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The History Of Saint Nicholas' Church Denston


Few significant alterations have been made to the church since the seventeenth century and it therefore presents a picture, as few others do, of a mediaeval church, with its benches for the parishioners and stalls for the chantry priests. The line stone arcading, original roofs and clerestory culminate in a five-lighted, transomed cast window, filled with many fragments of mediaeval glass. The furnishing of the chancel illustrates the layout of a church designed for the use of chantry priests. The lower part of the screen is in position and extends with its thirty-six panels right across the church: the marks of the hewing down of the upper portion can be seen. At each end are indications that there may have been screen altars, which would probably have been connected with the guilds known to have existed in the parish.

From the position of the door of the rood-loft stairs at the second bay from the east and the position of the screen at the third bay, it appears as though a wooden gallery along the north wall gave access to the rood-loft. The detached rood-bean is in position and was probably spared because of its height or because it was felt to be an integral part of the construction of the church. It has three mortices on the upper side, in which were fixed the figures of Our Lord, the Blessed Virgin and St. John. The beam is battlemented in conformity with decoration in other parts of the church.

The stalls have traceried and panelled fronts with dwarf seats for the use of the singing boys, and perforated traceried risers, and are returned at the west against the screen, with elbow stalls and four carved misericords. Three of the misericords are carved with foliage and the fourth, which is the nearest to the centre aisle on the north side, with a crane holding a stone in its claw, illustrating the legend that when a flock of cranes was resting at night, one would stand sentinel with a stone in its claw and if it fell asleep the dropping of the stone would wake it.

Originally there were no altar rails, for before the Reformation the general laity did not enter the chancel; and the present rails are of the seventeenth century, probably installed in accordance with an order of Archbishop Laud's that rails should be placed before the Holy Table and should be sufficiently close together to prevent dogs from entering the sanctuary-an indication of the state to which had been reduced by the early part of the seventeenth century. The pulpit and the Holy Table are of the same date, but there are indications that the base of the pulpit is earlier than the main part of it. The gates of the chapel in the south aisle are of the "Gothick" era at the end of the eighteenth century and an example of that age's delight in the bogus antique, being wood carved to simulate iron work. They were probably placed in position when the chapel was used as a private burying ground for members of the Robinson family.

The benches in the nave were for the use of the parishioners and the skirting round them kept in position by the rushes which householders used to provide for kneeling on. These benches have carved animals on the ends and arm rests, which illustrate the use of symbolism and of manuscript illustrations as well as naturalistic sources by the mediaeval carver. Many of these so-called grotesque carvings had very much more significance for the fifteenth century parishioner than they do for his modern successor, to whom the iconographic conventions of the cartoon may be familial but who has for the most part forgotten the deep meaning of much that now appears trivial or familiar. Two complete benches brave carvings which are modern copies, showing how little is understood nowadays of what was intended, the same applying to the five replacements of the eight original stall terminals. Of the sixty carvings remaining in the nave, ten are either completely cut away or so mutilated as to be unidentifiable but the other can nearly all be identified either with familiar creatures of the countryside, or with the animals, both mythical and real, of the mediaeval Bestiary. This, one of the most fruitful sources for the carver, was a compilation of folklore, natural history and moralising, and was a "best seller", copied and recopied by monastic scribes and illustrated by monastic artists, again and again, from the time in the sixth century when the "Physiologus" wrote, probably in Egypt, and in Greek, a book about beasts. Among the animals which can be recognised are the basilisk, with its cock's head and wings and serpent's tail; a stag, the image of a good Christian, differentiated from the yale by the serrations on its horns; and a unicorn, symbolising the lncarnation. (The full development of the symbolising of the "Holy Hunt" can he seen in late fifteenth century glass in King's College Chapel.) Among the more familiar animals is a fox with a goose across its back. There is a long section on elephants in the Bestiary and with castles on their backs they appear in other churches: but the Denston elephant has only its strangely elongated nose to indicate what the carver was attempting to represent. One of the three remaining stall terminals has on it a griffin with its animal body and eagle's head and wings.

On the roof cornices are carved animals, with gaps at the east and over the rood-beam where there would have been a painted "canopy of honour". The roofs are original and must have been painted and gilded as were almost certainly the panels of the screen. A record of a vestry meeting in 1842 (noted in one of the parish registers) states that "it is agreed to have the church pews painted and grained and the rest part oiled and varnished." This would account for the present appearance of stalls, screens and pews. The shields, at present in position on the cornices of the roof, which bear the arms of the Robinson family, are superimposed on larger shields, which may perhaps have borne the arms of the families concerned in the rebuilding of the church - Denstons, Howards and Broughtons - or possibly such devices as the Emblems of the Passion. The Robinson family came into possession of !he manor of Denston in 1617, so their shields cannot be earlier than this date.

Last Modified Thursday 05 May 2011