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St. John's Church, Little Wilbraham

St. John's

History
Chancel Piscina                  St. John's Church
  Leper squint
Stained glass
Nave Saxon window
  Norman doors
  Font
  Musical figures
North aisle Coat of Arms
   
South Porch
   
Outside features Crusader Cross
  Tower Arches
  Church Cross
 
Acknowledgements

 

 



History

There has been a church on this site going back at least one thousand years. Evidence for this lies in the south wall of the nave. There is a small narrow window set into a wall more than a metre thick. Outside, the construction is by “long and short” arrangement of squared stone blocks, typical of the late Saxon period (circa 900-1066). There was further development during the Norman period. Also on the south wall near the Chancel are two blocked doorways, one above the other, dating from the Norman period in the twelfth century. Furthermore the remains of a Norman arch were uncovered during the restoration of the Tower west wall in 2007. The main body of the church, however, dates from the mid-13th century. The steep pointed arch separating the nave from the belfry area and high curved arches dividing the nave from the north aisle are typical of many churches built at this time in the East Midlands..  (more history.....)

Chancel

During the refurbishment of the Chancel in the Spring of 2001, two new, important, discoveries were made. Stripping the plaster from the south wall revealed a large, very unusual double piscina crowned with decorated carving, dating probably from the mid-14th century. This piscina, used for washing the Communion vessels and also the hands of the priest who had dispensed the Sacred Elements, had been well used and showed signs of wear. Some time, probably in the 18th Century, it had been blocked up with fragments of chalk building stone and a brick of that period, and hidden under a coating of plaster, until it was recovered in the course of the repairs. The original stonework is supported by a new central pillar. Double piscina

South chancel wall with double piscina & leper squint


In addition, to the right of the piscina was revealed a small rectangular aperture sunk into the wall at an angle. This was undoubtedly a leper squint, through which parishioners suffering from leprosy or other infectious diseases (and therefore banned from entering the Church) could still take part in the worship and receive the Sacrament. The perpendicular construction of the squint suggests a 15th century date. During the repairs, faint traces of paintings in red were found on the north wall of the Chancel. Remains of a black and white linear design have survived on the plaster covering the right side of the piscina.


Stained glass windows

East window
East window


The stained glass windows at the east end above the altar and in the windows on the south aisle commemorate members of the Kent and King families, who worshipped in the church during the latter part of the nineteenth century.

South nave window (east)
South nave window (east)
  South nave window (west)
South nave window (west)

The windows in the porch commemorate Peter John King and his wife, Fanny, who died in 1940 and 1941 respectively. The King family, some of whom are now in the United States, still support the work of the church.


Nave

Nave looking east

High up on the nave walls on both sides - and also in the north aisle - are well-preserved gargoyles. It is thought that these supported the beams on which rested a flat roof.
On the south side is the small narrow Saxon window set into the original wall.
Saxon window
Saxon window
 
Also on the south wall, near the Chancel, are the two late Norman doorways, one above the other, now blocked off. The lower doorway was an entrance to the church; but the upper door led onto a stage approached by a narrow stairway, on which Christmas and Mystery plays would be performed at Christmas and other Church Feast Days. One of the carved Musical Figures (see below) now stands in the upper doorway.
Blocked doors at east end of nave
Norman doorways at east end of nave
 
Double pulpit and opening in arch to north aisle Opposite them, in the east arch of the north side of the nave, is an opening (a hagioscope) into the north aisle. This was probably the entrance to a side chapel in pre-Reformation times, before the north aisle was built. In front of this is a double pulpit, which dates from around 1850. At one time it was positioned against the south wall of the nave. It underwent repair work in the 1990's. The west end of the nave has a tower arch which is unusually pointed.

 

West nave and tower arch
West end of nave


The octagonal font is a remarkably well preserved example of Perpendicular period stone-work.
 

font   font


Musical figures
Standing in niches either side of the chancel arch and in the wall of the north-east corner of the north aisle are three wooden figures. They originally formed part of a group of ten, which in turn formed part of the lower beams of the Mediaeval roof. Six of the original figures were sold to Anglesey Abbey and four to Saffron Walden Museum Society. Three of these latter have been loaned back to the church. All are connected with Mediaeval music, and provide a rare insight into church orchestral music in the 15th century.

Wooden carving on left
Left-hand figure
Wooden carving on right
Right-hand figure
Wooden carving north aisle
North aisle figure
The figure on the left has a citole, a lute-like stringed instrument widely used in the 13th to 17th centuries, and the ancestor of the modern guitar.
The figure on the right side of the Church has a shawm, a woodwind instrument.
The figure in the north aisle carries a book, perhaps a Psalter or other collection of church music.


North aisle

The north aisle, built in the late 13th century, is wonderfully light, thanks to the large clear windows constructed on the north and east side in the 14th century. It is large enough to be used for services in its own right. As with the nave, there are gargoyles high up on the walls on each side, on which would have sat the beams for the original (probably flat) roof.

 

North aisle


Over the vestry door at the west end of the aisle is a Royal Coat of Arms. This was set up in compliance with an order by Charles II that every parish should have one. The example at Little Wilbraham, however, dates from the reign of George 1 (1714-1727).

Coat of arms   Coat of arms


South porch

South porch


The porch can be dated by the Early English windows on either side.

Inside the porch, on the right hand side of the doorway, is a bearded crowned head, perhaps Henry III (1216 - 1272). On the left hand side is a woman’s head, perhaps representing his wife, Eleanor of Provence, whom he married in 1236. To judge by the stonework, these sculptures seem to be original and not the result of 19th century restoration.
 

Carved head on left side of south door South door Carved head on right of south door


The present oak door leading into the church is 15th century, if not a little earlier. Originally, the spaces between the representations of windows were filled by the Coat of Arms of four of the leading families in the district.


Outside features

There are several features of historical interest in the outside walls of the church.

A crusader cross is clearly visible in the wall of the north aisle, although the top of the cross was lost when the new windows were constructed in the 14th century.

Crusader cross
 
In the west wall of the tower, Norman arches were discovered during renovations in 2007.
 
Tower
Norman arches in tower
 
The Church Cross, outside the south porch, is quoted in the Grade II listing document as being 7th century. However examination of the foundations suggest that it is more likely to originate from the 14th century. The surviving plinth has three layers. The top stone is 28" square, the middle is 56" square and the bottom 84" square - i.e. all are multiples of 28". Plinth of church cross


Acknowledgements
The text is by the late Rev. Professor William Frend. It has been edited, and updated to include features which came to light during restoration work in 2007.