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Architecture

OUTSIDE CHURCH

This site has, for many centuries had significance, both Christian and pre-Christian. Set in the churchyard wall, at the foot of the steps, is a shela-ma-gig, a female fertility symbol. It possibly dates back to the 7th or 8th Century, although church builders in the 11th and 12th Centuries sometimes included these figures inside the church. This particular carving was found in a garden and it was thought to be a representation of the Virgin Mary, so it was placed in the churchyard wall. Little did the finders know of its pagan significance.

The Domesday Book entry for Cleobury speaks of a resident priest, so there was almost certainly a church, probably a simple, single cell. The tower was added in the 12th century (Parker sets the date as 1160, from its style). In the west wall of the tower there is a filled-in doorway, which was probably the normal way into the church until the porch and south door were added.. The doorway is easily missed nowadays, as the base of the wall has been built up with ashlars (square-cut stones) which conceal the lower shape of the door.

At the end of the 18th Century the south wall was leaning outwards, and in danger of collapse. In 1794, Thomas Telford, the famous road and bridge builder, who was County Surveyor in Shropshire, was building what is still called the New Bridge, on the Eastern side of the town. He was called to give his advice. First, he inserted iron rods from the nave and through the south wall. These rods had a thread on the outer end and round plates were added as nuts. The bars were then made very hot so that they expanded, and the plates were screwed up tight to the wall. When the rods cooled and contracted, the outer wall was thus pulled upright. Telford then had red brick buttresses built to support the wall. These buttresses were later rebuilt in stone at the time of the great restoration.

This church is probably best known for its crooked spire. It was a 13th Century addition to the tower, and was just placed on top without being tied into the structure at all. There were no flashings, and so the wet got in, especially on the side of the prevailing wind. The local stone, of which the church is built, is a soft stone, and so it crumbled in the wet, and the base of the timbers rotted, giving the spire its lean. The twist is due to unseasoned beams twisting as they dried out. The spire was re-shingled in 1993 and it was then firmly tied into the tower without getting rid of the famous twist and lean. In 1994 the Church was given the John Betjeman award for outstanding restoration work. About this time St Mary’s joined the European twisted spire association (Association des Clochers Tours de Europe). The notice of the award is inside on the north wall of the Church.

It is a matter of interest that Mullers, the Swiss engineering firm, after they were bombed out of London, were looking for a Midlands site. They came to Cleobury and saw the twisted spire, which reminded them of their home church in Switzerland, and so they looked for a site in this town.

The 14th century porch is large, with seats along its walls. In the 19th Century there was very little religious toleration, and, although the churchyard was the burial place for everyone, non-conformists were rarely allowed to use the church. In the next parish there is an entry in the burial register, ‘Service taken by the Methodist minister in the porch, NOT in the church’ and in our register someone is spoken of as ‘perverted to popery’. Many Roman Catholics were buried at Mawley Hall, which was the home of the Blounts, an ancient family which still retains its Catholic allegiance.

On the wall on the left there is a board commemorating the fact that William Langland, c.1330-86, was born locally. He was probably the illegitimate son of a local landlord named de Rockle (sp?) He served a novitiate at the Woodhouse Priory, Hopton Wafers, then went to Malvern Priory. He took minor orders, but never became a priest. Langland wrote ‘The Vision of Piers Plowman’, a poem containing much philosophy on the social conditions of his time. Both Malvern and Ledbury claim to be his birthplace, but we believe the evidence is strongest in support of Cleobury district.

To the right of the main door there is a holy water stoup, placed there originally so that parishioners could use the holy water to make the sign of the cross as they entered church. In Puritan times the stoup was removed, and it was found centuries later in a garden in the town, and it was restored to its proper place.

CHURCH INTERIOR

Just inside the door, on the right, there is a solid wooden screen, carved with the date of the restoration. Presumably it was put there to cut down the draughts from the door, though perhaps not so effective as intended. It was possibly taken from one of the box pews, removed at the restoration, and carved with the date of the completion of the restoration.

To the left there is the font, which dates from 1857. Behind the font, on the South wall there is a memorial tablet to William Brown, Headmaster of the Lacon Childe School , who died in 1773. He was the author of a geometry text book that was still in use in schools in the early 1900s. One does not often see memorials in praise of schoolmasters! The west window is the only window in the south aisle that retains its early English form. All the others were altered in the Restoration by Sir Gilbert Scott between 1874 and 1875. The window is in memory of Captain William Henry Trow, a solicitor and churchwarden, who led the local Territorial detachment to the Boer War. He was the only casualty, dying of enteric fever.

The Norman archway into the Tower began to spread, due to the weight of the tower, and a pointed arch was put in to help bear the weight. This was removed by Gilbert Scott, who put in the two outer arches, in Norman form. Above the arch one can still see the line of the earliest nave roof. The ground floor of the Tower is used as a choir vestry, and there are steps leading up to the 5 bells which were re-cast in 1757. The clock was made by George Donisthorpe of Birmingham, about the same time. One cannot enter the bell chamber without prior permission.

To return to the Nave, on either side of the arch there are stone benches. These would originally have continued all round the nave, the only form of seating. People generally stood throughout the services – hence the phrase, ‘the weakest go to the wall’.

The Chancel arch, the pillars and the south aisle all date from the 13th century, the pillars of the south aisle being slightly earlier than those of the north aisle. They are particularly fine examples of the early English style, which is quite rare in Shropshire.

The north wall was slightly earlier than either set of pillars. The north door is never used nowadays, in fact it was never a popular door. The south door was used for general entry and exit and the more notable parishioners were buried on the south side, and their funeral corteges would use the south door. The poorer people were buried to the north, and that door would be used. Because of this it came to be regarded as an unlucky door, The John Piper print of the John Betjeman award is mounted just to the right of the north door.

Before Gilbert Scott’s restoration, the church was in rather a sorry state. There were box pews of various designs, using poor deal timber; there was a three-decker pulpit, and galleries round three sides of the nave. The organ was in the gallery as were the children of the Lacon Childe School. There had been a plaster ceiling put in, hiding the very fine timber roof. The walls were mainly covered with decaying medieval plaster, painted with 16th Century biblical texts. There was a fresco of the Crucifixion over the chancel arch. This collapsed when the plaster roof was removed.

Gilbert Scott is regarded by some people as a vandal, destroying all that was old, but it could be said that he produced churches that were decently in order.

THE CHANCEL

The Chancel is of the same date as the Nave, and it is entered by a very fine early English arch. The mouldings exhibit the usual characteristics of alternating round and hollow, with a few fillets introduced. There are five columns on every side, the centre ones being filleted and the others being banded. The bases are similar to those of the south arcade.

It was said above that most of the church was plastered: the Chancel certainly was. You can tell this by looking at memorial tablets which pre-date the restoration. These can be seen to be mounted on a bed of plaster.

In the early 19th Century a vestry was added on the North side. It now houses the organ. On what was formerly the outside north wall there is a hagioscope.

The Hagioscope is often called a leper's squint, put so that lepers could see the priest at the altar.. This seems unlikely, as there probably would not be sufficient lepers to warrant knocking a hole in the wall for them. There is a more reasonable explanation. In medieval times the market would be held in the churchyard, even on Sundays. One was fined if he did not attend Mass. However, it counted as an attendance if one saw the Elevation of the Host, that is, when the priest raised the consecrated bread above his head, so that all could see. A bell was rung to mark this particularly holy moment. The market traders would hear the bell and rush to the squint, see the Elevation, and, thereby, technically attend Mass.

Today, one would not see the priest properly because he would be standing at too high a level. The altar was raised to its present position at the restoration. One can tell that the altar has been raised by looking at the piscine on the right of the altar. If the priest were to use it now, he would have to get down on hands and knees!

On the north wall, just above the hagioscope, there is a bronze representation of the Last Supper. This was made in Abraham Darby’s factory in Coalbrookdale, and cost thirty shillings, 1.50 in modern money.

St Nicholas Chapel

St. Nicholas Chapel was built by the wicked Roger Mortimer, who murdered Edward II. He was hanged in 1330 and his infant son is buried in front of the High Altar.

The altar table in St. Nicholas Chapel is interesting. In 1552, in the reign of Edward VI all stone altars had to be destroyed and a decent wooden table provided. This table has legs made from the rood screen across the chancel arch, which was demolished at the same time.

Queen Mary, Edward's sister, was Roman Catholic, and all altars had to have 5 consecration crosses (representing the wounds in the hands, feet and side of Christ). These were cut into the four corners and the centre front.

The Puritans, who followed, thought consecration crosses Popish, and these were filled in. We know of no other similar altar table.

The east window was given by Reverend Edward Childe, the Vicar, to celebrate the end of the restoration. It is based on 'The Vision of Piers Ploughman'.

The parish chest in the South aisle has 3 locks one for each churchwarden and the vicar. They all had to be present to open the chest! Information about the church and windows is available at the church. Friends of St. Mary's keep an eye on the needs of the Church and Membership Forms are available.

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