Church History

History of the Church Building:  A Brief Guide

INTRODUCTION:  People have worshipped God in this church for nearly nine-hundred years and they continue to do so today.  The building we now use may have replaced an earlier, Saxon church because Fyfield was already a well-established community by the time of the Domesday survey.  Building started around the year 1120; about fifty years into the Norman administration and shortly after the lord of the manor had presented the tithes of Fyfield and the right to appoint the incumbent into the patronage of the Cluniac priory of Bermondsey.  That right was released back to the lord of the manor near the end of the twelfth century, and there it remained until modern times.

There is no evidence that the lord of the manor lived in Fyfield in mediaeval times but at least one is buried here.  Henry, third Lord Scrope of Masham and lord of the manor of Fyfield was executed at Southampton shortly before Henry V sailed for victory at Agincourt in 1415 and it seems that his head was displayed on the top of Micklegate Bar in York, together with the mandate confiscating his estates.  His offence is unclear; Shakespeare described him as “a false and perjured traitor”, but under Henry VI, the estate was restored to the Scropes and the headless body of the third earl was returned to Fyfield.  Buried on the north side of the tower, his tomb was covered when the organ was built in 1900 and it is not easily visible.  However, a contemporary drawing shows a worn and broken ledger stone with empty recesses for brasses in the form of a long-staffed cross, flanked by two small banners.

Today’s building originally comprised a thick-walled nave with a tower, fairly unusually, at the east end.  There may have been a small apse beyond the tower, giving shelter to the altar, of which nothing survives above ground.  A spiral stair, approached from inside the church, gave access to the second stage of the tower.

Less than a hundred years after it was built, the walls of the nave were demolished and first the north aisle, then the south, was added.  In the fourteenth century, the chancel and two porches, of which that on the north side is the only survivor, were built, largely completing the present ground plan.

NAVE:  The nave was built in the twelfth century, under the direction of the recent Norman conquerors.  The remains of the three-feet-thick Norman walls may be seen at each end of the arcading for the north and south aisles.  There was probably a barrel roof originally but now the nave roof is fourteenth century, with crown posts and four-way struts supported upon massive oak tie beams which were felled some time between 1344 and 1373.  Now look at the chest.  It was made for the church in the mid-eighteenth century.  It is simply constructed of deal, with oak boards for the lid, which pivots on strap hinges.  There were three locks originally; the Rector and the two Churchwardens holding one key each.  Two benefactions boards hang on the west wall, one of which carries an extract from the will of the 17thC rector, Dr Anthony Walker, a cleric of great distinction in that turbulent century.

FONT:  Carved from Purbeck marble, the font is as old as the church itself and was a standard Norman design, produced in quantity at Corfe in Dorset.  Look for the vine leaves flanking a central fleur-de-lis on two sides and the blank arcading on the others.  It may not have belonged to Fyfield originally.  By the early thirteenth century it had been discarded and then spent several centuries outside.  The lead liner, not usually needed with Purbeck marble, was probably fitted when the font was salvaged in the mid-seventeenth century and was found to be cracked.  The octagonal base is much later than the bowl.  It is constructed of plastered brick and replaces the original polypod base which comprised a central column flanked by four slender shafts.

AISLES: – North Aisle:  Construction of the north aisle was well under way by about 1195.  Look for the spurs carved on the base of the westernmost column of the arcade, which are an indication of the Transitional period between the Norman and Early English styles.  In the east corner of the aisle is an elaborate, fifteenth century niche.  This would have housed a religious statuette – in this case, probably the Virgin Mary – until the Reformation of the sixteenth century, when all such “Popish idols” were removed for protection, lest they be destroyed by the Puritans.  – South Aisle Work on the south aisle commenced around 1250 and the octagonal columns and the moulding of the arches are of slightly later style than their counterparts in the north aisle.  In mediaeval times, the walls and arcade were painted with scenes from the Bible to illustrate the Bible stories for a largely illiterate congregation and fragments of colour have survived in several places.  The side windows in both aisles are in the Decorated style, but only the westernmost ones are original.

TOWER:  The tower and nave together are the oldest parts of the church building and are constructed largely of local flint rubble.  The lower parts of the tower survive from the twelfth century but, by the time of his visit in 1760, Morant found that the second stage, which timber dating suggests had already been rebuilt or substantially repaired previously, had collapsed some time before.  It was rebuilt a few decades later in red brick and it is that rebuild which visitors see today.  The original spiral stair, entered today from outside the tower, but originally through a low doorway from inside the church, just to the right of the organ, climbs to its second stage, which is now used as the bellringing chamber.  The two arches to the nave and chancel would originally have been very small, limiting the congregation’s view of the altar.  The chancel arch was rebuilt in 1893, in a style to match the arch to the nave, which had been rebuilt in the fourteenth-century.  It was probably the rebuilding of the nave arch which so weakened the tower and caused its eventual collapse three-hundred years later; certainly by 1683, the Archdeaconry Visitation noted the presence of a crack in the steeple which “seems dangerous”, as well as cracks in a chancel window.

ORGAN:  The organ, which has two manuals and eleven stops, was built in 1900 by Eustace Ingram at the expense of the rector, who was a Doctor of Music.  Apart from installation of an electric blower, it is unchanged from its original specification and is one of the finest parish church organs in Essex.  The superseded, hand-pumped bellows can still be seen from the back of the instrument.

 CHANCEL:  The chancel retains most of the structural features with which it started in the fourteenth century.  The stepped sedilia of three bays, which gave easement to the clergy during long services, has carved heads which include the Abbot of Bermondsey, then patron of Fyfield, and St Nicholas, to whom the church is dedicated.  St Nicholas was a fourth-century bishop in what is now Turkey and through the various legends about his miracles there runs a constant theme of gifts of life and freedom to children.  For this reason, he was an immensely popular saint and many thousands of mediaeval churches were dedicated to him.  Today, children recognise him by his popular name of Santa Claus.  Note that each of the heads was disfigured by the Puritans by having its nose knocked off.  Now turn to see the moulding over the east window.  You may need a torch and binoculars to spot the nine carved heads down the right hand side, while on the left side the following await discovery:  an otter, a polecat, pine marten or fox, a dog, a huntsman with horn, a dog’s head, a rabbit and a hawk.  The piscina is of the same date but the adjoining credence is comparatively modern.  The two easternmost of the four side-windows have single shaft jambs and deeply moulded capitals.  There has long been a tradition that a bone-pit, sealed long ago, lies beneath the chancel floor, but the evidence contradicts this.  An arch, beneath the east window and visible from outside, once allowed visitors to view relics stored in the back of the altar.

PORCH:  In the fourteenth century, porches were built to both the north and south entrances but the one sheltering the south doorway was removed sometime during the last century.  The north porch has been infilled with brickwork but it still reveals the original timber supporting its gable.

TURRET STAIR:  This is the oldest surviving part of the building.  Men have steadied their climb of the stairs for nearly nine-hundred years by holding onto the brick newel, and I suggest that you do the same.

BELLS:  The bells are housed in a belfry of re-used mediaeval timbers.  There is a peal of six bells in the key of B flat.  Five of the bells were cast in 1862 and the tenor was added in 1950.  They replaced the peal of bells which had been recast by the distinguished seventeenth-century rector, Dr Anthony Walker.  The bells were tuned and rehung in a metal frame in 1964.

CHURCHYARD:  Originally, the churchyard was much smaller than it is today.  By the beginning of the twentieth-century, it was so crowded that extra land was purchased for future burials.  In 1923, most of the gravestones in the old graveyard were laid flat. They are all still there today, but the turf has gradually closed over them.    Since then, the burial ground has been enlarged twice more.  There are several important tombs in the old burial ground and at least four of Fyfield’s past Rectors can still be located through the inscriptions on their monuments. The twenty pollarded lime trees along the boundary to the road are over a century old.

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