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Hovingham

Dedication : All Saints      Simon Jenkins: Excluded                                                         Principal Features : Fine Anglo-Saxon tower; Important Saxon carvings

Hovingham, like Barton-le-Street Church, is part of the Street group of churches. Just as Barton-le-Street was completely rebuilt by the Victorians but retained much of its Norman carving, so Hovingham was rebuilt in 1860 but retained its Saxon tower and some other important Saxon carvings. Both churches, by dint of their substantial rebuilding, are little regarded within the books on church architecture, but both warrant some attention by those less worried about “top 100s” or “best 1000s”! So I’ll try to redress the balance a bit!

There is little externally to betray Hovingham’s comparatively recent rebuilding. It looks like a fairly typical “muddled” church with parts from most of the Gothic period. The Saxon provenance of the tower is, however, immediately apparent.

It is believed that the tower dates from the last 25 years before the Conquest. It is clear that some of the tower’s masonry was reused from an even earlier church. Interestingly, the Church Guide refers to the nearby church of Kirkdale St Gregory’s which has a sundial (see footnote) proclaiming that the Saxon landowner, Orm, had rebuilt that church; and it is known that he did so between 1055 and 1065. This is seen as evidence that Orm probably also commissioned Hovingham’s rebuilding in the same period.

There are three known fragments from the early church: an c8 “Anglian” cross over the west door; the c9 “Annunciation Stone” in the Lady Chapel; and a c10 “Wheel” cross on the south side of the tower. Within

the chancel  there is also a preserved Viking cross that was formerly built into the tower and was removed for preservation in 1925.

Within the church, the reordered Gothic of the nave and aisles contrast sharply with the unfaced stonework of the Saxon tower arch and its surrounding masonry. There is a conspicuous course of herringbone masonry that is such a delightful feature of the Saxon period. The rebuilt nave, chancel and north aisle follow the original floor plan and were rebuilt in c13 style. Two lancet windows were retained in the chancel. The south aisle was added at this time, with the Lady Chapel following as recently as 1937.

Hovingham’s extensive rebuilding should not deter those seeking out the Saxon in our parish churches. We cannot expect to always see Saxon architecture in-situ after 1300 or 1400 years. If you are prepared to travel to a museum to see architectural treasures totally removed from their geographical context (the Elgin Marbles spring to mind...) then you should repay the care of the restorers who preserved these precious items by making a visit.

For similar Saxon sculptures that have been preserved see Breeden-on-the-Hill, St Mary & St Hardulph Church (Leics). For another Yorkshire church that has managed to retain its Saxon tower see Kirk Hammerton, St John the Baptist Church. For a Saxon tower that is completely different but also has precious Saxon sculptures see Barnack, St John’s Church (Cambs).

The Saxon tower from the south.

Saxon window, tower south side.

The Saxon west doorway. This would have been the only entrance to the Saxon church. Note the lack of a keystone, which is typical of saxon architecture.

This cross is located above the west door. It is believed to be a remnant of the even earlier Saxon church that was probably destroyed by Viking raiders.

On the south side is this typical Saxon biforum opening. It has the usual crudely assembled arches and rather skinny column to support it - see Kirk Hammerton, St John the Baptist Church where the column is similarly under-nourished, but where the arches are carved from single stone blocks rather than assembed from smaller voussoirs as seen here at Hovingham. Above the boforum is the stunning “Wheel Cross”

The Wheel Cross is a true treasure. It is c10 and we can see that it has what we would now regard as a more “normal” cross shape with longer transverse arms, unlike the Anglian Cross (see above) that has arms of equal length. The “wheel” design behind the arms shows Scandinavian influence. Celtic-style designs are still discernible - just - on the surface of the cross itself.

Right: The east face of the tower with its Saxon arch and courses of herringbone masonry.

The interior view towards the west end shows the extraordinary contrast between the new whitewashed Gothic style arcades and the original west face of the Saxon tower, with its herringbone masonry courses, patchwork of dressed stones and sturdy tower arch.

The view to the east end which despite the total rebuilding is pretty well indistinguishable from an original Gothic church. The east window is rather small and in a Decorated style. Note the Viking cross held in its wrought-iron frame within the chancel.

The Viking cross from respectively west, south, north and east . I believe it shows considerable imagination on the part of the Church’s “government” that they have chosen to make this the centre-piece of ths most holy part of the church rather than shunting it into a side chapel as some kind of curio. The surface decoration is of very obvious Viking design. The uppermost panel of the western face (far left) shows knotted strapwork around a central boss. The lower panel looks similar, but the heads just discernible at the bottom left and bottom right show that we are actually seeing two intertwined serpents - the embodiment of evil overcome by the power of the cross. Similar designs can be seen on each of the other three sides.

Another of Hovingham’s treasures : a Saxon frieze now set into the chancel wall behind the altar. It was removed in 1924 from the south side of the tower, twelve feet above the ground hence the weathering that has damaged it. This piece is also believed to have been incorporated from the original Saxon church but - intriguingly - nobody knows what it was used for. It may have been part of an altar or part of a tomb but, as the Church Guide says, the original church would have been a semi-circular apse and so this slab could not have been used as a reredos (that is, behind the altar) as it is now.

Eight figures are set within round topped panels. The outer figures are angels (the left hand figure is the best-preserved) and they look inwards. The second figure from the left is clearly seated. The Church Guide says these two left hand figures constitute the Annunciation by the Archangel Gabriel to Mary the Virgin of the forthcoming birth of Jesus. The figures in the other panels cannot be identified due to weathering. Above each intersection of the panels is a dove. The lower decoration is of entwined birds and vine leaves.

Close ups of the Annunciation panels. Despite the ravages of time, these two are still reasonably clear. the detail of the wing and halo of the Archangel is evidence of how detailed and finely-carved this frieze would once have been.

A fragment of an ancient coffin lid.

Detail from the bottom (left) and top of the frieze.

Hovingham is a “living church”, serving the needs of the local population as it has done for over 1000 years. To see the activities of this and other churches in the “Street” group (including Barton-le-Street also on this website) please visit their website at : http://www.thestreetparishes.org.uk/.