Wednesday, June 02, 2010

A Brief History of St. Michael’s Church…at St. Michaels (Part One)

Pevsner, the British travel writer -- by which I mean he travelled around Britain and wrote about it, not that he was British and travelled abroad writing about foreign places…although he was British…and he might even have travelled abroad and written about foreign places for all I know…look, you’ve either heard of him or you haven’t, so bear with me on this -- once described St. Michael’s Church (in St. Michael’s, of course) as: “A typical late mediaeval North Country church.”
Which shows what he knew, because it’s a damned sight earlier than late mediaeval.

In fact, St. Michael’s was the only church in the Wyre to be mentioned by name in William the Conqueror’s big fat ledger of ill-gotten gains the Domesday Book (although there are actually several other churches around the district referred to in brief…just not by name) making it early mediaeval rather than late.
The vicars’ board inside the church confirms this by listing its ministers all the way back to 1196, so it’s at least 800 years old, you see, and probably more.
Because of its long history you’d naturally expect to find plenty of relics in situ, so let’s start with the door on the north side of the chancel, which dates back to the Norman period, or about 1,000 years ago for anybody who doesn’t know about these things…quite a long time when you stop to consider it.

Imagine the history that arch has seen. The Wars of the Roses, Vikings, Cromwell fighting the Royalists, the Jacobites rampaging through the churchyard with their swords rattling and their kilts flying…or possibly none of those things, because St Michael’s is a bit of a quiet nook really when I stop to think about it. Nonetheless, it’s stood through all those various historic events, as well as the Spanish Armada, Henry VIII and his six wives, Agincourt et al…even if it didn’t witness them personally.
The pointed arch, regardless of Pevsner’s somewhat dismissive attitude, of course, is typical of early mediaeval/Norman architecture.
Tradition dictates that the site of the church is even older. Tradition generally does with these matters, although on this occasion it’s probably right.
One of the earliest remaining sections is the bricked-up lancet window near the front door. Like the leper’s squint at St. Helens this window was originally used to pass alms to lepers outside.

Let’s talk about lepers for a moment, because they’re always good for a laugh (so long as you don’t know any lepers personally, of course, in which case it’s not an amusing matter at all really). If the disease wasn’t horrific enough by itself, lepers throughout the Middle Ages were considered unclean by those more fortunate.
They were forced to wear distinguishing clothes, rattle clappers and carry bowls to warn people of their approach (a bit like football fans nowadays, with their distinctive football strips, clappers and KFC boxes…only not as menacing).
Originally healthy people pitied them, but, as the problem became more widespread, the church, with its usual tact, declared that leprosy was God’s punishment against sinners. Lepers soon fell into the same category as Jews, prostitutes, homosexuals and witches (all terrible affronts to decent human beings, I’m sure you’ll agree).
Naturally such an attitude only applied to peasant lepers, aristocratic lepers being regarded as martyrs.
Interestingly, perhaps, according to Father Martinus Cawley (no relation to Father Jack Hackett), civic authorities during the mediaeval era regarded lepers as ‘legally dead’ giving them (the civic authorities that is) free reign to confiscate lepers’ goods.
However, we’re digressing.
Returning to St. Michael’s church, another early relic is the piscina, which sits on the right of the altar, (its something you put holy water into, I believe, and not the vicar’s personal loo as the name might suggest) along with the pedestal found on the east wall which, apparently, once contained an effigy of Saint Michael himself (neither of which we have a photograph of).
Even some of the stained glass windows have a long-standing legacy. The roundel in the Butler Chapel, for example, is Flemish and dates from the sixteenth century. We haven’t got a photograph of that either, apparently, but I have drawn it up.

Typical of the Wyre’s farming heritage this romantic scene depicts a couple shearing sheep. (It could have been worse.) Documents inform us that the window was originally one of a set of three…although what became of the other two we couldn’t say.
At the bottom of the picture is the word Junius (meaning June), the month when shearing generally took place. It’s accompanied by a crayfish, which probably represents the astrological sign of Cancer (June 21st to July 22nd).
Another fragment of old glass found in the Butler Chapel depicts a shield and dates from the fourteenth century.
This article’s going on a bit longer than I thought it would. Time for a seven-day break to gather our meagre wits before part two.


Hels said...

Heyyyyyy I am a Pevsner fan. He knew his stuff, that bloke! So either he got it right the first time or his words were mis-translated from German into English.

If, and I say "if" a mistake really was made, the later editions of his books will accept corrections. Pevsner was a stickler for accuracy, so he will be sitting up in architectural heaven, approving of your corrections.

Jayne said...

Hadn't realised how wide-spread leprosy was in the UK until TT kept unearthing leper hospitals, leper graves, etc.
Any idea when it first surfaced or where it may have come into England from?
Love the cast iron drain, looks quite fetching in black gloss. Is that another bricked up arch beside it, above the alms window?
Looks like an arch in the rough stonework, was that wall rebuilt/added on at some stage, doesn't fit with the dressed stone wall.

WV =netsilly Yes, indeed, that's me.

Brian Hughes said...


I suspect Pevsner was going off the architectural style...or possibly he considered Post-Norman architecture to actually be late mediaeval. There is some dispute about whether the mediaeval period includes the Saxon period or not, which would alter the 'early, middle and late' classifications...although I personally consider the Saxon period to be just that, Saxon.


Not sure when leprosy appeared off hand. Then again I haven't had my second coffee yet, so I'm not sure of anything much this morning. As for that bricked up arch, that is the leper's squint. Unless you can see something that I can't, of course.

Jayne said...

Above the leper's squint there appears to be an arch in the rough stone work, almost level, and of a similar shape, to the lead-light glass window beside it.
It's filled with pale coloured stone, like the leper's squint which contrasts to the darker stone around it.
The point of the arch is out of shot.

Brian Hughes said...


A trick of the light I suspect. The left hand side of the top bit of the arch is actually part of the drainpipe...the bit where two sections join in an overflow thingie (you can tell I know a lot about plumbing can't you) and the rest is just ill fitting stones. They say the camera never lies...but it doesn't half bend the truth sometimes.

JahTeh said...

Didn't Leprosy appear with the returning Crusaders? And I'm sure I read somewhere that not all lepers had leprosy, any disfiguring skin disease (cancer) was automatically declared Leprosy.
Probably to snatch the poor sod's wordly goods.

Brian Hughes said...


I didn't know that. However, I'll take your word for it and pretend to other people that I've known it forever due to in-depth research etc.

Ann ODyne said...

do all churches have leper's squints?
do all St. Michael's Churches have leper's squints?
just back from a wiki at him which indicates he had a healing reputation:
'to St Michael they gave the care of their sick.
At Phrygia/Turkey, his prestige as an angelic healer obscured his interposition in military affairs. It was from early times the centre of the true cult of the holy angels, particularly of St Michael. Church tradition relates that Saint Michael in the earliest ages caused a medicinal spring to spout at Chairotopa, where all the sick who bathed there, invoking the Blessed Trinity and St Michael, were cured.

Ann O'Dyne said...

Now I have a Domesday Book ref. of my own: town of Hanslope is mentioned in it, and my Cowells of Waddesdon were married in St.Michael The Great.

Am trying to recall the title of sitcom on UK TV set in time of Roman invasion, it was very funny in a Drop The Dead Donkey sort of way ... *slinks off to to look up Andy Hamilton*

Brian Hughes said...


Chelmsford 123...or something like that? I vaguely recall that Rory McGrah...MacGragh...that bearded bloke was in it.

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