After the meeting in Great Hucklow on Friday, we drove the three miles into Tideswell to do a bit of local research and, while we were there, revisit the church of St John the Baptist, known as the Cathedral of the Peak. It is a fine old building, erected on the site of a smaller, earlier church, traces of which can still be seen in the Chancel. The current building, though, has an integrity of design found but rarely, being built in its entirety all in one period.
Work commenced on the new church in around 1320. Work continued for the next eighty years, delayed by the incursions of the Black Death. There have been few later alterations and what remains is a beautifully proportioned church. Even the Victorian restoration was just that… restoring the building rather than the wholesale remodelling inflicted upon many of our ancient churches.
It is one of those places where history is laid out before you, not only in the architectural details, but in the names and faces of the people who have lived and worshipped here, from the Baptismal rolls,through the names of the incumbents of the parish, to the lords and ladies of earlier ages.
Worn pews show centuries of worship, tucked away in a corner of in the little Lady Chapel, where medieval ladies sleep beneath the painted Victorian organ. Above the altar, a bas relief of the Virgin and Child wears flaking paint as if bound by a vow of poverty, but is no less beautiful for the faded colours.
Perhaps the most obvious treasure in the church is the quantity and quality of the wood carvings. In the nave and chancel, beautifully carved pews by a local man named Advent Hunstone are finished with finials showing the work of the ecclesiastic within both church and community. Saints stand beside their symbols and, beneath the pews, are some finely carved misericords – ‘mercy seats’ to give support during the long, standing services.
The original carved wooden screen separates nave from chancel and is echoed in the later balustrade around the choir pews, carved with birds, animals and fantastic beasts…and, appropriately enough, a Green Man. Some of this is the work of a Mr Tooley from Suffolk. There is another Green Man on the main door into the church, small enough to be missed amongst the simple bosses that adorn the old, bleached wood and dragons curl through the rafters.
In the south transept is the Bower Chapel. An empty niche in the corner of the wall is still supported by a strange creature. He looks down upon a carved altar showing the instruments of the Passion.
Close by stands a tomb whose dedication declares it to be that of Sir Thurstan de Bower and his wife Lady Margaret, who died around 1395. There is some doubt as to whether the base of the tomb and its inscription are accurately attributed, but the alabaster effigies, though scarred with graffiti and worn with time still seem to take you back to a more ancient time with their detailed portrayal of the clothing and armour of the couple.
It has not always been a place of peace and tranquility. Bear-baiting and cockfighting are both mentioned on an old map of the town and the church itself was the scene of bloodshed when, in 1250, the monks of Lenton Priory took up arms to steal wool and sheep from Tideswell. On the orders of the Dean of Lichfield both sheep and wool were brought into the nave of the church for safe-keeping, but, ignoring the sanctuary of the church, the monks broke in, their trampling horses and weapons spilling the blood of the lambs before the altar.
Now Mary Magdalene who looks down with compassion at the scene of slaughter, holding the jar of spikenard with which she anointed her Lord. Behind the high altar in the east, a Tree of Jesse window charts the His lineage.
In the centre of the chancel is a large tomb with pierced, open sides. The top of the tomb is inlaid with heraldic brasses and, in the centre, the symbol of the Trinity. Look through the openings and you see the carved cadaver of a knight in his winding sheet, his head supported by the arms of an angel. This is the tomb of Sir Samson Meverill (1388–1462), a knight said to have fought at the battle of Agincourt on St Crispin’s Day, 1415, when Henry V of England defeated the forces of the French king Charles VI.
Sir Samson also later fought under the Duke of Bedford against the armies inspired by Joan of Arc. He was not, however, always a perfect and godly knight. During a land dispute, he kidnapped all the jurors brought in to judge the case. It is for the artistry, the beauty, the history and above all, the people who have left a human legacy of stories such as these that I love these old churches.