Saturday, 23 January 2016

Church fonts

The scope for a long walk has been very limited because of the floods in the area; so as a bit of a retrospective to previous walks I thought I would gather some images tagged by a theme.

Although I do tend to concentrate on the wildlife and countryside I never miss the opportunity to explore every church I pass. The cool and calm of a village church on a hot summer day has a lot to commend it. Every small rural village has one, and many keep the door unlocked during the daytime. Now when I look back on the photographs on the dozens of churches I have visited, well actually over a hundred now, I see I have taken a lot of pictures of church fonts.

Fonts are interesting as they are often the oldest object in a church. Why is that you may ask? Well a font once consecrated and used remains a holy object that can not be just chucked away. They are bulky and can not be readily re-used for some other purpose, they would need to be deliberately buried or smashed up. So when the Victorians have come and rebuilt a church from the foundations upwards they will still often re-install the font from the original church. Why go to the bother of getting rid of the old one and making a new one? In this area (North Hampshire; West Berkshire; South Oxfordshire; South Buckinghamshire and East Wiltshire), there is very little hard stone, and a block of solid stone is what you need to make a font. They are not convenient to transport, another reason why there are so many ancient fonts around here. So unless the font came from a nearby redundant church finding these old things is good evidence for an old church on the same site.

I am no expert on fonts, and can only give some obvious observations of the ones I have come upon. Where possible I looked up the church history and they are also fairly vague on dates, some are Saxon, and that is good as there is so little of Saxon age remaining. Amazing to think that a thousand years of baptisms have used the same font. Saxon churches were mainly of wood and a stone font might be the only thing that can be salvaged on a Norman rebuild. Often the bowl, which was lined with lead to make water-tight, has a different age to the base, so you can not date the font by its base. Sometimes later decoration on an old font makes dating difficult. Early plain cylindrical fonts might at some later stage be carved to give it a decorative design making dating impossible. It is the style of the carving that is most useful in dating a font.

Here is a map showing the location of all the church fonts mentioned on this page:

So here we go on a little survey of the local churches where I have found an interesting church font. The first is the most basic font, and was tempted to say earliest, but who knows. This is a basic tapered plain cylinder at St Michael's Tidcombe, Wiltshire (A in map). The village was around in Saxon times but the church is a lovely 14th century example. Unpretentious with a lovely atmosphere. The font is as honest to god as it could be and yet retains a certain sanctity. All I can find in terms of age is 'undetermined' but believed to be Saxon.


Early fonts are big as the infant was totally immersed in the water, unlike the merest damp touch that babies get today. They are also usually near the door, away from the Chancel at the East end as they represent admission into the church.

My next example is also from a lovely small church in a small village. This one is an unadorned chalice shape at St Swithin's Combe(B), it is also believed to be Saxon on a 14th century base.


A very ancient looking font is suitably located at Avebury church (St. James (C)) - close to the centre of the prehistoric stone circle that encloses the core of the village. The decoration looks very early Norman carving onto a Saxon tub font. On this one you can see the lead lining of this and all the other fonts. The decoration is a picture of Christ trampling to death two writhing dragons.


Just north of Avebury is another ancient and extra-ordinary font. The font of St. Mary Magdalen church at Winterbourne Monkton (D) is quite famous and this is the only occasion I have met other people examining and admiring a font. It is 12th century and has curious carving - the zig-zag pattern of the upper does not match the lower part.

font,Winterbourne Monkton

An even more basic shape is at the old church at Goring (E). This is dedicated to St. Thomas of Canterbury (that is Thomas Becket). The history page says the font is Norman and it was rescued from a long period of neglect in the nineteenth century. The bowl seems to have little that could date it definitely.


Next let's have a little decoration. This font is at All Saints Church, Sutton Courtney (F), and is Norman, the manor was bought in 1177 and may be the date of the church and the font. Once there is some decoration there is more chance of dating it.

font,Sutton Courtenay

This font at St. Nicholas, Fyfield, Wiltshire (f) has a lovely interlinked arch motif to decorate the slightly tapered plain bowl. Elegance and simplicity in design. it is considered to be 12th century.


There is an example of this style of decoration very much closer to home. It is at St. Laurence, Tidmarsh (c) - almost my local church. The font was apparently discovered buried in the churchyard. The decoration is cruder than at Fyfield.


But beware, sometimes crude looking carving does not mean old. This scene of Moses in the rushes dates from the 1850s and was designed by Rev. Thomas Meyrick. The church of St. Mary, Chilton Foliat (G) apparently lost its font to a church near Trowbridge for some reason, may be it had become derelict at some stage.

font,Chilton Foliat

This one at St James, Leckhampstead (H) has a more convincing old style. Some sites say Saxon others say 11th century. The design of the base looks particularly early. This is a case where the font moved from the old site of the church a mile away.


The next example moves us on in time to the 13th century; it is at St Mary Magdalene, Great Hampden (I). A lovely chalice or bowl shape with lattice work ornamentation at the base.

font,Great Hampden

At St. Mary's Hambleden, Buckinghamshire (J) the plain cylindrical shape has been decorated with fairly crudely placed decorations. It is another one believed to be Saxon, but some say 12th century Norman.


One of the closest churches to home is over the river at Mapledurham. At St. Margaret's church (b) is a Norman 'tub' font that has been decorated and painted. How old the painting is I am not sure, probably no earlier than 16th century.


Another cylindrical one (a 'tub' font) with only a little carving is at St. Andrew's Letcombe Regis (K) and is presumed 12th century. Not sure about putting the bucket on top!

font,Letcombe Regis

Neighbouring St. Michael and All Angels, Letcombe Bassett (L) has a very curvaceous 13th century font. On top is an appropriately shaped wooden font cover rather than just a flat piece of wood.

font,Letcombe Bassett

A very crude crucible shaped bowl is at St. Mary Turville (M). It is probably 12th century. This church was used in filming the 'Vicar of Dibley'.


And at the opposite end of the spectrum of ornamentation, a deeply carved octagonal font which makes it more easily datable. This 14th century font is at St. Mary's church Hurley (N).


Another octagonal font with an old cover is at St. Michael and all Angels, Shalbourne (e). The description says 1680 but I think that is a bit late and probably relates to the cover, as someone has scrawled '1680' on the cover perhaps the researcher was taking that too literally. I would guess 15th/16th century. Note the decoration at the top of the lead lining that is visible on this font.


A smaller sized font - suggesting a later date when people did not need to be fully immersed is at St. Michael North Waltham (g) near Basingstoke. It is considered 15th century.

font,North Waltham

There is a more basic font but on a more decorative base at the church of St. Andrew Chaddleworth (O). This is because the tub font is 12th century and the base 19th century. It is a lovely little church with plenty of atmosphere.


Now we come to a really impressive font. St. Mary's Iffley near Oxford (P) is a splendid early Norman church with exquisite carving. The font is probably 12th century and is of marble from Tournai in Flanders. It is located just inside the south door. The spirally fluted corner uprights of the black marble top make it a very unusual design. You can see that one 'foot' has had a an unconvincing replacement. There is evidence of a lock on the font cover, this was needed because the Holy water was left in the font and it was ascribed magical powers. There are only about ten other such black marble fonts in England.


Another fine black marble font is at St. Peter's at St Mary Bourne (Z). The carving is different on each of the four sides. This sides has two sets of doves drinking the water of life.

font,St Mary Bourne,black marble

The only other black marble font in the area that I have come across is at St. George, Preshute (a) near to Marlborough. This one has a lovely shape but is not decorated. It may have come from Marlborough Castle and legend has it that King John was baptised in it.

font,Preshute,black marble

Ancient font covers are rare, most are modern replacements; one of the few examples I have seen where the cover is on display separate from the font itself is at St. Mary, Speen (Q). It is claimed to be a Saxon church, the oldest in Berkshire, it is near a Roman settlement and an ancient well. But... the Victorians had a major go at rebuilding the church.

font cover,Speen

An example of a grand 'modern' font is at St Katharine's, Savernake (R). It shows the influence of Maria Caroline, Marchioness of Ailesbury who dedicated the church to her Russian mother. Although a Victorian font (1861) it still has a certain charm.


While on the subject of font covers the largest I have seen is at St John the Baptist, Pewsey (S). The incumbent Canon Bouverie made it as a war memorial. This sort of cover is attached to a chain so it can be hoisted up vertically. The font beneath it is a 12th century Norman tub font.


Another font with 'old' looking carving and a nice font cover is at the small church at Upper Chute (T). The zig-zag design is typical of early Norman so probably 12th century. Note that the carving could be a later adornment of an already old font, difficult to tell. The church of St. Nicholas is a rebuild (1880) on the site of an old Norman church

font,Upper Chute

At Britwell Salome (an old village on the Spring line near Watlington) there is a font in the church of St. Nicholas (d) with an elegant cover. The font is plain and crucible shaped.

font,Britwell Salome

Now we come to some rather special fonts. The first one is at Long Wittenham (U) in the church of St. Mary. In this case the font is not lined with lead but made of lead. It is 12th/13th century and embossed around the base are the images of thirty archbishops with croziers. During the Civil War it was encased in wood to protect it from being melted down for ammunition, the lead design was only uncovered again in 1839.

font,Long Wittenham
font,Long Wittenham

Now a graceful modern font suitable when there was no longer a requirement to dunk the whole infant. One site says early 15th century octagonal made of Purbeck marble. This is in St. John the Baptist church at Mildenhall (or Minall) (V)


The last of the plain designs now, this is at All Saint's Rotherfield Peppard (W). All I can find is that it is 'Norman', looks early Norman.

font,Rotherfield Peppard

At last the jewel in the crown, a real gem. This is the font at Ramsbury Holy Cross church (X). The base is by Thomas Meyrick of 1842, some sites say Saxon others 12th century, others that it was a carving of a pineapple later turned into a font!


And, at last, finally, a lovely arched decorated font in St. Gregory's church Welford (Y). It is described as a Saxon font by some, others say late Norman, a survivor of the earlier version of the church rebuilt in 1852.


All this talk of fonts has made me determined to take a closer look next time I visit a church so I can get a bit better at determining the age from the style.