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Sibthorpe (Nottinghamshire)

Hawton (Nottinghamshire)

The Back Road to Brant (Lincolnshire)

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The Late Mary Curtis Webb (revised)

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Dedication : St Peter       Simon Jenkins: Excluded                                     Principal Features : Easter Sepulchre; Extraordinary Dovecote

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Easter sepulchres are not very common. Sibthorpe’s near neighbour, Hawton, has an extraordinary one and so does Heckington in Lincolnshire. Others appear on this website but the majority of those surviving are somewhat disappointing when compared with these two beauties. Many sepulchres re-used an empty tomb recess and often their provenance is in doubt. Sibthorpe's Easter Sepulchre is of interest, ironically, because it is relatively understated. If Hawton and Heckington are respectively Harrods and Heals then Sibthorpe is John Lewis - but decidedly not Poundland! Its provenance is beyond doubt and perhaps it was typical of many such furnishings that have long disappeared. Pevsner sneeringly describes it as "not one of the best" but it seemed pretty interesting to me! Certainly if you are visiting the glories of Hawton only six miles away then you should drop into Sibthorpe as well.

Domesday records the existence of a church here in 1086. Nothing of that building remains. It is not even certain that today's church was even built on the same site nor that the original church was constructed of stone. The church was given to the ill-fated Templars in around 1186 and perhaps it was they who built the earliest part of the present church - the tower - in the thirteenth century. In the usual fashion, it was taken over by the Hospitallers after the suppression of the Templars in 1312. In 1326 Thomas de Sibthorpe built a chantry chapel at his own expense on the north side, presumably fearing

 for the immortal souls of himself and his family. Unlike many of his contemporaries, however, Thomas went much further and set about reconstructing the church including the construction of today's chancel and the building of another chapel on the south side. In 1341 he bought the advowson (the right to appoint priests) from the Hospitallers and obtained a licence to create a collegiate church. There were no fewer than eight priests and two clerks. Poor old Thomas was rewarded for his piety and largesse by being murdered in 1351! The college then declined before being dissolved in 1545 during the reign of Bad King Henry. With the accession of Elizabeth in 1559 it is likely the "popish" easter sepulchre was removed and hidden until less troubled times. Sometime during the seventeenth or eighteenth centuries the chapels to the north and the south of the church were demolished.

Pevsner describes the nave as "mean" and the chancel as "splendid", both of which descriptions seem to me to be a bit OTT. Really, the structure is quite ordinary throughout although the quality of the chancel windows suggest that it was a much finer church before the chapels were removed. It is the sepulchre that makes the church worth visiting - and the dovecote, of which more anon.

When you first enter the church it is a bit of a surprise all round. Many benches have been removed at the west end of the nave to leave a small open space. The floor is polished wood block and the walls have been whitewashed. Purists might hate it but it seems to me that the congregation had adapted their church to suit the realities of the twenty-first century. What use is it to have a sea of empty benches and to afflict the dwindling faithful with cold bare stone everywhere? It is easy to forget that all of our "mediaeval" churches are monuments to centuries of adaptation to changing social and religious demands.

The sepulchre is in the traditional position in the north wall of the chancel. It has been painted in modern times and there have been quite a lot of sniffy comments about this. I confess I don't really know why. It would surely have been painted in mediaeval times and the painting has been quite restrained. It is quite a simple composition. Christ stands above two angels with censers. At the base of the sepulchre are the usual four sleeping soldiers. These are, in my view, the most interesting feature and deserve much better than Pevsner's pithy comment. They are not Roman soldiers but mediaeval knights and their armour is surely of interest to military historians.

One of the knights is painted black and has his helm pulled down. The other three, although somewhat damaged, have wonderfully doleful faces in their repose (remember that they are sleeping while Christ rises from his tomb). Three have finely carved shields whereas one has a painted design that is so dire in its execution that it is surely the work of a recent bodger.

The other wonder to be seen at Sibthorpe is the dovecote. Standing about fifty metres from the church you might think it was a disused windmill and you might think it is nothing to do with the church. In fact it was built in 1340 and was part of a monastic-style infrastructure including fishponds and gardens that were used to support the canons and their support staff. Standing over forty five feet high with 1,148 nesting boxes in twenty four tiers and in fine condition it is an unmissable part of your visit here. As you enter through the tiny doorway try to imagine the noise - and stench - made by hundreds of birds.

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Left: Looking towards the chancel. Note the fine Decorated style east window. Right: Looking west from the chancel. Note the lofty chancel arch.

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Left: The Easter Sepulchre. Note the sleeping soldiers on either side. Centre: The main composition with Christ and two angels. Right: The Christ figure

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Left: The sepulchre recess  Right: To the left is the knight with the closed helm. His shield has a crudely-painted dragon design. To his right is another with open helm and a carved shield. Both have somewhat stunted legs crossed in unnatural postures. The weapon carried by the right hand knight is rather curious, and surely is a desperate attempt by the sculptor to imagine what a Roman soldier might have carried!

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Left: Details of face and shield. Right: The two easternmost knights. They have the most mournful faces. Both have contemporary swords at their belts. The shields are finely carved and note particularly the lovely maned face (the Sun?) carried by the right hand knight. The shield on the left is the only one that seems to nod towards heraldry. The others, like those at Hawton, have more obscure symbolism that is lost on us today. There are no similarities with the Sibthorpe family arms.

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Left: The small niche of the Easter Sepulchre itself would have precluded its holding the altar cross or a processional cross from Good Friday to Easter Monday in the prescribed manner. This recess is directly below the sepulchre and it seems certain that it was used as part of the easter ritual. Indeed, in many churches this would have been the sole provision. Oddly, most descriptions of the church do not make reference to its dual role here but imply it is an integral part of the sepulchre. Yet a tomb niche is assuredly was with the grave slab very obvious and the inscription “Their bodies are buried in peace; but their name liveth for evermore” from Ecclesiastes reinforces the point. Right: A fine alabaster monument to Edward Burnell who died on 19 December 1589. It has sustained a hefty crack.

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Left: The peculiarly full-faced skull at the foot of the Burnell monument. Even in 1597 artists were not great anatomists. Oddly there seems to be two eyes (do skulls have eyes...?) inset into the sockets, and someone has clearly been to some trouble to replace or repair them. What repositories of the bizarre our parish churches are! Right: The north side gives very visible evidence of the removal of the north aisle. The original traceried windows were (thankfully) re-used and are in stark contrast with the disappointingly ugly replacement wall on the south side with its slab sides and “functional” windows. Note the corbels above the filled-in arcade which that mark the roofline. Note also the mnarooned piscina that would presumably have served a chapel altar.

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Left: The font dates from 1662 (it is thus inscribed) and is decorated with saltire crosses. Centre: The orphaned piscina on the north wall. Right: The western tower is the only surviving feature of the thirteenth century church.

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Left: The dovecote is located to the east of the church and a footpath leads to it from the road at the south west corner of the churchyard. The variations in vegetation demonstrate the locations of fishponds and cultivated area to this day. Centre: The tiny entrance door. It is difficult to give a perspective of height but you can see that the door is almost as wide as it is high. I am about 5’9” and I had to duck very low to enter. Right: Some of the 1,148 nesting boxes.

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Left: The perspective of concentric rings rising towards the roof opening (through which the birds would fly)  is quite a surreal experience that a photograph cannot really do justice to. Right: The east end of the church from the dovecote.

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Left: The gate leading to the footpath to the dovecote.

Above: Yew trees are, of course, a traditional feature of the English parish churchyard, representing the eternal life of Christ and, on a more prosaic note, being the source of the traditional English longbow!  Earlier still. they were powerful pagan symbols (Christianity was nothing if not plagiarist). And did you know that two chemotherapy treatments were originally manufactured from yew tree needles? At Sibthorpe the yews sweep around in a semicircle. The yews at Painswick Church in Gloucestershire are the most celebrated in the country, but those at Sibthorpe are, for my money, even more impressive.