St. Mary’s Church, Elsenham
The earliest record we have of Elsenham Church occurs in 1070 AD, when a certain John, Nephew of Waleran, son of Ralph, gave it as an endowment to the abbey of St. Stephen, at Caen in Normandy. Towards the end of the 12th century, another document records the gift of the Church by Beatrice, Lady Say, to the Benedictine Priory of Walden, newly founded by her brother, Geoffrey de Mandeville, Earl of Essex.
Some time between these two benefactions the Church as it is today began to take shape. The chancel and nave were built early in the 12th century, no doubt on the site of the earlier Saxon church. Some 300 years later the tower was built, the nave roof renewed and several of the windows enlarged. The south porch was added about 1500, and finally, in the 19th century, a small vestry was added to the north of the church, opposite the south porch.
The beautiful south doorway is a fine example of Norman work, with its twisted supporting columns and star moulding. Notice above the doorway signs of the gabled roof of an earlier porch which probably projected only a foot or two. When it was replaced by the present brick and flint porch about the year 1500, the builders were careful to follow the same style of roof as had been used earlier in the century in the nave. Note the similarities of the cambered tiebeams and octagonal kingposts. Before you enter the 15th century panelled door with its massive lock and key, you will perhaps observe an irregularity in the right-hand corner of the porch, which is all that is left of the old holy-water stoup.
As you step inside the Church over its sill of Purbeck marble, originally a gravestone, dating from ca. 1280 AD, look back at the halo of Roman tiles above the doorway and at the extraordinarily interesting slab which has been incorporated as the internal lintel. This is a coffin lid which may have adorned the grave of no less notable a man than a Knight Templar.
In the north wall opposite the doorway are two typically splayed Norman windows, designed to let in as much light as possible without letting in too much cold air, ’though shutters were sometimes used. A third Norman window, now bricked in, can be detected from the outside in the south wall of the nave near the pulpit, and a fourth can be discerned high up in the south wall of the chancel, behind a drain pipe. Of the three remaining windows, those in the south wall are 15th century, those in the north wall about 1500.
These openings too were often protected by shutters, and the window nearest the pulpit still interestingly retains the hooks on which the shutter swung. The pulpit is modern, but the original octagonal stem of 1625 is still used to support it.
It is hard to believe that the beautiful chancel arch, with its star and chevron decorations cut out with a little handaxe, is over 850 years old. Originally it was spanned by a rood-screen separating the nave, with its often quite secular uses, from the chancel, which was always regarded as the church’s holy place. This screen would have been surmounted by a rood-loft or gallery extending across the width of the arch, access to which was by the stone stairway in the north wall of the chancel. A careful look at the underside of the arch and the adjacent tiebeam will reveal mortice holes where once the screen and loft were fitted.
To the left of the arch is a squint or hagioscope, made to allow worshippers in that part of the church to see the sacramental actions at the altar while the mass was being celebrated. On the other side of the chancel are two brass inscriptions that make fascinating reading. The lady commemorated on the pulpit side was the wife of John Tuer, who became Vicar of Elsenham in 1593 and whose initials appear on the priceless chalice and paten used every Sunday at the Holy Communion. The brass on the left-hand side, now slightly damaged, contains a spelling of Elsenham as “Elsnam”.
One of the finest features of the church is the unusual double piscina. This may well have been situated originally in the floor of the chancel, and dates from the time before the 13th century when the water used for rinsing the chalice and the water used by the priest in washing his hands before consecrating the elements had to be poured away in separate bowls. After the rubrics of the Missal were altered and the priest was required to drink the water used for rinsing the chalice, the double bowl was no longer necessary. In their present position the piscinae are set beneath a double arch of beautiful Early English dogtooth moulding, ca. 1225.
The chancel has a Norman window in the north wall, the doorway and the windows in the south wall being of the same period as their counterparts in the nave. The east window is mid-15th century, but the glass is modern. The only ancient glass is to be found in the south-east window of the chancel where a small roundel with a leopard’s face on it is the only surviving link with the 15th century. Behind the organ is a deep recess, probably an aumbry or cupboard in which would have been kept the reserved sacrament or the holy oils used for baptism, confirmation and anointing the sick. The Communion Table, installed in 1908, is of oak grown on the Elsenham Hall estate.
As you walk back down the nave, look up once again at the fine 15th century oak roof. In 1933 this was completely stripped and boarded, and the 21,600 tiles were removed and relaid. At the same time a new 30-foot tie-beam was manoeuvred into position (nearest the tower), but otherwise all the main timbers are original. There have been a number of fonts in the church down the years, the current one being a modern wooden one.
The 15th century tower is unusual in having no external buttresses, which weakens the structure for the ringing of bells, but its walls are five feet thick at the base. It stands about sixty feet high, and from its roof is a fine view over the village of Elsenham, now steadily receding in the direction of the railway station. The four bells have the following inscriptions – 1st “Johannes Grere me fecit anno di 1572”: 2nd “John Dier made this bell, 1600”: 3rd “T Mears of London fecit 1819”: 4th “S” with a crown, coat of arms and ornament (the marks of William Culverden, 16th century). The decaying bellframe was removed from the tower when it was restored in 1958. The four bells were rehung for chiming, which operation now takes place from the base of the tower.