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  1. Today's church is a little bit special. My fiancé and I recently purchased our first house, and this church is right in the heart of community we now live in - Wivenhoe in Essex.St Mary's, Wivenhoe

    St Mary's in Wivenhoe is an old church with an interesting history. The church has a lot of fragments and pieces of Roman bricks and tiles built in to the walls, and given that Wivenhoe is along the Colne river, a bit further down from the old Roman town of Colchester (Camulodunum), it's quite possible that there was a smaller Roman settlement was in this area. Although Wivenhoe itself is mentioned in the Domesday Book, the church isn't. In fact the earliest recording of it dates from 1254, but since the name "Wivenhoe" is Anglo-Saxon in origin, there would probably have been a church on or near the same spot from much earlier.

    The oldest remaining parts of the building are the north and south aisles, which both date from the 14th century. The tower was added towards the end of the 15th century, as was a chapel in the north, and the south porch was added in the 16th century. Sadly though the church doesn't appear to have been well cared for, as by the end of the 16th century the roof was leaking and rain was damaging the building. Although repair work was carried out, parts of the church still had to be rebuilt in 1860, when the church was also enlarged. Wivenhoe had grown in size by this point as the River Colne was so silted up that ships couldn't reach Colchester to unload. Instead Wivenhoe developed as a new port for both trade and shipbuilding, and with a population of around 2000 it was probably felt that a larger church was needed for residents and visitors.

    It's a good thing the church was repaired in 1860, as the Colchester Earthquake struck in 1884. If the church was still in need of work then it may have been severely damaged, as it was the worst casualty was the top of the tower, where the battlements along the top collapsed. They were repaired soon after the earthquake, and the last real building work was in the 1980s, when a kitchen space and toilet were built. In the 20th century the bells have also been repaired and retuned, and in 2016 the roof and some stonework were inspected and repaired.

    Wivenhoe is a lovely church in the heart of a lovely town. It's amazing to think that it withstood an earthquake, when other medieval churches in the area weren't quite so lucky.

  2. If I’m going to write about St Nicholas at Great Hormead then it seems only fair that I write about St Mary at Little Hormead as well, over the years the smaller church has suffered in attention compared to St Nicholas.St Mary's Church, Little Hormead, Hertfordshire

    Which is ironic when you consider that St Mary’s is actually the older of the two churches. Built in the 11th century, it gets a note in the Domesday book as it had a priest who served the communities of Little Hormead and Great Hormead (both of them manors). The chancel was rebuilt in the 13th century, and a bellcote (rather than a tower) was added in the 15th. There are only two bells, but one of them is over 2 feet wide and is believed to date from the early 1400s, so would have been installed as soon as the bellcote was built.

    For such a small church, St Mary’s has some unique history evident in it. It bears a single piece of medieval graffiti – a head with a 15th century headdress carved into the wall next to the south door (the church website suggests that it could have been done by a pilgrim making their way to Walsingham in Norfolk). There is also a well-preserved door dating from the mid-1100s, which includes lovely iron decoration across the surface. There is also a Royal coat arms above one of the arches, although sources differ over whether it’s Charles I or Charles II. Either way, it suggests that during a time when Royalist sympathies were frowned upon, the people of Little Hormead weren’t afraid to show some support for their King.

    The church went through a small restoration in the 1800s, the bulk of the church seems to have been in decent condition, at least compared to other churches in the area. However Little Hormead remained a small village, and with the larger church of St Nicholas a short walk away, the parishes of Great and Little Hormead were merged in the late 19th century. The church is now under the protection of the Church Conservation Trust, while part of the churchyard is being turned in to wildlife area, sown with wild meadow flowers.

    The Church Conservation Trust is raising £5000 for the continued conservation of the 11th century door. You can find out how to donate on their website.

  3. If you’re walking around the glorious Edinburgh Castle, then you might be forgiven for walking past one of the smaller buildings, dismissing it as nothing important. However despite it’s size, you should still pay attention to it, as you’re looking the oldest surviving building in Edinburgh – St Margaret’s Chapel!St Margaret

    St Margaret of Scotland is a former Queen of Scotland, and is English by birth. Originally a Princess of the House of Wessex, Margaret was born in Hungary, where her father ended up after being exiled following the Danish invasion of England in 1016, when he was just a boy. Margaret was born around 1045, and in 1057 her father was summoned back to England by Edward the Confessor, possibly to be acknowledged once again as heir to the Anglo-Saxon English throne. However Margaret’s father died soon after their arrival back in England. The family appear to have lived at court until the Norman invasion of 1066. By 1068, they’d ended up in Scotland, where Margaret became the bride of King Malcolm III.

    Margaret appears to have married Malcolm around 1070, and together they had six sons and two daughters (Margaret also became stepmother to Malcolm two sons from an earlier marriage). Margaret was reportedly very devout, and devoted a lot of time and energy to charitable works. She and Malcolm appear to have been very close, her death on 16 November 1063 came three days after Malcolm and their eldest son were killed in battle at Alnwick. She was already ill, but the shock of the news of this loss may have contributed to her death.

    It was originally believed that this small chapel was a place where Margaret had worshipped, but later studies have shown that it was built around the time her son David held the throne as King David I. It's difficult to see how a chapel so small could hold a whole court, so I have to wonder if it was built as a more private sanctuary for the King and his family, especially since it was originally part of older Royal buildings. Margaret wasn't canonised until 1250, but I couldn't find a source stating whether the chapel was dedicated to her before she was canonised, or was originally built for a different saint.St Margaret's Chapel, Edinburgh

    The chapel survived the destruction of Edinburgh Castle by Robert Bruce's men in 1314, and went on to be used a place of worship. After the Reformation the chapel became redundant, and was instead used as a storage space for gunpowder! During the Victorian period the original history of the chapel was discovered, and the chapel was restored with Queen Victoria's agreement. Today this tiny but timeless building has a beautiful series of 20th century stained glass windows, depicting four Scottish saints (including Margaret) and William Wallace. It's still used for weddings and baptisms.

  4. At this time of year it seems to appropriate to have at least one entry on a church dedicated to St Nicholas, so I’ve gone for the one at Great Hormead in Hertfordshire.St Nicholas, Great Hormead, Hertfordshire

    There are two churches rather close to each other, and St Nicholas at Great Hormead is the larger one. It’s also the younger one, as an earlier church had already been founded up the road at Little Hormead. Both churches were built close to their respective manors, suggesting that the people in the manor near St Nicholas really couldn’t be bothered to walk down the road (or across the field as it probably used to be).

    St Nicholas was founded in the early 13th century, and considerably extended in the 14th, including the creation of the tower. The corbels in the roof reportedly date from the 13th century, and are therefore from the original building. Inside the tower has a peal of six bells, with the oldest dating from 1606, and the final one added almost a century later in 1701. The church underwent a full restoration in 1873, which along with rebuilding the chancel also saw the addition of an organ chamber and the south porch, as well as new stained glass windows. A more recent 20th century addition is a further extension at the back of the church, providing a kitchen and toilet facilities.

    Sadly the church appears to be devoid of any medieval brasses or older memorials. One interesting one from 1696 details the bequest of William Delawood of Hormead Hall. His will left provisions for a donation to be made to the poor of the Parish “upon every feast day of the nativity of our Lord”. The will also stated that a “table” be inscribed with his bequest and hung in the church, so that the parishioners would be aware that he had left money for the poor, and “see if duly performed” – perhaps he didn’t trust that the money would reach the right people! It also mentions that a copy of his will “in parchment is now deposited in a chest in this church forever to be kept there”, this now appears to be deposited at the Hertfordshire Record Office, and the original version has been digitised and appears on the National Archives catalogue under PROB 11/431/144. 

  5. The church of the Holy Sepulchre seriously stands out. For many it is the only round church they will see, and it sits in the heart of Cambridge, near the corner of St John's College. Today it is one of only 5 surviving round churches in England.Holy Sepulchre, Cambridge

    The church was built in 1133, approximately 100 years after the founding of nearby St Bene't. The unusual circular style was based on the interior of the church of Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem, and thus also took it's name from it. Originally it was a church for those travelling along the main road, but it was eventually taken in as a parish church by Barnwell Priory, a wealthy priory in Chesterton.

    Like the church at Thriplow in Cambridgeshire, Holy Sepulchre was damaged by William Dowsing in his anti-Popery crusade, and various pictures, statues and inscriptions in Latin were damaged or destroyed. In the following centuries the church fell to ruin, until a partial collapse in 1841 prompted a restoration, with architect Anthony Salvin commissioned to carry out the work. Salvin was an expert in medieval buildings, and spent most of his career working on restoration projects, including castles and manor houses. Part this included replacing the 15th century bell tower with the original roof, as the bells were proving to be too heavy for the walls to safely support them.

    Older surviving parts of the building include the doorway, pillars and arches, which all date from the Norman period, and parts of the chancel date from the 15th century. The restoration work in the Victorian period included new stained glass windows, some of which were destroyed when Cambridge was bombed in July 1942, and replaced in 1949. Today the church is too small for the local congregation, instead it's open to tourists (for a small fee), and hosts talks and small musical concerts.