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Iffley

Dedication : St Mary the Virgin                                Simon Jenkins: ***                Principal Features : Norman carvers run riot!

Iffley was built between 1175 and 1182 by Robert de St Remy, the lord of the manor. There does not seem to be any ecclesiastical history associated with the site before that date. I find much in common with the Norman Church at Stewkley in Buckinghamshire  which was built about 20 years earlier. What is fascinating about this is that Robert’s wife was a member of the de Clinton family who commissioned Stewkley. Both churches also ended with their advowsons (rights to appoint priests) given to Kenilworth Priory. The church guide speculates that de Clinton wealth would have helped to create a much grander church than the de St Remy family could have managed, yet Iffley is by any standards more elaborate than Stewkley. Perhaps better masons were available, or carving had advanced in the 20 years?  Maybe Robert and his wife went to see Stewkley and decided on a policy of oneupmanship? Whatever the reason, Iffley is a church that is approaches the pinnacle of Romanesque carving in the English parish church..

This is a late Norman church. Within a very few years Transitional architecture with pointed Gothic arches would be mingled with Romanesque. By 1200 Early English gothic would be the new vogue.

Much of what we see today is either original or restored. Like Stewkley, there is a central tower. The chancel was added in c13.

The superb and gloriously Norman west front is somewhat unusual. Whereas

the upper trio of windows (that perhaps hint of the triple windows that would become so prevalent in the EE era) have the usual supporting piers and capitals, the west door does not but does have wonderful courses of chevrons, beakheads and zodiac symbols. The blind doorways either side are typical of St Remy’s Normandy origins rather than of England. Sadly, the round window is a Victorian replacement of the original that had been replaced by a perpendicular window. We can, however, applaud the Victorians for restoring the Norman symmetry of this west wall. Lacking tracery, it is not technically a “rose” window.

The nave is totally Norman. The arches are semi-circular, giving a wonderful sense of proportion. There are decorations underneath as well as around the tower arches, and some very unusual bands of fruit and flower decorations. There is a suggestion that this was a response to the dislike of the influential St Bernard of Clairvaux who deplored the use grotesques. We see also pillars of Tournai marble.

The chancel is Early English, with sedilia added in about 1250.

The south door is a joy to behold, with every conceivable figure of fantasy and legend. Fortunately there was once a porch here which has preserved the carvings in all their glory.

The Door, Upper Windows and Victorian “rose window” of the West front.

Double row of beakheads over the west door and....

The fishes of Pisces are clearly visible at the top of this picture. The figure below seems to be carrying a club which could symbolise a number of saints - possibly St Christopher as he seems possibly to be standing in water.

Looking towards the EE chancel, we can see two great tower arches. The darker inset pillars are of Tournai Marble.

The western archway has somewhat common chevron and dog-tooth moulding, but on the inside is an extraordinary and unique course of sunflower decorations.

...the outer course of symbols of the Zodiac and of the evangelists, beautifully entwined with the emissions of “Green Man”-type heads.

Again, I am unsure of the significance of these symbols. ??????

Looking from the choir towards the west.

Detail of the sunflower decorations.

The chancel roof is ribbed and at its centre is this extraordinary boss. There is a dragon at the centre. Because the dragon was believed to slough its old skin and grow a new one, it was often used as a symbol of the renewal of life rather than as a symbol of evil. There are four cat heads surrounding it. In the centre is a hole from which a lamp - a “pyx” - containing the sacrament would have been suspended .

The font is of Tournai Marble from Flanders and is large enough for total immersion.

The choir was originally the chancel and marks the limit of the original church. On the left we can see one of the “colonettes” decorated with rosettes and other carvings. Above we can see a bird in its nest. The church guide this refers to Psalm 84 v3: “The sparrow hath found her an house, and the swallow a nest where she may lay her young; even thy altars, O Lord of Hosts”

This superb carving of the Lamb of God dates from c13. It was the original head of the churchyard cross and was found in the rector’s garden in the 1960s, having been replaced in the meantime.

One of the four remaining of the twelve original consecration crosses.

The west end showing the interior of the the tripartite and “rose windows.

The south door. This arguably the finest part of the church, although I think it is challenged by that roof boss! All manner of mythical figure is here, with precious little that is overtly religious! From its fine condition one would expect it to have been re-carved but it was in fact protected by a porch for a many centuries and was carved from particularly hard stone.

One of the incredible south door capitals. Note the fineness of the leaf moulding and twisted cable moulding underneath the main scene and the design above. What manner of battle does this capital depict.

The eastern of the south door capitals. To the right are fine soldiers on horeseback.

A green man? A green cat?

These two pictures are of two aspects of the same course of decoration on the east side of the south door.

Just to complete this cornucopia of carvings, there are corbels to enjoy.

Amidst all of the famed richness of the south door and the tower arches, this opening to the bell chamber is the part I like best, The excellence of the chevron moulding and the fineness of the beakheads are simply stunning. They seem almost too fine to be original.

This is the south door again, but note the plain string course that winds its way over the baptistery window to the left, and also the chevron moulding around the window itself.

This is the blocked up arch in the north east wall that is now believed to have given the anchorite*  Annora a view of the altar.

Finally, I couldn’t resist blowing up part of the carving around the bell chamber opening to emphasise the beauty of the beakhead carvings.

* Anchorites were religious recluses, and usually but not always women. There were fewer religious houses for women than there were for men so sometimes one would “attach” herself to a church. The anchorite would be protected by the local Bishop but would be expected to live in her cell for the rest of her life. Annora lived here for 9 years. She was the daughter of William de Braose, a powerful baron. It is recorded that William had a dreadful quarrel with the changeable King John which resulted in his exile. His wife Mathilda and their eldest son were starved to death in Windsor Castle. Annora survived imprisonment in Bristol Castle with her four nephews before being released in 1214. Annora became an anchorite at Iffley in 1232. We can only speculate that she could find solace and escape from the viciousness she had experienced in the “real” world only by dedicating herself to a “better world” to come. She was not expected to lead a life of hardship and would have been waited on by servants. This might be another explanation of why some women preferred to be anchorites rather than nuns, of course!

At Ryhall Church in Rutland (next to which I now live) there are more obvious signs of an an anchorite cell. In this case, the lady in question may well have dedicated herself to the cult of St Tibba who was closely associated with the village. There is no suggestion that her self-imposed incarceration was relieved by the comforts available to Annora; rather, like most anchorites, she relied upon the charitable largesse of other parishioners who, doubtless, would have hoped for some small relief from the dreaded purgatory!

“Anchorites”, by the way, were not so-called because they were anchored to the church, but from the Greek word “Anachorein” meaning to “go apart”. For this information (which disabused me of my own assumption!) and the extremely brief resume of Annora’s cell I am indebted to the leaflet available in the church written by Ruth Nineham.

Stained glass by the famous artist John Piper (1903-92) in a Norman window. I am a personal fan of his work. He was a friend of Benjamin Britten, operatic tenor Peter Pears and John Betjeman. Piper and Betjeman shared a love of the English church.