe,

“Capricornus” and Taurus. The artist made a mistake here - the ram should, of course, be Aries! So there are two Capricornus on this font!  The months are “Mars” and “Avril”. For March we have a man pruning a vine. April has a figure holding a sprouting branch in each hand. This refers to Rogation-tide *.

“Sagutarius” and Capricorn. What a wonderful goat with his curly tail!The months are “Novenbre” and “Decenbre”. For November a swineherd using a curved stick to beat down acorns for the pig just visible at his feet. For December we see a man lifting an axe to kill a pig (presumably in order to survive the Winter).

Aquarius and “Pices”. The months are “Janvier” and “Fevrier”. For January a two faced man is seated at a table, drinking from a goblet and seeing the old year out and the new one in. For February a man is sitting at a fire warming himself.

* Most of us are probably aware of “Rogation Day” from its being printed in our diaries It was believed to have originated in c5 France and involved blessing fields and livestock. By the c8 in England it had come to involved people “ganging” around the parish boundaries in order that in this era before maps they were not forgotten.

The rim has three courses of typically-Romanesque cable and zigzag mouldings.

The font was cast in a single piece, probably by a Norman or Flemish craftsman. The zodiac is seen fairly often in Norman architecture, and the labours of the month are also seen elsewhere, not least on Burnham Deepdale font in Norfolk. The two together, however, are very rare in England.

The font also has three casting just below the rim, each showing Christ’s resurrection. Here are two of them. Note the points on the rim to facilitate locking of the font lid. Theft of Holy water, sometimes for witchcraft, was seen as a major problem in the mediaeval period

Brookland has a rare surviving portable cabin once used to protect the Rector from the elements when conducting funerals at the graveside.

Below: The delightful c14 north porch. The Church Guide says that upper gates were discarded and kept inside the church while the lower ones were surmounted with spikes to keep horses from jumping the gate to enter the church during a service!

The south chapel. The “gate” and rails date from the c17 when Archbishop Thomas Laud decreed that all altars must have rails around them - to prevent desecration of the altars by dogs! It is also believed that the altar here may be the original altar table form this period when Laud had decreed that communion must take place around a table with the full participation of the congregation and for a time the practice of placing the altar at the east end was abandoned. The Jacobeanmarble topped tomb is for John Plomer, three time Mayor of Romsey, a Cinque Port.

Right: As well as the St Thomas a Becket wall painting there are other fragments of paintwork at Brookland. This is the little piscina in the South Chapel.

The bell tower.

The Thomas a Becket wall painting. Becket is kneeling in the foreground while a sword held by the knight to his immediate left cuts into his skull. To Becket’s right is Grimm, his chaplain holding the episcopalian cross.

Footnote - The Burnham Deepdale (Norfolk) Labours of the Months font.

The Labours of the Month font at Burnham Deepdale. There are no zodiac signs and the rim is decorated by finely-carved and wonderfully feline lions.

In the left hand picture we have, from right to left: May - a woman carrying a banner at Rogation tide; June - weeding; July - a man mowing; August - a man tying a sheaf. In the right hand picture we have: January - a man carousing with a horn drinking vessel; February - a man warming himself; March - a man digging; April - a man pruning a plant.

The west side of Burnham Deepdale font has just these plant carvings. I wondered if they might represent the four seasons but there is no obvious Winter scene so I guess not.

The South side of Burnham font has from right to left (from the corner): September - a man threshing; October - a man barrelling wine; November - pigsticking; December - Four people seated for a meal at Christmas.

It is interesting to compare these fonts from many points of view. The Brookland font has fine detail in its casting that could not be carved in the stone of Burnham. Yet the Burnham font surely shows the better “art” and is much clearer in its imagery. Note that wine manufacture appears in October of both years - another reminder that wine manufacture was usual in the Northern Europe of the time. Rogation tide is a theme in both fonts. On both fonts the poor old pig is killed in order to survive the winter - although in December at Brookland and in November at Burnham. In both there is an acceptance that for the three months from December to February there is little to do but sit out the Winter - an interesting perspective on the lives of our mediaeval forebears.

Footnote 2 - Where did Brookland Font come from?

Well. not from England almost everybody seems to agree. There are thirty lead fonts in England, with a cluster of them in the Gloucester area, so Brookland is far from unique. What it does have, though, is names of months written in “Old French” so this is taken, understandably, to point to French origins.

Lead mining was a flourishing industry in England. Surprisingly England, indeed, replaced Spain as the principal source of lead for the Roman Empire. It was all found, however, in the western side of the country. Therefore, we can readily understand, for example, the lead fonts in Gloucestershire because it is close to the Forest of Dean where lead was mined. There was none in the eastern half of England so why would a church in Kent go to the trouble to acquire a lead font from elsewhere in England or, for that matter, the raw metal to make one?

So there are compelling reasons to think that this font was from France (being careful here to understand that France was not the single political entity that it is today). One theory is that it was brought by a monk who was travelling from Normandy to St Augustine’s in Canterbury and that somehow it found a use in Brookland. Hmmm. Another, is that it was stolen by English pirates in a raid on the coast of Normandy. This idea seems to be surprisingly popular, perhaps because of its somewhat romantic connotations? I have to say that I find it preposterous. Were English pirates marauding the Norman coast when almost all of the English nobles were still firmly Norman in origin. Well, maybe they were, but would a bunch of pirates then regard the theft of a font as a viable form of plunder?

And what was the penalty for desecration of or theft of a church? Flaying alive! So you have to believe that our “pirates” raided the Norman coast (populated by some of the most beastly soldier-knights the world has ever seen) and took the time and trouble to manhandle it to their ship and then manhandle it again in England. Apart from what would happen to them if they were caught in France, they would then have to hope that any local Norman who spotted its mysterious appearance would not wonder where it came from or why the months were spelt in Old French! This is all apart from the fact that the churchmen in England might take a rather dim view of theft from another church.

Flaying alive is a thing we talk about colloquially. In mediaeval England, however, it was reality. John Timpson in his book “Timpson’s Country Churches” reports that it is tradition that in the early c11 at St Botolph’s Church, Hadstock near Saffron Walden a Danish raider was flayed for sacrilege. It was the practice that the skin of the flayed man was nailed to the church door. When the door of that church was repaired fragments of skin - now in Saffron Walden Museum - were found under one of the hinges. If you have ever wondered what flaying alive entailed, you couldn’t do better than read the fictional account given in Ken Follett’s epic and marvellous “World without End” (the sequel to “Pillars of the Earth”). A prolific reader and not exactly squeamish, I found it almost unreadable. Read it and then decide whether “pirates” would go to France to nick a lead font! I don’t know whether they flayed church thieves in France, but I don’t suppose they gave them Community Service!

Returning to reality again, in the splendid “Guide to Norman Sites in Britain” by Nigel and Mary Kerr (out of print except for the Kindle version, I understand) two more reasons are added for a likely French provenance. Firstly that the calendar sequence is more in keeping with France than with England. Secondly, that there is a nearly identical font at Saint-Evroult-de-Montfort in Normandy. Due to the wonders of the internet, I am able to reproduce a picture of it below from the French Ministry of Culture website. We can dispute the word “identical”, but I think that there is no question that this font and that of Brookland are by the same “artist” (and in fact the St Evroult one is even more impressive). QED, eh? The Kerrs also point to the fact that Henri de Blois, Bishop of Winchester, was importing Tournai marble fonts in the 1160s. So we know that importing fonts (as opposed to stealing them!) was an established practice.

Still prefer the pirate theory? Well, St Evroult is 50 miles from the nearest point on the Normandy coastline. It is perfectly possible, of course, that the Brookland font was somewhat nearer to the coast than this. Without a shred of evidence to support the theory, though, I hope you will agree with me that it is total hogwash!