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

Monday 19 October 2020

Stanton Harcourt church, Oxfordshire: they possibly can can-can


Stanton Harcourt church, Oxfordshire, has a great deal to recommend it, not least, especially in these strange times when access to churches is often much harder than usual, being open. When I arrived a couple of weeks ago there was not only a large sign on the door saying OPEN, but both the door of the porch and the north door it shelters were welcomingly swung back as far as their hinges would allow. Through the open doors I could hear inviting and vaguely heavenly shimmering sounds coming from within, tinkling tintinnabulations a bit like that produced by wind chimes in a mild breeze. 

But I decided to make a Pevsnerian perambulation around the outside before entering. This is something all aficionados of churches should do: take in the relationship between the church and its natural and man-made landscapes, assess and enjoy the varied building materials, arrive at tentative dates for the building of the various parts (mostly by looking at the windows), and look for evidence of rebuilding in the form of blocked windows and the like. However, I have to admit that I rarely look outside first. When I arrive at a church the most pressing question is: is it open? The only way of finding out is by trying the door. If it is open, I lack the willpower to delay the gratification of looking inside, so in I go without an initial exterior recce. (Plus there's the possibility, slim but real, that someone will come along and lock up.)

The many round-headed windows (and doors) reveal that the church is partly Norman, in particular the nave and the lower stage of the central tower, while the tall, thin pointed lancet windows in the transepts and chancel indicate a substantial rebuilding a century or so later in the Early English period, the 13th century. 

The south chapel (on the left in the photo above) is a 15th century addition in the Perpendicular style, the most obvious feature of which is mullions in the windows rising straight up to meet the arch. Some of the other windows and the top stage of the tower are from the same period. 

A walk around the outside also reveals that there's another 15th century tower immediately next to the church; I'll come back to that briefly later.

As interesting and attractive as the exterior is, the church's main attractions are inside. As I stepped through the door, the mingling ringing ambient notes I'd heard from outside became louder, but they still didn't crystallise in my ear into a recognisable form, and their source was still not apparent. It turned out that this was because the music was coming from the south transept, which isn't visible from most of the nave; the transept sheltered a group of lady handbell ringers (would the collective noun be a clangour of handbell ringers?) who were practising their art there. 

At some time in the middle of the 13th century the Norman crossing arches were replaced in the latest style, probably partly because they obscured the view to the chancel. It must have been quite a job propping up the existing tower while they rebuilt the supporting arches, but clearly they must have thought the effort and expense was worthwhile.

Underneath the eastern arch of the crossing is the rood screen. 14th and, even more so, 15th century screens aren't at all rare, but there is only a small handful of 13th century ones remaining in parish churches. So to find one in Stanton Harcourt is exciting. It's very similar to the few others that survive: Gilston, Herts, Thurcaston, Leics, Kirkstead, Lincs, and Sparsholt, Berks. (Geddington, Northants, has a 13th century parclose screen.) Stanton Harcourt's example is unrestored and complete down to the existence of the original bolt and hasp on the doors. 

One curious feature is the profusion of variedly-shaped holes cut into the dado. These are usually explained as being elevation squints, that is, they were intended to give a view of the Elevation of the Host; for this to be true (and I don't claim that it's not) people would have had to be kneeling with their noses right against the screen at this juncture of the Mass. We might think that it would have been easier and less destructive to kneel somewhere else, or to kneel on something high so as to be able to see through the 'windows' of the screen. The holes have been pretty crudely cut; most of them, like much medieval graffiti, have obviously been 'designed' using a compass, but one is a simplified version of a Perpendicular panel traceried window, such as is found in the west window of the church.*

Architecturally the highlight of the church is the chancel. It's almost as big as the nave, and, thanks to the profusion of windows with mostly clear glass, is irradiated, picked clean by light. There were originally no fewer than five triplets of lancet windows; one was destroyed to make the Harcourt chapel inc.1470, and one has had one of its windows blocked to accommodate a monument, but that still leaves eleven individual elegantly shafted windows. A piscina with a credence shelf is incorporated into the overall design.

In the south west corner of the chancel the remains of a lowside window or niche, destroyed during the building of the Harcourt chapel, were discovered in 1970. A mini capital with stiffleaf and meek little head survives.


To my mind the church's other star attraction, along with the screen, is the shrine in the chancel. There are very few medieval shrines surviving in English parish churches, most of them having been destroyed in the Reformation (the shrine to St Wite survives in Whitchurch Canonicorum, Dorset, and there are a few in cathedrals, some reconstructed). Stanton Harcourt's example is therefore a great rarity. It wasn't originally in the church, but Bicester Priory; it was made to venerate St Edburg, and was moved to Stanton Harcourt in c.1537, where it was perhaps used as an Easter sepulchre.

The upper, more elaborate part dates from the early 14th century. It's of Purbeck marble and is sumptuously decorated, increasingly complex the higher you look, with an astonishing amount of detail crammed into a relatively tiny space, as if the teeming life of a continent has been shrunk to the size of a table mat. Yet it doesn't seem, at least to me, to be overcrowded or too busy. All the elements are perfectly judged and balanced, even the little standing figures in their nodding ogee niches near the top who fit so snugly that their toes project over the edge.

The limestone base on which it stands was probably made for the shrine to stand on when it was brought to the church. It's much less exuberant than the canopy, making a good contrast between the aesthetics and sensibilities of the early 14th and 16th centuries. It features, at the top, the symbols of the Passion of Christ (including the Crown of Thorns and the stigmata), and two angels with arms akimbo as if in high dudgeon.

In the three lancets on the south of the chancel are the remains of some geometric grisaille (that is, mainly monochrome patterns of foliage) glass, with, in the centre light, a figure of St James the Great (so called to distinguish him from St James the Less), all dating from the mid 13th century. James is named on a scroll, ('Jacobus' is Latin for 'James'), which is just as well as he doesn't seem to be carrying his usual attribute, a scallop shell.

In the easternmost south windows of the Harcourt chapel are, at the top, some fragments of late medieval glass, and, below, two most attractive 13th century remnants of (presumably) the original stained glass from the chancel. They show a bishop, and a king. I think the first one is particularly striking: the figure is shown mostly symmetrically from the front, as tends to be the case in pictures from this period, but the diagonally placed crozier gives some dynamism and drama to the composition. In between them is some heraldry, dating from the 15th century.

The website of the Corpus Vitrearum Medii Aevi (by far the most comprehensive record of medieval stained glass) doesn't include these three panels. I don't know why.

I had to risk getting clonked by swinging handbells to reach this absolutely splendid baroque monument in the south transept; I know that some turn their noses up at this sort of thing, but I think it's wonderful (the BoE calls it 'a rustic tour de force'). It commemorates Sir Philip Harcourt, who died in 1688, and his first wife Ann. Like the shrine in the chancel, it's almost overloaded with decorative detail but still coheres. The faces of Philip and Ann are sensitively portrayed; his flowing locks (they would have been a wig) are enviable, but her hairstyle makes it look as if she's got apple peelings slung from her head. The putto on the top on the left looks gormless, while the one on the right looks a bit down in the dumps; together they are fictively unveiling the busts. Sadly, the name of the sculptor is unknown; how can the name of someone so talented have been forgotten?

The Harcourt chapel, on the south of the chancel, was built c.1470. It was locked when I visited, as I understand it usually is. However, it is possible to get a tolerably good view through the gates. Here are some brief notes on what's visible.

Early 18th century wrought iron gate

Sir Robert Harcourt, d.1470/1, and his wife Margaret

Perhaps Robert Harcourt, d. before 1509, with the remains of his banner above that probably flew at the Battle of Bosworth, 1485 (see here).

Archbishop Edward Vernon Harcourt, d.1847, and a bust to George Granville Harcourt, d.1861

Looking east from the transept

The nave roof dates from about the early 15th century. One notable feature is that the undersides of the principal rafters and their associated struts are cusped, giving them a decorative wavy edge. What I like most about the roof, however, are the corbels holding it up, which must date from the same time. I particularly like corbels (and other often overlooked carvings) as they're usually of a different order to most of the other objects in a church: folk art rather than high art. The masons who carved them were presumably left to follow their own whims, and the results were (we can assume) generally as disregarded then as they are now. (It's fairly rare for the BoE, or the Royal Commission on Historical Monuments, or the Statutory Listing, or the Victoria County History, to mention them, though, to be fair, in Stanton Harcourt's case the Listing does cite '12th and 13th century head corbels'. Dating corbels is often problematic, and who am I to disagree with the professionals, but I really can't accept their dating here. 12th century Norman carvings have an easy to spot style, which is not matched by the church's corbels (though perhaps the third and fifth of the photos below could, in another context, be mistaken for Norman work). There's no reason to think that any work took place in the nave in the 13th century. Surely the corbels, as I've already suggested, were made to support the new roof in about 1400.)

A glum-looking couple, possibly a king and queen. The mason's warning to those contemplating matrimony?

Foliate head

Primitive-looking man/animal hybrid

Another unhappy customer

Perhaps he's upset by the wood treatment that's been spilt on him

Another semi-human creature

Is he perhaps thoughtful rather than glum?

A strange conjoined twin goat-like creature

From this angle he looks snooty rather than glum

He seems to be looking into the abyss of despair

None of these are masterpieces, but that's rather the point: they're simple, rustic, captivating. If we want to get inside the medieval mind, they are at least as significant as the shrine of St Edburg.

As I noted on my exterior indagation, next door to the church, separated from the churchyard by a castellated wall, is another Perpendicular tower and more medieval buildings, belonging to the Manor House.** The pyramid roof is that of the Great Kitchen, 'one of the most complete medieval domestic kitchens in England, and certainly the most spectacular' (BoE); it was built in the early 15th century and rebuilt later in the same century. (There's an excellent picture of the interior of the roof on the back cover of the BoE.) The tower dates from c.1460-70; it's known as 'Pope's Tower' as Alexander Pope finished his translation of the Iliad here in 1717-18. It seems strange to me that he should be memorialised in this way. Why isn't the place where he wrote, say, The Rape of the Lock known as Pope's Study, or the place where he had a sudden idea for a witty couplet for The Dunciad be called Pope's Privy?

While I was inside the church I was of course concentrating on the features described above, the screen, the shrine, the stained glass and so on, so it took me several minutes to pay attention to the music being played by the lady handbell ringers. (They were, incidentally, very friendly and welcoming, and if they were put off by my unwonted interruption of their rehearsal they gave no sign of it.) But eventually it became clear to me that they were essaying a slightly slow, even stately version of Offenbach's Can-can, a decidedly secular piece to be reverberating around a church. After I left, I like to think that they picked up their skirts and kicked up their legs, showing off their frilly underwear as they whooped in wild abandon.

* Aymer Vallance (in English Church Screens, 1936, p.40) contends that the squints were cut for and quite probably by children, and 'possibly without leave' as he nicely puts it. (He also points out that in 1310, when the Knights Templar were under investigation (they were suppressed in 1312), one of the charges made against them was that some of them failed to raise their eyes to the Elevated Host.)

** The Manor House is privately owned and not open to the public. It seems that the grounds are very occasionally open, but the most recent reference on the interweb to this happening dates from 2013.

Next to the shrine is a monument probably commemorating Maud de Grey, who died in 1394, shortly after marrying Sir Thomas Harcourt. 

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