WHITTLESEY : CHURCH OF ST MARY

Church Post Code PE7 1TF

Was open to visitors pre covid

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It was early February 2018 and a return visit to the church of St Mary, Whittlesey. . Whittlesey can be found some six miles east of Peterborough, and boasts two medieval Anglican parish churches. St Mary is the bigger of the two and is in the centre of the town. This is known locally as the 'high church'. The church of St Andrew, a few hundred yards away to the west is smaller, and is known as the 'low church'.

   The church of St Mary is thought to date from the 13th century, with the church being rebuilt after a fire devastated the town in 1244AD. The oldest parts of the existing structure are the north arcade and the chancel arch. The nave and the north and south aisles date from the 14th century with the tower being built in the 15th century. The tower and spire is exquisite and would go down as being one the finest on any church within the catchment area of this site. The best view is from the west, across an area of grassland. 

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   The church of St Mary was one of the churches looked at by Revd Sweeting in his mid Victorian study of the churches in and around Peterborough. According to Sweeting, it was, in the 1860's, possible to see the spire of St Mary whilst standing on Peterborough bridge. That is certainly not possible these days; the spire does still command the surrounding flat Fenland countryside though.

The perpendicular tower is highly decorated, with several columns on which statues would have stood prior to the reformation. There is a fine west doorway to the tower. There are several gargoyles and other carved heads here, with some real age to some of them. One very weathered face sticks out a grossly enlarged tongue in medieval gesture of insult. Lower down a gargoyle peers out myopically through lichen encrusted eyes.

The church clocks looks out from north, west and east faces of the tower, a very weathered gargoyle to be seen over the clock face to the west face; this looking to be the place to be for the local birds on a Saturday morning.

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   Eight bells hang here with the first two being cast by Osborn and Dobson, who worked from premises at Downham in Norfolk. Both of these bells are dated 1803, with the first having the inscription 'The Lord To Praise My Voice I'll Raise'.

   The other six were all cast by Joseph Eayre of St Neots in 1758. Some lovely inscriptions can be found on his bells. Bell number three reads 'Peace and Good Neighbourhood' whilst bell number four says 'Do Justice Love Mercy and Walk Humbly With Thy God'.

   Bell number seven has the inscription 'Prosperity To The Establish'd Church Of England And No Encouragement To Enthusiasm'  This is an inscription that I have not seen before. I am assuming that it is denouncing non conformism in some way; but the finer points of this have gone over my head! The final bell of the rings is another from Eayre, this one dated 1803.

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   The church was open to visitors; which was good to see. On my first visit here back in 2007 the church was closed, as was the church grounds. It is light and welcoming inside, and it was a delight to be here with the sun streaming in through the south windows. The five light east window has the crucifixion as the centre piece but, to be truthful, I was more interested in another depiction of the crucifixion in which the Roman soldier is closest to the cross, hands raised in prayer; the other characters that you would normally expect to be seen closest to Jesus at this point depicted a little further away.

Below this are three panels illustrating the support that Jesus received from Nicodemus and Joseph of Arimathea, which I have seen only rarely on my travels. In the first panel, Nicodemus, Pharisee and member of the Sanhedrin argues the case for Jesus before the Jewish rulers. In the second, Joseph of Arimathea asks Pilate for custody of Jesus’ body after the crucifixion. The third again concerns Joseph, who donated the tomb used for Jesus’ burial. Here, he helps prepare Jesus’ body for burial.

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Other glass includes a depiction of the transfiguration, with Jesus, circled with shimmering bands of golden light, standing central with Moses and Elijah to either side, Peter, James and John are in shock below. On another panel close by, ‘doubting’ Thomas put his hand on Jesus’ wounds.

The chancel bears the marks of the Victorian restorers but there are several wall monuments which pre date this. One monument is to Elizabeth Kentish, wife of Richard Kentish, who, according to the script, died of a pulmonary consumption in 1792 aged 27 years.  The script continues ‘this monument is erected by her husband who designed it in Rome whither he went for the recovery of his health impaired by sorrow’.

The reredos is interesting, with four large gilded figures. St Peter holds the key to the kingdom of Heaven. Nest to him is the Virgin Mary and then St John who holds a chalice from which a small dragon emerges. The legend here is that John was given wine, which was poisoned. John prayed over this, and the poison emerged from the wine in the form of a dragon, or in some depictions a serpent. To the far right as we look at it is St Paul, with sword and scroll.

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With regards gilding, there is a great deal of that to be seen here. As well as the figures on the reredos, there are several carvings on human heads that are gilded and even parts of the font are gilded as well. Each to their own obviously, but the gilding did nothing for me!

It was still early on a Saturday morning and there was no one inside the church but myself. It was good to take a careful, solitary look around. I had visited here on a Cambridgeshire Historic Churches tour afternoon a few years before and it was good to spend time with a large group of like minded people; but it was good here to be able to work around the church away from crowds of people. We churchcrawlers can be very solitary at times!

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Moving back outside, there has obviously been a substantial gravestone clearance here at some point in the past. Some gravestones are to be seen leaning against the perimeter walls of the church but, to be honest there is nothing of any great interest or rarity. A little background check on the internet shows an old image of St Mary, roughly from the turn of the century, with a mass of gravestones and box tombs all located to the west of the church. The vast majority of these have been disposed of.  This is a great shame.

This is a big, beautiful church; a real statement piece compared to its smaller neighbour. Does that make it better? No it just makes it different. Whittlesey is blessed with two very beautiful and historic parish churches and it was good to look around and see inside them both on this cold winter morning.