21 April 2022
Is Saint Guthlac’s Church in
Passenham late Gothic survival
or early Gothic revival?
During Easter weekend, there was an open day at Saint Guthlac’s Church, the parish church in the tiny Northamptonshire hamlet of Passenham, across the Great Ouse River from Stony Stratford.
The dedication of this church to Saint Guthlac (674-715) is rare. He was a younger member of a noble family from Lincolnshire. He is strongly associated with the Abbey of Crowlands near Peterborough, where he lived as a hermit and where a shrine to him was erected in the 12th century. His sister was Saint Pega, and he was venerated in the eastern Fenlands.
The earlier church on the site in Passenham was granted by Henry I (1100-1135) to his newly-founded Abbey of Cirencester in 1133. The present Saint Guthlac’s Church dates back to the 13th and 14th centuries, but its present appearance dates from 1626, when Sir Robert Banastre rebuilt the church.
Sir Robert Banastre was a city man who was a rising star in the court of James I and his son Charles I. He was comptroller to James l and became Clerk Victualler to Charles l, responsible for food and drink at the Royal Court. He was also member of the Court of the Green Cloth and was responsible for the collection of Ship Money in the county.
He accumulated lands in Passenham from the early 17th century, and leased land in the adjacent Royal Forest. He bought Passenham Manor in 1624, reflecting his growing status in Court.
By 1640, Banastre was wealthy enough to pay for the new chancel roof of Towcester Church. In Passenham, his coat of arms appears on his tomb and also on the exterior wall of the church behind his tomb.
Banastre rebuilt Saint Guthlac’s Church in Passenham in 1626, including his new chancel with a waggon roof, the upper stages of the tower, the nave roof, and the whole of the chancel. This makes the church an interesting example of both late Gothic survival and early Gothic revival.
The chancel is 28 ft long and 19 ft 10 in wide, and the height of the church to the top of the battlements is 18 ft 2 inches. The wagon roof of the chancel is expressed externally in the rounded profile of the lead roof and the semi-circular east gable. Finials to buttresses flank the east end. The bay wagon roof of the chancel has carved pendant bosses.
The nave has a four-bay arch with braced tie beam roof supported by wall posts on carved head corbels, except for the middle corbel on the south side which is larger and is inscribed SRB/1621.
The choir stalls in Saint Guthlac’s date from 1628, and have contemporary misericords in the form of a mask, arms upheld by angels, an ox, a male head with ass’s ears, a goat, head, a winged cherub’s head, a lion, a cat’s head, a lamb, a female head and a griffin. Each stall has the name of one of the 12 apostles, and above them is decoration reflecting the classical style of Inigo Jones, with painted shallow niches, fluted pilasters and a strapwork frieze.
Between the pilasters are figures of the prophets Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel and Daniel, three of the four evangelists, Matthew, Luke and John, and Nicodemus and Joseph of Arimathea.
These works combine to create an example of early 17th century High Church decoration inspired by the High Church principles of William Laud, Archbishop of Canterbury (1633-1645).
The main monument in the church is the sculpted bust of Sir Robert Banastre in the chancel. He died in 1649, the year Charles l was executed, so his monument may date from the early years of the Restoration.
When it was placed in the chancel, it covered one of the large figurative paintings: the image of Saint Mark the Evangelist. The monument is a half-length figure set into an oval niche, with wreaths and garlands in a classical architectural setting.
Banastre’s monument may have been erected by his granddaughter who married into the Maynard family. It is attributed to Thomas Cartwright the elder (1627-1702), a little-known, London-based sculptor, who also designed the tomb to Sir Roland St John with his wife and son (1656) in Saint Mary’s Church, Woodford, Northamptonshire.
Her descendant, Charles Maynard (1751-1824), 2nd Viscount Maynard, altered the church in 1772, when he repaired the chancel and removed the screen the originally divided the chancel from the nave to below the gallery at the liturgical west end of the church. This screen now forms the base of the gallery. It is in a form of bastard classism with fluted Ionic columns and a strange, fanciful frieze.
The box pews may also have been installed at this time. The ‘Manor Pew’ is on the north side. When the pews and the wooden flooring were removed for repair and restoration, the floorboards were lifted, revealing further interesting features. Beneath the floor on the north side was a coffin-shaped, brick-lined burial pit 6 ft 8 in long and 2 ft 6 in at ‘shoulder width,’ which was capable of taking the coffin of a full size person.
A small piscina at the east end of the north wall indicates the existence at one time of an altar in this corner of the nave. The ‘Early English’ chancel arch is a later addition.
Three rectors who died at Passenham in the 18th century are buried there: the Revd Anthony Trye (1711), the Revd John Jenkinson (1762), and the Revd Richard Forester (1769). Forester’s monument has rococo cartouches. Another rector, The Revd Francis Hutchinson, who was the Rector of Passenham in 1706-1727, was Bishop of Down and Connor from 1720 until his death in 1739; he translated the catechisms into Irish and was the author of works on Irish history and witchcraft.
The church also has a remodelled Jacobean pulpit, royal arms from the early 19th century and a marble font designed by Lawrence Bond in 1976.
The pulpit now stands at the north wall, and the lectern stands on the south side. A local legend says the pulpit came from All Saints’ Church, Calverton. Calverton was held in plurality with Passenham in 1780-1814 by the Revd John Hey DD (1734-1815), the first Norrisian Professor of Divinity at Cambridge (1780-1795), and preacher in royal chapel in Whitehall. A later Rector of Calverton and Passenham, the Revd Charles Perceval, had strong family connections with north Co Cork.
The church has a four-light east window with a hood mould and label stops, and two light perpendicular windows to the north and south with hood moulds. The east window was donated by a local benefactor, Priscilla Day of Stony Stratford, in 1867. It was filled with stained-glass that has since been destroyed by storm.
The small window on the south side of the chancel has stained glass depicting Saint Peter and Saint Paul. It dates from the 16th or 17th century, and is probably German in origin, though clearly not made for this window.
The present north windows are apparently early English lancets dating from the mid 13th century. A window thought to be Saint Elizabeth of Hungary probably dates from the 16th or 17th century and is also of German origin.
By 1951, Saint Guthlac’s had effectively been replaced as the principal church in the parish by Holy Trinity Church, Deanshanger, built as a chapel of ease in 1853-1854.
The church was restored in the 19th and 20th centuries. The waggon roof in the chancel was restored in the 1960s and painted in blue with golden stars. The paintings in the chancel are in good condition and were restored by Clive Rouse and Anne Ballatyne in the 1960s.
Today the carefully restored, richly furnished and strikingly decorated interior of the church in Passenham remains an impressive monument to the faith and wealth of Sir Robert Banastre in the 17th century. After our visit earlier this week, two of us walked back through the fields and the countryside, and crossed the Ouse into Stony Stratford.