The parish church of St Andrews in Greystoke had seen some difficult times by the seventeenth century. It was first built in stone in 1255. Its key feature was a defensible tower where villagers could take shelter when the Scots came raiding. It’s ironic that the name St Andrew is a reminder that in 1066 this part of Cumbria was in Scotland where it remained until the reign of William Rufus. A wooden church may have stood upon the site when Ranulph de Meschines gave the land into the hands of Llyulph or Ligulph a local man. The Barony of Greystoke was confirmed to his son by Henry I.
But back to St Andrews. It prospered under the care of the Greystokes ultimately becoming a college for the training of priests during the fourteenth century. It had chantries and could offer sanctuary to those who needed it. That all changed with the Reformation when the furniture was stripped out and the priests sent away.
Worse was to follow during the English Civil War. Cumberland, generally speaking, was Royalist by inclination. By that time Greystoke Castle was in the hands of the Howard family – (the Dukes of Norfolk).
In 1648 the civil war arrived in Greystoke. The castle was besieged and captured – some might say knocked about a bit- by the Parliamentarians under General Lambert. It wasn’t rebuilt until the nineteenth century.
The inhabitants of Greystoke had clearly heard about the iconoclastic tendencies of the Parliamentarians and before the Roundheads arrived, so the story goes, they carefully removed all the medieval stained glass windows and buried them for safekeeping.
The glass was eventually recovered and restored in 1848 at the same time the whole church was rebuilt. Unfortunately it could not be reset as it was meant to be. Glass fragments had become lost and confused with the passage of time. This means that some of the images do not quite tell the stories they were meant to tell. The devil under the foot of the bishop isn’t quite where he should be – he should be whispering in Eve’s ear.
There are plenty of examples of ‘patchwork’ or ‘jigsaw’ stained glass around the countryside. In Wells, the medieval glass is a reminder that medieval lead and putty might not have been up to the job as well as being a reminder that Parliamentarians armed with pikes were not gentle with old glass.
Much of the stained glass in the City of York survives only because Lord Ferdinando Fairfax gave orders that it should not be destroyed after the Parliamentarians captured the city in 1644.
Dating from the same period as misericords, bench ends in churches across the country are often intriguing insights into the medieval world. The fox is in Burlingham Church in Norfolk and, yes, he is in pursuit of geese.
In Greystoke, Cumbria there are paired lions with their tongues sticking out and their bottoms sticking up as though they’re sliding down the bench into an undignified slump. There are also these barefoot, bearded men wearing something that looks remarkably like kilts.
Further south in Ripon Cathedral one bench end sports a startling elephant with a castle on its back.
In Devon its even possible to find bench ends carved their full length to include the carvers initials.
I wonder what modern carvers would create if there was a sudden trend for bench ends – safety-pinned goths, a besuited woman in high heels clutching a mobile phone and perhaps a bateria or virus magnified to grotesque proportions.
Misericords from the Latin word meaning pity are also known as ‘mercy seats’. These are the ledges or rests in choir stalls so that clergy singing the divine offices could rest their weary legs. The clerical perches were often hinged so the misericord carving could only be seen when the perch was raised. Many oak choir stalls with their misericords were placed in churches during the medieval period; their carvers are largely anonymous and the meaning behind the carvings sometimes lost but they remain a fascinating glimpse of the past.
Hemingborough in Yorkshire has some of the earliest examples of misericords in this country and Exeter Cathedral has a complete set dating from the Thirteenth Century.
The carvers used their imaginations when they created each misericord. Some scenes come from the Bible; others like the foliate green men sporting leaves from their mouths come from an earlier folklore; some images such as elephants come from medieval bestiaries. Hyenas were popular because not only were they an exotic species but they had legendary status as well according to Richard Hyman in that they were supposed to disinter and eat corpses…lovely. In addition they represented “vice feeding on corruption.” (Hyman: 21) Other inspirations came from everyday life; from animals realistic and fanciful and from mythical creatures such as mermaids. A carver in Fairford captured a woman raising a ladle to hit her unfortunate spouse . In Ludlow a man warms himself in front of his fire and in Manchester a game of backgammon can be spotted. Less amusingly in Lincoln a knight tumbles from his hours mortally injured.
Sometimes it is possible to spot a carver who has travelled around a locality. Greystoke Parish Church has some delightful misericords that are matched by similar examples in Dacre and also in Cartmel. Carlisle Cathedral has some impressive examples as does Hexham Abbey. Perhaps the man who carved them travelled from one church to the next in search of work.
Further south Ripon, Richmond and Chester have some intriguing misericords as does Wakefield, Halifax, Gloucester Cathedral, Worcester, Southwell Minster and Ludlow. In fact these lovely little works of art not only give an insight to medieval craftsmanship and mindset but they can also be alarmingly addictive…you’ve been warned and I’ve not even started on bench ends, corbels, capitals, grotesques and gargoyles.
This misericord from Cartmel depicts a rather alarming two-tailed mermaid with her mirror and comb. In medieval times a mermaid symbolised lust and temptation. I’m not sure that the Cartmel mermaid would tempt anyone with that ribcage!