I must sound like a broken record, but I truly believe that every church has a fascinating history, or a weird little artefact hidden inside, and St Mary’s at Barton is no different.
A church has been on the site of St Mary’s since the 7th century, with several early incarnations discovered during excavations for air raid shelters in 1939. During these digs, a Saxon cemetery was discovered that appears to have been closed in the 7th century, around the time of St Mary’s earliest records.
The original Norman chapel is long gone, however the south-west area of the nave still retains some of the original brutal, plain Normal architecture in its chalkstone. Over the following years, the political machinations and monarchical loyalties of the local nobility resulted in the constant re-building and constant alteration of the church building.
The Norman chapel had only a brief time in the sun, when on 15th April 1185, England experienced a he earthquake, one that could be felt across the whole country:
‘The like of which was never experienced before. Rocks were split, stone buildings fell in ruin and the Metropolitan Church of Lincoln was rent asunder from top to bottom.’
As the cathedral at Lincoln was rebuilt following the earthquake, the builders at Barton were paying close attention to the stylistic choices of St Hugh of Avalon (1186-1200) and replicated many of Hugh’s efforts in the south arcade. Other parts of the church were patched together from existing rubble and limestone (from the same quarry used to supply Beverley Minster). The simplistic arches of the earlier designs were modernised into fashionable gothic pointed arches, although some of the stones aren’t the greatest fit. If you look closely, a little of the red medieval paint remains, hinting at the once-bright and beautiful interior.
In the Chantry Altar is where we find some of the church’s greatest and most curious treasures. A huge iron-bound wooden chest sits beside some pews and is a huge, solid piece of work. The chest was carved from a single oak tree, and an enormous one at that. It’s a tricky object to date, but church records state it is thirteenth century in origin and has been in constant use since at least 1671 when its hinges were repaired. Its use was a simple and practical one, being a sturdy storage facility for the church’s precious metal treasures.
Sat on a nearby window sill is a thick piece of headstone with a curious, rudimentary epitaph. Although it is missing much of its original carving the remaining inscription reads:
‘[HERE LI]ES THE BOD[Y]
[OF FA]ITH LOW WH[O]
[DIED T]HE 23 OF IVNE
1706 IN THE 17 YEAR
OF HER AGE
The headstone was reportedly only brought into the church in recent years, but for such a small piece of masonry, a full and colourful story unfolds. Faith Low was born to Christopher and Ann Low, who had married in 1678 and enjoyed 16 years of marriage before Ann died aged 38 in 1694. Faith was christened in St Mary’s church on 14th July 1689 and was one of few Low siblings to survive into their teen years. Christopher and Ann had an estimated 9 children, with seven dying before reaching their fifth birthday. The Lows had an earlier set of twins named John and Faith, with Faith I dying at 3 months old in 1682. This would make this Faith the second Faith Low within the churchyard. The Lows were not a poor family, as Christopher worked as a weaver, a position of good financial standing. However, he was not literate, and when required to sign legal documents would do so with a simple mark.
17 year old Faith was buried the day after her death, joining at least seven of her siblings and her mother in the churchyard. Christopher went on to live until 1719 aged 66, and one can’t imagine the pain he would have endured burying so many loved ones before their time.
Like so many churches, much of St Mary’s beautiful wooden interior was removed and destroyed during a time of anti-Catholic sentiment in the late 16th century, where painted rood screens and woodwork were dismantled and repurposed, or simply destroyed without replacement.
Set into the floor of the chancel is a very striking brass slab, marking the tomb of Simon Seman, a wine merchant and one-time alderman of London. According to St Mary’s (my Latin is poor at best), the inscription reads ‘In the grace and mercy of God, here lies Simon Seman sometime citizen and vintner and Alderman of London who died on the 11th day of the month of August in the year of the Lord 1433 on whose soul and of all the faithful departed may God have mercy Amen Amen.’
One can only presume that punctuation hadn’t yet been invented.
The rather striking scroll around the figure’s head is a quote from the Latin burial of the dead (Job 19:25) ‘I believe that my Redeemer liveth and in the last day He shall stand upon the earth and in my flesh I shall see God my saviour.’ Continuing the heavy layers of Latin and death referenced, each corner of the tomb slab features an image of the four beasts of the Apocalypse, as described in the Book of Revelation: ‘The first creature was like a lion, the second was like a calf, the third had the face of a man and the fourth was like a flying eagle.’
The tomb has suffered from some deliberate damage over the years, particularly through the removal of civic crests, but we should be grateful that it exists at all, as many grander monuments did not survive in St Mary’s down the centuries.
The ecclesiastical excitement of St Mary’s continues in the chilly St James’ Chapel. Originally built as an extension to the Lady Chapel to accommodate the ever-increasing church population. Separating the two is a beautifully carved oak screen, dating back to the fifteenth century. Dotted in amongst the delicate tracery is the occasional rose and tiny face, presumably created by a talented craftsman, grown tired of his usual simple commissions and enjoying a moment where he can truly show off his skill. According to the official history of St Mary’s, during restoration in 1883, the screen was re-installed inside the church in a very skew-whiff way, completely out of line with the pillars. I’m sure this is a design irritant for many church ramblers, but honestly, to my heathen eyes, I couldn’t tell at all.
Directly opposite the chapel altar is a massive organ.
And that’s enough of that.
At one point the St James’ Chapel was repurposed as a schoolhouse for local children, undergoing some questionable building alterations including since-demolished walls and a bricked up doorway.
High up on the wall of the chapel is a very ornate memorial tablet to William Long, a former local magistrate and charitable benefactor (he founded Long’s Educational Charity) who died at the age of 85 in 1729. He had married Mary Tripp, whose father was a one-time Mayor of Hull, with whom he had twelve children. Sadly only three of these children would survive infancy; Elizabeth, Mary and Frances.
Looking at the tablet, the epitaph seems rather cramped at best, like drawing a cartoon speech bubble before you’ve planned the text and cramming everything in at the last minute. According to St Mary’s, they purchased the tablet ready-made from the mason who had to try and squash in the extensive epitaph as best he could.
The cherub’s head beneath is a later addition, limewashed and tagged on from a long-forgotten memorial.
One room over in the Lady Chapel, a substantial Virgin Mary statue stares back from a corner. Its an undeniably stunning piece, with eyes that follow you around the room and a lifelike dewey-ness that made me a feel a little wary about standing too close (My religious nightmares are very specific, thank you). The wooden, painted statue is Dutch in origin, dating from the mid-nineteenth century and was a generous gift to the church by Mr Brian Pettifer, a member of the congregation. Speaking on the installation of the sculpture, he said that: I hope it will provide a beautiful object for those wishing to consider a historical person and also a focus for devotion and prayer for those drawn to the Christian vision of life and community. I understand from Father David that this Dutch decorated wooden sculpture dating from about 1850 probably depicts the Virgin as the woman in Revelation 12.1; “A Great Portent; A woman clothed with the sun, with the moon under her feet and on her head a crown of 12 stars”.
Little is known of the churchyard, or at least little is available online. There’s a vast array of 18th and 19th century headstones, carved with common designs, and in a rather good state of preservation.
Yet for all of the familiar iconography, what St Mary’s does have is a remarkable collection of epitaphs. The cramped epitaph of the Long family indoors has nothing on the cramped text adorning the headstones outside. Many have words split over multiple lines with little thought given to the placement. These rural masonry quirks are one of my favourite things to go hunting for in churchyards. A misspelled husband? I’m there faster than you can say Tom – or was it Richard – or was it John?
My favourite of these misspellings can be found on a grave for Mary Potts. Seeing one letter overlaid with another is an occasional sweet quirk, but a whole name? That’s a new one on me. Mary Pott’s name is clear, but her husband, less so. Was he Thomas? William? Thbbibaam? Your guess is as good as mine.
To be clear, the hole in the centre of the grave isn’t a bullet home from a disgruntled mason, but a hole left from a supportive bolt – a much hated former means of steadying older headstones.
Over the churchyard wall is a stunning view of the village beck and the aforementioned (closed) Norman church. The beck, complete with several benches, is a popular place for villagers to perch and while away the hours in the summer months. It’s no surprise that some of the more elaborate headstones are facing in this direction.
Around the back of the church, towards the modern village hall, are a handful of sparse, squat 18th century headstones, which make for rather sweet and grim reading.
I’ll leave you with one of my favourites from this older section.
Here lieth the Body
Of Hannah the Wife of
Willm Druary who died
Decr. 8th. 1796 aged 27 Years
Farewel dear Husband & my Infant too
You who I dearly loved now I bid adieu
My life was short which I did end in pain
My Saviour died for me with him to reign.
Cheery! And with that, I’ll thank you for joining me on this little jaunt to Barton.
Obligatory poser shot. Can’t escape it.
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