Tuesday, 11 February 2014

Some Kent Churches: The Faces of Westbere

Westbere is a little church on a hill, standing above the marshes which lie north-east of the city of Canterbury. The church is well-hidden, although just a stone's throw from the main road between Canterbury and Thanet; I've driven close to it I don't know how many times, but never visited it until recently. I went there on the recommendation of Arthur Mee, who describes it as follows in the Kent volume of The King's England:

A quaint hamlet between Canterbury and the Isle of Thanet, it has for all who come a great reward.  It has timber houses, thatched cottages, and barns, and a black-and-white inn in the shade of a yew, and a rare little sculpture gallery abundantly worth coming to see.

It is at the sturdily built little church with heavy buttresses and perhaps some Saxon masonry in its chancel walls, though most of what we see comes from our first two English building centuries after the Normans.  The church stands with two yews up a winding lane, and its sculpture is its chief possession.  There are 34 people in stone, 18 outside in the rain, and 16 looking down on the charming interior...

A very merry time must the masons have had in finishing this place. The 18 people outside are on the doorways and windows, some much worn by the wind and the rain, but many most real and some grotesque.  There is a laughing face with bared teeth, an old lady with a knowing smile, a man with a gaping mouth by a sleeping companion, and another wrapped up as if to weather any storm, at peace with the world.

Who could resist such a description? (Well, lots of people, probably, but not me.)  Since Arthur Mee had gone to the trouble to count them all, I'm afraid I photographed them all - the 18 outside, anyway - when I visited on a sunny day in early January. This post is the result.

In the Middle Ages Westbere belonged to the monks of St Augustine's Abbey in Canterbury, like many of the churches hereabouts, and you can see the influence of their money and resources here as in the jewel of a church at Fordwich, just across the marsh. The Kent Archaeological Society says:
It is possible that the core of the walls of this simple two-celled church date from the 12th or 13th century, but everything about the fabric suggest that it was totally rebuilt in the early 14th century. The origins of this church are obscure, but there is no doubt that Westbere parish was cut out of the much larger and older manor of Chislet. It seems likely, therefore, that Westbere was originally a chapel to Chislet... All surviving architectural details of this fine church date from the early 14th century, and it seems likely that it was rebuilt at this time by St. Augustine's Abbey as a new church. (The abbey itself was doing much rebuilding at this time, and the Fyndon or Great Gate is a good surviving example of this work).

It's ironic that St Augustine's is today in ruins - except for that 'Great Gate', now part of a school - while the little local churches it supported still sport the adornments given them by the monks. Fordwich and Stodmarsh have their exquisite glass, but here the decorations are in stone - Arthur Mee's 'rare little sculpture gallery'. The heads decorate the windows and doors around the outside of the church, and every one is different; they reflect the full range of medieval society, marked out by their distinctive forms of headgear. These people are thoroughly alive - you can hardly help yourself talking to them, and would not be at all surprised if they were to talk back. I wonder what the monks' masons thought they were doing, in surrounding this church with such a gallery of faces. All human life is here!

The best-preserved heads are those on the north side, the side facing up the hill, and thus protected from the wind and weather. Let's start in the north-west corner:

When we're so close to Canterbury, it's hard not to think of Chaucer's pilgrims, a similarly representative cross-section of medieval society. This lady in her wimple could easily be the Wife of Bath.

This man, who faces her across a doorway, might be open-mouthed in shock at the tale she's telling!  His splendid floppy hat (a chaperon, I think it's called) marks him as a worldly man of means - like Chaucer's Knight or these slightly later English noblemen.

Not all the faces are human; in fact I don't know what this is:

Keeping company with the cheery toothy goblin, a tight-lipped man:

In what looks like a skull cap, he could be a priest. Further down the same wall, a young monk (?) faces an older man:

I'm inclined to say this man is wearing a mitre, but it's hard to tell. The two of them adorn this window, where the reflected sky was casting an unearthly light on the mossy tomb below:

If we take a moment to turn away from the faces, this is the churchyard on which the young monk and his companion have been looking down for the past few centuries:

So, six stone heads so far - let's go and find the other twelve.

Around the east window are a man and woman (a lord and a lady, I think):

From here we have a view looking south, with a glint of light from the flooded Westbere marshes below. This winter was one long flood season in England (it's not over yet) and when I peeked into Fordwich church on the same January day it was surrounded by sandbags; but Westbere on its hill is more fortunate.

However, you can see that erosion has hurt the one of these two heads which faces south, and when we go round to the other side of the church we do find some of the heads worn away by weather, time or other forces:

But there are still some very fine heads on this side:

I see a grizzled labourer here, perhaps a blacksmith, but interpretations may vary.

This boy may be another monk, but I can't tell if the curls on his forehead are the rim of his tonsured hair or headgear like this.

What does the squishy hat make this smiling fellow? I'm not sure, but Chaucer's manciple is close...

And there's a lion. I don't remember him from the Canterbury Tales.

The worst-preserved heads are the ones by what used to be the south door (now a window); it might be human hands rather than weather which has rubbed their features away:

Some pictures so you can see the fabric of the church:

I count sixteen faces so far. The last two are high up around the west window:

Don't you love his sticking-out ears?  I think we might have found the Miller.

Now we can head inside, to a simple and slightly dilapidated interior:

I couldn't photograph the heads here, but the stars are these two extraordinary figures, holding up the chancel arch:

Are these monks trampling down monsters?

There's some reconstructed medieval glass ('found in a parcel in the vestry when the church was being restored', says Arthur Mee):

Some geometric modern glass:

And some interesting memorials:

This was put up by Mr Peter Twyman in memory of his 'honrd Father and much beloved Unkle', Hammond and Anthony Twyman, who died in 1727 and 1722 respectively.  Of Hammond Twyman we learn 'he was distinguished for his good nature, piety, & a friendly generous disposition, there hath been seldom found more good qualities than he was possessed of met in one person'; his brother 'was Fellow of St John's Colledge in Cambridge, & Master of the Revels in Ireland, tutor to the late Lord Henchingbrooke, sometime after to the Lord Finch, with whom he travel'd as his Governour, after his return he travel'd with the Lord Burford the present Duke of St Albans... through Italy, Germany, France, Holland and Ireland, being greatly esteemed for his Learning abroad, & admir'd by all who knew him at Home, it pleased Almighty God his body here to rest, and to mingle his dust with his Ancestors'.

One of the pilgrims we have not yet encountered is, of course, the Clerk of Oxford, but a Clerk of Cambridge will do.

The logically-named Decimus Newman, a tenth son:

And a much-loved parson, the Rev. Thomas Bruce, twenty-four years curate of 'Westbeer' and Fordwich, 'a gentle and faithful pastor who after a long life of ministerial usefulness waited in hope and trust the coming of his Lord':

A good man was ther of religioun,
And was a povre parsoun of a toun,
But riche he was of hooly thoght and werk.
He was also a lerned man, a clerk,
That Cristes gospel trewely wolde preche;
His parisshens devoutly wolde he teche.
Benynge he was, and wonder diligent,
And in adversitee ful pacient,
And swich he was ypreved ofte sithes.

Now have I toold you shortly in a clause,
Th'estaat, th'array, the nombre, and eek the cause
Why that assembled was this compaignye
In Westbere - except I can't tell you the cause.


Anonymous said...

The church I attended as a child had a stone head inside that was the double of the vicar. When I was very little I thought it was a carving of him, and later that some medieval mason had had a vision of the future. Before we left to come north I asked the vicar if I could photograph him inside the church, and very naughtily lined him up with the carving. I often wonder now if he knew perfectly well what I was up to!

Clerk of Oxford said...

Great story :D I wonder if any of these heads were sly portraits of people in the parish...

Unknown said...

I'm a Westbere resident, and I agree that the carvings are the jewels of the parish church. Thank you for taking such good photographs of them; that's not an easy thing to do.
I have an old engraving of the two corbels which I believe shows that one of them was significantly and deliberately altered in the nineteenth century. The engraving of the corbel on the south side is an excellent match for the one we see today, and I am using this fact to make the assumption that the engraving of the north corbel was also accurate at the time. I invented a theory about why the alteration was done, entirely speculative and based on no solid evidence whatsoever. Perhaps you could hazard a guess at a better informed explanation?
I'm not very good at this computer lark, so I'm working on a way of sending you a scanned picture of the engraving. I don't seem to be able to drag and drop it here.

Unknown said...

Thank you so much for this post. I'm a Westbere villager, and I agree that the carvings are the jewels of All Saints Church.
There is a puzzle concerning the corbel on the North side, the one showing the hooded figure crouching on a man's head. I have an engraving of 1818 depicting these two corbels. It shows that although the one of a young man - a scholar? - crouching on a lion's head is very much the same today as it has ever been, the face on the other corbel has been re-carved. It looks now like the figure of a grotesque woman baring her teeth. It used to be clearly the face of a monkey, and in my mind, a good likeness of a Barbary Macaque.
Our best guess is that the alteration was made in an extensive renovation and remodelling of the church around 1851. But why?
I have invented my own speculative, poorly-informed and fanciful explanation, based on no evidence whatsoever. But I'm encouraged by your willingness to associate the church carvings to characters by Chaucer, so I'll expound my whimsical notion.
The south figure of an earnest young man on the head of a lion is a metaphor for the triumph of learning, of reason, over violent emotions such as wrath. It's on the south, the "good" side of the chancel. The figure on the north, the "bad" side, is a tormented man being ruled by lust, in the form of a libidinous primate.
My speculation continues. Perhaps the vicar of the 1850s interpreted the statue in just this way? The Victorian impetus to sanitize and improve on some of what were viewed as the dodgier relics of the medieval past may have prevailed. And that pesky Darwin fellow had just upset the applecart with his theories about apes and humans. Was the opportunity to remove a monkey reference and shift the blame onto womankind at one stroke - or a bit of chiselling - seen as too good an opportunity to miss?
I don't see a way of sending you a scanned picture of my engraving through the comments section. I'm not very good at this computer lark, but if you're interested and have a suggestion for a simple way for me to deliver this image to you, I would be glad to do that. Alternatively, if you're in Oxford and have access to the excellent libraries and collections, the legend on the picture reads "Engraved by J.Greig from a Drawing by W.Deeble, for the Antiquarian Itinerary. Antient Sculptures, Westbeer Church, Kent. Published for the Proprietors March 1818 by W.Clarke New Bond Street."

Clerk of Oxford said...

Your theory sounds very plausible to me! If you like you can email me the scanned image at eleanor.parker@ell.ox.ac.uk. I'd be interested to see it!