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A walkabout around St. Mary's Church

Updated: Sep 21, 2020

September is the month of St. Mary's church "patronal" festival, the festival to mark the saint's day of its patron, the mother of Jesus. So we take a brief look at the church's origins and a stroll around some of its fascinating architectural features.

And after spending a little time with us, catch up with what’s going on at the festival at www.denhamparish.church/festival/.

Origins


Castles, cathedrals and parish churches of England are amongst the most impressive visible legacies of ancient ages. Almost all of them date from the period after 1066, but occasionally, a parish church, such as The Church of St Mary the Virgin here in Denham, is even older. Let’s take a look at it from the outside, along with a bit of necessary and interesting history.


The Anglo-Saxon period in Britain spans approximately the six centuries from the time of the collapse of the western Roman Empire around 410 CE up to the Norman Conquest in 1066 CE. Within that time, the Angles and Saxons founded their seven kingdoms fighting to gain or defend the Romans, Vikings and other inhabitants already here. According to historical documents, the Saxon land known first as Deneham or Daneham in Buckinghamshire was part of the extensive kingdom of Mercia.


The western Roman Empire was largely Christianised during and after the reign of the Emperor Constantine in the fourth century, but paganism regained a hold after the collapse of the western empire until the Anglo-Saxon inhabitants made efforts to establish Christianity in Southern Mercia in 653 CE.


The inhabitants who first settled in this area and founded the original parish did so by establishing a small primitive fortified camp, first dwelling in what we now know as the churchyard. A proper burial site was essential even for the few people here who were most likely illiterate peasants. Sometime later, an early building was built of stone or wood and possibly even thatched to serve as a church. Sometime between 1000 and 1100 historical records indicate that this early church was dedicated to “Virgin Mary.” As the Mother of God, Catholics hold Mary in a special place among Catholic saints.


In those very early days, the church was used for many secular meetings as well as worship. At one time it was used for storing wool and other products, and even weapons. There were no seats in the interior of the church for the families in the parish.


The Norman Church


William the Conqueror (King William I) imposed a total reorganisation of the Anglo-Saxon church in England after the conquest of 1066. He had secured the Pope’s blessing for his invasion by promising to reform the ‘irregularities’ of the Anglo-Saxon Church, which had developed its own distinctive customs. Throughout his 20-year reign, William I redistributed the conquered land and replaced 2,000 Saxon landowners with 200 of his own Norman French-speaking Barons. The Archbishop of Canterbury and other senior clergy became French speakers from Norman churches. William I defined the role of the clergy and religion and set up a clear hierarchy of military power and authority.


To assure his dominance of England, William I eventually built a string of 80 castles including the Tower of London and Windsor Castle as well as many churches in strategic areas across the country. In fact, the only part of the early parish church in Denham now left is the Norman tower. The Roman Catholic Church was a pervasive force in people’s lives - until the 16th century the only church in western Europe - reaching its zenith in England in the Middle Ages.


By 1085, William I had implemented the Feudal System in which the King owns everything: land, animals and buildings. It is a system which still has echoes today for example in the word "freehold" as applied to land meaning that land is "held" by its owner free of any obligations to the Crown. To account for the King’s lands, mills, fisheries, livestock, and buildings, William the Conqueror ordered a country-wide survey to assess the wealth and assets of his subjects. The account was used to determine the taxes necessary to pay for the King's continuing battles and other expenses of his kingdom.


The whole survey took less than a year for monks to complete and an entry in the Domesday Book (so named because its great detail reminded people of the biblical last judgement and "doomsday") confirms that Denham had been assessed for taxes before 1066 and that the Abbot of Westminster was the responsible owner at that time. By the completion of the Domesday Book in 1086, Denham was of modest size with 15 villagers and three families with small farms.


Later more historical confirmation relating to the church in Denham is included in the 1154 Register of Charters of the Church of St Peter of Westminster, now known as Westminster Abbey.


Architecture


Traditionally, Roman churches were built in the shape of a cross (cruciform) and that is true of St Mary’s as well although renovations and additions have made the shape a modified cruciform. Let’s begin our walking tour to find out more.


The west tower is the dominant feature of St Mary’s with the top of the second stage ending with an embattled parapet. On defensive buildings this distinctive feature allows the launch of arrows or other projectiles for the defence of the property and parish, but on churches, and indeed on many secular medieval buildings, it is essentially decorative rather than functional.



Clearly visible amidst the parapets is the weathervane topped by a cockerel. Tradition has it that in the 9th century, Pope Nicholas made the rooster an official symbol of the Catholic church. His decree was that all churches must display the rooster on their steeples or domes as a symbol of Peter's betrayal of Jesus. As centuries went by, the rule about placing roosters atop churches went by the wayside, but roosters stayed on weathervanes. On special occasions, the flag of St George, a red cross on a white field is also displayed from the top of the tower.


Just below the parapet are the rounded arched windows of the bell tower. There is a ring of eight bells. (More about the history of the bells and bell-ringers in another article.) The peal of the bells still announces the Sunday service and marks special occasions as well.


Also high on the bell tower are round anchor plates and around the corners are S-Iron plates. These are part of the tie-rod and plate assembly to brace the masonry walls against lateral bowing. The distinctive octagonal clock face is original (1740) but repainted and replaced in 1993 with a clock that chimes the hours. The original clock mechanism was the gift from Hester Probert, daughter of Sir Roger Hill, for whom Denham Place was built in the late 17th century.


Three panels of an arched window dominate the west wall of the tower and fit easily in the centre just above the west entrance into the church. The westerly entrance allows the altar to be at the east end, closer to Jerusalem. Both the south aisle and the north aisle also have arched 13th century lancet windows. Lancet windows were especially popular in England for Gothic cathedrals and other religious structures. And with their height, lancet (lance-like) windows reinforce the sensation of the structure pointing skyward. Lancet windows are on all sides of St Mary’s: the west end of the tower, the chancel area on the east end, and the south and north aisles.


A growing community and a growing church

Between 1430 and 1450, the central part of the church building (nave) intended to accommodate most of the congregation, was added to the church. Above the nave can be seen four pairs of light-admitting clerestory windows, two on each side. Later in the 15th century, two aisles were added, one to either side of the west tower.


Throughout the church's early years as a Roman Catholic church, papal influence from Rome mandated attendance at Sunday Mass with often severe penalties for non-attenders. Things of course changed during the English Reformation of the 16th century, the establishment of the Church of England under the direction of the English Crown and the growth of Protestantism. By the late 17th and early 18th centuries, between 1675 and 1713, the village had grown to a parish of about two miles in length and three in width. At that time, there were 97 families and 500 souls, with three families of Presbyterians in the parish.


The Denham community continued to grow and from the census of 1801 there were 164 families in the parish and 796 inhabitants. And within a few years, several donors enhanced St Mary’s lancet windows with stained glass of Biblical scenes. Most were added from 1847 through 1894, with the last one completed in 1953. All give pleasure to the congregations then and now, and fulfilment to the donors who provided them. Unless the lights are on in the church, the colours are not visible from the outside; however, the window outlines are clearly visible as are areas where windows have been blocked up.


Materials


Since 1968, when the vestry was added, the exterior of St Mary’s Church in Denham has remained unchanged. The knapped flint used in the modern vestry is reputedly from Norfolk. Some sections of the church walls and the flint were restored between 1986 and 1989.


Knapped flint is used on the exterior of St Mary’s Church in combination with other masonry materials and sandstone blocks. Flints were abundant along the south and east coasts of England as well as in the Chilterns since the chalk was laid down towards the end of the Cretaceous period many years ago (see footnote*). Flint was used for hand axes*, cutting tools and arrow heads and later in flintlock firearms. Its architectural use dates from around the beginning of the 14th century. Flints were used extensively in the restoration of churches in the 17th and 18th centuries.





Interestingly, flint nodules are hard forms of the mineral quartz and originate in chalk. As a building material, they have limitations because of their irregular shapes and sizes. This is why flint is often replaced by a more manageable stone for the corners of buildings, and for window surrounds as seen on the walls at St Mary’s Church. Sometimes the flint nodules are ‘knapped’ (shaped) into more regular blocks as you can easily see in these photos taken of the church’s exterior.


Certain types of flint contain fossilised marine fauna* such as sea urchins and sponges. Pieces of coral and vegetation have been found preserved inside the flint.* Thin slices of the stone often reveal this effect. Inside each nodule, the flint is usually dark grey, black, green or brown in colour, and it often has a glassy or waxy appearance. A thin layer on the outside of the nodules is usually white with a rough texture.


Welcome


At ground level, there are three opportunities to scrape boot and shoe bottoms clean of mud before entering the church through either the weathered west or south doors. Perhaps quite by chance, St Mary’s still has 13 individual bicycle racks for modern-day bicycle riding guests. Just roll the front tire in and lock on to the “Girlingstone” for the half-hour service. All are welcome at St Mary’s, but due to current COVID-19 restrictions, a place at the service needs to be pre-booked to ensure social distancing.


Our village parish church has stood through the centuries as a beacon of hope and nurture through the repeated life cycles of history; long may it remain.


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*Footnote: Oops ! Through an editing error, we managed to suggest in the first published version of this article that the early stone age occurred millions of years ago. Thanks to the eagle eye of our follower, Gerard Gilbertson, the error has been spotted and it has been corrected.


Thanks also to Gerard for pointing out some technical errors about the properties and use of flint and the formation of fossils. We have made the necessary corrections where marked *.


This is Gerard's interesting commentary:


1. The original version’s “axe heads” should read “hand axes”.  Hand axes were a more or less global phenomenon, starting from about 1.2 million years ago. They represent one of archaeology’s great puzzles: they were produced mainly from flint and were produced and used for a full million years with almost no change at all in design and function - the puzzle is why they were never improved for such a long period of time. Their “lifespan” covered many species of early humans, like homo Heidelbergensis and the later Neanderthals, as well as early modern humans. “Axe heads” were quite different,and came much, much later when humans learned to attach Stone (flint) blades to some sort of handle, arrowheads came even later after the invention of projectile weapons.

2. Sea urchins are fauna (closely related to starfish, crinoids,and sea stars) (not “flora” as in the original). Sponges are a bit problematic, most taxonomists see them as a sister to the rest of the animal kingdom, so also a sort of fauna.

3. Also, the use of “trapped” (as in the original) is a bit strange here, and runs on to the bit about amber (as in the original). With very, very few exceptions, fossils are not “trapped” but are formed when - after death- they are buried by sediments, most commonly in a marine or riverine context, and become fossilized by the total replacement of livin material by minerals of one sort or another, i.e.they are literally turned to stone.  Amber and the remnants of life found in it are quite different:  Creatures and vegetable matter found in amber are indeed “trapped” - by drops or trickles of sticky resin seeping from certain trees. These drops are then fossilized, so the material amber is itself a fossil.  The life forms found within it do not fossilize in the above sense.



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