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Patrixbourne

Dedication : St Mary                 Simon Jenkins: **                                                    Principal Features :  Extraordinary Norman Decoration; Wheel window.

Patrixbourne is part of the “Kentish School” of Romanesque architecture which was heavily influenced by French decorative practices. It suffers somewhat from comparison with nearby St Nicholas Church, Barfreston to which Simon Jenkins justifiably accords 4 stars, putting it amongst his top hundred in the country. To my eyes, Patrixbourne is only a whisker behind Barfreston yet one or two church almanacs (such as “Harris’s Guide to Church and Cathedrals”  with over 500 entries!) manage, rather improbably, to exclude it altogether.

As the name implies, the village and church owe their name to the Patrick family from La Lande-Patry near Fleur in Normandy. The church here was probably commissioned by Richard Patry whose father, William, fought at Hastings alongside the Conqueror.The Norman decoration and fabric we see today dates from the late twelfth century. This makes it more or less contemporary with the rebuilding of Barfreston, but whereas there was known to have been an earlier Norman church there, it is a matter of debate whether some of what we see at Patrixbourne is also earlier. The existence of some herringbone masonry - usually an Anglo-Saxon feature - points in that direction but we don’t know.

Patrixbourne is much more altered than Barfreston. Two Norman south doorways immediately point to something special, but it has none of the original blind arcading and Norman windows that give Barfreston its stunning exterior.

The plan of the Norman church would have comprised the nave and chancel, a south aisle and the tower. The south chapel  that we see to the right of the south door (above) is a rebuilding of this part of the original Norman south aisle. The broach spire is, of course, a later addition. Not visible in this picture is the North aisle which was also not part of the Norman church. The tower was thus rather oddly placed to the south of the church with the aisle leading off on either side  - although “lateral” towers of this period were rather more common in France, reinforcing the heavy French influence that we see in Romanesque churches in this part of Kent.  Note that a tower is something that the more celebrated Barfreston cannot boast! It is the location of this tower and the existence of an unusually narrow south aisle (and aisles are not at all common in Norman churches) that encourages some experts to speculate that there was an earlier church here and that the existing one incorporated some of its plan.

The wonders of this pretty, quintessentially rural, church are its south doorway with its glorious (although sadly weathered) courses of fantastic decoration and tympanum; and the wheel window on the east end, a feature it shares with Barfreston. Simon Jenkins may give this church “only” two stars and maybe it is only my own predilection for Norman architecture that makes me feel it deserves more; but this a church that no enthusiast should pass by without a visit.

Left and Above: The south doorway to the tower of Patrixbourne Church is one of the most readily recognisable sights in English Romanesque architecture. Surmounting the doorway is a triangular string course enclosing a round-headed  niche (which may have been added later in the Norman period) in which an “Agnus Dei” - Lamb of God - figure is carved. The triangular gable is not unique - another can be seen at St Margaret at Cliffe, another of the Kentish School churches - but Patrixbourne’s portal is not, like St Margaret’s, obscured by a later porch, its carvings are finer and it has a tympanum.

Left: The tympanum has not survived well. The secular bottom right hand portion, however, has fared so much better than it is likely that the “idolatrous” religious portions of the rest of the tympanum were defaced by the Puritans iconoclast in the seventeenth century. Christ clearly occupied the upper central position, probably flanked by angels, since they were thus described in 1882 when the subsequent weathering may have been less severe. The general outline of the defaced sections are discernible but it is hard to make out the detailed subject matter. Right: The relatively intact secular part of the tympanum appears to be two back to back (“addorsed”) griffens.

Left:  This section has been defaced, yet we see a bird (a dove?)  quite clearly reinforcing the suggestion that iconoclasticism was the cause of the different levels of  damage here. Right: Christ and his supporters have suffered badly, yet His halo (and is that a Celtic cross behind his head?) can still be seen.

The capitals on either side of the doorway are of stylised foliage with none of the knights and dragons that adorn those at Barfreston.

Left: The now rather indistinct Agnus Dei carving on the wall of the tower is surrounded by a niche structure that may have been added later in the period. Right: Each diagonal arm of the triangular gable is ended by a carved head. Its bearded form is unusual in England and more reminiscent of France.

The individual shaped blocks of stone that comprise an arch are known as “voussoirs”. I imagine, but don’t know, that this derives from the French word “Voute” which means arch. At Patrixbourne there are five courses of voussoirs. The photographs above are examples of the outermost course. Each is a grotesque contained within a foliage surround. The one top left (bottom left on the voussoir itself) is an exception: it is rather larger than the rest and has no surround. It is a peculiar figure of a griffen apparently wearing a child’s or woman’s bonnet. Also different is (middle row right) what looks like it could be intended to be a human face.

There is a second course of voussoirs with grotesques. Some of these are rather more distinctive and they lack the foliage surrounds that characterise the other course. They do, however, alternate with foliage carvings such as can be seen top row right - in this case with a rather nice “knotted” stem structure. Elsewhere we see what seems to be a rather cheery flying tortoise (middle row left) and what looks like some kind of demon. The best of them is perhaps the pair bottom left that occupy the central position in this course of voussoirs.

Left: The interior of Patrixbourne is perhaps overshadowed by its exterior, but it is an interesting one for all that. The chancel arch is Norman but plain especially compared with the decorative exterior. The south arcade is c15 coinciding with the construction of the south chapel. The north arcade dates from only 1824 when the north aisle was added. Right: The church has been quite heavily restored; in 1849 in the case of the chancel shown here. The windows, however, are original and, with the exception of the confounded (!) memorial tablets this still has the look of a Norman chancel.

Left: The view from the chancel arch towards the west end. The organ on the south side conceals the one extant Norman aisle arch within the church at the point  where the south aisle is the original Norman. Right: The North side showing the 1824 north aisle - itself narrow as the original Norman south aisle would have been - and the Norman windows of the chancel.

The wheel window is a great rarity with only Barfreston and Castle Hedingham (Essex) having anything comparable. The spoke-eating grotesque heads are slightly smaller than at  Barfreston but the cusped “wheel” is very similar. The decorative moulding here, however, is a circle of grotesques at Barfreston. At Patrixbourne there are only four “cat mask” grotesques whereas Barfreston has eight - one at each “spoke”. Despite these differences, the two wheel windows are strikingly similar and surely were the work of the same “school” of masons.

Left: The east end with its wheel window and a tripartite arrangement of Norman chancel windows. Centre: The “Priest’s Door” on the south side of the chancel. Some believe the sculpture above to have been of St Thomas a Beckett. The church’s location and the building date support the speculation. Furthermore, the figure is quite damaged. If this was indeed Thomas then it is likely that the damage occurred during the reign of Henry VIII. Having assumed supremacy over the English church, Henry had little time for the cult of the “turbulent priest” of Henry II’s reign and many images were destroyed or defaced. Right: On the north aisle there is this curiosity: a clearly Norman door set into a c19 aisle! It obviously was moved here from elsewhere.

Priest’s doors on Norman churches are rarely carved with grotesques - perhaps reflecting the “holiness” of the churchmen who used them. Many are very plain, but Patrixbourne’s is relatively ornate with elaborate courses of mouldings over the arch and these nicely-carved capitals with saltire designs and stylised foliage.

Left: Beautifully preserved is this head carving that surmounts the wheel window. With a very elegant moustache, the like of which I have not seen on any other English church, and a beast’s ears. Who can he be? The authoratitive Church Guide by Mary Berg talks of a “forked beard” but it is surely a much more surprising moustache? Right: Finally, and I must admit a little out of sequence, this is a close up of the central part of the south door voussoirs. The central figure of the addorsed grotesques is adjoined by fleurons to left and right. Above is a course of decoration that looks rather like (but surely isn’t) the figure “8” repeated, and below is a course of lozenge ornamentation containing foliage.

Footnote

We arrived at Patrixbourne at 10.30 am on a Sunday morning in June 2011. It was locked but we had only to wait for the churchwardens to open up for the traditional 11.00 service. Feeling rather “in the way” as church was prepared for the service, we hurried somewhat and that accounts for the dearth of interior pictures here - although, there is little of real note within.

I knew it would happen one day, however....

We were aware as we took photographs that one of the churchwardens was a little agitated. I put this down to our having politely declined the offer to join the congregation for the morning. As we left, however, she hurried after us and demanded to know whether we were taking photographs for “commercial” reasons, in which case she felt that their cash-strapped church deserved a commercial-sized donation. I suppose that with our two cameras, a long zoom lens and having left a handful of “business” cards for this website with its “...co.uk” suffix it must have looked for all the world as if we there in order to write a book or make a TV program or something of that nature.

I am not sure if she believed me, but if she ever reads this she can rest assured (as can all other readers) that this site is a labour of love from which I have never received a penny of income. Far from it, I spend inordinate amounts of my spare time on what I see as an advertisement for the English Parish Church - surely the biggest and best free show on earth?

Please visit these churches - and Patrixbourne is worth travelling to see - make a small donation, buy the Church Guides on offer and maybe even a postcard or tea towel or two and help these good people in their wearisome and endless task of maintaining these incredible historic buildings with no state support.