Tuesday, 6 November 2012

Sunlight at Stanton Harcourt

I went to the most wonderful church yesterday.  It was the first really sunny day we've had in a while, and I was itching to be abroad in the autumnal countryside, so I studied various websites in search of a destination, and caught sight of the key words 'medieval painted screen' and 'shrine of St Edburg' - at the church of St Michael in Stanton Harcourt, a village 6 miles west of Oxford.  You can get there easily by bus, and a website said the church was open, so off I went.

The bus ride through the Oxfordshire countryshire was impossibly beautiful; early in the afternoon, the low sun was already casting long shadows, and brightening the leaves to red and gold.  To get to Stanton Harcourt the bus goes through the village of Eynsham, which once had an abbey where Ælfric was abbot, a thousand years ago; now he has a road named after him, which it made me happy to see.  In his time Stanton Harcourt was just 'Stanton'; the Harcourt family came over at the Norman Conquest, and gave their name to the manor when they acquired it at the end of the twelfth century.  It still belongs to the family, and many of them lie in the church, as we will see.  The village is a delightful little place, the chief street a quiet row of thatched houses like mushrooms dropped from above:





The church is just off the main road, down a leaf-strewn lane, sitting among some cottages and next to the ancient manor house.  I was too interested in getting inside to think about how beautiful the situation was, so we'll come to that in a moment; my first impression was only that the exterior was very plain:



But the church was open!  After my experience at Wantage I was half-expecting it to be locked even as I walked up to the door with a friendly 'Open' sign hanging on it; but no, the gate was open, the door was unlocked, and the church was all mine to explore.  The village was deserted and there was absolute stillness all around, not even traffic noise - only a 'bright litter of birdcalls' from time to time, so loud in the silence that it startled me.  There is no stillness like the stillness of an empty country church; you hardly want to breathe lest you disturb it.



The nave is very plain, with clear glass in the Norman windows, and only one or two memorials; but there were autumnal flowers, lovingly arranged, and the best decoration of all - sunlight.






This window was so simple in shape, you would have thought nothing could make it worth looking at - but the light through the panes made the stone shimmer like water.

The other thing about an empty church is that although you think you are alone, you are confronted by the incidental reminders of other visitors, other eyes, other hands - the names in the book for prayers; condolence cards on the windowsill; and this touch of whimsy, left over from harvest festival, a collection of vegetables nestling on an ancient pillar:




If you're wondering 'where's the medieval screen', so was I - but I promise we'll get to it, and it will be worth the wait.  The real inhabitants of this church, when the living parishoners are away about their business, are the Harcourt family, countless generations of them.  The first ones you spot, as you go up the nave, are two life-size Victorian Harcourts, or rather plaster casts of statues of them, of which the originals (statues, not men!) stand in the lobby in the Houses of Parliament.



I said the Harcourts came over with William the Conqueror, but they trace their lineage back to the very first Normans, before they were Normans at all but only piratical 'north men' from Denmark - in this case to the Viking Bernard the Dane, who was already an old man when Cnut's grandfather was on the Danish throne.  They have their own chantry chapel in the south-east corner of the church, and behind its altar is a plaque listing the generations of Harcourts after Bernard - from the Viking Turketils and Thorths of the tenth century, through the Norman Williams and Roberts of the twelfth, all the way down to the Aubreys and Augustuses of the Victorian age:



The Harcourt chapel is kept locked, but with patience and a good zoom on your camera you can see a fair bit of it:






I wonder if this is ancestral piety; if I knew where my fourteenth-century ancestors were buried, or who they were, I'm sure I'd always be leaving dried flowers upon their tombs.  It reminded me strikingly of the knight at Ickham.  This is the tomb of Robert Harcourt, who bore the standard at the Battle of Bosworth - for the winning side, in case you were wondering.




The glass in the chantry chapel includes a fifteenth-century depiction of the Harcourt arms:


And a bishop and a king, reset from elsewhere in the church, dating to the thirteenth century:




The king refused to photograph well but I do recommend you click to enlarge the bishop, and zoom in; he has the most wonderful face and mitre.

I still had not located what I came for, distracted by all this splendour, and just outside the chantry chapel I was distracted again by the sunlight falling on this Baroque monument to Sir Philip Harcourt, who died in 1688:












So much white and gold!  Another Harcourt of a different century, in a tomb chest below all this exuberance, brings us closer to the purpose of our visit.  This is the tomb of Sir Simon Harcourt, who died in 1547:


I couldn't resist the heraldry:




The sun was my favourite; he looks so bemused.  Simon is the most interesting of the Harcourts from my point of view, because some time around the year 1537, during the Dissolution of the Monastries, he rescued the shrine of St Edburg from Bicester Priory (at the risk of his life, the church guide said, though it didn't elaborate).  St Edburg was a Saxon saint, daughter of the famous King Penda of Mercia, and thanks to Simon Harcourt we have here that very rare thing, a surviving shrine from c.1300:


It's the top part which is the shrine, made of Purbeck marble; the bottom part is also medieval, but not original to the shrine.  The top part has a flat top, where a chest with St Edburg's relics would have stood - the relics themselves have not survived, but at least we have this much.  The marble is carved, painted and gilded:




The shrine's identity was unknown for centuries, perhaps deliberately concealed to save it from destruction; it was only as recently as the 1930s that an enterprising scholar studied the shields on the shrine, and realised that they tallied with the patrons and benefactors of Bicester Priory.  The carving is of such high quality that it's been suggested it was the work of Alexander of Abingdon, the master sculptor who carved the images on the Eleanor Crosses.  It's a treasure of medieval art and a precious glimpse of the pre-Reformation world of saints and shrines - here, in this silent country church.

Even the carving on the base, though not quite as special, is nicely recognisable as late-medieval Instruments of the Passion; it may have been part of an Easter sepulchre, which is what St Edburg's shrine was thought to be until its true history was discovered.



How plaintive those pierced hands are.

And now I must talk about the screen, or I will have run out of energy before we get to this treasure.  This was what I had come to see; after Westhall, I'd go a lot further than six miles to see a medieval painted screen.  But when I first saw the screen, I was puzzled and a little disappointed.  Where on earth was the painting?  I knew it was only two panels - the only ones which had survived the Reformation - but surely it couldn't have disappeared before my visit.  I walked through the screen into the chancel, took a look on that side, and then came back again.  Nothing.


And then I saw her:



Cast into shadow by the pillar, a painted princess-nun quietly sits and reads.


She has a crown and a staff of office, and one hand is turning the page of her book.  Her face is sweetly thoughtful, as if an idea has occurred to her in her reading, and she is looking up to contemplate it; it reminds me of the medieval depictions of the Annunciation in which the Virgin is depicted as reading alone when the Angel appears to her (at Gisleham, for instance).  There are different theories as to this lady's identity: the guidebook favours Queen Adeliza, second wife of Henry I, who retired to a nunnery at the end of her life and was patron of Reading Abbey, which was the patron of this church.  Other suggestions include St Edburg, Oxford's St Frideswide, and Ely's St Etheldreda, nuns and princesses all; but there's no clear evidence either way.


We do know that the painting dates to the fifteenth century, and was added to a wooden screen of the mid-thirteenth.  The screen has a variety of shapes cut into it, the purpose of which remains a mystery.  However, I like how in this panel the piercing looks like a window in the nun's cell - almost like the 'squint' through which anchoresses would gaze on the altar.


The temptation to take pictures of the church through these oddly-shaped holes was just too much to resist!





Quid plura?  Ah yes, the remnants of paint in the chancel:




The bare walls of the nave were once covered with paintings too, though none are now visible - a description of the church from 1845 talks of scenes including Christ before Pilate, the Last Supper, the Entombment, and the Descent into Hell.  Then the walls were replastered.  What survives beneath?

 A few more assorted photographs:





St Michael, in a statue given by All Souls College, Oxford - All Souls received the property in the village which belonged to Reading Abbey before the Reformation.  The church guide informed me there's a house in the village known as the 'Pest House', because those who leased it were required to accommodate fellows of the college there if an outbreak of plague made it prudent to flee Oxford for a time.



The lacy shadow cast by these flowers was extraordinarily delicate; as soon as I had taken this picture I looked away for a moment and when I looked back it had gone, as the sun moved.  I was very conscious, as on the day I went to Iffley, of the movement of the sun; I spent nearly two hours in the church, entirely undisturbed, the only breathing thing among the statues and effigies, and the only kind of change that I saw in this changeless place was the silent passage of the light.  The brightest gleam slipped from window to window, sweeping noiselessly across the nave, illuminating different corners and casting different shadows from moment to moment.  I waited for it to reach the nameless nun, but it never did; this must be why her colours remain so unfaded after five hundred years.

At last I remembered I had a bus to catch, and went to have a look at the outside of the church.


The sun was sinking, but the sky was still a fathomless blue.  This is the Norman doorway:


There's a memorial on the wall of the church, to a young couple struck by lightning; Alexander Pope was visiting the Harcourts at the time, and wrote some lines for the tablet:


Adjacent to the church are the manor house and its chapel, which has its own tower, almost as grand as the church:


The lacy stonework on the right here belongs, you will not be surprised to learn, to the Harcourt chapel.


It was difficult to tear myself away to go and catch the bus; I couldn't help feeling that if I stayed longer, more and different lights would reveal themselves, each more beautiful than the last.  I would not have been surprised by a flash of Pope's 'celestial fire'; it could not have been more bright than the glow of the sinking sun.  But it was hometime, and as I left the church, the place was no longer deserted: the village primary school had just finished for the day, and the road was full of children in their uniforms, parents chatting, and dogs barking.  The sound came as a shock, a sudden reminder of life after spending so long among the silent Harcourts.

When I got home, someone had posted on Facebook an extract from T. S. Eliot's 'The Rock'; it seemed almost absurdly appropriate for the afternoon I had just spent.  It seems a fitting way to end:

O Light Invisible, we praise Thee!
Too bright for mortal vision.

O Greater Light, we praise Thee for the less;
The eastern light our spires touch at morning,
The light that slants upon our western doors at evening,
The twilight over stagnant pools at batflight,
Moon light and star light, owl and moth light,
Glow-worm glowlight on a grassblade.
O Light Invisible, we worship Thee!

We thank Thee for the light that we have kindled,
The light of altar and of sanctuary;
Small lights of those who meditate at midnight
And lights directed through the coloured panes of windows
And light reflected from the polished stone,
The gilded carven wood, the coloured fresco.
Our gaze is submarine, our eyes look upward
And see the light that fractures through unquiet water.
We see the light but see not whence it comes.
O Light Invisible, we glorify Thee!

7 comments:

Katie said...

Thank you for sharing this beauty!

Heliopause said...

I love this gentle, careful exploration of the church, and especially the finding of the painted nun! :)

Clerk of Oxford said...

Thank you both for commenting! It was such a special place - I really wanted to share some sense of what it was like to be there, and I was still working the experience out to myself as I was writing the post...

John Simlett said...

I'm so pleased that you didn't run out of energy, before you described the screen. Such a window on out past.

Thank you for sharing this moving experience.

PS my son was a Clerk of Oxford.

Max Woolley said...

I read an article a while ago about the possible recovery of the relics of St. Edburg. If they turn out to be true, I hope they are returned to their proper shrine at Stanton Harcourt...Great photos! Every corner of the church must be covered here.

Clerk of Oxford said...

That's interesting - I hadn't heard about that. It would be wonderful to have the relics back in their shrine!

Anonymous said...

Beautiful photos and very interesting account of the church. Thank you. The princess nun, well painted and in proportion except for her hands which seem huge and one is the wrong way round.