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Dedication : All Saints  Simon Jenkins: Excluded                                              Principal Features : Original South door of AD1050; remains of an Anchorite Cell

Staplehurst is one of those contented little Kentish villages where time has not stood still, but where there is still a feeling of quintessential English-ness and “middle class values”. The church is just behind the rather busy main road and provides a pleasant oasis from its traffic.

There is one overwhelming reason for the Church Historian to visit the church: the extraordinary south door that is original. The Church Guide says it has “definitively” been dated to AD1050, presumably by dating on the wood itself although the date seems to me to be unfeasibly precise!. Others believe it to be Norman. Frankly, that is a rather pointless nicety when we are talking about sixteen years before the Conquest!

The Church Guide claims the north wall “may be Saxon” because of its herringbone courses. I would have to say that this is surely definitely the case? Herringbone is rare if not unknown outside that period and of course this is consistent with the dating of the south door.

The door represents the Norse view of the final apocalypse: “Ragnorok”. Many religions have such a tradition, Christianity and Judaism amongst them. It is worth remembering that Chrisitians believed that the world would end in 1000 AD and when they woke up to find the birds still singing and sun still shining they assumed that they should have calculated from the time of Christ’s death. 1033 brought further disappointment.

So what is Ragnorok doing on a church in 1050? I think there are two possibilities. The first is that it is a manifestation of the divided loyalties of the Vikings. From 1016 to 1042 England was ruled by Danish kings, Cnut being the first and greatest of them. Denmark was “officially” made Christian in AD980 by Harald Bluetooth although, as usual, this may have been for primarily political and commercial reasons. Denmark was not fully Christianised until the mid eleventh century. Cnut was an avowed Christian but how much of his belief was politically motivated must be open to question. In any event  there is ample evidence that the Vikings happily accommodated the Christian God alongside their traditional gods. For evidence of this we can do no better than to examine the many surviving cross slabs in the Isle of Man where many a Viking god - especially Thor - appears alongside Christian symbolism. There is no tradition of Vikings building churches in England. In fact, Vikings did not build in stone at all, hence the incredible wooden “stave” churches built in early Christian Scandinavia.  Moreover, the Anglo-Saxons who preceded them as invaders had their own similar pantheon of gods. Ragnorok does not seem to have been part of their tradition but scholars have not been able to rule out elements of it having percolated into their belief system. You might put all this together and say that the door at Staplehurst is a manifestation of religious confusion and ambivalence with Anglo-Saxon builders having been influenced by Northern European tradition..

The second possibility favoured by the church’s own leaflet is that it is meant to portray the the new hope provided by Christianity while the pagan world destroys itself. This relies on the existence of a small cross-like design at the top left of the door. Personally, I find this theory unconvincing. There were so many more robust and obvious ways in which this could have been portrayed. Ragnorok is shown here in considerable detail, almost advertising the pagan legend.  Moreover, Ragnorok has appeared at other English churches including a similar door at Stillingfleet in Yorkshire and on the great churchyard cross at Gosforth in Cumbria. Neither of these have any iconography to suggest Christianity prevailing over this apocalyptic vision.

On the north east wall there is a squint from what would have been an anchorite cell. For more on the subject of anchorites see Iffley in Oxfordshire, Ryhall in Rutland and  Compton and Shere in Surrey. Sadly, little seems to be known about who occupied the cell and when.

The earliest substantial parts of the church including the chancel and the south aisle date from between 1200 and 1250, the Early English period. Most of the rest of the church dates from c14 and c15. The handsome west tower dates from between 1400 and 1425. There is a nice Perpendicular doorway with label stops that are believed to depict the heroic Henry V and his queen Catherine of Valois. There are also nice carvings within the door’s spandrels. Hardly a century passed without additions and modifications so that the church/, however. The result is a somewhat bland Gothic church such as you might pass every three or four miles in rural England.  It must be said that it is a  pleasing building externally with lovely mellow local limestone As with so many of those churches, though, there is a treasure lurking here in Staplehurst; and it’s an important one.

Staplehurst (29)b

The door. Unfortunately, it is difficult to see some of it because of the intrusion of the ghastly B&Q lamp and I had to take pictures from through a locked metal grille. Grrrr. But see the further pictures below.

The Legend of Ragnorok

I quote here from the Church Guide:  “It tells the story of Ragnorok, the Norse Day of Judgement, which starts with a cockerel crowing and waking Heimdall, the watchman,  who blows his horn Gjallir to call the gods to battle. nature is in confusion and the seals rush onto the land. Jormungandr, the Midgard serpent (who has grown until he encircles the world) and other monsters on the Ship of the Dead fight the gods. The serpent is shown wriggling and again, stretched in agony, vanquished by Thor. Surt the sunwheel throws sheets of flame over the earth. The stars fall while above flies Nithhoggr, who feeds on the slain. But above him is a cross, symbol of a new hope coming and a Christian conclusion to the Norse legend.

This, of course, is not the whole story of Ragnorok but only that part retold on the door. Odin was swallowed by Fenrir the evil wolf. Thor after killing the Midgard serpent “steps away nine feet” but then drops dead from the poison of the serpent’s breath. Alll die. The world ends.

I apologise for this jumble of images but, in truth, the code is not easy to decipher and I have decided that the real enthusiast will work it out for him or herself!. The key scene is that top left which shows some of the imagery missing in the main picture. You should be able to spot a cross in the top left of the picture which is the origin of the “Christianity Triumphant” theory. You might wonder, as I do, why it was not made more obvious. For my part I prefer the idea that Christianity and the old gods were inextricably linked at that time but it is only another view. This, though, is not the only puzzle. Who, one might ask, created it? This was a Viking legend, not an Anglo-Saxon one. Yet, one assumes it was Anglo-Saxons who built the church. The Vikings were perfectly capable of producing ironwork, however. Did the masons have a Danish collaborator working with them. Did a Dane influence an Anglo-Saxon smith? had an Anglo-Saxon (or Anglo-Saxons in general) assimilated the legend into their own belief set? So many questions!

Left: The view to the west end from the chancel. This is an airy church blessed with plenty of windows and its proportions are far from displeasing. There is a pronounced lean to the south arcade that the Church Website suggests (because the pier bases are straight) was in fact designed thus. Right: The south arcade looking towards the west.

Left: To the left is the Anchorite’s “squint” - or rather squints. Why were there two? I think the right hand squint here must be to give a view of the altar while the larger opening was for the anchorite to receive the sacraments. There are also two squints at Shere in Surrey which has perhaps the best documented anchorite cell in England. There it would be a physical impossibility for a single squint to serve both purposes but here it less obvious that two were needed. Right: Here are the two squints from the outside.

Left: Staplehurst has two fonts. This one dates from 1100 and, like so many, was re-discovered serving as a feeding trough on a farm. I sometimes wonder if there was an anti-Norman Font movement in England at some time, such is the prevalence of such stories! Was this phenomenon another consequence of  Victorian “modernisation”? Right: A rather nice carving, certainly from an earlier era, nestles on a window sill in the south aisle.

Left: Anglo-Saxon “herringbone” masonry in the north wall. Right: Staplehurst is one of those rare examples of a church where you can take an unobstructed picture, so this one is of the north side. Note the unusually large south chapel window (left) and the fine east end window. The north side windows are the usual motley collection of Gothic styles.

Left: The perpendicular west door has fine carving within the spandrels. Centre: The tower. It is stated as dating from 1400-1425, but there are at least three distinct types of masonry here so there may have been more than one phase or else some later rebuilding. Right: The sun-drenched priest’s door on the south side of the chancel.

Left: The presumed head of King Henry V on the west doorway and...Centre: ...the very eroded Catherine of Valois. Right: A bit of a mystery here on the priest’s door. is this benchmark of some sort? Is “WD” the War Department? Is it a crude scratch dial? Or is the whole lot just random graffiti?


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This super old notice is found next to the footpath from the main street to the church.