Albion, ancient sites, Art, Don and Wen

Rooted in the Land – tombs and stained glass.

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We’d driven a fair way, skirting Birmingham and every other town we could reasonably avoid. The English countryside, no matter where you go, is beautiful and I don’t think I could ever get bored driving its lanes. Now, though, we were back on roads I knew for a while, following part of my usual route through Derbyshire. It seemed a good time to stop and stretch our legs. I knew just the place. We’d been here before… well, I had… and I’d brought my companion too, though we had found the church in the middle of a service and been unable to look around. “I have no memory of this place,” he said. That was good, we could explore.

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It was odd really, when I thought back; although I pass through this hamlet almost every time I come north, it had been on this same trip towards Ilkley and the Harvest of Being weekend that I had visited this little church, just a year ago. I remembered the interior well, as it has a rich store of artwork, from painted ceilings to angel-carved trusses in the hammer-beam roof and a magnificent screen. It had also had bats roosting in the rafters.

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There has been a recorded church at Fenny Bentley since at least 1240AD and it is dedicated to St Edmund, King and Martyr and aligned on an east-southeast axis to face the rising sun on St Edmund’s Day, 20th November, commemorating his death o that date in 869AD. Edmund was King of East Anglia and the legend says that he was killed by the advancing Great Heathen Army  for his refusal to renounce his faith. Beaten, shot full of arrows and beheaded, his head lay lost in the woods until it called his people to where it lay, guarded between the paws of a wolf.

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The body was venerated and, when later exhumed some decades later, was found to be incorrupt, the arrow wounds healed, the skin soft and fresh as if he were sleeping… and the head reattached. The story bear a good deal of resemblance to several other martyrdoms, like that of St Sebastian, and it has been suggested that Edmund may have been a sacred king, or priest-king. Abbo of Fleury, writing some years after Edmund’s death, states that he was of a noble and ancient race, yet no records now exists to place Edmund within a royal dynasty.

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There are some beautiful stained glass windows showing other saints, biblical scenes and members of the Fitzherbert and Beresford families. Above the altar in the chancel, with its painted reredos, is a superb piece of art and craftsmanship showing Jesus with the children flanked by four of the Marys: the Virgin and the Magdalene are portrayed a young and ideally beautiful, Mary Cleophas and Mary Salome seem to be portraits of older women and I wonder about the women from whom they were drawn.

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The font is one of the oldest remains in the church, probably pre-dating it and coming from an earlier site. It is a simple thing at first glance, but a closer look reveals a plant.. or a stylised flame.. or a tree supporting the basin itself. The most striking things, though, are the painted aluminium ceiling and panels in the Beresford chapel and the family tomb of Sir Thomas Beresford, his wife Agnes and their 21 children, all portrayed in alabaster in their shrouds. Beresford died in 1473, having lived at Bentley Hall and raised a private army to fight for Henry V at the battle of Agincourt on St Crispin’s Day, Friday, 25 October 1415. In the porch remain the sharpening groves made by arrows, as the law at that time required able-bodied men aged between 16 and 60 to practise archery after Mass.

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There are other curious details in some of the memorials in the church, reflecting both the fashions and symbolism of times gone by and the crests of the families buried in the little church. Outside in the churchyard the life and death of the village still goes on, with modern inhumations decked with fading flowers just yards from ancient tombs crumbling into decay. It is in this very continuity and equality that some of the charm of these old places lies… it is not the history of a building, but the story of a community that lies within its walls.

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Our legs were stretched, photographs taken and the crosses in the churchyard duly examined. The pub in the village would not yet be open for refreshments and, although we still had a way to go, we would be on familiar territory for a while. The next hurdle was Sheffield. Common sense dictated that we should take the known ways through the town to access the motorway, thus avoiding Leeds too yet going fairly directly to our destination. But given a choice between common sense and the long way round through open countryside… well, there was no hesitation. I pointed the car towards Buxton and we headed for the hills…

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