26 June 2023
Saint Bartholomew’s Church,
Wednesbury, on the site of
a Saxon shrine of Woden
In my search for Wednesbury Manor at the end of last week (22 June 2023) and for any remaining legacies of the Comberford family, I also visited Saint Bartholomew’s Church, the parish church of Wednesbury, where many members of the Comberford family were buried in the 16th and 17th centuries.
Wednesbury stands on a site once sacred to the Saxon god of war Woden – as in Wednesday – and the site of an iron age fort (burgh) or hill (barrow). Wednesbury was fortified by Ethelflaed, daughter of King Alfred, in the year 916 to protect the borders of the kingdom of Mercia from Viking raiders.
Saint Bartholomew’s Church crowns the highest point in Wednesbury, possibly the site once sacred to Woden. The treasures of this ancient jewel include 15 stained glass windows crafted by Charles Eamer Kempe and a unique ‘fighting cock’ lectern.
At the end of a rain-soaked Thursday afternoon in late June, the church was closed, but I knew the last remaining Comberford monuments had been removed from the church soon after they had been rediscovered in 1890.
Nevertheless, it was still pleasant to walk around the church and through the churchyard that had once been closely associated with the Comberford and Beaumont families and Wednesbury Manor, just a short distance down the hilly slopes to the north-east of the church.
Saint Bartholomew’s Church sits on the top of Church Hill and is seen for miles around. The church is a Grade II listed building and has been at the heart of Wednesbury for centuries. It is a large mediaeval church that was enlarged and developed by the Victorians. It retains many of its original mediaeval furnishings and fine collection of stained glass windows by Charles Eamer Kempe that I promise myself to return to see.
The church in Wednesbury is first mentioned in 1088, and there was a church at Wednesbury by the early 13th century, when the Plea Rolls of King John in 1210-1211 record that Master William, a royal chaplain, had been appointed to the church at Wednesbury.
Saint Bartholomew’s Church stands on the site of the earlier 13th century stone-built church. The earliest parts of the fabric dating from perhaps the 13th century include a couple of windows and the lower parts of some of the walls.
However, much of the church dates from rebuilding in the late 15th or early 16th century. It has been restored and rebuilt since, and ruthless modernisation in the early and later 19th century, and again in the 20th century, have left the church looking more like a bright late Victorian church.
Both the Revd John Wesley and Francis Asbury attended Saint Bartholomew’s Church, and Wesley recalled being mobbed by the town’s anti-Methodist rioters on 20 October 1743.
The church tower was restored in 1757, when the top 16 ft were rebuilt and the ball and weathercock were replaced.
Restoration work continued in 1764 and 1765 when the nave roof was repaired and a ceiling added to the nave. Unfortunately, during the work part of the parapet on the north side collapsed onto the roof and both fell onto the pews below, causing serious damage. Thankfully, the pews were empty at the time; people were seated there only an hour before during a funeral.
As the parapet on the south side was found to be in an extremely poor condition, the decision was taken to rebuild both parapets and to add a ceiling above the north aisle. As the restoration was now much larger and more expensive than previously imagined, neighbouring parishes were invited to make collections towards the cost of the work.
Part of the south transept was enclosed in 1775 and a wall added to form a vestry. The body of the church was coated with Parker’s cement in 1818. Nine years later, the church was enlarged by the addition of the north transept and an extended nave.
The pews were replaced and a new font and a new clock were presented to the church in 1856 by the Revd Isaac Clarkson (died 1860), Vicar of Wednesbury and a keen fundraiser for the church.
Restoration work continued in 1855, when the upper part of the spire was completely rebuilt and the eight bells were recast. Two new bells were also added, along with a new clock and weathercock. The spire was raised by 10 ft in 1878.
The architect Basil Champneys (1842-1935) was asked for suggestions on refurbishing and enlarging the church in the 1880s. His notable buildings include John Rylands Library, Manchester, Somerville College Library, Oxford, Newnham College, Cambridge, Lady Margaret Hall, Oxford, Mansfield College, Oxford and the Rhodes Building in Oriel College, Oxford.
His proposals for Wednesbury formed the basis of later work. This included the wholesale movement, stone by stone, of the multi-sided apse, which dated from the 15th or 16th century, some distance east to allow enlargement of the main chancel area.
During this restoration work in 1885, remains of the earlier church were found and consisted of a three-light window in a round-headed arch. The three lights date back to the 13th century but the arch could be earlier. The ancient window is at the west end of the north aisle. It is next to the doorway that gives access to the former choir vestry. This has a pointed segmental arch and is said to be from the same date as the window.
In addition, the internal galleries were removed in 1885, and the floor was lowered to its original level.
The tombs of Richard Jennyns, who died in 1521, and John Comberford, who died in 1559, were brought to light in 1890 as this restoration work continued. However, I could not find John Comberford’s tomb when I searched for it back in 1970, and it seems likely that Jennyns and Comberford were reburied after their rediscovery.
The apse has been decorated in a unified scheme involving stone panelling, painting and gilding, bright stained glass windows, and an alabaster altarpiece with sculpture. A triptych arrangement has a central scene of Christ breaking bread with the two disciples at Emmaus, and two groups of three standing saints to the sides, including Saint Bartholomew with a flaying knife, the symbol of his martyrdom.
The front of the altar has painted and mosaic panels, with five standing figures: in the centre, Christ is flanked by two angels, with Saint Peter on one side panel, and Saint John the Evangelist on the other with a representation of the poison chalice. These figures are painted on stone, in pieces as if stained glass, with mother of pearl haloes, and the blue sky behind and the outer edgings of the figures in mosaic. The ground for the central panel is delicately painted in the Pre-Raphaelite style of Sir Edward Burne-Jones.
It all serves to emphasise the Anglo-Catholic tradition that has long been part of Saint Bartholomew’s for centuries and that, curiously, would have been amenable to the Comberford family during their time in Wednesbury.
Further restoration work took place in 1902 and 1903, when the transepts were restored. The Chapel of the Ascension was added to the south transept in 1913.
The church has 15 late 19th or early 20th century windows that include stained glass by Charles Eamer Kempe (1837-1907). The Kempe windows include the ‘Woden Window.’ It depicts the coming of Christianity to Wednesbury and was a gift to the church from the people of the town in 1904. It was saved in recent years thanks to £30,000 raised by the Ibstock Cory Environmental Trust and other charitable trusts, public and private donors.
The Jacobean pulpit dates from 1611, and the church has an ancient wooden lectern and a chest from the 16th or 17th century. The woodwork and alabaster stone tracery are of a later date. Two large, grey panels record the various bequests and gifts to the church, ‘copied from decayed wood tablets dated about 1808.’
The church has about 25 or so monuments, with three from the 17th century, including a great tomb chest with carved statues and a ‘kneeler’ monument, a couple from the 18th century, one of which is a characteristic obelisk monument, and a number of 19th century plaques, showing variations on the classical tablet, and a few Gothic ones.
The most notable 17th century monument is that of Thomas Parkes, a prosperous iron founder, who died in 1602, and wife Elianor, with an unusual combination of English and Latin on one inscription. The kneeling figures in high relief of Thomas on the left and Elianor on the right are facing each other, both in profile, with a broad plaque underneath showing their children.
Thomas Parkes was the most powerful of Thomas Comberford’s tenants in Wednesbury, but their relationships were never very happy and resulted in a series of lawsuits. It is ironic, therefore, that the Parkes family monuments have survived but not those of the Comberford family.
There is a large alabaster tomb chest at the west end of the nave of Richard Parkes, who died in 1613, with two carved figures lying on it representing Richard Parkes and his wife, and figures of their children.
The plaque commemorating Sir Francis Wortley (1591-1652) seems to date from 1636. It includes an elaborately quartered coat of arms, with 20 quarterings, in a style similar to the painted coats of arms on the ceiling of the Long Gallery in the Moat House, the Comberford townhouse on Lichfield Street in Tamworth. They may be by the same artist, and the crest shows a peacock on a coronet, similar to the Comberford crest.
The Wortley family lived at Wortley in Yorkshire and they seem to have had no connections with Wednesbury other than Colonel William Comberford’s patronage of Francis Wortley. Indeed, he did not die in 1636, and was an active royalist during the English Civil War, fighting with Colonel William Comberford at Stafford. Wortley died in 1652, and asked to be buried beside his father in Saint George’s Chapel, Windsor, but there is no evidence that he was.
Below this there was once a monument to Walter Harcourt, when both monuments were located in the chancel. The date 1636 refers to Walter Harcourt, who married Mary Comberford, sister of Humphrey Comberford, who inherited Wednesbury Manor through his marriage to Dorothy Beaumont. Walter Harcourt is said to have saved Francis Wortley’s life. He gives his name to nearby Harcourt Road off Manor House Road, bordering the site of the former Comberford manor house in Wednesbury.
The church has many 18th and 19th century monuments, including the obelisk monument of the Jesson family of Walsall, an obelisk or tall pyramid commemorating Joseph Hobson (1802), and his wife Elizabeth (1817), and several examples of the work of William and Peter Hollins, members of Birmingham’s most illustrious family of monumental masons and sculptors and significant architects.
A painting above the font depicts Christ’s descent from the cross. This was painted by Jean-Baptiste Jouvenet (1644–1717) – a French painter, especially of religious subjects. This painting in Wednesbury was commissioned ca 1698.
The art historian (and spy) Anthony Blunt (1907-1983) found reminiscences of Poussin, Le Sueur and the late work of Raphael in Jouvenet’s style, but with a characteristic Baroque emotionalism. During the last four years of his life, paralysis forced Jouvenet to work with his left hand. He died on 5 April 1717.
The church was Grade 2 listed in 1950.
I now realise the church is not usually open outside services and that it is important to get in touch before planning a visit. I was able to photograph the outside of the church, but the photographs inside the church are from the parish website.
The Parish of Saint Bartholomew, Wednesbury, was merged with the Parish of Saint James, Wednesbury, in October 2016 to form a new Parish of Wednesbury, with Saint Bartholomew’s as the parish church. Father Mark Danks has been the Vicar of Wednesbury since 2018. Sunday services are at 9 am and 10 am.