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Reflections: Early New Forest churches with ancient origins

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THE early New Forest churches are characterised by two qualities: the first is that the sites chosen tended to be on elevated mounds or ridges and the second is poverty.

We must assume they were erected initially to provide a centre for worship and a meeting place for communal gatherings, particularly, of course, for worship on Sundays and holy days. Their communities were too scattered and poor to sustain a resident clergyman and so were served for religious purposes by the larger ecclesiastical establishments, such as the priory at Christchurch.

Domesday Book, which was compiled from the evidence collected by officials for every manor in our area, was a task completed and brought together at Winchester in 1086-87.

Essentially, its function was to ascertain those who held the manors at the time King Edward (TRE = Tempus Rex Edwardus) immediately prior to 1066 and then to declare who the present (i.e. 1086) owner or holder was.

In general, it seems to have paid little attention to recording ecclesiastical buildings so very few are mentioned within our area but it is perhaps worth noting those that were, namely, Brockenhurst (Broceste), which served the large settlement of Eling and had attached an area of land.

Similarly, Ringwood had a church with attached land. The church at Breamore, which we know from architectural evidence existed at the time, is not recorded though a ‘priest’ (pontiff) is. Milford also is indirectly mentioned, "because the church part is in the Forest".

I would say that what is recorded is interesting but not substantive which means we are obliged to look for architectural evidence and later documentation.

Brockenhurst church: the exterior

As Brockenhurst church is specifically mentioned in Domesday as Ibi eccelsia (‘here is a church’) we know it existed in late Saxon times and it is worth examining with that in mind. I recommend walking around the exterior of the church building first in order to get an idea of its basic plan.

Occasionally you may find a church, such as Winterborne Tomson in Dorset, that has not been altered since it was built in Norman times, but the majority have undergone numerous extensions and modifications over the centuries so that sometimes little is left of the original.

That is the case at Brockenhurst. What does survive is some early masonry in the south wall, best seen from the inside, and the splendid carved semi-circular arch of the entrance door with its original cylindrical stone supports topped with scalloped capitals.

The original churches usually consisted simply of a rectangular large space known as the nave and quite often with an adjoining smaller rectangular space at the east end. It is worth noting that churches are normally orientated east-west where the eastern end, called the chancel, is where the altar was situated and where the religious rituals were performed.

Brock Saxon drawings Conjectural view
Brock Saxon drawings Conjectural view

Side aisles and the tower were later additions and usually represent the investment of the wealthy landowners. Apart from anything else these side aisles would provide chapels dedicated to particular saints in which might be interred the human remains of the benefactors suitably recorded by a stone monument or, at least, an inscribed memorial panel.

I find one of the pleasures in visiting churches is to examine their differences and individuality displayed within a traditional architectural format. The brick-built tower constructed at the west end of the nave was added as late as the mid-eighteenth century making a contrast to the medieval church to which it is attached.

As John Wise describes it: “A wretched brick tower has been patched onto the west end” surpassing “even the ugliness of a dissenting chapel".

The roofing of its rather squat spire is constructed of locally made mathematical tiles. At this time the church building still conformed to what we conjecture was its original plan and size.

Adjoining the tower to the north is a vestry built in 1908, then, next to it is the large north aisle, financed by John Morant and built in 1832. It, too, is constructed with locally made red bricks and has three fine Georgian round headed windows looking north, each with a stained glass image which, of course, is best viewed from inside.

The clergy vestry, adjoining the east end of the aisle was built at the same time. Then we come to the rather fine chancel built in the mid-13th century. A little digression here to observe that at that time enlarged chancels were added to many churches usually extending or replacing the rather skimpy ones of the Norman period.

Amongst other things, they provided space for several liturgical features such as a distinct sanctuary at the east end to contain the stone altar and in the wall to its south side, usually, a carved stone piscina often contained in or alongside an aumbry, i.e. a stone cupboard. The damaged piscina survives but there is no aumbry in Brockenhurst, but more of that later.

The whole chancel is built in the Early English (Gothic) style most notably seen in window and door heads being pointed instead of round as in the Norman period. And the east window provides a beautiful example of this work and is worth examining in detail, consisting of interlocking pointed windows contained within a single pointed frame.

Then the south side consists of two windows with self-evident Y tracery of the period, separated by the priest’s door. Most chancels of this period had such doors and, as the name suggests, provided a dedicated entry for the priest. Passing this we find one more window, next to the porch, which is of some special interest.

It is the only architectural feature of the Tudor period consisting of two windows beneath a single pronounced dripstone, terminating in two carved ‘stops’ with, above in the centre, a stone carved with the depiction of the Fitz Alan arms quartering those of Maltravers.

The interior

Next, we come to the south porch (a projection of the mid-13th century.) which screens the exceptionally fine, if restrained, carved Norman doorway. The only other comparable example in the Forest area is the entrance door to Fawley church.

Passing through the doorway are three steps down to the floor of the nave. It is not uncommon to find we have to descend steps to enter many medieval churches and the reason is that the land around has been built up over many centuries by the multiple inhumations.

The nave seems especially spacious because of the north aisle which is only separated from it by two slender cast iron columns.

To the right (east) is the chancel with a large ill-defined round-headed chancel arch, which is undateable, but the latest edition of the Pevsner guide to south Hampshire (2018), states: “It is probably 17th or 18th century.”

To the west is the square font of Purbeck marble (a much favoured stone throughout the middle ages), mounted on a 19th century stone base. And to the right, high up and close to the entrance door is the remarkable fine arms of Queen Anne (the last Stuart monarch, she reigned 1702-14) carved in deep relief and beautifully coloured with the scroll at the bottom reading “Semper eadam” (always the same).

Below, the wall has some stones laid diagonally, which may represent a feature of Saxon architecture and, so provides a clue to the antiquity of the original church.

Interior view of the chancel, note the fine Early English east window
Interior view of the chancel, note the fine Early English east window

From the nave walk into the chancel and notice, on the right, a recess adorned with cusps along the top, sometimes incorrectly referred to as an Easter sepulchre, but most likely to have contained the effigy of an important landowner. Impossible to be sure nowadays and must be regarded as some kind of memorial acknowledging its significant location.

To the right of the communion table (sited in the former altar space) are the two piscinas, one very damaged. It looks as though the damaged piscina was rendered in that condition by the making of the window which gives rise to an interesting question, namely, were the windows cut into the chancel walls sometime after the chancel was completed? It seems odd if that was the case.

The windows contain attractive stained glass displaying illustrations of natural subjects such as sunflowers, lilies and vines with grapes. It seems these were put in during the restoration made by the architect, A.W. Blomfield, towards the end of the 19th century. The illustrations seem very appropriate for the Early English windows in which they are fitted.

Leaving the chancel, turn into the north aisle and notice the stained glass in the three north-facing windows depicting St Francis of Assisi with birds, St Christopher carrying the Christ child across the river, and St Nicholas, the patron saint of the church.

Visiting churches

Visiting churches (as distinct from attending for worship), especially ancient ones, seems first to have become established in the 18th century. It appeals to our sensitivities in several ways from peaceful contemplation to the enjoyment in unravelling the architectural detail and reading the memorial texts on monuments.

There are others, of course, like George in Jerome K. Jerome’s Three Men in a Boat – to say nothing of the dog (1889). He questions his companion Harris who wants to get out at Hampton Church to go and see Mrs Thomas’ tomb.

“Who is Mrs Thomas?” George asked.

“How should I know?” replied Harris. “She’s a lady that’s got a funny tomb, and I want to see it.”

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