Murder Sex and Mayhem in English Churches

 John Vigar

John Vigar is an Ecclesiastical Historian and the author of  books on English Churches.   He lives in Swaffham in Norfolk but as he explained during his informative, and frequently very amusing, talk, his life is spent in churches in many places and he regards church buildings as his natural environment.  His audience thoroughly enjoyed and appreciated the way in which he was able to bring to life and make accessible the visual historical recording to be found in English churches.

During his talk, John referred to a number of churches, in different counties of England, from Kent to North Yorkshire and to the West Country.  The accompanying  photos showed the beauty and antiquity of the buildings as well as demonstrating the visual imagery to be discovered in this rich heritage of  churches. John’s amused and fascinated audience quickly discovered the reason for the choice of title!

The mayhem and murder referred to can be seen in all types of art, wall paintings, carving, statues and later stained glass,  within the ancient buildings and refers back to a time when this recording of what was important to people living then, was mainly captured in visual imagery.  In earlier centuries religion played a central role in the lives of ordinary people and this is reflected in the decoration of their places of worship.

For most of us nowadays, the action of entering a church brings with it an expectation of an atmosphere of peace and tranquillity.  Not always so for our forebears! Although the churches were built as places of worship to the Glory of God they were full of the preferred imagery of the age, reminding the viewer that these were often violent times.  Then as now, through generations of faith people have wanted to have their favourite images in churches and for hundreds of years this meant including many representations of the saints.  The wall paintings to be seen in ancient churches often show the gory end to which many saints came.  St Catherine, a great favourite with worshippers, is seen being beheaded, while poor St Agatha suffered even worse mutilation as a method of execution, as shown on her tomb at Church Horton.

The representational styles used are evidently many, varied and fascinating. The mural of the Martyrdom of St Edmund at the hands of the Viking invaders in the church at Bishop’s Bourne, just outside Canterbury is an example of  the  use of exaggeration of parts of the image in order to emphasise their importance to the story.   The ‘badies’ in the image, carrying out the torture, have hats, always a sign of trouble, and very large noses!  Nobody could miss the implication that they were not good news!

How did the artists of the Middle Ages know what to include when illustrating churches?   Clearly they needed source material, particularly when representing saints who were not home grown and apparently used a book called “The Golden Legends” for this purpose.  A painting based on an illustration from this book of the martyrdom of St Christopher, who was Syrian, shows this.   When the local leaders became fed up with St Christopher’s good works, he was ordered to be shot with arrows which glanced off, leaving him unscathed, so he was beheaded by a sword.  The arrows and sword are seen over sized and once again, the executioners are not prepossessing.  This detail is present although the saint’s legend is not English, a reminder that England shares a religious heritage, and therefore shared stories of saints, with many other lands.

Church images can be an important primary source for historical accuracy.   The depiction of the Martyrdom of St. Thomas a Becket,dating from 1220,  to be seen in a Chichester Church is a case in point.  Given that the murder of Archbishop Thomas took place in 1170 this can be regarded as a contemporary recording and with the artist using current and therefore more likely to be accurate, information, to provide the details of what took place.

However not all paintings share the same provenance and one of a female form crucified upside down proved to be a made up saint who never existed, but was the product of inferior pilgrimage badges brought back from various destinations leading to a story being created of a female saint who never existed!  A fascinating insight into gossip and misrepresentation existing in earlier ages as it does today.

The murder and mayhem recorded in churches covers the centuries and when glazed windows became possible, stained glass was used to record stories and although some windows were destroyed during the Reformation and the time of the Commonwealth, and by time and war since, others have survived.  The death of King Charles 1 was regarded as a Martydom when the monarchy was restored and by this stage stained glass was a viable option and so there are notable examples of church windows dedicated to the executed king, and his end was also recorded in church art of all kinds in many locations.  The time of the Commonwealth also had its martyrs remembered in churches, notably the execution of the leaders of the Levellers in 1649, recorded by a plaque on the wall of Burford church.

England’s social history can be traced through the decoration of her churches and the sad association with the slave trade is echoed in the life and death of 19th century cleric, Bishop John Patteson.   Bishop Patteson was a Victorian, who rose to become Bishop of Melanesia and was killed by Soloman Islanders,  who mistakenly believed him to be associated with the taking of their countrymen as slaves.  The Victorians recorded his martyrdom in stained glass in the highly coloured style typical of the age.

The impact on daily lives of community tragedies continued to be represented.  The mass drowning resulting from a bridge collapse is to be seen in Yarmouth and the impact of smuggling on whole communities is recorded in more than one West Country church.

Misericord carvings contribute strongly to social commentary and serve as a reminder that there was a wide social division between the congregation, down in the knave, and the clergy in the chancel.   The subject matter of the carvings varies according to where they were positioned.  Basic for the congregation, more elevated for the clergy.

The strong message from medieval church art  is that life in earlier times was for most people bleak, tending to be short and often brutal.  People therefore wanted to get on and live life as fully as possible,  emotions were near the surface and expressed more freely and without the inhibitions which became particularly notable in Victorian Times.

The sex element in the title of this talk became clear when referencing the actual meaning of many of the misericords to be found inside, and carvings to be found both inside and outside of ancient churches.  The references made in the subject matter of the carvings were part of life in earlier more robust times, and clearly described the accepted norm of an approach to gender interaction which our Victorian forebears found insupportable.

The Victorian mind set has resulted in some art works, notably woodcarvings, being mutilated to remove more obvious physical attributes contributing to the meaning.  Unfortunately the willingness to desecrate the imagery of an earlier age continues today as was evidenced ten years ago when religious bigotry led to the completion of the destruction begun by Puritans, of an ancient sculpture in a West Sussex church.

The Victorians also resorted to the creation of stories to explain the subject matter of the art work that they found unacceptable. The figures to be seen in many early art works are not the witches and gremlins of Victorian imagination but male and female figures clearly engaging in consuming as much alcohol as possible and then in the very basic and physical side of life and procreation.   Many of the Medieval ‘Doom’ illustrations, make clear that this will be paid for at the day of Judgement, but appear to accept that it will happen as part of life and other good works must be relied upon to make entry into Heaven an option!

The description of the Victorian cover up, was that stories of fertility were created to mask characters so explicit that they what would, even now, potentially be regarded as pornographic.  Images from numbers of churches across Norfolk, Leicestershire and Kent and indeed cathedrals including Lincoln and Rochester Cathedrals, illustrate that these art works do indeed represent an age in which “people did not have the same hang ups”.

Many of the images of Murder, Sex and Mayhem  recorded in our churches  reflect a time when churches were used by people with an experience and perception of daily life, very different from our own, and who have left us a remarkable record of life, and death, as they perceived it.

Judy Alexander