BREEDON ON THE HILL : CHURCH OF ST MARY & ST HARDULPH
Church Post Code DE73 8AP
Open to visitors
Visited April 2022
According to Google Maps it was a 63 mile journey to North West Leicestershire to visit the church of St Mary and St Hardulph, a church that I had wanted to visit for a while. This is an area of great historic interest with occupation here during the Bronze Age, Iron Age and Roman period, with an Anglo Saxon Monastery here from 675AD. Again, according to Google Maps, I should be able to cycle this in 5 hours and 36 minutes. Well that is never going to happen fortunately; but if I was able to cycle it, I would not appreciate the final approach, with the church here sitting on the top of a 55 metre high limestone knoll!
We made two visits here, with the first being on a bright and sunny Sunday afternoon in August 2020, with the church being closed that afternoon due to covid restrictions. The first sight of this lovely church on top of the knoll as we headed in from the west was one that will remain with me for years. What a statement piece standing proud and visible for miles.
We returned in the early spring of 2022, when restrictions had ended and the church was open to visitors. I am using exterior photographs from the first visit alongside the interior shots as the light quality was better on that first visit.
There is a huge amount of history here, with an Anglo Saxon monastery being founded here in 675AD; an important monastery which was mentioned in the Anglo Saxon Chronicles and where it is reputed that the remains of four saints were buried. This fell in to decline after Viking raids and it was revived in 966.
After the Norman Conquest the monastery passed in to the hands of the Augustinians, in the house of Nostell in Yorkshire and an Augustinian Priory was founded here in 1122. After the Reformation of the 16th century, Francis Shirley of Staunton Harold Hall purchased the priory from Henry VIII as a mausoleum for himself and his family. At that point, the existing parish church was in a state of disrepair and the local villagers petitioned that the purchased building should become their parish church, with the room above the south porch being used as a schoolroom, which was approved.
The church that we see today consists of west tower, nave with north and south aisles and clerestories, south porch, south chapel and chancel. Prior to the dissolution of the monasteries the prior here would have been part of a wider complex of buildings and there is evidence against the west wall of the tower of the previous nave, with the markings of the previous roofline, with much of the lower parts of the west face rebuilt and an elegant semi circular arch retained. There is also a small 12th century door on the north wall of the tower.
The chancel was rebuilt in the 13th century and this, with the 12th century crossing tower is pretty much the church that we see today, with the former south transept reduced in height and now acting as the south porch, with clerestory added during the 15th century. The exterior as a whole looks truncated as a result. The church here was in a state of neglect in the late 18th century, and was heavily restored in 1784 and again in 1900.
The church here is well known for a series of Saxon carvings, some of which were to be found in the parish church that was demolished. These were moved to the south porch during the late 18th century restoration and moved again in 1937, where they joined those that had been inside the church from an unknown date.
Moving inside, we walk in to the rebuilt 13th century priory chancel. There are four bay arcades to north and south, with the easternmost end of the north aisle railed off for the Shirley family mausoleum. Access is still there though for those who wish to look around the tombs. To the west of the mausoleum is the Shirley family private pew which dates to 1627. This is described very eloquently as a ‘monstrous item of privacy seeking furniture’ which illustrates the social distinctions of the day. Luke Chapter 14 verses 7 – 11 came to mind, the Parable of the Seat of Honour which ends “All who make themselves great will be made humble, but those who make themselves humble will be made great.”
There is no chancel arch, the altar is plain and simple, with a frieze running across the east wall containing vine scroll. Looking back to the west, there is a balcony with raised organ chamber under the tower arch.
The east window shows three scenes from the New Testament and three scenes from the Old Testament. The New Testament scenes are Jesus seated when preaching, which was the Jewish custom of the day; the crucifixion and Jesus at prayer in the Garden of Gethsemane on the night of his arrest.
The Old Testament scenes are Moses with the commandments, an angel of the Lord stepping in to prevent Abraham from sacrificing his son Isaac and Moses having his hands help up. This latter one is interesting and I have not seen this depicted in glass before. This comes from Exodus Chapter 17 verses 12 – 13 when the Israelites were in battle against the Amalekites. When Moses held his hands up, the Israelites were winning; when he grew tired and his hands were lowered the Amalekites were winning. Aaron and Hur held Moses’ hands up until night whilst Joshua defeated the Amalekites with the sword.
The other glass is a depiction of the ascension, in vibrant colours. The risen Christ has hands raised in blessing, wounds visible; flanked by angels with brightly coloured wings. Central amongst those worshipers below is Mary the Mother of Jesus, who is shown with blue cloak and golden starred nimbus.
As mentioned earlier, the church here was bought by Francis Shirley after the reformation for use as a family mausoleum. The north aisle contains three fine monuments to the Shirley family, each of which was carved by father and son team Richard and Gabriel Riyley of Burton Upon Trent.
The first monument, by date erected, is to Francis Shirley and his wife Dorothea. Both husband and wife died within three months of each other in 1571. They lay side by side, hands raised in prayer with each holding a prayer book. There are several mourners around the bottom of this monument, some of whom hold heraldic shields. One of the female figures is at prayer and one holds a gauntlet; possibly this symbolic of mourning for a deceased husband? All of the female figures have incredibly small waists.
A chest tomb to John Shirley and wife Jane dates to 1585, although John himself died in 1570. He also lays recumbent, hands raised in prayer and holding a prayer book, with his wife not depicted. This monument was made at a cost of £22!
A magnificent monument to Sir George Shirley stands almost floor to ceiling, and is dated 1598, but he himself died in 1622. His wife Frances Berkeley died in 1598, sadly in childbirth at the age of 29 years. They had five children, four sons and a daughter, with two of the sons dying in infancy. All of the family members are depicted here, but in an unusual configuration. Husband and wife are under separate arches; George is closer to the east, depicted with his two surviving sons. He is dressed in armour and kneeling on a cushion. He and one son face the east, with hands raised in prayer. Curiously one son is also at prayer but facing south.
Under a separate arch is Frances, with her daughter and the two sons who died in infancy, who are shown in their cradles.
Below is a cadaver, a skeleton reminding the onlooker that Man is mortal and will die; even someone with the means of the Shirley family! With a family of considerable means suffering a death in childbirth and two infant deaths it really does not bare thinking about how tough it would have been for the poor people of the day.
Mention was made earlier of an important collection of Saxon carvings, dating from the 8th to 10th centuries, with mention made already of a vine scroll frieze against the east wall. Perhaps the highlight among these is to be found in the ringing chamber; a representation of an angel, possibly the earliest such in England. It is dressed in long robes, with two flowers growing from the base. The angel holds a cross headed staff in one hand with the other raised in blessing.
Some of the carvings are complete, such as a row of disciples, each with nimbus; some are fragments with a depiction of a pot with one human leg! A small mythical beast peers out alongside a row of exotic birds. Two human figures, one bearded, are intertwined with foliage. A human figure under its own arch holds a book and gives a blessing with oversized hands. A kneeling warrior defends himself with a sword.
A fascinating collection; with work of the highest quality, as befits a religious building of this importance! Looking at them I was reminded, albeit on a smaller scale, of the Saxon carvings at the church of St Margaret at Fletton near to Peterborough which were once located in Peterborough cathedral before it burned down.
The church grounds here are large, with the vast majority of the gravestones being slate, which has weathered well over the centuries. Several of the stones have carvings of angels on them; an often used symbol for the safe escorting of the soul towards Heaven.
One gravestone has three angels, two of which have trumpets which was a symbol of the resurrection. There is script below which is part of I Corinthians Chapter 15 verse 52 ‘For the trumpet shall sound and the dead shall be raised’.
Several of the stones here have depictions of a human skull; a memento mori symbol designed to remind the onlooker that Man is mortal and will die. Therefore, live a good Christian life, trust in God and do not be caught lacking when your own time comes. And in times of low life expectancy it could be later than you think. Close by, the same message is put across in script rather than symbols ‘Reader prepare to meet thy God’.
Some of the stones here have elaborate carving on them. On one we have an ouroboros, a serpent with its tail in its mouth, which is wrapped around an hourglass; tempus fugit time flies. On the opposite side is a scythe, a symbol of mortality, along with the script ‘Blessed are all they that fear ye Lord and walk in His ways’, which comes from Psalm 128.
It is really rewarding to spend a little time looking at the well preserved inscriptions. One fascinating one is to a stonemason; which reads ‘I have engraven for many a one, on stones that stand around, and now my time has come, to sleep beneath the ground’.
It was quiet and peaceful in the ground, with just a few walkers off in the distance and a solitary airliner, high enough to be seen but not heard heading over from East Midlands Airport, reflecting the sun as it passed over. It was extremely pleasant, but I don’t think that I would like to be up here in the middle of winter with the wind gusting!
What a beautiful church in the most interesting of settings. Full of historic interest and an absolute must visit of you are anywhere in the area. In a list of my favourite churches visited, this would be included and would be well up the list to be fair!