As we opened the door into St Kentigern’s church, it was fairly obvious we had picked the wrong time to visit. Not only was the sudden and relative warmth of the building steaming up the camera lens like there was no tomorrow, there was just so much to see… and we were still ‘not with it’ after the weekend’s workshop.
We should have known better, really. With a church on the site for the last fifteen hundred years, there was bound to be a lot of history in there and we were not going to be able to take it all in properly.
Thankfully, after visiting a few hundred of these old churches, we are able to at least document them pretty well without thinking too much… and the research always comes later anyway.
We much prefer to experience both the ancient sites and the churches before delving into the details, as this can result in too narrow a focus. Go to a place armed with the knowledge of one recognised feature and you might well miss others, perhaps not well documented, but more relevant to your own research or journey.
It is not a perfect system and we do occasionally kick ourselves for missing something ‘if only we’d known’… But as we try to visit all possible sites more than once, it is usually easily rectified. And these days, what we may have missed, the camera has usually captured.
The first thing that takes your eye as you enter is the font. Set on a veined marble base, it is exceedingly unusual and dates to 1395. The font is a memorial to Sir Thomas of Eskhead, a Vicar of Crosthwaite and, according to the church’s information, the uncle of Fletcher Christian, the infamous mutineer on HMS Bounty. The base is carved with four rather odd and headless creatures. The pedestal is carved like window tracery, but it is the bowl that holds the most interest. While some panels bear armorial and Christian symbols, like the Trinity symbol we had seen in Penrith’s church, it is the foliate symbols that are the strangest. There is a strange-looking Tree, a Green Man with foliage growing from his mouth and a deer-like creature with leaves and branches growing from its back.While the Tree and the Green Man can be interpreted in Biblical terms, that last one still has us wondering…
St Kentigern, who founded the church here in 553AD, is depicted in a stained glass window close by. Beside him is St Cuthbert, the Bishop of Lindisfarne upon whose isolated islet we had ended the previous workshop. He is shown holding the head of the king and martyr, St Oswald. In 1104, when Cuthbert’s remains were taken to Durham cathedral, the saint’s body was found to be incorrupt, and St. Oswald’s head was still with him, where it had been placed for safety. These saints, have featured a lot in our travels and research, so finding them here with Kentigern was enough to make us look closer.
The stained glass, I have to say, was superb. Most of it is nineteenth century, with three windows, including the East Window, by Charles Kempe. The windows in the clerestory, that lifts the roof of the nave and lets in light, are superb, though difficult to photograph from the ground.
There are fragments of older glass too, dating from the twelfth and sixteenth centuries, including one very intriguing fragment showing someone wearing what appears to be a cross pattée… the splayed cross which was the symbol of the Knights Templar. Oddly, on the photograph I took of this window, the metal bars that protect it from outside showed through with the form of the fleur de lys… a connection of symbols we have noted on more than one occasion.
Not that we were short of Templar symbolism in this church. The Consecration Crosses that we had been unable to see outside were easily found inside. These crosses, twelve outside and nine remaining inside, mark the places where the church was blessed with Holy Water at its consecration. We have seen odd ones in a number of churches before and they are usually more flower-like geometries than cross-like. These, on the other hand, we all carved as the cross pattée… Granted, they date only to 1523, but we have seen enough elsewhere to convince us that, after their destruction, the mantle of the Templars was taken up by others…
As if that were not enough, there are other symbols to consider. Behind the altar is a superb reredos made by the Keswick School of Industrial Art. You have to look at it, and so may not notice that on the floor is a mosaic showing the symbols of St Kentigern… all made by Edith Rawnsley and John Birkett.Mrs Rawnsley, who also designed the church gates that are emblazoned with the cross pattée was the founder of the School of Industrial Art, while her husband, who was also the vicar here, was Hardwicke Rawnsley, who co-founded the National Trust, the organisation created to preserve both areas of natural beauty and our historic sites. In 1913, he and others bought Castlerigg Stone Circle, which is now in the care of the National Trust.
The mosaic floor holds symbols of St Kentigern’s life; a Robin that lived with his teacher, St Serf, that Kentigern restored to life when it was killed, a Tree for the hazel branch the saint used to miraculously ignite a tree to light a monastery in darkness in Culross, a Bell he brought back from Rome and which was used to toll the death knell and ask for prayers for the departed and a Salmon with a ring in its mouth, which tells the story of how the saint found a lost wedding ring inside a fish, for a queen falsely accused of infidelity… a story that crops up several times in British mythology under different guises. Hazel, Robin and Salmon all seem oddly Druidic for a Christian saint, it has to be said.
And, were anything else needed to convince us that there was a lot in this church that needed exploring further, there is a banner inscribed with a Greek motto meaning “in this sign you will conquer”, a motto that was not only adopted by Constantine the Great but by the Knights Templar… and, in some versions of the legend, by King Arthur too…
With all that to ponder, it was almost a relief to get back to the more usual church symbolism and artefacts. The woodwork is superbly carved with heads and symbols, including a wonderful ‘green’ lion and the Four Holy Creatures.
There are medieval brasses commemorating a knight and his lady, as well as the effigies dating to 1495 that are thought to commemorate Thomas Radcliffe and his wife.
These, sadly were not easily accessible as work on the church continues and piles of really interesting-looking stones are everywhere in the chapel, making you wish you could take a closer look…
With all that to see, and more windows than you could expect in a small parish church, we almost missed the memorial to Robert Southey, the poet and historian, who is buried in the churchyard.
All in all, we barely even scratched the surface of this church and it will be well worth a second trip next time we are in the area… though hopefully in warmer weather, when the ‘forest of Celtic cross’ headstones in the churchyard might be explored. One of these belongs to Edith Rawnsley, who supported their use.. Meanwhile, we have the pictures… and a good bit of research still to do!