church is another matter altogether. In fact, I have visited only one other place with internal friezes (as opposed to corbels) and that is Boston in Lincolnshire.
The church was founded in the twelfth century. It was a towerless nave with probably a very modest chancel. It was associated with the Knights Templar preceptory at Rothley. We know from the visible at the east end of the nave that this church had a very steep-pitched roof. We also can see that it was very tall relative to its other dimensions. Of this church, only parts of the external walls, now pierced by arcades and extended by the clerestory, remain. Around AD 1230 a south aisle was added and the west tower commenced. Shortly after this a north aisle was added and a new chancel built. This chancel was rebuilt again two hundred years later but the chancel arch survives.
In around 1280 the south aisle was extended west as far as the west wall of the tower itself to accommodate a chantry chapel. This extension was in the same ironstone as the original aisle. In 1330 the north aisle was widened and also extended west to meet the west wall of the tower. Thus the tower was now fully incorporated into the fabric of the church, a quite unusual arrangement. Widened aisles cause light in the nave to be reduced so the church resorted to the normal expedient of extending the nave walls upwards and adding a clerestory.
Then some time in the first half of the fourteenth century work began on the cosmetic changes to the west end of the south aisle for which the church is now famed. Simon Jenkins rightly calls it “one of the most eccentric compositions on any English church”. We cannot know why this beautification was limited to only this part of the building. A work by Ernest Smith A.R.I.B.A in 1968 suggests that the work was brought to a premature halt by the Plague of 1348. I don’t “buy” that notion. It is clear that the south porch has been moved and that the refurbishment of the aisle stopped precisely (and very neatly) at the mid-point of the original porch roofline. I think this this implies that the aisle was never meant to be adorned beyond this point and that the masons were not stopped dead in their tracks as Smith suggests. It might seem strange to modern sensibilities but it is eminently plausible that the benefactor was simply paying for the part of the church that would house his own chantry chapel.
The latest information sheet provided by the church (2017) talks of a label stop on one of the windows with a woman wearing a “gorget” that was particularly popular during the reign of Edward II (1272-1307). Katrina Wood of “Kat’s Hats” (www.kats-hats.co.uk) who kindly helps me out with stuff like this gives it a somewhat wider window of 1272-1330 which discredits the Great Plague theory. Simon Jenkins speculates that the patron might have been associated with the Knights Templar but the order was suppressed in 1312 he feels (as do I) that the work looks more 1340 which reasonably correlates with Katrina Wood’s dating of the headdress. The Decorated windows are geometric in style but relatively sophisticated. The window at the unmodernised west east end of the aisle was replaced in the same style and presumably at the same time. Pevsner placed the aisle as 1323-33.
The north aisle is the poor relation to its elaborate southern counterpart but it too has been given battlemented parapets of similar but not quite identical profiles to those on the south. It also has an impressive run of gargoyles whereas the south aisle does not - although there are the remains of at least two which have been broken off. Its parapet decoration is the routine Decorated style ballflower. The windows are of an earlier geometric Decorated style design.
The internal friezes of the church are most unexpected. Because they are painted in the same whitewash as the walls, they are easy to miss and difficult to identify without the aid of a zoom lens. The north aisle has a course of simple decoration on its north wall, mainly of ballflower, that appears to be contemporary with the ballflower friezes beneath most of the external eaves. It stretches as far as the church’s west wall but stops close to the north door. The south aisle also has a frieze but there is nothing simple about these carvings: beneath the whitewash this frieze with its fabulous beasts and mediaeval motifs is clearly a masterpiece of the art of fantasy carving. There is a similar frieze, clearly by the same sculptor facing it just above the southern side of the south arcade. What are we to make of these? See my discussion in the footnote below!