Driving through some of the nicer villages of Northamptonshire I came upon a small church on a bend in the road, a small church with no apparent congregation. Yes there were some buildings nearby, but nothing you call a settlement.
This in itself if perhaps not so remarkable; I’ve encountered churches before where the surrounding village was wiped out by the plague so that the centre of worship remains when all else has been reduced at first to ruins and then green fields. Bywell in Northumberland has two churches and a castle, but no longer a village.
This church promised something more though. Firstly due to its colour. Unremarkable to local no doubt, it, and the nearby buildings were made of a rusty coloured stone mottled with patches of pale green. I’d never encountered it before, but this is the local ironstone, a sandstone with iron oxides that provide the orange colouring. I’ve known it be mined as an ore before (Industrial Heartland) but not used as a building material.
The second attraction was its architecture; the pointed lancets that marked it as Early English in style and therefore somewhere after the Normans but probably pre Elizabethan. In fact both Tudor monarch and French invader played leading roles in the history of this church. One of the outcomes of the last hostile conquest of this island was the establishment of monasteries that espoused a continental rather than Anglo-Saxon version of Christianity. The Augustinian priory that was established here wasn’t a huge affair, but the lands under its control covered a few square miles and the monks gave the place its name. The village of Canons Ashby.
The first religious buildings were developed within a decade or two of the Conquest, but the present building dates back to the 13th Century, though it is much changed since then. There are clues even from the outside in the walled up openings that would have once been an open cloister. Step through the door and there is an interior division that seems a little too robust to be adding support to the roof timbers. The east window is also a later addition; not just the stained glass which features figures that could be placed in any Victorian or early 20th Century setting. The fresco around them appears distinctly Baroque. This end of the building is just at odds with the rest.
The reason takes us back to the Tudor monarch. The church is just a fragment of the larger monastic complex and was created by truncating one wing of the square cloister and demolishing the rest. Another victim of Henry VIII’s dissolution of the monasteries. That anything remains at all is because Henry gave the land to one of his supporters together with permission to keep the small church as a private chapel.
Why no magnificent ruins then such as those at Fountains, Whitby or Finchale? Perhaps there are clues in the other nearby structures and that same ironstone, and in particular the Elizabethan Manor House. That’s a story for another post.