SAINT JOHN THE BAPTIST CHURCH, BECKFORD
HISTORICAL NOTES ON THE CHURCH AND THE HALL
The Village of Beckford stands on the site of a Romano-British settlement. Excavations at two points above Court Farm disclosed barrow loads of Roman pottery and poorer quality English pottery. No doubt there were Roman homes in the neighbourhood between about A.D. 60 and the middle of the 4th century. Also discovered were coins bearing the superscriptions of the following Emperors:
Vespasian A.D. 67 – 79
Hadrian A.D. 117 – 138
Severus A.D. 146 – 211
Gallienus A.D. 260 – 286
Crolius II A.D. 268 – 270
Maxetius who died in A.D. 312
Constantine I A.D. 306 – 337
Constantine II A.D. 337 – 340
Valens A.D. 364 – 378
With the withdrawal of the Roman Legions in A.D. 409, Beckford succumbed to the Saxon invasion. These Saxons, in course of time, were converted to Christianity and we know that there were monasteries which were virtually mission stations at Beckford, Berkley and Cheltenham. In the Saxon Chronicle of Worcestershire, the church is referred to as Beccanforda.
The religious house and church built in A.D. 750, if not earlier, were doubtless of timber and yielded fruits to Weremund, Bishop of Worcester about that time. Hence we can say that, although the foundation was later than Gloucester Abbey, it was prior to Deerhurst, Cirencester and Winchcombe and long before Tewkesbury.
There is a record of a dispute between the Bishops of Worcester and Hereford concerning the procurations (Payments made by the incumbents to their Bishops) of Beckford. This dispute was settled at the Council of Cloveshoe in A.D. 803 which indicates that there was an established church in Beckford from early Saxon times. This was reinforced in 1911 when the present building was restored and distinct traces of Saxon foundations were discovered.
It is clear therefore that the village has had a church on the same spot for over 1200 years.
Beckford also appears in the Doomsday Book of A.D. 1085, the entry reading:
“In Tetboldstane hundred; Rotlese the Housecarl of King Edward held Beceford”
In the reign of Henry I, the Chamberlain of Normandy, Rabellus, gave the manor of Beckford with Ashton to the Monastery of Saint Barbe-en-Auge (Saint Martin and Saint Barbara) in Normandy, which had been founded as a house of Augustinian Canons in 1128. A Prior, believed to be Robert Fitz-Alan, and one or two Canons were sent over to occupy Beckford, which was called a “Cell”. In 1247 the Abbot and Convent of Corneilles let the Parish Church of Beckford with the chapel at Ashton for a rent of sixty marks, to the Prior and Convent of Saint Barbe-en-Auge. The arrangement was recognised by Walter Cantilupe, Bishop of Worcester in 1248. When the alien priories were seized by Edward I, Edward II and Edward III, the Prior seems to have retained his possessions on payment of a ferm to the Exchequer.
In the reign of Richard II however the custody was granted first to one of the King’s clerks in 1379, for a rent of 100 marks a year, and in 1383, for life, to a knight named Sir John Cheyney. In 1399 when HenryIV restored many of the alien priories which were conventual, Sir John urged that the manor of Beckford was not a conventual Priory and had no spiritualities attached to it, and thus he succeeded in obtaining a confirmation of the grant of Richard II in 1383. Beckford came under the Act of 1414 for the suppression of alien priories, and the church then passed to the care of the secular clergy and was known as the Manor. The fruits of the priory were bestowed by Henry VI on the “Kings College of Our Ladys of Eton,” but King Edward IV transferred the gift to Fotheringay Collegiate Church shortly after the dissolution, and later King Edward VI in 1547 granted the Manor and park to Sir Richard Lee from whose family it was purchased in 1586 by Richard Wakeman.
The Wakeman family held Beckford from 1551 until after the middle of the nineteenth century, a period of 300 years, and up until 1836 it was an important Roman Catholic centre and stronghold, becoming the centre of worship for the Roman Catholic families in the area. After the death of William Wakeman in 1836, Beckford Hall passed out of Roman Catholic hands until 1883 when the Ashton Case family acquired it. In 1936 they sold it to the Salesian Fathers as a house of novitiate for their young students.
THE PARISH CHURCH
The earliest part of the church is the Norman nave with its 12th century highly ornamented south door. The style of its carved decoration suggests the middle of that century and it is believed to have been built around 1130 in the form of a simple parallelogram – i.e. without side isle or transept. The lofty walls still remain intact after nearly 900 years. As originally designed, the nave probably ended in an apsidal chancel, since it could not have stopped with an arch leading nowhere and there is a blocked up window above the arch, which must have formerly let in the light. The nave has a magnificent high-pitched, pointed roof, which contains some wonderful oak timbering. This was revealed once again when the church underwent major restoration in 1911 and the plaster ceilings above the tie beams were removed.
The windows form a comprehensive series of window architecture, and it is interesting to note the sequence extending over three hundred years. On each side of the nave near the West end there is one of the original Norman windows and the remains of others can be seen in the West wall. Near the South doorway there is a two-light window of the Early Decorated period and on the North side is a two-light late Early English window, whilst nearer the front, on the South side, there is an example of Early Perpendicular style. To complete the series, there is a five-light Perpendicular West window.
There is only one old specimen of stained glass and that is a piece in the Norman window on the north side of the nave. It is said to be Dutch of the 17th century, and portrays Christ bearing the Cross. In the North wall there is a window that contain some Spanish glass.
The South doorway is well known to church archaeologists and is part of the glory of this church. It is notable for its rich ornamentation and carved Tympanum that has an allegoric design. This has been explained as the animal creation adoring the Holy Trinity, the Eye representing the Father, the Cross the Son and the Dove the Holy Ghost. On either side is an animal, one of them having five horns or ears, both appearing to be rearing up. What animals they represent is difficult to say but one idea is that they may have been crudely carved to avoid the choice of any particular species of animal. “Oh all ye beasts and cattle, Bless ye the Lord…”
More recently scholars, well versed in Celtic art, have put an alternative explanation forward. According to their theory, the animals are sacred beasts of the Celts known from evidence elsewhere, and the bird is a goose, a sacred bird of those times. These are all paying homage to the new religion represented by the cross.
The porch appears to have been erected in the 15th century. Its stone benches serve to remind us that similar seats lined the three wall of the Nave before the introduction of pews. Most of the worshippers had to stand, but the elderly and the delicate could find seats on the stone benches. This gave rise to the saying “The weakest go to the wall”
The North door was blocked up many generations ago and now forms a recess, which contains the brass memorial commemorating the men of the Parish who fell in two world wars. The outside has a wood-mould of two courses; the outer is plain and the inner of cable-band ornamentation, together with another Tympanum, which, having no porch to protect it is much weatherworn. The carving contains, as the central figure, Our Lord holding a cross in his right hand, the lower end of which presses the head of an animal representing the evil one. The left hand is extended over the figure of a person emerging from a sort of cave. The idea seems to be of Our Lord releasing a prisoner after subduing Satan, sometimes called “The Harrowing of hell” and based on 1 Peter 3 v 18 – 20.
The font is again of the 15th century, octagonal in shape. The panels are decorated with encircled quatre-foils, having centres of four-leaved flowers varying in shape. The pillar has tre-foil headed niches corresponding with the panels above. The pedestal and base show traces of the paint, which formerly adorned them.
Between the Nave and the Tower, the 12th century Norman arch briefly mentioned previously is worthy of a more detailed study. Concave hood moulds can be seen and recessed orders with zigzag or chevron ornamentations and there is also a string course very crudely carved in cable, and zigzagged as though some youthful apprentice had been trying his hand. On the outer column of the North side are two demoniac heads and a Centaur reaching out his hand to grasp a spear. The latter is said by some writers to be part of the badge of King Stephen. Also on the North side, is a blocked up recess which at first suggests a squint and in the angle of the North and East wall can be seen a walled up doorway which gave access to the Rood Loft. The removal of a large section of the column on the South side is said to be a vandalism of the “Three-Decker” period, and was done to make room for the Clerk’s Seat, part of the then popular three-decker pulpit erected probably in the 18th century. During the extensive restoration carried out in 1911 at a cost of £600 the three-decker was removed and replaced by a more modern pulpit that has since been transferred to the North side, leaving room for the choir stalls which were originally under the tower opposite the organ.
Before leaving the Nave it is interesting to note that embedded in the South wall, near the Perpendicular window, is an elegant column with a carved capital of Norman decoration. This has baffled the experts, but could mark the site of an early window.
This is of exceptional interest as it consists of three sections erected at three different periods. By the end of the 13th century, the need was felt for a larger Chancel. The old one was not however taken down, and the walls were used as the base of a Tower, a new Chancel being built further East. The old Chancel walls were heavily buttressed and on them, the new middle section of the Tower was built between 1310 and 1315. This was surmounted by a wooden Spire covered with lead but after 300 years it fell into a state of decay and in 1622 it was taken down and the third section of tower erected. This was built to incorporate a peal of bells. The peal of six bells is considered to be a very fine one, somewhat heavier than the general rule for village bells, the Tenor, 4th and 2nd are dated 1697.
The base of the tower now contains the organ and an exceptionally detailed 1/40th scale model of the church showing how it now exists.
This is a very good example of Early English and was erected as mentioned above between 1310 and 1315. It has a Queen Post roof and four of its narrow Lancet windows still remain. One on the South side has been replaced by one of the Decorated style and from the outside it can be seen that the lower part of this window has been bricked up. It is thought that this may have been a Lowside Window and that the bricks replaced a removable wooden shutter used by the priest for outside confessions or for Communion of lepers. Another window on the North side was blocked up when a Chantry Chapel was erected probably in the 15th century. The Chantry now forms about one-third of the vestry and accounts for the squint to the right of the door, which gives a clear view of the Sanctuary. The East window may have replaced the original one in the 17th century.
The Reredos or panelling behind the Altar was erected in 1962 in memory of the late Ben Haviland O.B.E. a generous benefactor of this parish, and the door to the vestry was given in memory or the wife of Rev Wilson Baker who was Vicar from 1924 to 1951.
The Chancel Arch contains a screen of Jacobean design and was presented early in the 20th century. It contains the remnants of a much older screen.
Goods and Ornaments
The Communion Plate contains a chalice and paten cover dated 1776. There is a credence paten of 1719 and a communion flagon dated 1684. A pewter plate belonging to the Parish Church of Beckford was discovered in the church of Mynachlog ddu in Pembrokeshire, although nobody could say how it got there. Enquiries revealed that it had been there since the end of the 19th century. In 2000 a member of that church, following a visit to this area, decided to try and arrange for the plate to be returned and this became our Millennium project with a successful conclusion and the plate is now permanently back where it belongs.