Church architecture in Hertfordshire and elsewhere, art, books, and whatever crosses my path

Tuesday 21 April 2020

Bygrave church, Herts - a font and a dragon

I started writing on Icknield Indagations a little less than five years ago, in August 2015. One hundred and twenty posts later, it's now reached 40,000 page views. Of course, a 'view' doesn't mean that someone has actually read it, and I write mostly for my own satisfaction, but even if only half the views turn into 'reads', then I think that 20,000 is pretty good going for a blog with a stupid title about rather niche subjects. Thank you, dear readers.

Bygrave, a few miles north of Baldock, is my type of church. Out of the way, generally unregarded, small, never going to feature on anyone's thousand best list but with enough features to reward the knowledgeable visitor (or anyone else willing to exercise their eyes and minds). 

The village of Bygrave is tiny, just a handful of houses around a farm. (The northern branch of the modern Icknield Way Path is half a mile to the west, while the southern goes through Wallington. The ancient Icknield Way, according to the OS map, follows the line of the A505 Baldock-Royston road which runs between the two.) In the 13th century a market was established here, but it evidently didn't flourish for long, if at all, because by 1428 there were only seven households in the parish. 

Archaeological evidence suggests that a church was built here in the 8th century, though nothing from that era survives above ground. The earliest surviving parts  are the walls of the nave and the south and (blocked) north doors, which are 12th century Norman.* The south door is fairly plain; there's a big fat roll moulding which rises almost to a point above the arch, as if leaving space for decoration on the tympanum. There's no evidence of any carving; possibly there was once something painted. The porch, which echoes the door, is probably early Victorian. 

From the south

From the north 
The chancel was rebuilt in the 14th century - see the north chancel door, and perhaps the small window next to it - and the chancel arch and the rest of the windows were constructed in the 15th century.

Also dating from the 15th century is the most notable feature of the exterior, the polygonal stair turret, placed asymmetrically at the west end, topped by a ramshackle, impermanent-looking timber bellcote (perhaps from a later period) containing a solitary bell.

It's possible to pull open the interior door which leads to the bellcote; when I last looked the bottom of the stairs was full of mops and brooms, but (though I don't recommend this) you could push past them and climb up, as long as you don't mind getting covered in cobwebs and doing without a handrail. I have to steel myself to ascend even the most luxuriously appointed spiral staircase, so I don't think I'll be going up there any time soon.

The door leading to the stairs to the long-vanished rood loft, the tomb niche on the north side of the chancel and the piscina all date from the 14th century rebuilding.

The church's star attraction is the font. The two best in the county are in Anstey and Ware, and Bygrave's example, while not in their league, is still very attractive.

It's 15th century (the wooden cover is probably 19th century) and has representations of the Instruments of Christ's Passion on its faces.

Hammer and nails

The cross; the circle is a symbolic representation of the crown of thorns

Three whips/scourges

The column to which Christ was tied, with the rope, during the flagellation. On the top sits the cockerel of Peter's denial of Christ

On the left a torch carried by one of the officers intending to arrest Christ. On the right the sword used by Peter to cut off the ear of the High Priest's servant 
The money bag containing the thirty pieces of silver

Probably Christ's seamless robe, though I don't know why it's so crumpled

On the left the lance used to pierce Christ's side. On the right the sponge on a reed used to offer vinegar and gall to Christ

(Apologies for the poor quality of the last photo. That's one more job for when the lockdown's over.) The panels are crisply carved and well preserved (luckily they escaped the puritanical attentions of the iconoclasts). The base has small angels bearing shields, but at the moment they're hard to see because the whole font has been surrounded by a low wooden box, reaching up to about the bottom of the bowl. 

This is very ugly, intrusive and annoying. However, it's clearly not meant to be anything other than temporary - anyone with a screwdriver could dismantle it in a few minutes - so I'm not going to rant about it. Its purpose seems to be to protect the font from damage by children; there are child-sized chairs and tables nearby, so presumably the area is used for Sunday school or similar. If there has to be a choice between an undamaged font and a temporarily partly obscured font, I'll opt for the former.

The wooden font cover is in its own way just as good as the font itself. It's an ogee dome, with crocketed ribs and decorated with a feather-like design. At the top sits a rather aggressive-looking dove which seems to be doing its best to scare off the congregation. Most authorities agree that the cover is 19th century, but the Victoria County History reveals the prejudices of its period (1912) by saying that it's 'a bastard Gothic of perhaps the 18th century.' How tastes change; I don't think anyone a century later would be so snooty about it.

The screen, like the font, is 15th century; it looks relatively unrestored and is highly decorative. I particularly like the ogee arches in the lower tier of tracery in the four outer sections; they 'break through' the transom, and rise to briefly form supermullions before branching to left and right and then down again to form two smaller arches. It's a surprisingly free bit of Perpendicular design, not at all rigidly grid-like as that style so often is. Compare it with the stone tracery in the east window, for example (visible below in the photo of the stained glass. In particular note how the transom runs uninterruptedly across the whole arch).

The stalls with poppyheads in the chancel are of about the same date as the screen.

Affixed to the screen is a late 17th century royal coat of arms.

The communion rails are from the same century, though probably a bit earlier.

The pulpit looks Victorian but apparently contains some original 15th century panels. It has a  17th century wrought iron hour-glass stand complete with what could be its original hour-glass (for timing the sermons). The next time I go there I shall upend it and see how long I would have been expected to sit through.

There are some remains of two different schemes of painted wall decoration, but not enough survives to be of more than passing interest to anyone except the most dedicated ruin-bibbers.

Similarly, there are some fragments of 14th century stained glass, but not enough to be enjoyable.

However, in the east window there is most certainly enough to enjoy. The stained glass here was installed in 2001; isn't it wonderful that a small, out of the way place like Bygrave has the initiative and resources to commission an ambitious window like this? It's by Michael Lassen.** It shows the risen Christ within a colourful mandorla consisting of fragmented abstract shapes. Above in the tracery lights are similar flame-like shapes. Below is St Margaret of Antioch (to whom the church is dedicated) slaying Satan in the form of a dragon by means of a death ray like something from a 1950s science fiction film. She is accompanied by snowdrops and bullrushes in the bottom right, both of which can be found in or adjacent to the churchyard. In my previous post, about St Ippolyts church, I was rude about Hugh Easton's inability to draw a convincing dragon; Lassen here shows how it should be done. Claws, scales, horns, feeble flames dribbling from his nostrils, big leathery pterodactyl-like wings - all build up to create a tangible sense of evil overcome. But am I wrong to detect a hint of pathos in the dragon's eyes? 

Bygrave church used to be always open, but then was locked except for services for some years. It now seems to be open at weekends.

Many thanks to Lizzie Swarbrick and Ryan Asquez for their help, via Church Crawlers Anonymous on Facebook, in identifying some of the subjects on the font.

* The statutory listing, though no other authority I've consulted, says the north door is 17th century. The more I look at pictures and think about it the more I suspect this is correct.

** Tragically, Lassen died in 2010, aged only 61, while installing a stained glass window in Durham cathedral. See here.

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