Gilston is one of those churches - Little Hormead is another example - which is famous for a single feature (the 13th century screen in Gilston's case, the Norman ironwork in Little Hormead's) but which turns out, on investigation, to have much more to offer.
The peaceful rural setting is the first attraction. Although it's only a mile or so from the dual carriageway of the A414, and only a little further from the centre of Harlow, it feels miles from anywhere. If you approach from the south (as you almost certainly will - there are only farm tracks from the other points of the compass) you cross the evocatively named Golden Brook (which unfortunately doesn't live up to its billing - it's really not much more than a muddy ditch), and there is something precious about the country here. Once the church served a village but that was deserted and disappeared centuries ago (perhaps after the Black Death of the mid 14th century), and now there are only a few cottages and a farm to keep it company.
The church is essentially 13th century, as can be seen from the lancet windows in the chancel, and, more picturesquely, the west door (which I failed to photograph).
The flint lower third of the tower is presumably of the same date, but the top two thirds were rebuilt in brick, probably in the late 16th century. Why such a drastic rebuilding was necessary isn't recorded. The demi-hexagonal stair turret that rises two-thirds of the way up is an appealing feature, especially the pyramidal top.
The Victorian wooden porch is as attractive as the Victorian north aisle (which replaced an earlier timber aisle) is unattractive - the knapped flint seems oppressively dark and forbidding, and not at all in keeping with the rest of the structure.
But it's the screen that we've come to see, so, now we've had a cursory look around the outside, let's go in.
The interior is aisled but has no clerestory, and is thus dark; the light switches are on your right as you enter. There are only a handful of 13th century screens in the country*, so Gilston's example is of national importance. It dates from late in that century. The lower two-thirds are entirely plain; all the interest is in the top third, which has slim shafts with moulded bases, bands and capitals, rather too big for the beanpole balusters. These support trefoiled moulded arches with stylised flowers carved in the spandrels, which give a hint of exuberance. The screen is nothing like the extravagant ones that would be made over the next few centuries, but very satisfying in its chaste simplicity.
It was reconstructed in the 19th century; what state it was in before then I'm not sure, but presumably fragmentary. The lower two-thirds are entirely modern; only two of the shafts (those in the doors) are old. All the arches and rosettes appear to be original.
The double piscina is roughly coeval with the screen. But what about the plaster six-pointed cusped star and rosette above it? The Royal Commission onHistorical Monuments says that it’s also 13th century; the statutory listing implicitly agrees though states that the rosette was ‘applied later’, which isn’t very helpful. I find this dating hard to accept. (Pevsner doesn’t mention the piscina or its decoration.) Is it possible that the decoration is pre-archaeological early Gothic Revival, late 18th or early 19th century?
The quatrefoil piers of the nave arcades are also 13th century.
The oldest object in the church is the 12th century Norman font, made from Purbeck marble (which isn't really marble, but a variety of limestone). It's even plainer than the screen, with three round-headed arches on each face. Fonts are normally octagonal, round or square, but this one is hexagonal. Why? Who knows? I doubt that there's any great significance to its shape - it was probably just a whim of the maker.
In the chancel are two fine baroque monuments. On the north wall is one to Sir John Gore, d.1659. At the top recline two female figures; the one on the left (symbolising Faith or Wisdom) holds a book, and that on the right (Hope) an anchor. There’s a long laudatory Latin inscription (a laminated translation is provided nearby), which states that he wished to have as his epitaph simply the words ‘A Prisoner of Hope’ (in English)**. Amidst all the elaborate carving are two plain black marble rectangles, at the top and bottom. The top one has the inscription ‘A Prisoner of Hope’, while the bottom one states (in Latin) that ‘William Gore, his son . . . had this poor monument erected and would have had a finer one, if it had been allowed him to obey his own dutiful feelings, rather than his father’s will and testament.’ This is an odd statement, as this cannot in all conscience be described as a 'poor monument', however faux-modest William was trying to be.
What seems to have happened is that originally Sir John’s monument comprised simply the two rectangles, but that a later Gore, Sir Humphrey (with a name like that he was perhaps destined to be a bit pompous), thought that such a simple memorial was not suitable for his family’s high status. Consequently he commissioned the monument we see today, which incorporates the original plaques. His ambition is evident from the fact that he employed Joshua Marshall, the Master-Mason to Charles II, ‘one of the greatest statuaries of the 17th century’.***
Facing Sir John’s monument over the altar is that to his daughter Bridget, d.1657, which is even better, and even baroquer, (Although it’s not stylistically similar to Sir John’s it’s been convincingly ascribed to Marshall.****) Bridget died in infancy, and her memorial is almost guaranteed to bring a lump to the throat. The (English) inscription states, in part, that she was ‘the most desired Fruit of many Prayers, and the joy of her Mothers Heart, [who] was without Reluctancy, most chearfully resigned to God that gave her, in her 4th yeare, the Blossom of her Age, the 10th Febr 1657. In Testimony whereof, and of her dearest affection to her most ravishing Memory, she hath erected this small Monument, . . . [as a sign] of her eternal Gratitude for the short Enjoyment of so sweet a Mercy.’
Bridget stands within an oval frame, clutching her shroud to her chest but looking very much alive. She wears a pearl necklace, and above her two putti are in the act of crowning her with a coronet. On either side two more putti are drawing back the curtains to reveal this affecting scene, but undermine the solemn atmosphere by drying their eyes on the drapes. (This is a motif found occasionally in 17th century funerary sculpture, and I always think that it verges on the comically absurd.) Above is a complex pediment with heraldry. It’s all very theatrical, yet the feeling behind it is nakedly raw and sincere.
In the west window is all that remains of the medieval glass the church once possessed. It’s the shield of Sir William Estfield, d.1447, who was twice Lord Mayor of London and a Knight of the Bath. It features three maidens’ heads, with dishevelled hair. Surprisingly – at least, surprisingly to me – it seems that in heraldry maidens’ heads are usually depicted as having untidy hair.
Easy to miss, though it’s just to your right as you enter the church, is this graffito on one of the nave pillars. It appears to show a Puritan, identifiable by his capotain hat, striding purposefully, even self-righteously, to the right with an upright staff in his left hand. He’s within an outline simple house. What squats in the ‘attic’? It looks to me like a dragon with its head to the left, hunched body and tail on the right. Or, more prosaically, it could be a squirrel munching a leaf.
Does the graffito have a purpose, or is it just a random scribble? It’s in a prominent position, so it’s tempting to think that it has a specific meaning. The Gores, who arrived in Gilston in 1632, unsurprisingly supported the Royalists in the Civil War, and presumably would have abhorred Puritanism. Is it possible that the picture is a satirical squib, sanctioned by the Gores?
The church is usually locked, however a sign on the door tells you where the keyholder lives (a couple of minutes walk away). The church will remain, but unfortunately the golden countryside in which it stands will not. A plan to build thousands of houses in ‘garden villages’ on the farmland north of Harlow is speeding towards us like a juggernaut on the A414 (see here). People need to live somewhere, and every house in existence stands on land that was once virgin, but I do wonder about the wisdom of this scheme. Wouldn’t it be better to build on brownfield sites, and to encourage economic growth in other parts of the country so that the housing pressure is taken off the south-east? Dressing up a plan that involves the destruction of hundreds of acres of fields by putting the word ‘garden’ in it fools no one.
* Other examples are found at Stanton Harcourt, Oxon; Thurcaston, Leics; Geddington, Northants; and Sparsholt, Berks. They're all of similar design, though the floral decoration in the spandrels is unique to Gilston so far as I know. Presumably many more 13th century screens once existed, but were replaced by more elaborate ones later in the Middle Ages.
** ‘A Prisoner of Hope’, which is a biblical quotation, must mean a hopeful prisoner rather than one imprisoned by hope.
*** Rupert Gunnis, Dictionary of British Sculptors 1660-1850.
**** Marshall did design and carve monuments with standing figures in their shrouds, for example that to the Noels, of 1664, in Chipping Campden, Glos..