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Oakham

Dedication : All Saints  Simon Jenkins: **                                                       Principal Features : Archetypal town church. Superb decorated nave capitals.

Oakham is the county town of Rutland: a small county town for Britain’s smallest county! Its church is Gothic throughout and was restored by the ubiquitous George Gilbert Scott in Victorian times. That should set anyone’s alarm bells ringing; but in fact Oakham is one of the most visually satisfying of town churches.

The church was constructed almost entirely in late c13 and early c14 but is on the site of an earlier church of around 1200. Its principal glory is the capitals in the Decorated period nave that recall the riotous imagery of the Romanesque period.. On the north arcade we see more worldly images : the fall of Adam & Eve, a Green Man, and groteque heads. On the south side are angels, saints and Reynard the Fox! Worthy as the images are on the south side, I think that as in so many things the Devil has the best Capitals....Each arch respond (that is, where the arches join) has a carved face.

The font is late Norman, dating from about 1180. The entrance porch on the south wall is Early English dating from around 1200. The aisles are from the late c13 but their walls were raised in around 1400, thus making room for the large Perpendicular-period windows that we see today. The west window of the south aisle is, however, Decorated.

Architecturally, Oakham is not of major interest apart from those capitals. it is, however, a very satisfying church visually. The style is reasonably consistent and symmetrical, avoiding the architectural “bugger’s muddle”

that afflicts many a town church; and it is, moreover, not cluttered by monuments to “the great and the good”! All is in good order, inside and out, and the Victorian restoration has not spoiled the church at all. The tower is not one of those leviathan structures that mars the appearance of many a Rutland church.

Top Left and Top Right: Looking east and west respectively, there is a lovely symmetry to the nave with arcades from the Decorated period on both sides. The west wall shows the original nave roof line before it and the walls of the aisles were raised and the clerestory installed in around 1400. Interestingly, the porch at the west end of the church is Early English in style dating from 1190, and is this the oldest extant part of the church.

Centre Right: The chancel with its Victorian east window and three-bay arcades leading to the chapels to the north and south. The Gilbert Scott was apparently criticised for being Decorated rather than Perpendicular in character, a rather strange complaint considering the atrocities he committed elsewhere and given that some parts of this church are indeed from the Decorated period. It looks fine to me, and anyway the trefoil and quatrefoil  tracery is surely much more attractive than the almost cliched typical Perpendicular east window?

Lower Left: The Lady Chapel of the south aisle dates from the 1480 and is a fine example of the Perpendicular style. Does any reader, however, prefer its east window (again, a fine example) to Gilbert Scott’s chancel window? The arcade through to the chancel is also Perpendicular.

Lower Right: Looking across from the south aisle towards the chancel and North chapel - a veritable mass of arches but all fitting very harmoniously and making for a splendid church aesthetically. The North Chapel arcade is of the Decorated period in common with the nave arcades, but earlier than the perpendicular :Lady Chapel arcade.

The Arcade Capitals - The North Side

At the extreme west end we have the Expulsion from Paradise (above and right). Adam and Eve stand, hand in fearful hand and in their rather shapeless nudity. Possibly that is the serpent peering out from the foliage? While on the right hand side, a somewhat wooden looking God casts them out.

What looks like a human face with beast-like body.

A dragon eating itself?

More grotesque faces.

This is a curious one: what looks like a beast playing a musical instrument but with his body merging into foliage.

At the east end we have our old pagan friend, The Green Man, who never seemed to go out of fashion!e

The fun continues into the north chancel arch capitals. Note the vestiges of red paint, reminding us that the whole church would once have been ablaze with paintwork.

The Arcade Capitals - The South Side

The south side offers us one of the little mysteries of Oakham church. There are a number of capitals that purport to show either the legend of Reynard the Fox or Chaucer’s Nun’s Priests Tale - nobody seems to know! Just to confuse things it is known that Chaucer used parts of the Reynard legend in his story! This particular picture seems to me to clearly show a fox running off with a chicken while to the right is the beginning of a human face - see the photograph to the right...

I have to confess that life is too short to spend time boning up on Reynard and Chaucer so I don’t know the significance of this rather jocund looking man clutching what looks like a coal shovel!

A bevy of angels.

This man is contiguous with the chap with the coal scuttle.

This group of angelic figures seem to have bodies of animals, so this is almost certainly a representation of the four evangelists, all of whom have such symbols in church iconography.

We are on safe ground here. This is a “pelican in her piety” feeding (as legend would have it) her young with blood from her pecked breast. A popular mediaeval image with no zoological foundation whatsoever!

More of the Annunciation capital.

Some more angels.

The southern capital of the chancel arch has a quite exceptional array of carving (and it is worth comparing it with that of its northern counterpart (above). Here we seem to have a king either crowning his queen or else patting her on the head! In fact it represents the coronation by God of the Virgin Mary - the Annunciation.

The theme is continued by an angel on the left and what appears to be another Adam and Eve tableau.

 The grotesque theme continues with a fine set of corbels supporting the roof trusses on the north side, of which these two are typical.

By the south aisle, in somewhat splendid isolation is what appears to be a large lion figure supporting part of the roof.

The font is a very nice Transitional example dating from 1180 - the oldest thing in the church, The blind arcading pattern is not as regular as the sculptor would have liked, I am sure. The original eight supporting piers  have gone and the font now stands on the remains of a c14 churchyard cross.

The west porch, above which is the tower.

There are some beautiful ceilings in the church. This is part of the chancel ceiling.

This one is in the North chapel.

The reredos is in pink alabaster and was made by James Forsyth in 1898.

The exterior is richly adorned with grotesques and gargoyles, including this cluster on the north side.

On the west end of the north aisle is a whole course of maned monsters with little blue/black stones for eyes. They are highly distinctive and sparked immediate recognition by me that the same sculptor had carved similar figures on Ryhall St John the Evangelist Church in Rutland where I live.  Ryhall will have its page on this site in due course.

One of the few things not aesthetically pleasing about Oakham Church are the off-centre bell openings of the tower. As Pevsner put it : “distressingly out of the centre line of the tower to allow for the staircase”.

There are three niches on the west side of the tower, each still having its original statue of (from left to right), St Peter, Christ and St Paul.