This Section is currently under review! – what is supplied here is not definitive, nor claims to be, and more has and will become known as we investigate the rich and intriguing history of this unique church further. This area will be updated as more time and information become available.
Steeped in history
Every community benefits from a strong Christian presence, which if it is healthy helps our towns and villages to become a better place. Geddington church has been the powerhouse of prayer in our villages for over a millennia. The importance of the church in this community cannot be underestimated and is something to celebrate. Today, it continues to be vibrant, active and central to our village’s life and ethos. The centuries of worship within these walls are something to cherish and nurture. We literally stand on the shoulders of spiritual giants. Our history is a rich aspect of our wonderful community.
St Mary Magdalene Church shows a rich tapestry of historical engagement in our village. In fact, you cannot understand the history of the village and surrounding areas without first understanding the significant part Geddington Church has played down the centuries. The story of St Mary Magdalene Church is one of people and community in good times and sad times. St Mary Magdalene, Geddington is considered to be one of the most interesting and stunning Christian buildings around, it is one of the oldest buildings in our county and sits as one of 3% of buildings of most architectural and historic interest in the country. The Oldest portion of the present building is dated between 850 and 950 A.D. by most authorities. It is highly likely, however, that a smaller wooden church structure existed on this site prior to the Saxon stone building being built.
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 thatched 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)
For a discussion of the theological significance of the various questions this monument raises, Please Click Here!
Who was the unknown Chaplain commemorated by this mysterious effigy? Did he say Mass for Queen Eleanor when she lay in our Church on her final journey to London in 1290? Was he one of two men named by a curious Latin inscription dated 1369 in our Chancel? Why has a tradition that he died celebrating Mass persisted for centuries? Why are his face and a nearby angel so worn, whilst his lower half is well-preserved? Was his effigy an object of veneration and our Church a place of pilgrimage?
Lying in the Chapel of Our Lady and the Blessed Sacrament, the priest has a tonsure and long neck, a chalice in his right hand, a bible or Missal in his left, and a paten under his right arm. He is vested for Mass, with a chasuble over his alb. To the left of his head is a worn-down cherub. The effigy has generally been dated to the 13th Century, but some think it may be early 14th Century.
To be honoured with such an impressive and expensive monument, our priest must have been an important figure in his day. There is an early 18th Century record of an inscription that was once on the stone: Hujus ecclesiae capellanus. [Chaplain of this Church]. This record (and later sources) reports a local tradition that the priest died during Mass. Some later authorities dismiss this as superstition, but in medieval times, there was a well-evidenced belief that anyone who died while observing the Mass would go straight to Heaven, so could the Geddington tradition be true?
Could he have been William Glover or Robert Launcelyn – both named in curious Latin inscriptions dated 1369 on stones that once formed the altar steps? Pevsner thinks our effigy is earlier – perhaps as much as 100 years earlier – and if he is right, he might have been ministering here in the time of Edward Longshanks and his Queen, Eleanor of Castile.
The upper part of the effigy has clearly been worn down since 1719, when the artist Peter Tillemans drew it. Experts have suggested water damage due to roof leaks, but hand-rubbing in the 18th and 19th Centuries has also been thought possible.
Was our priest revered as special in some way? We can clearly see a bowl-shaped recess to the right of the priest’s head formed by the pillow and the angel’s encircling arms. Is it possible that this once held holy water: a stoup? Some scholars who have seen it are doubtful, but if it were so, it would probably be unique and might point to some special status attaching to this monument.
The man commemorated by our effigy certainly seems to have been one of the earliest recorded priests of Geddington Church. For the moment, however, and unless further evidence is found, this priest’s name is known only to God. 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. Because of his ministry, and that of people like him down the centuries, Geddington Church is still a place where prayer has great strength and it remains a ‘Powerhouse of Prayer’ to the local communities.
A Royal venue
The Plantagenet Kings who frequented the church added the aisles, in the 12th and 14th century as well as their own personal entrance known as the King’s Door.
A Royal Hunting Lodge sat behind the church and grew to become known as the Palace of Geddington throughout the Norman and Plantagenet period. During this time the famous and the infamous attended councils, a parliament and other national and royal assemblies that were held there. As the Christian community grew, so too God’s house needed to expand to house them. Thus, Kings engaged in many reordering and development works to aid the church’s growth. They added the aisles, first in the 12th century and later in the 14th, as well as their own personal entrance known as the King’s Door.
It is unclear how old the Royal Hunting Lodge was by the time the Plantagenet kings took ownership, but it has been suggested that this also had Saxon origins. If that is true, could Edward the Confessor have frequented both the lodge and the Church at some time? It would be nice to think so.
Because of its location on the main through route, it seems St Anselm will have passed through Geddington on his way to the Council of Rockingham in 1095. Maybe he prayed at this remarkable holy site too?
Queen Eleanor of Castile
“Eleanor of Castile, the remarkable woman behind England’s greatest medieval king, Edward I, had one of the most fascinating lives of any of England’s queens. Her childhood was spent in the centre of the Spanish reconquest and was dominated by her military hero of a father (St Ferdinand) and her prodigiously clever brother (King Alfonso X the Learned). Married at the age of twelve and a mother at thirteen, she gave birth to at least sixteen children, most of whom died young. She was a prisoner for a year amid a civil war in which her husband’s life was in acute danger. Devoted to Edward, she accompanied him everywhere, including on Crusade to the Holy Land. All in all, she was to live for extended periods in five different countries. Eleanor was a highly dynamic, forceful personality who acted as part of Edward’s innermost circle of advisers, and successfully accumulated a vast property empire for the English Crown. In cultural terms her influence in architecture and design and even gardening can be discerned to this day, while her idealised image still speaks to us from Edward’s beautiful memorials to her, the Eleanor crosses. One such cross sits across the road from Geddington Church. Of course, the best known event is the procession of Queen Eleanor in 1290. The hundreds of nobles and servants that accompanied her body and attended the Requiem Masses held for her in St Mary Magdalene would still recognise much of the present day church. The Eleanor Cross in the centre of the Village is a memorial to that event. It is possible that it sits on the site of an earlier Christian Holy Well.
Medieval and Beyond
Throughout the church there are many objects and features of significance such as sculptures, gargoyles, gravestones and carvings, which attest to its passage through the ages. Some of which bear the marks of the reformers of the mid 1500’s after Henry VIII’s reign, and especially Oliver Cromwell. All images, graven or otherwise were considered heretical, so statuary noses were chiselled off and all of the medieval stained glass that was within reaching distance would have been smashed. The real heresy, of course, was to have destroyed such beautiful craftsmanship from God’s holy house.
St. Mary Magdalene’s is possibly the only church in England which has managed to still have in use all of its Rood screens from various ages; the ancient screen which was meant to be destroyed at the Reformation, the screen from 1618, (a gift of the famous Tresham family), and a screen from the early twentieth century (1908-1910). These screens have been moved into different locations over the passage of time. For significant periods of its history, St Mary Magdalene’s will not have had a screen at the entrance to its Chancel. This is because the church’s unique proportions mean that the largest space, the chancel, cannot be used for normal worshipful or civic gatherings when a chancel screen is in situ. Such a screen greatly limits visibility and access into the most beautiful part of the church. Certainly between around 1550 and 1618, and most recently, from between 1850 through to 1908 there will have been no chancel screen in place. During the decade of the 1850s, the congregation removed the chancel screen and placed it in a side arch to create a Chapel dedicated to Our Lady and the Blessed Sacrament. They also made the chancel archway much larger to improve visibility and access. Any barrier suggested a bar to common people being able to enter the holiest spaces, which in themselves were symbolic of heaven – it seems that simply would not do. In spite of this, however, in 1908, another screen was fitted into the Chancel arch. The current screen is an early 20th Century replica of no great historical value, although beautifully made by a local craftsman. Its placement was designed and overseen by the architect Gambier-Parry.
The Oxford and Anglo-Catholic Movements
You cannot enter St Mary Magdalene without being struck with awe at the influence that the Oxford and Anglo-Catholic Movements had on its architecture between 1850 and 1980. Whether it is the High Altar with its six candlesticks to represent the seven lights of the apocalypse (found in the book of Revelation), the reredos with depictions of the twelve apostles added during the Victorian improvements, the many depictions of Our Lady, the Blessed Virgin Mary, or the twelve foot crucifix located in the Lady Chapel. Geddington has benefited immensely from the beautiful additions of these periods and its embracing Anglo-catholic theology. Today we continue try to build on this rich inheritance in a way that is both in keeping with the church’s rich past and sympathetic to the needs of God’s people today. As a community we work hard at looking to maintain and improve both our beautiful building and our worshipful life together as God’s community.
To find out more about our services click here.
To explore our rich Anglican Liturgical Heritage click here.
Other Notable Facts
The east windows were created by Sir Ninian Comper. He also designed windows for Westminster Abbey and the entirety of St Mary’s in Wellingborough, amongst many others.
Interestingly, the central East window was created in the early part of his illustrious career while the South East window is much later, and it is startling to see the vast changes in style in the intervening 50 years.
But the History of St Mary Magdalene does not stop there. It bears the marks of many generations as architecture has come and gone in order to help the building adapt to the needs of the Christian community in each new age. Throughout the church there are many, many other objects, sculptures, gargoyles, gravestones and carvings which attest to its passage through the ages.
More detail can be found in a pamphlet available in the church and you can visit the St. Mary Magdalene page of the Corpus of Romanesque Sculpture of Britain and Ireland Site by clicking here.
Here are scans of Revd. T. Woolfenden’s helpful and yet succinct booklet on the history of Geddington church dated 1985
The Boughton letter referred to in the piece on the Effigy: an unsigned letter to Charles Lamotte in response to earlier questions he had posed to its author, cMarch 1736 [NRO Montagu Vol, 22 no.102], and reproduced as Letter L86 in Estate Letters from the Time of John, 2nd Duke of Montagu, transcribed by Alan Toseland – pub. Northamptonshire Record Society, 2013. ISBN 978-0-901275-70-7.
For an accurate and trustworthy source of more information on general history of the church using only primary sources: The Magna Carter King in Geddington and the Rockingham Forest. King John 1199-1216, by Vic Crouse (The Logan Press, 2017).
Or far preferable, come visit us and discover the beauty and history of the village and our church in person. if you know when you will be visiting the village you can write to us at firstname.lastname@example.org