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Church Hanborough

Dedication : SS Peter & Paul                  Simon Jenkins: Excluded                     Principal Features : Norman Tympanum; Mediaeval Screen

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Not too much seems to be known about the foundation of this church. We know it was here in 1130 because Henry I granted it to Reading Abbey. It is quite a large church which suggests that it was seen as quite important. This is reinforced by its incumbent having at one time being designated as “Dean”.

The church of 1130 probably had a nave with aisles and a chancel flanked by chapels. This was, then, a substantial church for its time. The Norman aisle walls are - surprisingly - still in-situ as evidenced by each having surviving Norman windows. In the case of the north side they seem quite lilliputian compared with the much higher and larger rectangular late Gothic windows that were added later (see picture left). Norman doorways also survive on both sides and on the north side is the real treasure of this building - a well-preserved Norman tympanum showing St Peter flanked by the winged lion of St Mark and the Lamb of God.

In the thirteenth century the chancel and its arch were rebuilt in Early English style with lancet windows. The aisles were greatly increased in height but not at all in width. The arcades must also have been heightened but they were remodelled again in the early fifteenth century so that those that we see today are probably the third versions. A west tower was also added. 

Then in 1399 a Papal Indulgence (that is, a reduction in time spent in

Purgatory) was granted by Boniface IX to anyone giving money to the maintenance and conservation of the church; another sign of Hanborough’s privileged status. This led to a further period of expansion and remodelling in the “modern” Perpendicular style. The tower was enlarged so that the tower arch we see today incorporates only the base of the early English one. The arcades were rebuilt to the impressive height we see today. It has been suggested that the arcade is so similar to that at Northleach Church in Gloucestershire that they were designed by the same master Mason.  I believe that the clerestory dates from this time as well (as does the Church Guide) although I have also seen it dated to later in the fifteenth century. I find that very unlikely as clerestories were all the rage in the early fifteenth century and the aisles in Hanborough were by now very large.  Later in the century the rectangular windows replaced the earlier ones in the aisles and quite possibly in the clerestory as well.

Also at the end of the fifteenth century the church acquired its second “treasure”: its caved wooden screens. Rood screens “offended” post-Reformation Christian doctrine on three levels. Firstly, they by definition supported a wooden “rood” or cross usually with Christ crucified and two other figures, such as the Virgin Mary or an Evangelist (we don’t really know as they’ve all gone!). These representations were seen as idolatrous and as far as I know none survived in situ. Secondly, the lower part of the screen was generally painted with images of various saints. These also were seen as idolatrous. Finally, the concept of separating the “mysteries” of the Eucharist and the priest from the great unwashed in the nave was seen as against the congregational principles of Protestantism. Hanborough does not, of course, retain its rood. Its painted panels have been obliterated. Yet the screen remains. It is by no means unique in its survival but it is unusually complete and original. How did it survive? Well, as long as the priest conducted his business in front of rather than behind the screen perhaps it was tolerated. Or perhaps it was stored until more propitious times. Who knows?

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Let’s start with the tympanum on the north doorway. As you can see, this one has survived the last nine hundred years well. That is because there have been porches on both north and south sides since the thirteenth century. North porches at this time are unusual because, as I have reiterated on many of these pages, the north door was intended not for the ingress of parishioners but for the egress of the the Devil during baptism. So why was it built if, as most people believe, the “Devils Door” was eschewed by parishioners? A very interesting paper by Nicholas Groves, Alumnus in Theology at the University of Wales, perhaps throws some light on this and I discuss it in the footnote below. Anyway, the principal figure in this composition is refreshingly obviously St Peter with his keys. He has a kind of swagger about him, doesn’t he? “I  decide who goes through this door, sonny....”! At his feet (on his right as you view this picture) is the cock that crowed on the three occasions Peter betrayed his Master. It seems he wasn’t allowed to forget his own transgressions either! Equally clear are the winged bull of St Mark and the Agnus Dei. We shouldn’t be too surprised at the very decent representation of the lamb - although it was clearly beyond the skills of many a Norman tympanum carver - but the quality of the lion is a surprise. In fact this is a very fine piece of Norman art indeed although maybe Peter’s face is a bit of a let down!

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Left: The tympanum and the surrounding archway. Right: The church looking to the east. Note the height of the arcades and also the three rood screens.

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Left: Looking towards the west. This end of the church is very open and airy with, as you can see, the current main entrance, a west window and a very large open tower arch. Centre: The chancel with its fifteenth century Decorated style east window. Right: The north chapel. In the two recesses  you can see decorative fifteenth century wall painting. The Church Guide points to the white roses on a red background and speculates that it was a sign of the reconciliation between Lancaster and York after Henry VII’s victory over Richard III at Bosworth. I think maybe that’s a little tenuous. Henry wasn’t that conciliatory. I’d have made those roses red!

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Left: The north wall of the chancel with the lancet windows that so definitively point to early English provenance. Note the brass in the recess to the left of the priest’s door. Pevsner suggests this may have been an Easter Sepulchre but they are usually on the north side. Centre: The north wall of the chancel. Is one of these recesses Pevsner’s easter Sepulchre? Above the monument you can see the head of a lancet window blocked by the building of a vestry on the other side Right: On the southern side of the south aisle is this comparative rarity: a still functioning rood screen door. How many empty rood stair doors are there in England? Note the fine decoration on the screen itself.

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Left: The brass within the niche of the north chancel wall. This is one of a genre of macarbre memorial tablets that became extremely popular. The deceased is shown as a skeleton with both the implied and express message “As I am, so shall ye be”. Quite why this reminder from beyond the grave was deemed necessary, I don’t know. This one commemorates Dr Alexander Belsyre (d.1567) who, the Church Guide tells us, was the uncle of the rector Thomas Neale who was the incumbent from 1558 to 1567. The Church Guide says that Belsyre was an open “recusant” - a Catholic who refused to attend Church of England services. This was punishable by fines or imprisonment and Belsyre was eventually ordered not to travel more than two miles from Hanborough. Neale, on the other hand, was a closet recusant. Holding such views whilst performing the office of Anglican priest must have been perilous indeed even at a time when Elizabeth’s strictures against Roman Catholics were much milder than they would let become after the various plots and attempts on her life. He neatly sidestepped this by appointing a conformist curate!  Were some of Neale’s parishioners recusants too? Did he hold secret Catholic masses within or outside the church? He wisely resigned in 1567 rather than face close examination of his beliefs but not before inserting this brass memorial to his uncle (who was actually buried in Yate, Gloucestershire) within Hanborough Church. The epitaph says: “What thou art now, the same was Y. And thou shalt likewise shuer dye. Ly(v)e so, that when thou hence welt wend, Thou maist have blys, that hath no end” . That’s not a bad little verse, is it? It’s all a darned good story to boot! Right: The chancel screen. Note the defaced lower panels that probably bore forbidden images of saints or apostles.

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Detail of the chancel screen. There is enough of the original paint remaining to show what a magnificent piece of work this would have been when new.

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The beautiful south screen has a vine scroll design and is clearly very different from the chancel screen.

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Above: The north aisle screen. It is, again, different from the other two though it is has slight similarities with both. Right Above: The wall painting within the recesses of the east wall of the north chapel. Right Lower: The octagonal font is a little disappointing in a church so old. This side shows the instruments of the passion but two sides are blank leading to speculation that its decoration was halted by the Plague.

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Left: The north east of the church. Here you can clearly see the original windows of the north aisle dwarfed by the later Gothic ones. The whole of this east end can be described as “lofty”. The roofs of both aisles and chancel are very tall so that the clerestory is unusually inconspicuous. The Norman aisles - unusually - were never widened so that the heightening of the walls make them somewhat anorexic! Right: A MYSTERY. How I love them. You can see this window in the left hand picture, high up on the north aisle wall. What then is this metal ring for? Not for tying a horse or mooring a boat! Not, surely, for hanging stuff from (it is very high up). Did it have a lamp that was lit by a taper on a long pole? Well ok that’s far-fetched - but can you think of anything more plausible? It doesn’t look very ancient.

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Left: The south east aspect. Note the tall lancet windows of the chancel. Note also the original Norman window at the east end of the south aisle and the priest’s door. This picture really demonstrates the great height:breadth ratio of this end. It was a lovely summer evening when we visited with the honey coloured Cotswold stone bathed in summer evening light. Right: The east window.

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Left and Right: The east window’s label stops are, as is so often the case, Queen and King figures. So - which ones? Well, surprisingly perhaps, the window was installed at a time when kings were beardless. Henry VIII had a beard but nothing like this. So it look rather like an idealised one or else a Victorian addition. Unless of course you know any different....

Footnote - North Doors Continued

I have previously discussed this topic under Whitcombe and Luppitt. Broadly, it is generally believed that north doors were intended to allow the Devil to exit the church during baptism. This explains why, once exorcism was no longer part of the baptismal rite, north doors were so frequently blocked.

The problem is that in a minority of churches the North door has been the principal entrance for a long time. In the case of Church Hanborough I was compelled to research further because I couldn’t understand why a porch would be built over a north door at a time when exorcism was still part of the sacrament (see my caption to the large picture of the tympanum above). Nicholas Groves’s paper points to two very serious problems with the “Devil’s Door” theory. Firstly, there is no contemporary written account of the belief. Hardly surprising, you might say. More seriously, he points out that the act of exorcism was not carried out in the body of the church at all.

As referenced elsewhere on this site, the “Rite of Sarum” was the most widespread form of liturgy used in England (see more at Heckington). Groves says that the rite of baptism was in two parts. The first, called the “making of the catechumen” included the element of exorcism and this took place in the porch, not the nave! This, by the way, was also the point at which the baby was named. Thus, the Devil had been cast out before the baby entered the church and you would have to say that this seems eminently sensible. Why then would the exorcised Devil need, in most cases, to still to enter the church through the south door only so he could make an exit via the north door? This becomes an even more bizarre notion (in my own view) if the entrance is at the west end of the church. The Devil would have had to have turned a corner!

However, Groves concedes that not all country clergy would have understood this fine point and we can be sure that the congregation would not. Furthermore there is no doubting the traditional belief that the north side was associated with dark forces. Vague as it might be, there is scriptural support for this as well as folk belief. The Vikings came from the north. The coldest winds are from the north. It is indisputable that the north side was seen as an undesirable place to be buried until quite recently; to the extent that some believed erroneously that north sides are unconsecrated. It is also undeniable that churches have traditionally presented their best faces to the south. That is as true today as it ever was. A good eighty per cent of the churches I visit have, I would say, a south door as their main entrance with porches to protect them. Many north sides are an absolute disgrace: the place where you still keep your junk, your bins, your horrible boiler houses and carbuncle-like vestries. I know some where venturing around the north side involves a fight with thickets of brambles and fallen stones.

Nicholas Groves, however, points out that some processions, especially on Palm Sunday, involved leaving the church via the north door so such doors cannot be condemned as simple exits for the Devil.

Where does the truth lie - because it is certainly true that many north doors have been blocked? I find Nicholas Groves’s account wholly convincing that the north door did not liturgically need to be used as the Devil’s exit. I qualify that slightly by pointing out that the Use of Sarum was not in universal use. I do, however, believe that the people of our villages cleaved to ancient practices and prejudices far more strongly than the Church liked to admit and that it is likely that the connotations and traditions of “The Devil’s Door” are not just the stuff of legend. I would also observe - without any statistical evidence to back this up - that town churches are far more likely to have been agnostic about which door has been kept for entry. I put much of that down to the greater sophistication and education of the mediaeval clergy serving the larger town churches and perhaps also of their congregations.

I think Nicholas Groves has proven convincingly that whatever the populace believed about north doors they were not put there just to let the Devil take his leave. Whether that is what they became in practice at some churches is still unprovable. For those who want to study church architecture, this is one of its joys. In this field you can still - as Nicholas Groves has done - “go” to places that nobody’s really been before. There are still theories to be made, myths to debunk.

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