History of the Church


Churchyard Plan

Please click here to view a plan of the graves in the 20th century section of the churchyard.

Churchyard Monumental Inscriptions

            Please visit our churchyard recording website.                                                                          This is under construction and currently has details of only the                                    in-church monuments and the south western section of the churchyard.

St Mary's contains many treasures - here are just a few
              o  The Mynheer Polyptych - read this article by Victoria Emily Jones

                  discussing the symbology of the modern seven-scene painting
                  in the Wilcote Chapel.
              o  
Ernest Gimson's altar reredos - fine oak panelling behind the altar - 
                 it may be quietly unassuming, but this is an outstanding piece of
                 work by a designer of the "arts and crafts" movement with a
                 world class reputation. 
              o Silver communion tankards of 1717. Kept for reasons of security
                  in the Oxford Cathedral Treasury. Seen 
here on a rare visit to the
                  church under the monument to their donor, James Perrott.

The Record of Church Furnishings was compiled in 1994
               See the following documents:
               
Title PageContentsMemorialsMetalworkStonework,
               
WoodworkTextilesPaintingsLibraryWindowsMiscellaneous.

History of the Wilcote Chapel
             "Death and Representation in the 15th Century",                                                                     by Kate Heard, which describes the history of the Wilcote Chapel                               and the significance of the architectural styles it uses.

A nineteenth century vicar...

Read the story of the Rev Benjamin Churchill, who was the vicar of North Leigh from 1810 to 1838.

Some old North Leigh personalities...
The story of some old North Leigh personalities from times gone by.

For additional information about the history of the church, please email here.

There is also a useful Wikipedia entry for the church.

A SHORT GUIDE TO SAINT MARY'S CHURCH NORTH LEIGH

(There is reason to believe that the original dedication was 'The Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary')

from history

The Church from the North East

We welcome you to our ancient parish church and hope this Short Guide will make your visit interesting and memorable. The best starting point is at the west end of the church, just behind the font, and we suggest that you follow the Guide from there.

THE SAXON CHURCH

You are now at the base of the tower which formerly stood between the chancel and the nave of the Saxon church built 'about 1040. The tower, which is now at the west end of the building originally had the nave to the west of it and communicated with it through a wide archway. This archway, filled up with masonry and a Decorated window, now forms part of the wall. The opening to the chancel, where the nave is now, has been replaced by a moulded drop arch supported by Early English attached piers. The ground floor of the tower formed part of the nave which, as its gable ends reveal, had high walls and a steeply-pitched roof.

The windows were unglazed and, as may be seen from the arch of exposed stones in the south wall, were high. They were very narrow externally and deeply splayed internally. The tower had no stairs and the upper chambers were reached by ladders, for the church had a use in defence. The north and south walls have been breached to admit pointed arches with alarming results, as the leaning north east pier shows.

THE NORMAN CHURCH

About 1165 the Normans built a new nave to the east of the tower which, formerly axial, now became western. The Norman piers and Transitional arcades show that this nave was aisled from the beginning which was unusual in a small church at this early date. Moreover, the aisles engaged the tower north and south, which was also unusual; and there was no chancel. The low-pitched nave roof is of tie-beam construction; all principal members are moulded, and the whole is supported by braced wall-posts resting on wooden corbels carved as grotesque heads. The bowl of the font is Norman but was re-chiselled in 1842 after serving for many years as a water-butt.

THE CHANCEL OPENING

The roof leads the eye to the striking wall painting discovered by G. E. Street under several coats of whitewash, and cleaned, when he restored the church in 1864. It was treated again in1967 under the direction of Mrs. Eve Baker who has written this description of it.

‘The 15th century tympanum painting. . . . at the east end of the nave . . . depicts a Doom, and is one of the few remaining in situ. It is very strongly coloured . . . with an unusually wide range of colours.

‘The two central panels depict the shrouded figures rising from their graves; the most southerly panel shows the Devil driving the lost souls into the jaws of Hell, and in the northerly panel, St. Peter stands at the Gates of Heaven receiving the Blessed. On the upper portion, Angels herald the Last Day with the last trump. Usually on Doom paintings there is a central figure of Our Lord as Judge, but it is not so. ..A great wooden rood occupied the central place. . . .

The beam on which the rood rested is still there, supporting the wall and its painting. The heavy stone screen and the pulpit nearby were designed by Street.

THE CHANCEL

The chancel, built about 1280 in the style transitional between Early English and Decorated, is longer than the nave and has high walls and a steeply-pitched roof. (Note the waggon-type interior timbers.) The Early English attached piers, now terminating at their capitals, probably supported an arch. There were five Decorated windows but the two most westerly have been lost in later alterations. Other features of interest to the visitor are the Priest's Door in the south wall and, within the sanctuary, a recessed bracket piscina with credence shelf both surrounded by a trefoil pointed arch. The monument higher on the wall is to Robert Perrott who died in 1605.

On the north wall is an Easter Sepulchre, a recess surrounded by a moulded and cusped arch springing from the floor, in which from early times until the Reformation the Holy Oils and the Reserved Sacrament lay from Good Friday until Easter Morning. Nearby is our only brass; it is to Thomas Beckingham who died in 1431. Note the organ which has great historical significance. It was built by Henry ("Father") Willis in about 1860. Previous to coming to North Leigh it was in All Saints, Hawkhurst. After conservation and restoration the organ was installed here in 1997. The opening in the wall behind the choir stalls, enclosed in a beautiful ogee arch richly decorated with crockets and finial, reveals the Wilcote Chapel which you should now visit.

THE WILCOTE CHAPEL

This exquisite Chantry Chapel was built about 1442 to the order of Lady Elizabeth Blackett for masses to be said daily for the souls of her first husband Sir William Wilcote, their two sons (one of whom was killed at Agincourt), and for herself. It is attributed to Richard Winchcombe who was in charge of the building of the Divinity School at Oxford in its early stages. It is a fine example of Perpendicular Gothic and Fan Vaulting and one of the most notable to be found in a small parish church. Note the delightful bracket piscina supported by a small pillar in the south wall, and its trefoil arch worked from a solid block and decorated with florets in the arcs formed by the cusps. The windows contain fragments of old glass.

The beautiful alabaster effigies on the table tomb, thought to represent Sir William Wilcote and wife, are well-known and outstanding specimens of this art. The monument above the piscina is to William Lenthall whose famous son (bearing the same name) was Speaker of the House of Commons in 1640. The chapel was re-dedicated in 2000 following the installation of the polyptych painted by Nicholas Mynheer, also the altar and chairs designed and made by Waywood.

THE PERROTT AISLE

The Renaissance chamber opening from the North Aisle was built by James Perrott in about 1690 as a 'Dormitory and place of buryall for himself and family and his heirs and assigns for ever'. His 'undertaker' was Christopher Kempster of Burford, a master mason who worked on Tom Tower at Christ Church and on the dome of St. Paul's, of whom Wren had a high opinion. James Perrott's own memorial is in the centre of the north wall. Its long Latin inscription ends with a quotation from the forty-sixth psalm which in English reads 'He "shall make glad the City of God" '.

The wooden screen which separates this aisle from the north aisle has been dated early fifteenth century by the late F. E. Crossley. Nothing is known of its earlier use.

Before you go you should spare a few minutes to look at the outside of the church.

THE DOORWAY

The doorway is contemporary with the Norman nave and shows characteristic billet moulding in the arch. The square abaci are supported by scalloped cushion capitals and attached round shafts. Square jambs and a two-centred arch have been added and what remains of the tympanum has been filled in. The porch is much later and is of little interest.

THE SAXON TOWER

Turn right and right again over the grass, then stand back to get a good view of the tower. The line of the gable end of the Saxon nave roof will be recognized at once, and round the pointed fourteenth century window the Saxon arch resting on flat square imposts. The stone jambs immediately under the gable ends suggest the presence of a door, or a window which looked out from a chamber into the nave. All four walls have belfry openings with semi-circular heads cut from the solid and surrounded by a relieving arch in masonry, with dressed stone jambs, square capitals, and a mid-wall supporting shaft turned in stone. In the second stage the north and south walls have narrow round-arched windows. There is no 'long and short work' here; the quoins should be described as 'side alternate'. The embattled parapet is of mediaeval date. The small pent- house in the wall protects the end of a wooden tie-beam.

THE BELLS

The tower contains a ring of six bells which were recast from five in 1875. The Sanctus bell is of the fifteenth century.

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Acknowledgements. The drawing is by John Brookes.