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Minster in Thanet (Kent)

Marown Old Church + St Patrick’s Chair and The Braaid (Isle of Man)

A Dawdle in Derbyshire (Six Churches)

Hexham Abbey (Northumberland)

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Minster in Thanet

Dedication : St Mary      Simon Jenkins: ***                                                  Principal Features :  Norman Core; EE Chancel; Excellent Misericords

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Along with Northumberland, Kent is one of the two cradles of early English Christianity. Northumberland was the land of saints such as Aidan, Cuthbert and Wilfrid, home to Bede and Benedict Biscop. It was the crucible where Celtic Christianity from Ireland met the Roman Creed, culminating with the “victory” of the latter at the Synod of Whitby in AD664. Kent, on the other hand, saw the arrival of St Augustine in AD597, the establishment of the Roman way and the establishment of the Archbishop of Canterbury. Like Northumberland, Kent still has a slew of churches founded in that seminal seventh century, of which Minster in Thanet is one.

The clue is in the name of course when we say this was a monastic church. It was probably built of wood, mud and thatch and was used by nuns until its destruction by the Vikings in AD1011. The church was given to Canterbury Cathedral in AD1030 so there was obviously a late Anglo-Saxon era replacement for the destroyed church. Simon Jenkins claims that the west wall is Anglo-Saxon but I have not seen any support for that assertion.

The two western bays of the nave are believed to pre-date the other Norman parts of the church. There is, however, speculation that the arcade walls of the three western bays were part of the earlier Anglo-Saxon church - although there is no evidence other than that the walls here are thinner than at the western end. Two blocked Norman windows on the arcade walls indicate that there were no aisles at that time.

From AD1150 the church was considerably extended. Both walls were pierced to allow aisles to be built. The additional bays on the south side are stylistically earlier than those on the north so the south aisle was probably added first. The western tower was added later in the twelfth century with three stages with a turret stair. The west door, sadly, is neo-Norman!

In the early thirteenth century the entire east end was remodelled. A chancel of four bays was added in the Early English style. Transepts were added on each side, again in the EE style. The chancel had stone quadripartite vaults, but there were only added to the transepts on 1863. The aisle walls were raised in the early fourteenth century to allow the insertion of larger Decorated style windows.

All in all, then, this is a church that is architecturally and historically rewarding. Besides this, the main interest is in the fine and interesting set of eighteen misericords. Unusually, these can be dated precisely to the early fifteenth century. John Curteys, the rector in 1401-19 carved his name on one of the stalls! The subject matter is a beguiling mixture of satire and historical references...of which more anon!

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Left: The view of the east. The fine Norman arcade on either side draws one eyes to the Early English east end with its fine triple lancet window that is the epitome of the era. The chancel and transepts here have a uniform gabled roofline and the double window opening above the chancel arch show that the roof space was utilised in some way. Right: Looking towards the west. Note the changes in style of the capitals and the diameters of the columns. The chancel arch is lofty and plain. Above it is an original Norman window,

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Left: The chancel arch. Note the two Norman windows in the west wall of the tower. Centre: Looking into the chancel. The misericords are to left and right. Note the quadripartite stone vault. This is surely one of the finest Early English chancels in England. Right: The north transept. It is Early English, beautifully lit by a profusion of lancet windows. The vault, however, is nineteenth century. There is a blocked doorway which is unusual on a transept, especially on the north or “devil’s side”. What was it for? In the centre is a tomb which is contemporary with the transept itself.

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Left: The north chancel tomb. Note the simple arcaded decoration, typical of the period. Originally there were inset brass letters. Right: Am I right in assuming these window openings above the chancel arch are original? They are round-headed above an Early English chancel arch. Surely, though, they would not have been made in this style later?

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Left: The triple lancet east window. Right: The font is reckoned b the Church Guide to be “twelfth century Norman”. I don’t want to split hairs but it looks a little later than that to me. More likely thirteenth century in my view.

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The misericords here have unusually conspicuous “supporters” - that is the carvings either side of the central one - and supporters are, moreover, unique to England. I am indebted to a sheet printed by the church for the explanations of the imagery here. Left: The “horned headdress” was fashionable in Europe. It was quite common to satirise the excesses in aristocratic womens’ headgear so its appearance here is no surprise. The central figure is imposed on a monstrous body and the supporters show some species of reptile encircling the heads. A clear indication that evil lurks beneath the vanity of costume excesses! Right: This hind represents Domneva (or Domne Eafa), a member of the Kentish royal house, who founded the abbey. She has crosses embedded in leaves on either side. Legend has it that King Ecgbehrt of Kent fostered Domneva’s brothers, Saints Aethelbert and Aethelred and was implicated in murder. Ecgbehrt agreed to pay “weregild” (financial restitution) amounting to the amount of land that Dumneva’s pet hind could encircle. Guided by Domneva in some supernatural way, the hind encircled eighty “sulungs” of land and on some of this Domneva built Minster in Thanet. precisely how much land constituted a “sulung” (a unit of area apparently unique to Kent) is unclear. I bet it was a lot though!

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Left: The horned headdress comes in for “the treatment” again! The demon of fashion sits between the horns while slanderous tongues flank her on either side. One rather imagines that the nuns who renounced all personal possessions were rather taken with this imagery. Right: These are the arms of the Blaxland family. Two birds are back to back. The supporters show fish with tails in their mouths - a symbol of eternity. Somehow or other the carver seems never to have seen a fish.

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Left: A real beauty. A housewfie is soinning on her distaff. Her dog peers over her shoulder and her cat sits by her other side. One of the supporters is probably her husband. The other shows a fox running away with a goose. Right: Possibly the face of Christ flanked by criminals according to the Churh Guide. I’m a bit dubious about that one. There is nothing to really indicate it and there is a tradition that monks and nuns were reluctant to rest their feelthy backsides on sacred images.

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Left: An angel bearing the monogram IHS (representing the name of Christ) again flanked by symbols of eternity. This man had a considerable imagination on matters piscatorial! Right: Father Time flanked by eternity.

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Left: Another classic. The abbey cook is surrounded by his implements. On either side birds await being plucked and cooked. Right: An angel plays a lute. On either side a man has the mane of a lion, the snout of a pig and large ears. The manes represent the courage of the men who listened to the gospels with their large ears, overcoming their ignorance represented by their snouts.

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Left: A preacher also addresses supporters with mane, snout and large ears. Right: This is believed to be John Curtis himself (the rector at the time the misericords were installed) flanked by scroll-bearing angels.

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Images of the Minster in Thanet Misericords.

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Left: The church from the south east. As with many Norman churches, Minster in Thanet looks mainly gothic from the outside due to the replacement of windows and the fifteenth century mania for embattled parapets. Right: The tower from the south.

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The north transept has retained its original early English windows. Note the mysterious blocked doorway. To the right of the transept is an example of one of the abominations of English church architecture: gothic tracery shoe-horned into a rectangular window space. It’s just wrong on every level but especially aesthetically. I don’t know why this was done here but you can see the much more attractive curved original curved profile above it. Who makes these daft decisions?