POTTON : CHURCH OF ST MARY THE VIRGIN
Church Post Code SG19 2RP
Open to visitors
Visited June 2023
It was a fine Summer Saturday in 2023, and a visit to the church of St Mary the Virgin at Potton, Bedfordshire. This was my first visit to the church here but; in those sepia tinted days of long ago; before I photographed my first church and life veered off in an unexpected direction, I regularly watched football matches here. Fond memories of the Hollow, home of Potton United FC, as they did battle with Stamford AFC in the United Counties League.
This page is going to be a little different than most on the site. I will only take a brief look at the church itself, with just very limited photographs of the church to provide a setting so to speak. I aim to concentrate instead on parts of what is probably the most interesting church grounds that I have ever visited, with finely carved gravestones of the very highest quality.
The church here sits on high ground at the far east of what is a very pleasant Bedfordshire town, which had a population of just over 5,200 at the time of the 2021 census. The church has origins dating back to the 13th century, with rebuilding and extending taking place until the early 16th century. The church was restored in the late 1880’s. The structure that we see today consists of west tower, nave with north and south aisles and clerestories, north porch, north transept, south chapel and chancel.
The visitor enters from the west, making their way towards the substantial heavily buttressed tower. The tower, clerestory and chancel are all battlemented. This is a large church; a church of pleasing proportions, reflecting the wealth of the area at the time of the building.
The church was open to visitors and there was a friendly welcome from a local just leaving as we were going in. It was bright and welcoming inside; the nave is long, with five bays to north and south, with chancel separated from nave with rood screen.
The east window has the Last Supper in stained glass, with Jesus breaking the bread in front of the 11 remaining disciples, Judas having already left to betray him. Other glass includes two scenes of Jesus with Mary and Martha; with the serene expression on Mary’s face, as she sits at Jesus’ feet, taking in his word, is beautifully done. I was also taken with an intimate meeting between Jesus and Mary Magdalene on Easter morning.
There is some fascinating graffiti to be found here, covering around 600 years or so. The ancient is in the form of interlocking daisy wheels. Of uncertain age are two cartoon like drawings of men, with one wearing a cowboy hat and another having a long nose. A fascinating glimpse of more recent history can be seen carved in to piers in the north aisle ‘1941 At War’, ‘1942 At War With Germany’ and ‘1949 No War’. Finally Donna and Darren signed in pencil in February 1984.
On to the church grounds; which surprised me greatly! To the east of the chancel, stretching outwards towards the south are some of the finest late 17th to mid 18th century gravestones that I have come across. No fewer than 170 of these stones are in a group which has a Grade II Listing.
Some stand proud and upright, whilst others are sunk deep in to the ground. All are covered with various colours of lichen. The script on some is still clear, others are illegible, but the carved symbols on the stones are still in superb condition for the most part. Not all are in situ, with a line of gravestones immediately to the east of the chancel forming a boundary line.
A large number of the gravestones here feature the deaths head, a carving of the human skull which is a memento mori symbol; remember death! The deaths head is one of a series of images symbolising the mortality of Man, with others including the hour glass (sometimes winged) and the gravedigger’s tools of pick and shovel. All designed to show to and remind the onlooker that Man is mortal and will die; you will go the way of the deceased. This message was put through in symbol form as most would not be able to read.
The message itself was there to emphasise that life is fragile. Mortality rate was high and life expectancy was low. The message is to remind people to live a good Christian life, trust in God and not to be caught short when your own time comes. And in days where an illness that could be treated easily today could kill you, it might be later than you think!
So, the message is be prepared and this is the message of some of Jesus’ parables such as the parable of the wise and foolish virgins/brides. The brides were waiting for the arrival of the groom (Jesus). Some had oil for their lamps, others had no oil. Those without oil were found unprepared when the groom arrived!
Many of the stones here are carved in relief; meaning that the mason takes a block of stone and chisels around the desired shape, so that when it is completed, the shape stands out from the rest of the stone. Those who are familiar with my sites will probably know of my love of old gravestones and the ‘Belvoir Angel’ gravestones from the Nottinghamshire/Leicestershire border area, which were carved in slate from the late 17th to mid 18th centuries are fine examples of carving in relief.
Okay, to take a look at what we have here; we start with the basic skull, the deaths head. A stone to Alexander Atkinson has the simple deaths head, beautifully carved, with elaborate scroll work down both sides. He died in 1699, aged 80 years; an impressive age for those times. The script here is clear and readable still and a gut reaction on reading his details was that he would have been a young man when the English Civil War was being fought. Perhaps he took part. He would have been in his 50’s when the Bubonic Plague swept through the country. He lived in interesting times as the old Chinese curse says.
A stone dated 1703, to one Eliz Cremer has a variations added to the skull, which has wings symbolising the flight of the soul towards Heaven. This skull is flanked by crossed human bones and the gravedigger’s tools. All of these are symbols of the mortality of Man but the crossed bones could have a further meaning. In the past it was believed that for the body to be resurrected on the final day the larger bones needed to be preserved, which is why they are to be found in an ossuary along with the skull; being treated with great reverence. Possibly here then we have a statement as to the faith of the deceased, that they will be resurrected on the final day.
Close by we have an hour glass instead of the crossed bones. The hourglass is another symbol of mortality; the sands of time have run out for the deceased! Sometimes, but not in this case, the hourglass has wings ‘Tempus Fugit’ time flies!
A stone to one William Chambers, which dates from the mid 18th century, has a lichen encrusted angel central, flanked by two skulls. Curtains are drawn apart revealing the details of the deceased.
There are several combinations. Sometimes the skull is facing directly at the onlooker, sometimes it is in profile. Sometimes there are angels flanking the skull; sometimes not. Sometimes there are other symbols included with the skull, sometimes not. Always though the message is the same; be prepared! As it says on a gravestone at Granby Nottinghamshire, ‘You readers both old and young your time on earth will not be long for death will come and die you must and like to me return to dust'
There was an ancient poem called the Three Living and the Three Dead. Here, three people of nobility go out walking one day and meet three skeletons. They dead pass on a message to the living; that despite their high rank and finery, they will go the same way as the deceased. They say ‘"Such as I was you are, and such as I am you will be’. This is what these gravestones said to the people looking on at the time that they were carved; the message is still the same now.
There are symbols associated with the skull that are often found but that I didn’t see here; although I am sure that I missed some of what was to be seen here. Sometimes the skull will wear a crown; the crown symbolising victory. We sometimes see the skull wearing a laurel wreath. This again symbolises victory with the victory being over death. A testament as to the faith of the deceased!
As time progressed, the stones that we see here become more sophisticated in their style, with the carving more delicate. It appears as if the skull itself as a symbol was not used quite so much, as if the fashions of the day had changed.
An example of this can be seen when an angel holds open the lid of an urn, exposing human bones within, including a skull, but the skull is no longer the central symbol. In its other hand, the angel holds a trumpet, which was an often used symbol of the resurrection.
In another stone, this one badly weathered, we can see an angel in flight blowing the trumpet and carrying a Palm leaf in the other. The Palm leaf is a symbol of victory and these two symbols together again can be seen as a testament as to the faith of the deceased. The victory has been won, with the victory here being over death; being deemed righteous at the resurrection.
And talking of changes in fashion we see several examples of putti, plural putto, being included on gravestones. A putti is a figure from art, usually depicted as a chubby male child, naked or scantily dressed and sometimes depicted with wings.
All of the examples here are on a similar template. There are two putto on a plinth, in an attitude of mourning. There is a curtain partially draped over each figure and they appear to be crying; drying their eyes with the curtain. In their other hand they each hold aloft a touch which is lit.
Torches are interesting in gravestone symbolism. When we see a lit torch held aloft is symbolises immortality and everlasting life. When the torch is not lit or held downwards it represents death, a life extinguished. Therefore, we read this gravestone as follows; the deceased is mourned but there is the knowledge that they will have moved on to eternal life. Again, this can be seen as a testament as to the faith of the deceased.
I am grateful to the Potton History Society for their help with putting this together. An e mail from them mentioned that Potton had a thriving market and numerous well off merchants and traders who could afford a quality memorial.
It is worth noting that the majority of people during the 17th and 18th centuries were poor enough that they had no money for a memorial. What we see here is a legacy of the very highest quality for the affluent of their day. Nothing is known about the stonemasons who carved these stones. It is probably logical to assume that they were based in the town as visiting the neighbouring villages the only gravestones showing the hand of the same stonemasons was at nearby Wrestlingworth, where there were a few in the church grounds. This church was an absolute joy to visit. This is why I do what I do!