It’s Surrey Medieval’s Puttenham Church Week! An introduction to the parish church of St John Baptist

Every so often, I elect to make my life a little bit difficult by devising and binge-writing a week’s worth of posts under the banner of a “Surrey Medieval … Week”. So far I’ve done some of the simplest statistical analyses known to Man under the umbrella of Surrey Medieval Stats Week, and discussed a trio of 14th-century field-names from a copy of a Puttenham charter for the purposes of the snappily-titled Surrey Medieval Middle English Field-Names Week. This time around, as the title of this post does more than hint at, I’m keeping my focus on Puttenham but moving away from some unidentifiable fields to the parish’s most recognisable medieval building – the parish church of St John Baptist.


The memorial brass of Edward Cranford, rector of Puttenham from 1400 until his death on 8th August 1431. I’ll say more about Edward and his brass later in SMPCW!

Why have I chosen Puttenham church as the subject of a theme week? Two reasons. Most immediately, this coming Friday (28th October) I am talking to the Puttenham and Wanborough History Society on the subject ‘Lost Rectors of Medieval Puttenham’, following the Society’s AGM. The meeting kicks off at 8pm at the Marwick Hall, School Lane, Puttenham; if you’re in the area why not come along? Non-members will probably have to pay a couple of quid on the door (or spend a fiver and join up for the year!) but I promise you I have soon good tales to tell – and not just about previously-unknown rectors…

The second reason why I’m doing this is because, though I’m not a person of Christian or any other religious faith, I have a lifelong connection with the church building. I was baptised in its font as a baby (the first of two times in my life I have worn a dress), and have a variety of subsequent memories attached to the building: not looking in the right direction when several congregation members claimed to have seen a ghost in the chancel during a Christmas Day service as a young child; freaking out while descending the spiral staircase of the tower during a school visit aged 7 or 8; and most recently rejoicing at seeing the church full of people for my Dad’s memorial service in April this year. Furthermore, it would be impossible for me to be meaningfully interested in the history and archaeology of medieval Puttenham without paying keen attention to its parish church, still for the most part a high to late medieval building.

I thought the best place to begin SMPCW would be with a photo-heavy post giving the reader a taste of the church and some of its medieval (and early modern) features. I mean no disrespect when I say Puttenham’s is an unremarkable church and so not as well known as those of neighbouring Compton or Thursley, for example. In many ways it is typical of the thousands of medieval parish churches across Britain that were substantially restored in the 19th century, with little sensitivity to the preservation of medieval fabric rather than its replacement. What I hope to demonstrate to the reader is that with optimism and patience, scraps of overlooked medieval fabric reveal themselves afresh, and show even “heavy” restorations do not obliterate some of the accumulated patina of centuries of activity within churches. A couple of times, I will give examples of very recent changes to the church interior that have obscured medieval features, and not for reasons of protection and preservation. This has lessened the overall interest of the church; not to a serious extent, but enough as to make suggest to all who care for churches like Puttenham to have a closer look at what’s in front of them when planning alterations.


Inside Puttenham church, 27th December 2015. This is the view through the tower arch looking east. The four bays of the Romanesque nave arcade can be seen on the left, and the rere-arch of the slightly later (but still round-headed) south door on the right. In the centre of the picture is the chancel arch, with the chancel chamber beyond.

Because I’m going to look at the origins of the church in detail in a forthcoming SMPCW post, for now I’ll merely note the earliest fabric belongs to a single-celled structure incorporating nave and chancel without any structural internal divisions, coterminous with the present nave. This was probably built on a previously-undeveloped site at the end of the 11th century or early in the 12th. The first (extant) addition to the church building was the north aisle, usually dated to the second half of the 12th century, perhaps circa 1160, making it one of the earliest such extensions to a Surrey church (which may partly explain the simple and unaccomplished decoration of the capitals of the arcade between nave and aisle).


Compare the shallow and clumsily-executed scalloping on the eastern two full capitals (and the half-capital of the arcade’s east respond)…


…with the westernmost full capital and western half capital; far from the highest quality work, but much more competently designed and executed – as if the latter were carved later when the masons had “got their eye in”.

Walking around the exterior of the church during my most recent visit to Puttenham, I noticed a small number of dressed chalk blocks at the junction between the east end of the aisle north wall, perhaps relocated when the Lady Chapel was added around the dawn of the 13th century. The wall has the look of medieval masonry repointed (most probably during the major 1861 restoration of the church) but not refaced at a later date, which raises the likelihood these blocks – perhaps former quoins – comprise previously-unnoticed later 12th-century fabric.


Dressed stone blocks (former quoins?) at the junction of the nave north aisle (right side of image) and later north/Lady chapel (left side).

The next surviving additions to the church were the present chancel and north/Lady chapel, usually ascribed to the late 12th century or (more often) the early 13th – the two-bay arcade between the two certainly has the look of work built in the 1200s. (Intriguingly, the chapel has a larger floor area than the chancel.) So far as we can tell, both were built at the same time – they share the same alignment, a few degrees different from the axis of the nave – although there are few features to help support the concept of a common date of construction. One thing that suggests they were coeval is the record of fragments of stone string-course being found in the north wall of the chapel during its restoration in 1910 that were comparable to the anonymous, rather bashed-about round string-course on the south wall of the chancel.


In March 2015, I climbed a ladder to put new candles in the candelabra lighting the high altar, and took the opportunity to take this photo looking west through the chancel arch to the nave and tower. On the right is the two-bay chancel arcade (partly infilled by ornate modern woodwork); on the extreme left can be seen the noted 15th-century “low side” window.


String-course section on the south wall of the chancel. Another comparable course runs across the wall behind the high altar, but this was rebuilt in the 1861 restoration and may be a 19th-century introduction.


Close up of the string-course; note the roughness of its central section, surely the damage sustained over centuries, not decades.

It’s quite likely there was an earlier chancel cell, built in response to the addition of the nave aisle (as it runs the entire length of the postulated original church, thereby overlapping with the eastern extremity logically reserved for the high altar). This may have been part and parcel of the aisle project, or a delayed resolution to the internal spatial complications caused by the new aisle. The latter eventuality might be preferred if weight is attached to the postulation, made by Philip Mainwaring Johnston in his account of the architectural history of the church printed in the Victoria History of the County of Surrey, that the style of the chancel arch is sufficiently distinctive as to intimate it pre-dates all that stands east of it. Indeed, its sequence of mouldings is broadly comparable to those of the nave south door (sorry, no photo for you!), which has been dated by various authorities to the period between circa 1170 and 1200. Together, they just might comprise a second phase of later 12th-century investment in the church fabric.


The more I look at the chancel arch, the more I notice the little details – such as these little roll mouldings at the top of the chamfers underneath the imposts – that affirm its interest and relative accomplishment.


One of the less obvious characteristics of the chancel arch is that it juts out at an angle into the nave, presumably an unintended product of its construction. This is readily apparent in this view looking through the 19th-century lectern arch on the north side of the chancel arch.

Th chancel contains a number of the church’s most interesting later medieval features. I’ve included a detail of the mid-15th-century Cranford brass above, which was fortunate to not be covered over when the chancel was re-carpeted in recent years, a fate that befell a medieval encaustic tile (whose zoomorphic design is believed to represent a goat) just inside the altar rail. Set into the floor behind the high altar (and mercifully not masked by carpet) is the major part of a medieval altar stone, found beneath the chancel floor during one of the restorations of the earlier 20th centuries. I’d love to know if there is any published scholarship that may help to date this unusual survival. Perhaps the form of the three incised crosses it bears – two of which are shown in the photos below – may hold the key? I wonder if it might date from the period when the church underwent significant remodelling in the earlier 14th century, embodied by the south chapel (now housing the organ and choir room), most of the surviving roofs, a number of (heavily-restored) windows, and perhaps the aforementioned hidden encaustic tile. This would tie in with documentary evidence that shows pre-Black Death Puttenham was populous and the scene of a dynamic land economy at the time.

Much as I love the wonky details of the nave arcade and chancel arch, architecturally speaking the finest medieval feature of Puttenham church is its chancel south-west “low side” window. This is quality early 15th-century work, with corbels at the ends of the external drip course in the forms of an angel and a bishop – or at least a man in a pointed cap! Its western third includes the “low side” light, with possible original ironwork on its external face. This feature is curiously absent in 18th- and early 19th-century depictions of the church, though its stonework is not noticeably different from the rest of the window and it is hard to see why such a feature would be created during a 19th-century restoration. Accepting it to be an original feature, however, makes explaining its intended purpose no less easy. A valuable article by Paul Barnwell in issue 36 of Ecclesiology Today (thanks to English Parish for bringing this to my attention) runs through the various suggestions made over the decades about the function(s) of low side windows, before introducing a new hypothesis of their being for ventilation. The argument is well-reasoned, but I do feel in the case of Puttenham’s window that form goes far beyond function, and that ventilation of the west end of the chancel could have been achieved in a much less ostentatious manner. Maybe we’ll never know for certain its original function.

The final medieval addition to Puttenham church was the west tower (I will add that I harbour suspicions the pre-1400 church building was too large and comparatively complex for it not to have had a tower, perhaps one made of timber?). This was added in 15th century (although to me it bears more than a passing resemblance to the century-earlier west tower of Frensham church). Some local historians have attributed its commencement to Edward Cranford, in which case it was begun before 1431, and claimed that it was not completed until the early years of the 16th century. I don’t know the medieval textual basis of such claims, and feel these are assertions trying to match up vague architectural dating with very specific but very scarce historical testimony. The tower’s construction is remembered by the series of external putlog holes on its three main faces. These used to be home to nesting/roosting doves and jackdaws until (regrettably in my opinion) they were blocked off by grilles in the recent restoration of the tower and belfry. On my last visit, a swarm of bees had moved defiantly into two adjoining putlog holes.


South face of Puttenham church tower, showing series of putlog holes (the bees nest was in the second hole up on the left).

Inside the tower, on the arch communicating with the nave, are a number of incised graffiti that have never been noted in any previous study of the church. The combination of extensive replacement of stonework as part of 19th-century restoration and subsequent whitewashing of the church’s internal walls and arches means these may well stand for a much larger number of original examples. Certainly, many medieval churches are filled with graffiti. The study of medieval graffiti is enjoying a heyday, with a well-received book published last year and several county surveys now underway in English counties (including Surrey, although it appears to have been on hiatus for a couple of years). Puttenham’s possible medieval graffiti are modest, but nevertheless of interest at a local level.

Most of the visible examples are to be found on the north jamb of the tower arch. Among those to be found on the western chamfer, the most conspicuous is a coupled cross – or a cross superimposed on a triangle. For what it’s worth, I’m confident it’s total coincidence that Puttenham’s war memorial also takes the form of a coupled cross. The adjacent bookcase abutting the western face of the arch has caused two other graffiti to become obscured from view: a “tailed lozenge” (or possibly an angular, vertical fish!) and the letters “A H”. Fortunately I took rubbings of both a few years ago, which I reproduce for posterity below.

A little lower down on the main face of the north jamb are a couple of faintly-incised gridded patterns. One of these appears to have an arched head, and looks rather like a traceried window of the so-called Perpendicular style. Just possibly is an evocation of the tower’s original west window, which was blocked by the early 19th century and reopened with all new tracery in the 1861 restoration. The date of the tower arch means that all graffiti can be no earlier than the late 15th century: the possible window etching could be post-medieval, but I would argue the cross, by dint of its subject matter, is more likely to be 16th century or earlier (allowing for a slow shift from Catholic to Protestant influences among parishioners-cum-graffiti carvers).

The designs on the tower arch are not the only graffiti evident inside the church. In the chancel are some interesting incised letters, probably of early modern origin. The most conspicuous example, on the east face of the northern respond of the chancel arch, is also the most explicable; “HB 1625” must be associated with one of the two men named Henry Beedell, father and son, who were rectors for a remarkable 96 consecutive years between 1598 and 1694. In 1625, the elder Henry was rector, but it’s conceivable his son was literate (and naughty) enough to carve his initials on the chancel wall by that date. Much less apparent is a second carving a little higher on the same. It consists of an “H” and the fainter remains of a second letter to its right, perhaps a “P” – or possibly “B”? If so, maybe we have a case of “like father, like son”!

Near to these graffiti, on the western respond of the chancel arcade, the letters “RM” are carved into the masonry in a simplistic style not dissimilar to the fainter of the two initials mentioned in the previous paragraph. No incumbent with these initials is known; it has been posited that they stand for Richard Marlyn, a man associated with Rodsall in the parish during the Elizabethan period. If true, this would make the graffito earlier than the 1625-dated one close by. As for the other letter-like etchings at the western end of the chancel arcade, it certainly looks like we have an “A” and perhaps another “H”, but they’re not obviously associated in the same way as the “A H” on the tower arch, and they may be nothing more than meaningless juvenile doodles.

So there you have it, a whizz through of just a few of the less obvious features of the medieval church. In the coming days I’ll upload a paper on the place of the church within the local landscape and what this might say about its origins, present extracts from episcopal registers recording a fraught few months in the life of the church and parish in 1307, and try to identify the original function of a stone grave slab that’s lain unnoticed on the floor of the tower for many years. All that and give my talk on the Friday night. Oof, this week’s gonna be a busy one.




About Robert J S Briggs

Back to being a part-time early medievalist; Surrey born, London based, been known to travel
This entry was posted in Architecture, Church, History, Puttenham, SMPCW, Talk and tagged , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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