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A church before the reformers

Monday, 5 Aug 2013

Chalgrave wall painting on Staff and Scrip, Dr John Dunn First posted on Saturday, 8 September 2012 at 20:26

Ride and Stride day today, a cycling event from church to church in many places in England. There was some disappointment, in that many of the churches were closed. However, the one I really wanted to see was open - All Saints in Chalgrave, Bedfordshire.

The church now stands in splendid isolation. The village that it was built to serve is now largely gone. Traces of the dwellings can be seen nearby in the lumps and bumps in the land.

Yet Chalgrave was one of the earliest parishes in the county and its existence can be traced back to the year 911 when, on orders from the King, it was purchased from the “heathen” (the Danes): the first written record of a land transfer in England.

The great glory of this little church are its pre-reformation wall paintings! They were discovered in 1932 when a cleaning woman accidentally knocked some plaster from a wall revealing the colours beneath. Traces on the West wall, believed to be the figures of St Bartholomew, St Peter and StPaul date from 1290-1300. There are other figures nearby, one believed to be St John.

On the East wall there is a small annunciation painting. It shows that, originally, there was a Lady Chapel in the church.

There is a painted frieze around the nave and aisles, with painted shields representing local noble families.

Near the walled up North doorway are the painted figures of St James and St Thomas of Canterbury.

One of the best preserved paintings is of St Martin of Tours over the South door (see above). He is shown on horseback and dividing his cloak with a sword to give half to a beggar. Several other figures are painted on the walls and, bearing in mind the “All Saints” dedication of the church, this is no surprise.

You must read Eamon Duffy’s The Stripping of the Altars to appreciated fully just how decorated and colourful the English churches were before the church reformers literally stripped the altars and whitewashed the walls over.

This little church allows the visitor to experience and share, for just a fleeting moment, the lives and minds of those early Catholic worshippers. Before the creeping effects of Cartesian science had instilled a sense of mathematically uniform chronology, the parishioners of Chalgrave would have experienced their dear painted saints as present in their lives. The Virgin and Christ lived amongst them. There was no question of Christ being merely a figure from history, He was the living God.

In Chalgrave is to be found a world that existed before the Pilgrimage of Grace, that critical turning point in western history, when the mediaeval world confronted the Renaissance world and lost; before the Armada, when again Catholicism succumbed to Protestant tenacity; before the Civil War, when a King was humbled by a rising business class; before the Jews were readmitted to England by Cromwell, marking the final crumbling of resistance to usury; before the final retreat of the old world with the defeat of James II and the successful invasion by the Dutch merchant class and their figure-head King, William of Orange.

To stand in Chalgrave is to sense England as it really was, rather than the history we have been taught to see through the distorted lens of Macaulay’s Whig history and all that followed.

John Dunn.

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