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Heckington (Lincolnshire)

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Stoke sub Hamdon (Somerset)

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Dedication : St Andrew           Simon Jenkins: ****                                           Principal Features: External Carving; Easter Sepulchre; England’s best Sedilia

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One of the reasons that English parish churches are so wondrous is that some of the most beautiful and ambitious creations are found in places that defy logic. Heckington could be used as an exemplar of this phenomenon. It has a population of about 3000 that was deemed insufficient to support a primary school. Yet it has a church of rare beauty and size.

Little or no mention is made of the predecessors of the present church. The church was, however, known to have been acquired by the monastery of Bardney in 1194, so there was a church here in Norman times and perhaps before. Of it, no trace remains.

The rebuilding of the church was in around 1307. This predates the “invention” of the Perpendicular style and so Heckington is a fine example of a church mainly in the Decorated style. It is a substantial plan: it has a clerestoried nave, chancel, north and south transepts, two aisles, north chapel and south porch. The reticulated cusped tracery in many of the windows, particularly the south side and on the east window, is a glorious example of the Decorated style.

The volume of external carving is quite remarkable. The Early English period had seen a near-moratorium in decorating churches with the wild and pagan imagery so typical of the late Norman period. The Decorated style reversed this with a bang, One wonders why? Why was a change of architectural style

accompanied by a change of policy on decoration? Perhaps the comparative flamboyance of the later Gothic styles led to an explosion of exuberance amongst the masons? Whatever the reason, pinnacles, buttresses, parapets and cornices are a gallery of the mediaeval imagination.

Having said that the church is mainly in the Decorated style, however, this is a church that is not a complete survival from 1307. There were certainly alterations in the later fourteenth century. This, perhaps, was the date of the clerestory which has window designs quite different from those on the chancel. We can say the same about the south aisle. Trying to date parts of a church by windows alone in the High Gothic period is fraught with difficulty, however. We can attribute many - but not all - windows to either Decorated or Perpendicular styles. In the fourteenth and early fifteenth centuries, however, the styles were freely interspersed. Neither Simon Jenkins (who grants the church four stars) nor Pevsner has dared to try to attribute dates to the various parts of Heckington Church!

The parapets on south aisle and on the chancel are lovely ornate affairs. These we can certainly date to the late fourteenth or early fifteenth centuries because the cornice frieze is certainly the work of “John Oakham” - a name I gave in my book “Demon Carvers & Mooning Men” to one of the masons apparently responsible for many cornice friezes in the East Midlands at this time. Parapets and friezes probably accompanied the leading of the roofs and, if Heckington conforms to the patterns elsewhere in the area, the building of the substantial clerestory.

So you can admire Heckington for its beauty and you an be fascinated by its extensive carvings. Heckington’s real claim to fame, however, is inside the church - its “Easter Sepulchre”. It is one of the three finest in England alongside Hawton in Notts and Patrington in Yorkshire. All three are in the Decorated style. You can see a description of the usage of the Easter Sepulchre in my footnote of my page on Coates-by-Stow Church, also in Lincolnshire. Nothing could be more contrary to the anti-idolatry fervour of the Reformation so they fell into disuse, many converted into tomb niches. Those remaining are a real remnant of a sacred rite long gone.

Heckington also has arguably the finest triple sedilia in England. I have more than a suspicion that this, the easter sepulchre and the font were the work of a single mason, possibly even my “John Oakham” who was probably operating as an “Ymaginator” - a professional decorative carver - at this time. It is something I can’t substantiate but the style of these three major church furnishings are all of a very similar style and almost certainly contemporary with each other. What, though, is a sedilia? You probably know it is seating for the clergy - but why three seats? See my footnote below.

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Left: The south porch. Heckington has a host of empty niches, victims of the iconoclasts. You can seem however, how much decoration this church sports. Right: The church from the south east. This is remember, a village of around 3000 souls!

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Left: Looking towards the east. Right: The east end. It is extraordinarily grand. 

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Left: Another view of the east end. Note the splendid arcading behind the altar. The easter sepulchre is just visible to the left at the far end and the triple sedilia is opposite on the right hand side. Centre: The view to the west end from the altar area. It is a long and lofty church. Right: The splendid east window with its reticulated Decorated style tracery.


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Heckington’s two great treasures. Left: The Easter Sepulchre. More than most, this example shows how small the space was really needed for this ritual which, after all, was only about holding the sacrament from Good Friday through to Easter Sunday. You can see that this does not appear to be a part of the structure of the building, rather it was added as a furnishing. Quite possibly, it was even carved away from the site. The figures in the niches at the bottom are Roman soldiers but clad in fourteenth century clothing!  Right: The sedilia. The best in England? Just look at that extraordinary level of decoration above the canopy. This too seems to have been added to the church rather than being part of the structure.

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These four carvings (and two more at the corners) form a small frieze at the top of the easter sepulchre. The right hand picture is a undoubtedly a mermaid. The three on the left look like angels/heralds/whatever blowing fanfares. But they are not! If you look carefully the faces are very human - not caricatures but real human faces. In each case an animal seems to have buried itself in the drapery - you can’t miss the tails. Notice that the figures second right  is playing a double pipe. I am 99% certain that these figures are satyrs, not men. A satyr is half man, half beast and comes from Greek mythology. The double pipe is an “aulos” and many contemporary Greek illustrations show a satyr blowing an aulos. So what are these figures doing atop one of the most sacred church furnishings imaginable? Well, a tale from Greek mythology led to the satyr being associated with the sin of hubris, or overweening pride (see footnote). So these figures seem to be allegorical. So too is the mermaid. The mermaid - or syren as the Greeks would have known her - is a temptress but her physiognomy makes fulfilment of the temptation impossible. So this is another semi-human  allegorical figure warning, in this case, against the sin of lust. The mermaid’s iconographic significance was probably known to the masons. What about the aulos and the satyrs? Well, the aulos is quite common on mediaeval churches so there may have been some awareness of satyrs in the masons lodges. In any event, though, the church here was under the control of Bardney Abbey and it seems unlikely that the masons would have been given free rein on the sepulchre as they traditionally (and, as we shall see, quite obviously) would have been given on the outside of the church.

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Left and Centre: The carved panels to left and right of the sepulchre. To left and right are figures of angels and people at Christ’s tomb. Intriguingly, one has been defaced. Did the image fall foul of the iconoclasts? Right: The font is clearly contemporary with and in the style of the sepulchre and the piscina. They were surely all carved, if not by the same mason, by the same lodge?

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Left: Looking into the south transept. Note the sedilia on the far wall and the splendid window tracery. Right: The tomb of Richard de Potesgrave who was rector here from 1307-1345. He was a favourite of Edward III who appointed him and the church speculates that this enabled him to finance the huge chancel. His chalice was found within the tomb when it was opened in 1800 and it is now shown in the casket above Richard’s recumbent figure.

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Left: This is a rare double piscina and completes what is probably the finest set of church furnishing in England. Apologies for the photograph: light conditions in the church that day were particularly challenging. Right: The sedilia in the south transept is less spectacular than the other furnishings and surely by another group of masons. It is, however, quite a fine piece in its own right.

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Left: The north transept window. Right: I confess I can’t remember where this splendid doorway is located. It is surely later than the main fabric of the building.

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Three Pictures Above: Cornice frieze and gargoyles, south chancel. The friezes are confined to the chancel and the tower. The aisles and clerestory have none. The frieze carvings are very much in the style exhibited by the mason I have called John Oakham. See footnote below. The frieze on this side of the chancel is much exuberant than on the north side and this is a quite frequent occurrence in this area as I highlighted in my book Demon Carvers & Mooning Men and the webpage on this site. Note the dog with a bone and the bum-scratcher!

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Two Pictures Above: The north chancel frieze. This part features mainly grotesque heads and fleurons and has none of the character of the south side.

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The pictures above can only give you a flavour of the flamboyance of Heckington’s external decoration. I am not even going to try to explain any of these. On the friezes we might feel that the carvings are almost “streams of consciousness”: just carve faces and fleurons straight of the imagination, simply ensuring that no two are the same. The carvings shown above - chiefly on buttresses and pinnacles - are much more elaborate, however, and must have had meanings to the masons. We just have no way of knowing what they were! It’s fun to speculate but futile really. Note the two ladies wearing wimples - scarves that cover their throats and sometimes their chins. Women’s headdresses are an invaluable aid to dating church carvings because the styles are often seen on funerary monuments that have dates on their inscriptions. Unfortunately, the wimple had considerable longevity so it is not particularly helpful. To know more about wimples - and about mediaeval headdresses in general I thoroughly recommend Rosalie Gilbert’s website: The boat carving seems to be an East Midlands speciality. There are quite a few around. The man in this boat is holding a shield. It would be interesting if anyone could identify it.

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Above: Some of the frieze carvings.

Footnote 1  -   Triple Sedilia and the Use of Sarum

The triple sedilia has its origins in the “Sarum Liturgy”. When William conquered England he gave the see of Sarum - the modern cathedral town of Salisbury - to his nephew, St Osmund. The liturgy of the time was a blend of Celtic and Anglo-Saxon practice. Aided by Stephen Poore, later Bishop of Chichester, Osmund set about writing a new liturgy called the “Use of Sarum” largely based on the Liturgy of Rouen. There were other liturgies established by, amongst others, the sees of Hereford and York, but the Sarum Rite spread through most of England. King Henry VIII even ordained that it should be the only liturgy when he became Head of the Church of England but his young son King Edward VI was a Reformer who replaced it with the Book of Common Prayer.. It was briefly reinstated by the Roman Catholic  Mary I. Elizabeth I finally outlawed it as part of her suppression of catholicism although it was still secretly used by recusant catholics.

The Use of Sarum called for the presence of three ministers for the important masses and feasts of the religious year: the priest, a deacon and a sub-deacon. Triple sedilia provided seating for the three.

Footnote 2 - “John Oakham”

In my book “Demon Carvers & Mooning Men” I established the existence of a Mason’s Lodge or Guild that specialised in the carving of cornice friezes on churches of the East Midlands, probably early in the fifteenth century. I identified six separate carvers to each of which I gave a name. One such was “John Oakham”, so called because he carved so extensively at the church of Oakham in Rutland. In fact he was not one of the most prolific of that group of masons; apart from Oakham I could identify him only at Whissendine in Rutland. Subsequently I also found his work at Exton near Oakham. However, it was apparent that John’s work, unlike that of his colleagues, was not confined to that limited geographical area. He was most certainly responsible for the wonderful carvings at Brant Broughton in Lincolnshire. He had certainly also carved the font at Muston in Leicestershire and maybe some carvings at nearby Bottesford. So he was, as I termed him in my book, the “Wanderer”.

Since then I have found linkages and commonalities on carvings throughout the South Lincs as far as Boston in the extreme east of the county. There is very strong grounds for supposing that John Oakham was responsiblefor all or many of the carvings at all at least fifteen churches. In my opinion he was responsible for at least the cornice carvings at Heckington.

Such was the volume of John’s output and so rare is it to be able to identify the carver of a font, that I believe that John was sometimes working as an “Ymaginator” - a professional decorative carver.

Footnote 3 - Marsyas the Satyr

According to Greek mythology, Marsyas the satyr invented the aulos or else picked it up after Athena had discarded it. She was afraid that puffing her cheeks would ruin her beauty!  Marsyas challenged Apollo to a music contest. The winner was allowed to do what he liked to the loser. Satyrs being lustful creatures, Marsyas assumed that the forfeit would be of a sexual nature. The lyre-playing Apollo won. Poor old Maryas was strung up from a tree and flayed alive. King Midas who had the temerity to adjudge Apollo the loser was rewarded with donkey’s ears for his trouble. Marsyas’s blood and the tears of the Muses formed the River Marsyas in Asia Minor (modern Turkey).

Thus was the satyr adopted by Christianity as a symbol of the perils of hubris,