Conisborough Church – It’s Architectural Glories – Vicar’s Interesting Lecture.

February 1915

Mexborough and Swinton Times February 6, 1915

Conisborough Church
It’s Architectural Glories
Vicar’s Interesting Lecture

The following is the text of an interesting lecture on “Conisborough Church: it’s architectural and Historical Associations,” recently delivered by the vicar of Conisborough, the W. A Strawbridge, before the Conisborough literary and debating society.

If by that same architecture (as defined in Worcestershire’s English dictionary) we mean “The art and science of building, according “proportions and rules determined by natural laws, and principles of taste, close quote then, in dealing with their architecture of Conisborough’s ancient church, I venture to say, without fear of contradiction, that the building, as a whole, presents lines and points of structural beauty, and that it contains items of antique query and an historic interest sufficient to justify, not one, but a series of talks or lectures, our papers and pamplets (be it, or call it what you please), although it is a subject already dealt with, more or less fully,’ from various standpoints, by several learned gentlemen, and by one very learned lady archaeologist, to whom we (local residents) are greatly indebted for our information about Conisborough as a place- especially about the church and the castle- two monuments of man’s faith and power and skill that reminds us of the poet Blakemore’s words:

“Our fathers next, in architectural skilled,
Cities for use, and forts for safety build.”

Whereupon (in prose paraphrase) we gather that “Churches from use and Castles for defence were built by men of yore, in architectural skilled.”

” Now the above quoted “adverb” “next” clearly points to a gradual development of the science and art of building, and thus we get a key note for our treatment of this (evenings) particulate subject, in the assertion that true architecture is the outgrow and product of certain definite and progressive ideas about human habitations, “based on the study of natural laws as to “proportion, size and weight, and guided by “certain evolutionary principles of artistic case.”

And this is the chief glory of the Conisborough church of today: namely, that with one of our two unfortunate and regrettable exceptions (instances) of bad taste and questionable workmanship and apart altogether from many acts of pure vandalism or of gross carelessness resulting in the destruction and disappearance, sometimes of ancient relics – effigies, inscriptions, stained glass pictures, frescoes, and other things known to have been in the church – we still have a great treasure house full of “sermons in stones” and “beauty in books” (if the old 1555 register, and two mutilated copies of Fox’s book of Martyrs and Jewels Apology for the Church of England) -yes, and of “beauty in looks” – that he who runs may read, and he who reads and locks, and thinks and compares, and enquires, will find this archaeological research to be both a pleasant and profitable pastime, and an incentive to honest admiration and to devout imitation of those good men and woman who

“in olden times
spared neither gold, no gear,
nor precious word, nor hewen stone,
this sacred shrine to rear”

Now, thanks to the recent work accomplished in and for the church, we are now far better able to consider the question of its varieties of architecture than say 10 months ago – when dense and dingy stucco covered the walls, when naves and pillars had their shapely bases buried beneath the floor, and some of the most striking features of the surface work were altogether obscured, and sculptured monuments, inscriptions on brass, marble and stone, “through mists and shadows dim,” were “as in a riddle” seen. Things are very different now: and – if by means of a transformation scene – “transfigured, bright, and clean” – “in the full “light of day they stand – with not a cloud “between.”

Having said this much, by way of pre-face, and taking for granted that there was an actual Anglo-Saxon church on this very site – King Harold’s connection with Conisborough as one of his Royal “desmenes,” and the documentaries reference in Domesday book to Coninsburgh church, its parson, his glebe and tithes, and other things relating to a sort of classical headship for the parish priest over several neighbouring parish churches also named in Domesday book – in consequence of certain brought to light evidences of distinct characteristics of Anglo-Saxon buildings, I may now point to

  1. the huge and oddly shaped “Long and short” stones on the north and south sides of the innermost tower – buttress walls. This part of the Church was therefore, I should say the western limit of the old Anglo-Saxon church, for on one particular stone on the south aisle side there are very distinct marks of the scratching and rubbing of tools, i.e. arrowheads, daggers, and knives – (like day school children’s sharpening of pencils and some post or wall) – all are very elementary way of using the outside of the church or school.In Parker’s “introduction to the study of “Gothic architecture” (1861 edition – P. P. 20 and 21), we have a very, interesting description, and an almost exact replica drawing to match the shape and make of the recently found “built-in” little window on the nave north wall (see photograph) – and we read that, “in small Anglo-Saxon windows their head is “frequently cut out of a single stone, and the “opening is, in the manner instanced, wider “at the bottom than at the top”; another common feature being that they are “splayed” on the outside as well as their inside: whereas in windows of a later style (of the two very early north and south Norman windows in the tower, and the two later lancet windows in the north side (W) – the window is “splayed” within only.A careful comparison, then, of each of the various styles and outlooks of these very ancient windows in the church will convince you that the small single stone headed rudely shaped, round top “Tom form” window, with its distinctly seen wider opening outlined on the north isle side of the nave wall was, and therefore is still – a genuine specimen of pre-Norman architecture, and the relic of the time when there was nothing but outside air and light to be brought into the church.With the Normans came a great advance in architecture of every kind: and here, in both church and castle, we find splendid specimens of both earlier and later Norman ideals of structural art.
  2. Outlines of two large windows, east and west of this little window and also those of a still bigger window high up on the nave’s East Wall are all of a very early date – before the nave roof was raised and the chancel extended: but as the headlines of the first two have been cut off to make way for the sills of the present windows, the long stones laid across the top of the third window being, I should say a later builders makeshift job in filling in all three windows as no longer required – it is no use discussing the question as to their exact age- though probably somewhere about the 12 or 13th-century .
  3. In other words. Anglo-Saxon windows usually widened out both ways, when set in the middle of a wall, whereas Norman lancet windows were always narrowed to a slit in the outer wall.
  4. This being so, we may safely conclude that the Anglo-Saxon church stood within the area of the present nave; that it was an aisleless church, with very small windows, no chancel, and possibly with a small but substantial Turret Tower.
  1. a short, probably apse shaped chancel, with a view given of the priest at the altar though a tunnel light squint or haggis scope for personsal worshipping in a new and narrow
  2. north aisle;
  3. the low round arch built into the pull down old East well;
  4. the very slender columns and the lozenge like decorations on equally slender capitals below the arch;
  5. the free round arches (on the left side of the nave)
  6. the four cylindrical pillars, of varying height, with the broad bases (now to be clearly seen) and their shapely, beautifully carved out capitals – the one on the North – West side being the perfect gem of scriptural teaching and sculptors skill, with its four corner and other human figures, probably hacked at and heads taken off by Puritan Iconoclasts. But to pass on and crossing over to the other side
  7. we get one of the best possible specimens – in almost perfect condition – of a late Norman entrance door, it’s rounded outlines decorated with zigzag lines and tooth work and star -shaped bosses overhead, and slender columns with very simple capitals on each side; whilst position of this doorway shoes that there south aisle must have been added to the church at the same time though the South side windows are quiet the modern day on sale.
  8. All this shows that the Normans did by way of enlarging and embellishing the church, including, of course
  9. the four lancet windows (already lowered to) and the two round arches, north and south of the baptistery, and some portions, at any rate, of the present tower.Passing on to the 13th century (early English periods) are three, if not four excellent types of the simplest style of Gothic architecture;
  1. in the three pointed arches, which undoubtedly, superseded the three previously erected Norman arches (round ones, like those on the north side) that south side of the nave;
  2. in a very massive doorway which originally led out of the old bosvile chapel or Chantrey in the churchyard and is now invisible from the organ chamber side of the church, but still to be seen and admired from within a new choir very enclosed;
  3. in that once most beautiful old porch archway, so often seen in modern P.P.C.’s but its everywhere crumbling remnants had to be taken down last year – and its exactly copied lines of arch, and column, and carving, giving one now an even better idea of what this early English style of architecture was really like; and in Parker’s book, already referred to, we have several facsimile drawings (pp 126 and 127) by way of corroborative evidence of the original archways age and style.

(Seven). Of the 14th century more ornate so-called “decorated” style – there is a very little to be seen in our church: just a trace it of the south aisle west window mullions, and (props) some very indistinctly seen stone mouldings along the upper part of the present Chancel (North and South) wall. But there is that – who bullied and blocked up – arch doorway in the Chancel north wall, the rubble stone work which is quite a century or more older than the Smalls hand dressed surface of the South wall.

Who then, can decide exactly after the date of the Norman Chancel’s disappearance in favour of the Chancel as we have it today? For this might have been done at any time between the 13th and 16th centuries, and certainly the little square headed priests door in the three old windows in that Chancel are distinctly of the Perpendicular or 15th century period.

However, looking down from the Chancel steps, we get the best view of a lofty and beautifully proportioned archway under the Tower. We split up Perpendicular work is quite the finest thing of its kind in the Church, especially as seen since the recent restoration. Besides this dress arch there is the sculptured Font and the Clerestory windows, on the south Nave wall – excellent specimen that under much simpler, and probably still later, windows on the north side as well. So, also, the upper part of the Tower, and the greatest part of the parapets that go round the body of the Church are distinctly of the Perpendicular period.

This brings us to the end of the 16th century. What was subsequently done was evidently by way of small alterations and restoration of one sort and another.

The figures, 1679, on the Names south Corbel shown that the Rev Samuel Lees (Vicar 1672 – 1680) add something to do with that R.N.E.D. affair.

The brass table (Now near the new vestry) gives 1866 as the date for the commencement, of that particular church restoration effort, when the north aisle was extended, and the organ – Gallery, and organ at that end, and the old oak pews, pulpit, and reading desk (as per coloured sketch sent to me anonymously the other day) were all removed, the floors raised throughout the church, and the walls (inside) re plastered in almost every direction.

Whatever we may say about our worthy predecessors, I cannot but think that in many ways those restorers did not properly – i.e. artistically and retrogressive lay – restore; for they allowed many things to disappear which might well have been still here, and they cover not much that ought to have been left to speak for itself.

However, we are thankful for some of the good they did; but even 50 years of made a difference has two Architects and Vicars, and Churchwardens and peoples ideas; and so from April 18 to November 4, 1914 we of the present generation did what we thought best; and for the sake of the past history of architecture as seen from age to age in this Church, of the sake of our 20th century ideals of reverence for Science and Or remedy some at least of these earlier mistakes, we have brought to light all we could of the Churches ancient appearance, both outside and from within, so as to let those mediaeval periods of its history speak for themselves, and to be (what I am sure they are to every intelligent person) revelations of the progress made from one stage to another, of true architecture, as based upon the perception of rules and proportions determined by natural laws in the building world, and by visions of true beauty and utility based on the ice principles of ascetic chase, sanctified and controlled by the fear of God, and by the faith of the Catholic church.

The church has historical associations, we know that it has had its full share of the ups and downs of national and parochial events, both before and since the Norman conquest; but it is not given to every Church to possess written records of historic deeds – for good or evil – done to , or enacted within, its actual walls. And I confess I have neither had time to go fully into these matters of history – and I very much doubt whether anyone can now throw fresh light on the subject confess rather obscure, and as to its title – somewhat, as I now feel, confusing and misleading. But we know something of the history of Conisbrough and of the Castle, and whatever happened here or there, must have, in a measure affected the interests of the Church, as an institution, must have influenced the lives of the Vicars and the people attached to their Parish Church.

The names of Harold, of William, first Earl de Warrene, recall memories of both Anglo-Saxon, English and Norman periods. Historically, however this seems to be three specially mentioned dates, when an Earl de Warren stepped in to do something for – or it may be – against the interests of this Parish Church; for in 1094, and in 1189, and again in 1253, it seems that the Prior and Canons of Lewes had special jurisdiction given over this Church and Parish; and certainly from this latter-day the Vicars of Conisbrough were all direct nominees of that south country community and Prior Atwell’s name, and, it is said, is actual face, in stained glass of chancel window must be associated with this place about 1484 A.D. this right of patronage and of revenue holding continued till 1535, when under Henry VIII’s act of dissolution of the monasteries and other religious houses, the Waterhouses of Halifax became laypersons and they in due time, 1681 (as per documentary evidence from York diocesan registry ceded their rights to the Archbishop of York, when the person of the present Archbishop ceded it last year to the new Bishop of Sheffield.
But this can scarcely be called history, as commonly spoken of.

Biographies of Conisbrough clergy and of Conisbrough Church laity are practically non-existent, but there is an authentic list of Vicars from the end of the 12th century. Guy Rufus heads a list, as one to whom Earl Hamlyne de Warrene wrote a letter as being “the Parson at Conisburgh” (cf Brains “history of the church of York); and Orlandus comes next – probably the Vicar ordained by Archbishop Gray in 1253; then a John de Connesby, 1275; and so onto you come to the present Vicar (37 in lineal descent with over 700 years of apostolic Vicarial succession.

And so we have to depend otherwise on inscriptions in brass and stone, and on glass steering windows, on gravestones, and effigies. These are then largely disappeared, we have very few data of internal witness. Canon Raine however gives a very interesting account of “Some early monuments at Conisbrough” in paper of 1867, the contents of which have already appeared, some years ago, in our monthly magazine, and were copied into Mr Allport’s “history of Conisbrough,” and can still be read over there.

Someday I hope to see a properly executed list of Vicars, in brass or oak form of tablet place within the walls of the church.