Thursday, March 6, 2014
Two hundred years on
Dedicated church crawlers will have guessed when I did my previous post about the barn at Mildenhall that I was making for the parish church of St John the Baptist, a short distance along the same lane. This is a medieval building with a charming stone exterior that does nothing to prepare one for what is inside – a set of fittings of 1816 that is by any standards a remarkable survival.
The church boasts a full set of box pews, a tall pulpit and reading desk with backboards and canopies, and wooden panelling to dado level around the walls. Above the chancel arch are the painted royal arms of George III. That's appropriate as George was still nominally king when the church was refitted in 1816, although the Regency of his son, begun because of the king's illness, was underway by this time. The style of the fittings is Georgian, in that hybrid of classical and Gothic that is typical of this kind of work of the period, and if one didn't know the date, one might easily suppose that they were a couple of decades earlier.
In the chancel there are more fittings of 1816. As well as choir stalls and more panelling, there are boards inscribed with the Lord's Prayer and the Commandments, these boards rising to an ornate ogee-carved centrepiece behind the altar. At the west end of the church there is also a matching organ gallery.
Fittings like these were not the kind of thing that the Victorians generally liked. Increasingly as the 19th century went on, the Anglican church focused on ritual in an appropriate setting – a setting that was more correctly Gothic than what we see at Mildenhall. As a result, items such as inscribed panels and Georgian box pews were frequently removed and replaced with fittings more obviously Gothic and more in accordance with Victorian views of beauty and holiness. Churches like Mildenhall, with their different, more Georgian (and more word-based) beauty, are therefore rare.
It's fair to say that something was lost when fittings like this were removed. There is something practical about the preaching facilities, the texts, the neat seating. It's also attractive, and winningly domestic – it's God's house, if not even God's drawing room. As the light poured through the largely clear glass windows on the morning I was there, it was easy to see how well it all works.