Notes on Essex Churches - Magdalen Laver to Runwell

Survival Through the Ages

Sometimes the most interesting things about a church are those that lie inside. This selection of churches includes some artefacts that have survived against the odds.

Churches in the middle ages were full of Christian imagery and colour. At the time most people could not read, but they knew Biblical stories and understood Christian symbolism – for example, that the image of a winged lion indicated St Mark, St John was represented by an eagle, and so on. Bible stories were painted on church walls, Christian symbols were carved on lecterns and fonts; even the roof beams were decorated with images of saints and angels. But during the 17th century a lot of these images and symbols became associated with Catholicism, and were destroyed by Puritans.

Newport Angel
Newport Roof Angel

Given the sheer amount of destruction – every single rood cross in the country was destroyed, nearly all medieval stained glass windows were smashed, statues were torn down and the faces of saints and angels were obliterated – it's amazing that anything survived. All Saints Church, Messing, had installed a new East Window in 1628. Designed by Abraham van Linge it shows acts of Christian charity, but also included images of saints and angels. In 1648, at the height of the English Civil War and following the victory of the Parliamentarians at the siege of Colchester, the villagers of Messing carefully dismantled their new window and hid the pieces in the church vault thus preserving it for posterity.

The 15th century roof angels in St Mary's, Newport probably survived this iconoclastic destruction simply because the addition of the clerestory in the 15th century meant the roof was too high. The roof angels in St Mary's Maldon have a different tale of survival – they were once part of St Andrew's Church in Plaistow. This building, opened in 1870, suffered severe bomb damage during WWII and although it was repaired, St Andrews was rebuilt as a family centre in 1957 and the angels moved to Maldon.

The octagonal wooden font in St Andrew, Marks Tey, was created in the 15th century. Each face contains a panel, originally with figures carved into them. The figures were removed, probably during the 17th century orgy of destruction, but the font itself remains. Wooden fonts are highly unusual, with some medieval authorities deeming them uncanonical.

Another remarkable survivor is the chest inside St Mary's, Newport. Created in the late 13th century, this is a portable altar. The lid when open forms a reredos with a panel depicting St Peter, the Virgin Mary, the Crucifixion, St John and St Paul. These are some of the earliest known oil paintings on wood. The chest itself is of oak, bound with nail studded iron bands. There are 3 original drop handles and 5 locks, and the chest has a false bottom and a locker at one end. The exterior decorations suggest a Byzantium influence, and the chest may have served in the Crusades.

Several churches in the section have Norman origins, and a number of these retain the original carved doorways. One of the finest examples is that at Margaret Roding. The church also retains some ancient ironwork on the door itself, including a Norman sanctuary ring. Following the Council of Orleans in 511 A.D., sanctuary was granted to anyone who took refuge in a church. If the suspect could just reach the church and touch the sanctuary ring, they would gain the protection of the church authorities.

The chancel screen In St Lawrence's church, Ridgewell has survived since the 15th century. It is beautifully carved and remnants of red and gold paint remain on the two outer panels. Similarly, in St Mary's, Manuden, the delicate 15th century chancel screen is still in place despite the church being largely rebuilt in 1863.

Finally, just a quick note about St Mary's, Mundon. Built in the 14th century on the site of an earlier church, its tower and belfry were erected in the 16th century and the north porch added in 1600. It had fallen into disrepair by 1684 and was rebuilt in brick on the old foundations the 18th century. It still contains the box pews and decorative features from that time. Subsequently the local population declined, and the fabric of the church began to deteriorate. The building was further damaged by the blast from a V-bomb and although some repairs were undertaken, in 1974 the parish was transferred to St Mary's Maldon and the Mundon church was threatened with demolition. In 1975 the church was taken into the care of the Friends of Friendless Churches, and has now been fully restored: which is great news, as this tiny church has enormous charm.