ESSENDINE : CHURCH OF ST MARY
Church post code PE9 4LH
Generally open to visitors.
It was a cold frosty day, but beautifully sunny, in January 2022 and the church of St Mary, Essendine was the second church of the day in what turned out to be a ten church crawl, covering three counties. Essendine can be found on the extreme eastern edge of Rutland, on the border with Lincolnshire.
The church is just off the main road heading towards Bourne, and is a small church in a small village, with the population being a little less than 450 at the time of the 2011 census. There is a wealth of history here, though with a castle standing here at one point. This was built either late in the 12th century or early in the 13th century and was moated. The castle is thought to have gone out of use during the 17th century.
It was good to be back in Essendine again. This was a return trip, with an earlier visit at the end of a long Rutland churchcrawl back in the summer of 2014. Daylight was fading fast and the photographs suffered as a result. The church was still open that day, despite the late hour on a Sunday, and was open again on my revisit.
The church here is a simple structure of nave and chancel, with a double bell cote containing two bells to the west end. St Mary was the chapel serving Essendine castle, which stood a little way off to the north; making this a building of great importance; easy to drive by on the main road and not give it a second glance.
The church itself dates to the 12th century, with the chancel being rebuilt during the 13th century. Little would have happened to the church until a period of Victorian restoration.
There are two bells hanging here. There is a discrepancy between what is listed on the National Church Bell Database and what was recorded by North, in his Victorian study of church bells in Rutland. According to North, both bells were dated 1808 and neither contained a founder's mark. One of the bells was inscribed Thomas Steans, the church warden of the day. However, the church bell database records that one id dated 1805, with Thomas Mears I as the founder. The second is dated 1823 and was cast by his son Thomas Mears II.
Entrance to the church is through a south door, which dates back to the 12th century. There is a semi circular arch, which has a design of Norman dogtooth pattern. Under this is a tympanum which has a depiction of Christ attended by two angels. Christ has one hand raised in blessing; the angels look out towards those approaching but each have a hand raised towards Christ.
My first gut reaction upon seeing it was that the central character reminded me of a similar carving over the south porch at Castor, a few miles off to the south.
There are also carvings both on the inside and the outside of the doorframe, running from top to bottom. Some of these are now very weathered but one appears to be of Adam and Eve and a design on the inside shows two figures, holding sticks, with one figure either pointing upwards towards Heaven or reaching out towards the feet and tail of a beast of some sorts.
There have been several arguments as to the date of this doorway. Some date it as far back as Saxon times, whilst some date it to 12th or 13th century and it has been suggested that the doorway was moved here from another location. Perhaps the disfiguring of the figure on the inside supports that idea. The thought that struck me when looking at the carvings on the inside was that some of them were quite weathered; perhaps indicating that they might at some point have been outside.
Moving inside, there is a real sense of ancient and ‘relatively’ modern here, with Victorian pews leading to the pointed, chevron decorated Norman chancel arch. The chancel shows the hands of the Victorian restorers. The reredos behind the altar is a substantial tiled affair, which covers the entire width of the east wall, and consists of tiles with the same Fleur De Lis pattern.
Standing at the chancel arch and looking to the west, there is a very narrow, one light window, on the west wall, this being of clear glass. A carved human head, which would have once stood outside given its weathering, enjoys a relaxed retirement from its spot in the north aisle.
There is some fine modern stained glass to be seen here. The east window was looking stunning, with the early morning sunshine casting some beautiful multi coloured patterns through the glass.
Christ in majesty is on the central panel, hand raised in blessing, crowned and holding a cross. He stands on a globe, with the sun and moon depicted below Him. The Holy Spirit in the form of a dove flies overhead.
The Virgin Mary is to the left as we look at it. She looks up enquiringly at Jesus, hands outstretched, with Lilies above her symbolising purity. To the right, John also looks up at Jesus, holding a scroll. Above him is a win goblet, with a quite difficult to make out dragon coming out of it. It was said that John drank poisoned wine, but prayed over the wine before he drank it, with the poison leaving the wine of the form of a dragon.
The second window, which can be seen on the south wall of the nave, depicts the annunciation; this being another modern piece. Biblically, whenever an angel appears their first words are something like ‘do not be afraid’ such was their impact liable to be on those they were appearing to. Well, the Angel Gabriel here cuts a commanding figure. Tall, golden haired and with wonderful red wings, he appears to the Virgin Mary, holding out a Lilly to her.
Mary kneels, with hands at prayer, looking serene, with the Holy Spirit appearing to her in the form of a dove. Both characters are depicted with very modern, angular, yellow nimbus,
As a small piece of artistic license, even though both characters are at the same height, Gabriel’s’ feet are depicted as being on blue sky.
Moving back outside I took a quick look around the church grounds. With regards gravestones, there is nothing of any great interest, but it was interesting to take a look at what discernible features are still there from the castle site.
The castle site itself, which is now just a raised flat base, with no building material remaining, is on private land off to the north east of the church. There are several ditches still visible, which would have been the moats which were there for defensive purposes.
This is a fascinating little church, full of history. It is open, friendly and welcoming. It would be easy to overlook this church, given its small stature, at the side of a busy road, but is well worth taking a look at.