Woodborough’s Heritage

Woodborough, a Sherwood Forest Village, recorded in Domesday

It was at this time that painted glass had reached its highest perfection, and we can understand how the glass man would delight in filling such elegant spaces with his designs. But alas! The ancient glass has nearly all disappeared, and we can only judge of its affect by the few scattered fragments that remain and by the descriptions given by those who saw it many years ago.

Thoroton visited the church in 1670, and he has given an account of all the blazons, and these include the oft-recurring arms of the Strelleys and their alliances.

One hundred years later Throsby wrote :— “The chancel windows were once rich with painted glass, but now they are so filthy, broken and patched, that little can be made out to please by description.”

William Stretton, who visited the church in 1818, says: “The whole of the windows were, not more than 20 or 30 years since, most beautifully adorned with painted glass in a high state of preservation, but great part of them are now glazed with common glass, and the painted lies in an old chest for anyone to carry away who chooses.” The fragments remaining are: — a six-winged seraph and a quatrefoil on the south side of the east window.

St Margaret with a cross in her hand and a dragon under her feet, and St Catherine, with a wheel and a knife, in the south-east window of chancel. These two saints, the most popular in mediaeval art, are found in all the churches built by this school or guild. On the north side, beginning from the east end :—
     1.    — Figure subject, difficult to determine, probably patchwork.
     2.    — “Christ in the Garden” (with beautiful diapered background).
     3.    — “Touch me not, I am not yet ascended.”
     4.    — “Doubting Thomas,” and fragments of heraldry.
“Nothing probably has done so much to destroy the sense of colour, once so exquisite in England, as this wanton destruction of the painted windows and frescoed walls of our churches.” —Wakeman.

Notice also the beautiful stone carvings. The small sculptured stops to the hood–mould inside the east window, being so far above the level of the eye, are liable to be overlooked, but they were worthy of careful inspection.

The sculptured figures supporting the statue brackets, on either side of the east window, are intended to represent the reigning sovereign, King Edward III. (north side) and his Queen Phillipa (south side), 1327-1377, and similar carvings form the stops to the hood-mould outside the east window. Indeed, they may be found again and again in all the churches that were built at this period, and especially in the churches built by this particular school of workmen, but I think that the carvings at Woodborough, owing, perhaps, to the fine grain of the stone and the freedom from mutilation, are the most beautiful of them all.

Floor plan of St Swithun’s in 1908

The statues that once stood upon these brackets were destroyed ages ago. The one on the north side would probably be a representation of one of the most missionary bishops, St Paulinus or St Aidan; the one on the south side would surely be St Swithun, for it was incumbent on the parishioners at the time to provide “the principal image in the chancel of the saint in whose honour the church is dedicated” (1305-1368), and this is one of the three churches in Nottinghamshire dedicated to the weather saint.

This statement is corroborated by the list of wills in the Torre MS. at York. “10th August 1534. John Shirley of Wodborowe” willed that “his body to be buried in the chancel of Wodborowe before S Swithin.” 13th November 1558. Henry Shirley of Woodborowe, “his body to be buried in the close of S Swithin’s in Wodborowe upon the south side of ye chancel.”

St Swithun, Prior and afterwards Bishop of Winchester, died July 2nd, 862, and was buried, at his own request “in the churchyard where passers by might tread on his grave and where the rain from the eaves might fall on it.” In 971 his body was translated to a gilded shrine within the church, but not until after the operations had been delayed for 40 days by incessant rain, as a protest against the violation of the good bishop’s wishes. The saint’s day, July 15th, is still considered ominous.

         “St Swithun’s day if thou dost rain, for 40 days it will remain.
         St Swithun’s day if thou be fair, for 40 days ‘twill rain na mair.”

The sedilia, on the south side, framed within the returns of a heavy cill moulding, although modern in appearance, is actually contemporary with the rest of the work. It cannot be looked upon as a successful design. The decline from absolute perfection, which is just apparent in the great east window, is more pronounced in the treatment of the sedilia. Comparing the mechanical work here with the beautiful sedilias at Heckington, Hawton, and other churches of the same type, we cannot fail to notice that the decadence of Gothic architecture, so noticeable all over the country after the visitation of the “black death,” had already commenced.

The piscina is treated in a very unusual manner, having a short filleted shaft with cap and base mouldings that correspond with the respond of the chancel arch. Opposite the sedilia is a plain square aumbry (now fitted with a new door), a very poor substitute for the glorious Easter sepulchres that adorn the earlier churches built by this school.

In a list of duties for parish clerks, 1462, instructions are given “to cover the altar and rood with lenten cloths and to hang the veil in the choir,” and frequent references are found concerning “the veil which in Lent hangeth between the choir and the site of the people” (Lyndwood). The iron hooks, to which this veil was fastened, may still be seen on both sides of the chancel, just above the altar rail.

All traces of the oak screen and the stone base on which it stood have been removed.  It is said to have been “like the one at Lambley but having more work in it,” but this description is not very helpful, for the screen at Lambley is now but a relic of its former state. For many years two paper garlands, in memory of two young girls, hung upon the screen.

The choir stalls, pulpit, and western screen are quite modern. They were designed and executed by the late Mansfield Parkyns, assisted by local joiner, Richard Ward, for many years a church warden, and they were presented on Christmas Eve, 1893, as recorded on the brass tablet attached to the seat near the pulpit.

The nave requires very little description. Alas! That well begun is only half done. The chancel must have been completed before the nave was commenced. This is clearly indicated by the fact that the western buttresses of the chancel form the east end of the aisles, and the weatherings of the buttresses can be clearly seen both inside and outside. The arcade, of three bays, is fairly good. I think the original intention was to have five bays, for if you look on the south side of the south-west pier, you will see the spring of the arch as though it was intended to carry on the arcade further westwards. The nave roof is constructed in a very elementary manner, apparently with a view to economy, for the main timbers had evidently been used before, probably in the old Norman roof.

The clerestory windows are very poor—three on the south side and two on the north side—placed without any regard to design or symmetry, and the aisle windows are even worse, for no two of them are the same size. The tracery was added in 1891.

The south door is of the same date as the north arcade, but the porch was added at a later period. The small square western tower is a very poor specimen of architecture. It was built during the reign of Queen Mary (1553-1558). It contains four bells, cast by Henry Oldfield, of Nottingham, early in the 17th century.

We must not leave the church without noticing the font, by the south door. Although it looks so very new, it is actually the font belonging to the Norman church. It is made out of a single block of white Mansfield stone. I made a sketch of it in 1873, when it stood “on a round pillar in the form of a Stilton cheese.” The oak cover is quote modern (1846). At one time this font stood in the chancel near the altar rails. (Baptism was administered in the Vicarage at that time). Near to the font is the old parish chest, with three locks, one each for the vicar and the wardens.

At the Restoration of the Monarchy [1660], a new altar-table was presented to the church by John, son and heir of Robert Wood, of Lambley, Recorder of Newark. This table now stands in the south aisle. It has five bulbous legs, characteristic of the period, and a carved Latin inscription continued on all four sides, as follows:

“Sacro usui me dedit Johanns, filius et heres Roberti Woode de Lambley armigeri, qui Johanns fuit Recordator de Newarke, unus custodum pacis comitatus et Viridarius Forestæ de Sherwood, soli Deo Fretus. Qui secum considerat quam vana et instabilis est potestas, is nihil timebit. Deum time et eum ama ut ameris ab eo. Amabis Deum si imitaberis eum, in hoc autem omnibus vel prodesse et nulli nocere. Eripe me inimicis meis Domine. Ad te confugi”

A silver chalice, with lid, and a silver paten (Charles II hall-mark) were given at about the same time.
The registers begin with baptisms, 1547-1555, and then there is a gap to 1557. Burials do not begin until 1572, and weddings until 1573.

There are no monuments of special note. A twelfth century sepulchral slab with incised cross has been used for the door stone to the porch, and another lies near the chancel arch. A monumental slab near the pulpit, to the memory of William Alvey, has been broken, but John Alvey had apparently, tried to make good the damage by carving the date 1681 on the chancel wall.

Just a few words about the exterior. The cross on the east gable has a sculptured representation of the Crucifixion on one side, and the Virgin and Child, attended by SS. Catherine and Margaret, on the other side. This cross was restored in 1891, but it is an exact reproduction of the original. A similar cross adorns the west gable, but without the attendant angels. I know of only one other instance of a sculptured gable cross in this country, and that is at Clifton. There is a beautiful little triangular window in the apex of the gable, and immediately below it two shields are suspended, bearing pay of six for Strelley, the sinister shield being differenced for Strelley of Woodborough, with “a great cinquefoil”, as Thoroton calls it. If you look carefully you will see that this cinquefoil is made with six petals instead of five. I have frequently noticed a similar error in work of this period, and I can only attribute it to lack of heraldic knowledge on the part of the mason, or to the well-known fact that it is easier to divide a circle into six parts than five.

The buttresses are very effective, having bold weatherings and gabled terminations, with grotesque heads on either side. These carvings are worthy special study. They are generally said to be typical of the expulsion of evil spirits from the church, but I have an idea that in this case they were intended to represent the sufferings caused by that terrible sickness, the “black death,” which decimated the country (1349), only a few years before this chancel was built.

As you pass along by the south side, your attention will surely be drawn to the initials, date, and diagrams that have been scratched on the wall-stones. The earliest date I have noticed is 1661. The circular diagrams were used as sundials, a moveable gnomon being inserted in the hole in the centre of the dial.

But older and more interesting than dates or diagrams, are to be seen a number of curious, vertical grooves that have given rise to much comment. We notice them at East Leake and Costock, and they are to be found at Lambley, and, in fact, on the south wall of the churches that were built before the introduction of gunpowder, in all parts of the country, and especially where the stone is of a fine smooth grain. Some say they are caused by the school children sharpening their slate pencils, but they are generally too high up for that. Others say they were caused by the sexton sharpening his pick, but I am assured that the sexton would never attempt to sharpen a hardened pick on a soft stone, he would go to the village blacksmith to have it “drawn” in the usual way.  Besides, they are only found on the south side. The most popular theory is that they were caused by the sharpening of arrows, a reminder of the days when archery was the first line of attack, and when the youths were required to practice shooting on the south side of the churchyard on Sunday afternoons.

It is no unusual thing to find that when a church was rebuilt in the Decorated period, the only portions of the old church deemed worthy of preservation were the font and main entrance. It was so in this case. On the north side there is a doorway, built in, not for use, but for preservation. Like the font, it belongs to the Norman church of circa 1150. It has triple shafts with cushion caps and moulded bases, and an arch moulding of three orders, containing varieties of the well-known Norman mouldings, the cable, the cone, and the chevron.



A former vicar of Woodborough, the Rev’d Walter E. Buckland, M.A., has written a very complete history of this parish, therefore it will only be necessary on this occasion to direct attention to the chief features of interest in connection with this beautiful church.

The east end claims special attention, on account of it noble proportions and the superiority of the designs and workmanship. It differs from the type generally found in this county, and it is undoubtedly the work of a peripatetic school of craftsmen, who built or enlarged several churches in this district, of which St Andrews, Heckington, Lincolnshire (1320-1380) is the crowning glory. So far as I have been able to trace it, their work in this county commenced with the famous chapter house at Southwell (1285-1300). Newark was the next place to receive attention, where, apparently, they intended to rebuild the whole church, but the upper stages of the tower, the spire, and the south aisle are the only portions that were completed (1313-1350).

Woodborough Church by Mr H. Gill - Transactions of the Thoroton Society 1908, vol. 12

At the same time Hawton (1330) and Sibthorpe appear to have been in hand; also the rood screen in Southwell Minster (1330-1340) and the chancel at Arnold.

Then for a brief period all building operations were suspended on account of the “black death” (1349). The chancels at Woodborough (1356), Car Colston (1360), and Epperstone complete the list, but the latter has been pulled down and entirely destroyed. It is interesting to notice that the Easter sepulchre is to be found in nearly all the chancels built by this school of craftsmen before the “black death,” and not in any that were built after that terrible visitation. This seems to indicate that the school was decimated, but not entirely disbanded.

Woodborough was one of the Prebendal churches in the Peculiar of Southwell, and we should therefore expect to find that the builder of the chancel was an ecclesiastic; but it was not so. It is general knowledge that the prebendaries were pluralists—lazy and indifferent—caring as little for the church buildings as they did for the people who were committed to their charge, so that when the manor of Woodborough came to young Richard de Strelley by his great-uncle, Paganus de Villers, the little Norman church was perhaps found to be in such a neglected condition, that it became necessary for him to rebuild it.

We were told when visiting Strelley, two years ago, that Sampson de Strelley, the father of Richard, rebuilt the church at Strelley in 1356, and it is not at all unlikely that father and son were engaged in the work of church restoration in their respective parishes at the same time, for we know from documents that Richard de Strelley came into possession of the manor of Woodborough in 1336, and he held it until 1358, when he was succeeded by his youngest son Thomas.

But even supposing that no documentary evidence was forthcoming, the fragments of heraldry that still remain would justify us in attributing the work to the Strelleys, and the style of the architecture determines the date of the rebuilding to the middle period of the 14th century.

In confirmation of this statement, look at the design of the chancel windows; see how naturally and gracefully the tracery is made to spring from the mullions without any break in the sweep of the lines. This indicates the Curvilinear or flowing period of the Decorated style (1315-1360), so called to distinguish it from the earlier or Geometrical period. The design of the great east window of five lights, although somewhat weak in places, is nevertheless a fine specimen of the style; whilst the three-light windows at the sides are perfect examples of “tangent circle” or “reticulated” tracery.

Left: The West tower circa 1900.

While I have much sympathy with the rector who recently protested against “the abominable tablets plastered like blisters and blackheads over the walls of the churches,” I would nevertheless like to draw your attention to a mural tablet on the north side, both with regard to the beauty of the script and the appropriateness of the quotation shown right :—

It is worthy of note that this tablet was put up in 1770—a time of terrible apathy and exclusiveness—not by a priest, but a laymen William Edge, the church warden, whose agitation resulted in the settlement of the first resident vicar in Woodborough.

St Swithun’s east window circa 1910

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