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Stogursey

Dedication : St Andrew             Simon Jenkins: ***                                  Principal Features : Norman Core; Two Norman Fonts; Sanctuary Ring

Stogursey is a big complicated old church. It is packed with interest, but in many ways it hasn’t been treated kindly. It is full of clutter, some interesting, some just church junk and the use of shedloads of whitewash inside and out has done this church no favours; especially on the outside where it just looks grey and fading. There must have been a special offer on at B&Q.

The present church was built by one of William the Conqueror’s henchmen, William de Falaise in the 1090s. It was given to the Benedictines of Lonlay, near to Falaise. That church comprised a nave that has since been replaced, the two transepts and a chancel. Both transepts and chancel ended in a triple apse arrangement.

Of this original building we still have the crossing and transepts. The apses were demolished between 1175 and 1180 when the chancel was extended to form a choir and sanctuary for the monks. At the same time, the transepts were extended eastwards so that the new choir was flanked by two side aisles. They were separated by a 2 bay arcade. Thus we still have features from two distinct phases of Norman building.

The present nave was rebuilt in about 1500 and restored in 1823-4. The windows are Perpendicular in style.

Remarkably, this church has two Norman fonts, one of which was brought here from Lilstock Church (3 miles away) that was deconsecrated in 1980 (but restored in 1993). The “home” font is a peculiar thing: a huge stone tub

with four rather odd faces carved around it.There is a thick rope moulding below and a course of crude star-shaped decoration around the rim. The Lilstock font, presumably brought here because that church too was dedicated to St Andrew, is of the same stone, rather smaller and, again, with rather crude decoration.

Another peculiarity is an iron ring near the foot of the south eastern column of the crossing. It is reputed to be a “sanctuary ring”. By taking hold of such a ring a mediaeval felon could avoid arrest providing they left England within 40 days. If this was not its purpose then the only obvious other use would be to secure something valuable. Quite what this would be, I can’t imagine, especially  when you consider that the penalty for stealing from a church could be as extreme as being flayed alive! For more about “sanctuary” see footnore below.

Looking east from the nave. The chancel arch is the original.

The neo-Norman sanctuary with the two-bay aisle arcade to the left. The arches are noticeably more ornate than the crossing arches that predate them by 80-90 years. However, the capitals are noticeably plainer and on quite dainty square abaci - see pictures of the crossing capitals below.

The view to the west end from within the chancel. The two facing arches are are crossing arches from the original chucrh. Those to left a right are small arcades leading to the side aisles that flank the chancel.

The sanctuary. The east wall was rebuilt by the Victorians.

Crossing Capitals. These are quite a mixed bunch in a variety of styles. There is a rather rectangular cat mask - or, by a stretch of the imagination a green man (below left) and a another cat mask (below right). The two chancel arch capitals (penulatimate row) are of markedly different stonework, have chequer-board patterns on the abaci and some winged beasts lurking within the design. It is a mixed bag but note the “rope moulding” that appears at the base of most.

The two bay arcades from the chancel to the small side aisles. Note the comparative plainness of the capitals.

Stogursey’s “own” font. It is a large tub decorated with four rather strange faces.

The Lilstock font. It is rather smaller than Sogursey’s but is similar in its relative crudeness. Note, for example, the rather irregular and inelegant zig-zag pattern.

Faces of the font. Two of them (right and left below) have symbols on the forehead. The one on the left probably does too but it isn’t easy to discern.

The south side chapel was built in Norman times, extending beyond the original south apse. What we seen now, however, apart from the arcade, is from c15 and c16. Note the “clutter”....!

The sanctuary ring at the base of the south east of the crossing.

As the Church Guide says,  the West Door is something of a mystery as it appears to be late Norman/Transitional yet the nave itself dates only from around 1500.

Bench Ends

The bench ends are not of a humorous or satirical nature as can sometimes be seen in other churches. Decorative bench ends are something of a speciality in Somerset and Stogursey’s all date from c16. Note the spoonbill - eel in beak - lower left which is believed to be unique to Stogursey. Above we can see the ubiquitous “pelican in her piety” feeding her young with the blood from her own breast.

This view from the south aisle through to the chancel and the north aisle beyond shows how numerous are the Norman arches here.

Stogursey has little to attract the lover of ghouls and gargoyles, but these two are quite engaging.

Footnote - Sanctuary

The concept of seeking Sanctuary is a somewhat romantic one, conjuring Hollywood-style images of innocents being protected indefinitely from their persecutors by throwing themselves on the mercy of Mother Church. Some people even, apparently, vaguely believe - erroneously - that the practice might have force today.

The truth is more prosaic. Many of those claiming Sanctuary were, as far as we can tell from ancient records, as guilty as hell, and sometimes of the vilest of crimes. Punishment in mediaeval times was, of course, much more violent and deadly than it is today so we might instinctively feel that Sanctuary was a deserved refuge from justice, but we shouldn’t kid ourselves that sanctuary-seekers were usually innocents. It is also worth knowing that Sanctuary was claimed by great men as well as peasants: there are plenty of examples of Lords seeking sanctuary for being on the “wrong” (that is, the defeated!) side in conflicts such as the Wars of the Roses. Lord Lovell, for example, is known to have claimed sanctuary after Richard III’s defeat at Bosworth in 1485.

The practice is believed to go back as far as AD 600. You may be disappointed to know that King James I abolished it in 1623, though even today we might suppose that the Police would be a little reticent about dragging criminals from a holy place.

Sanctuary was not a free pardon, nor indefinite protection from justice. The sanctuary-seeker was immune for only 40 days. During that time he (usually) or she was visited by the coroner and expected to confess to the crime. This was essential to the Sanctuary process. The felon would then “abjure” - that is swear an oath of exile from the realm. If the forty days elapsed without both confession and abjuration the fugitive would still not be seized from the holy precincts - but it was a crime punishable by hanging to help him so we might suppose that starvation or surrender would be his lot in the end.

"I swear on the Holy Book that I will leave the realm of England and never return without the express permission of my Lord the King or his heirs. I will hasten by the direct road to the port allotted to me and not leave the King's highway under pain of arrest or execution. I will not stay at one place more than one night and will seek diligently for a passage across the sea as soon as I arrive, delaying only one tide if possible. If I cannot secure such passage, I will walk into the sea up to my knees every day as a token of my desire to cross. And if I fail in all this, then peril shall be my lot".

It was for the Coroner to decide from which port the felon should depart - and this was not necessarily the closest. Some chose ports at an in inconvenient distance in order to prolong the agony. Conditions would be placed upon the exile:

"You will cast off your own clothing, which will be conficated and sold. You will wear only an ungirdled garment of crude sackcloth and you will walk bareheaded, carrying a wooden cross before you, made with your own hands from wood in the churchyard. You will tell passers-by what you are and you must take care not to stray from the highway nor stay in one place more than one night. If you fail, people are justly entitled to treat you as the wolf and behead you. And if you ever set foot in England again, you will be outlaw and your head forfeit to any man who can lift a sword"

Sanctuary, then, might save your life but was not a walk in the park! If you deviated from the terms of your abjuration, indeed, the penalty might exceed that for the crime you had originally committed - although we might surmise that it was the fear of execution that drove most to claim sanctuary.

As we have seen, Stogursey has a sanctuary ring which the fugitive was expected to reach in order to gain sanctuary. Another example is found on the south door Felmersham St Mary’s Church in Bedfordshire. Knockers were not, however, a prerequisite. In some places reaching the church grounds would be enough and in some places even sanctuary boundary markers were erected,

Some of this information (and both quotes) was obtained from an excellent website about the Coroner system by Prof. Bernard Knight CBE. It can be seen at http://www.britannia.com/history/articles/coroner4.html.