A Saxon Church at the Heart of our Village
In a village as ancient as Geddington, there was most likely a church long before the visible stone Saxon portion. In the stonework, it is still possible to see the Saxon arcading on what was the original exterior wall as well as the slope of the original roof structure.
Bones from a grave were discovered while the floor was being repaired in 1990, and it is thought that these may have been from a local Saxon priest or monk who served this church dutifully over 1000 years ago, possibly even at the time of its construction. An alternative suggestion is that it is the grave of a very early Norman priest or significant person connected with the church.
If it is the remains of the latter, then one thought that some historians have ventured, that seems nothing more than supposition at this stage, is that this person may have had some kind of connection to Geddington’s Royal Hunting Lodge and served one of the significant Norman kings who will have resided there. A remarkable ornament of the church, which may or may not be connected, is the effigy of an unknown priest now located in the South Lady Chapel (although clearly moved from its original location).
An effigy to an Unknown Priest – hajius ecclesiae
capellanus (Chaplain of the Church)
This effigy has been the cause of much intrigue over the years. Although there have been many strange and wonderful theories and stories told of this remarkable 13th or 14th Century memorial, the truth is much closer to home. There is an illustration of this effigy drawn by P. Tillemans, which states that the sketch was undertaken whilst the effigy sat “Nr the N Aisle at ye upper end under the N Wall, taken 10 July 1719”. It therefore looks likely that this effigy has been relocated at some point in its history from the North to the South Isle. This could have been when the Maydwell Chapel was was removed in the late 18th Century or during a major restoration of the Chancel in 1857. Eitherway, it seems that during its move some of the stonework around the edges (and possibly its inscription) has been lost.
Nonetheless, what is clear is that it is an original ornament of the church and one of some historical significance. It also adorns some rather remarkable and unique features. It is for, instance, very rare for such an effigy to have a holy water stoup or font at its head, as this one appears to, adorned with a cherub. This was a suggestion that an academic first put forward a few years ago when examining the church. As far as we are aware, there are no other effigy’s of this sort still in existence in this country that have such a feature, which has led to some other academics to a counter argument as to whether this can actually be the case. But if this were, for instance, dating from the time of Edward 1st, given the flamboyance and spiritual fervour of the Eleanor Cross he had built in the centre of the village, the possibility of such a devotional addition to this priest’s effigy is certainly not to be dismissed so readily out of hand.
What is beyond doubt is the chalice, paten (for the bread) and Bible or Missal held lovingly in his hands. The figure can also be seen wearing a fiddleback chasuble (traditional early medieval priests’ wear – unlikely to be a shield as some have ventured). A letter in the Boughton archives dating from 1736 gives us some important insight into the validity of the effigy. Hagius ecclesiae capellanus (Hagius Church Chaplain – Hagius is also Greek for Saint) has proven to be a mis-transcription of the effigy’s original inscription, which should read Hajius ecclesiae capellanus (Chaplain to the Church). Most intriguing, however, is the letter’s claim that there was a common understanding amongst the local people of Geddington and surrounding areas that this priest died whilst celebrating the Eucharist. There is nothing beyond conjecture to contradict this story.
To die in such a way may have understandably been considered as a significant and saintly way to die (ask any living priest how they would choose to die and many would say that there could be no greater privilege than to die whilst celebrating the Eucharist). Regardless, it seems likely that this priest quickly became considered locally as a very holy and saintly individual after his death. There is, however, no suggestion that the wider church recognised him as a Saint. As far as we are aware, such a claim has never been made. His title, Chaplain of the Church, simply suggests that he was appointed by the priory or local monastic house and served the church. He certainly seems to have been one of the earliest recorded priests of Geddington Church. It is likely that the effigy you see pictured here dates from late 13th or early 14th Century (Similar 14th Century effigies are in existence elsewhere).
If this effigy is not connected to the Saxon/early Norman burial mentioned above, then another possibility put forward by historians is that the priest this effigy commemorates may well have served one of the slightly later Plantagenet kings who resided in Geddington’s Royal Hunting Lodge. Could this, for instance, commemorate the priest who served Queen Eleanor and presided over her Requiem Mass following her death? The date of the effigy certainly seems to fit this period. Or could this priest have served King John whilst he stayed at Geddington during the period when he attempted to avoid civil war?
For the moment, and unless further evidence presents itself, this priest’s name is known only to God. There are many ways to interpret all this evidence. But he clearly served the parish, out in all weathers baptising sickly babies and taking the last rites to dying parishioners. His was the day-to-day heroism of a man committed to his Godly vocation. He said the prayers in church, even when there was no-one else to say them with him. This certainly contributed to him acquiring a certain reputation for sanctity following his death. Because of his ministry, and that of people like him down the centuries, the church is still a place where prayer has been valid and Geddington church remains a ‘Powerhouse of Prayer’ to the local communities.
In his effigy, this person’s priestly credentials are evidenced by the chalice, paten and Missal/Bible which are placed lovingly in his hands. His holy credentials evidenced by his long neck and tonsure – signs of holiness.
There are pieces of physical evidence that may suggest this was a place of pilgrimage and prayer at various points in the church’s history: As aforementioned, there appears to be what looks like a Holy Water Stoup/Font at the head, there is smooth wearing of the hands and face, which is more pronounced than elsewhere on the effigy (by pilgrims wanting to touch the saintly image of this holy man? – it may be weathering, but then why hasn’t the rest weathered in equal measure?), and there are pilgrims’ marks which can be seen on the outside of the building. Thus, it is not beyond the realms of possibility that the site was used as a place of pilgrimage and maybe even a shrine during the Medieval period and/or later revived in the Victorian era. Given its royal associations, the church will most certainly have carried much attraction and local acclaim to visitors with a religious interest, who will have undoubtedly made their way here to pay a visit and pray. Given the rumours of the nature of his death, locals may well have began to recognise this priest for his healing and protective credentials. I wonder if that still carries weight today?
You are warmly invited to continue to visit this holy place at anytime and pray at the site of Geddington’s unknown priest.
We are thankful to Prof Madeleine Gray for providing some factual features for this article. This section, will necessarily be subject to update as more information becomes known.