The United Benefice of Breedon and Worthington
Home : Staunton Harold Church : History Help

The Ferrers Chapel of the Holy Trinity

In the year 1653 no doubt owing to the overthrow of the Prayer Book services in the parish church, Sir Robert Shirley built a large and spacious church close to his own mansion at Staunton Harold. When it was completed the Lord Protector demanded a large sum of money from him on the ground that if he could afford to build a church he could afford to provide him with a regiment of soldiers. On his refusal he was imprisoned in the Tower and died suddenly soon afterwards.

The casual observer on first catching sight of the building would be inclined to mistake it for a church of the fourteenth or fifteenth century. It consists of a chancel, a nave with north and south aisles, and a west tower containing a ring of eight bells. The nave has a clearstory and is separated from the aisles by arcades of three bays. The nave roof is almost flat; the other roofs are very low-pitched, and all the wails have embattled parapets. The tower, the west door of which forms the only entrance to the church, is a massive structure of three stages, with pairs of buttresses at the angles. The uppermost stage has two two-light windows in each face and large crocketed angle-pinnacles with vanes.

The chancel is low in proportion to the nave, and is separated from it by a low pointed arch having a blank wall-space above; its details and those of the nave arcades have a close general resemblance to medieval work. There is, however, a complete departure from the English medieval type in the roofs, and also in the woodwork, which is of the kind usual in the early part of the seventeenth century.

Round the outside of the chancel runs an inscription. as follows:


It looks as though his successor wished to cling to old phrases so far as possible, but fighting shy of the prefatory 'have' substituted the assumption 'hath'. Over the entrance, which is at the west end as already mentioned, is this beautiful and touching inscription:

In the yeare : 1653.
when all things sacred were throughout ye nation
either demollisht or profaned
Sr Robert Shirley Barronet
Founded this Church
whose singular praise it is
to have done the best things in ye worst times
hoped them in the most callamitous
The Righteous shall be had in everlasting remembrance.

On entering the church, the first thing that catches the eye is the fine wrought-iron chancel-screen and gates, surmounted by the Shirley Arms. There is a broad gangway between the pews, which are of fine workmanship, of the square type with doors, but not unduly high. Every seat faces east. There are also smaller gangways in the aisles. The oak panelling is carried up the pillars as high as the capitals, and to a corresponding height along the walls.

The walls were originally plastered and distempered, but the plaster, becoming cracked, was unfortunately removed altogether only a short time ago. The stonework beneath is rough and unfinished.

The roofs are boarded and almost flat, and are painted in a most uncommon way with a representation of the Creation. Clouds are the predominating feature, while the sun and moon are in evidence in the nave; and just before the entrance to the chancel, within a 'glory', is the Sacred Name of God . This is a noteworthy example of the very superficial knowledge of Hebrew in those days. Vau () is so clumsily written as to be more like rësh (), while the first letter ought to be yöd () and not vau at all. (Moreover, the insertion of the pointing of the k'ri (what is read) Adonai, would have been thought out of place by anybody who knew that the word Jehovah was formed accidentally from the vowels of Adonai (the Lord) being combined with the K'thiv (what was written), namely the tetragrammaton J H V H.

On the chancel ceiling. just over the altar, is the word surrounded by a circle of winged heads represented alternately as singing 'Halleluiah' and 'Sanctus, Sanctus, Sanctus'. The chancel is on the same level as the nave with no step either up or down, and is quite empty, without stalls of any kind. There is an ascent of three steps to the presbytery.

Until quite recently these steps were fitted with movable kneeling-benches with flat tops permanently hung with houseling-cloths of dark blue or purple cloth, en suite with all the hangings and upholstery in the church.

The Decalogue is now written on one small table to the north of the altar, the Creed and Lord's Prayer being contained on another to the south. This however, was done within living memory, the original Tables of the Commandments being over the chancel arch and so large as to be easily read from the west galley.

The presbytery is paved with squares of black and white marble, and the nave with good flagstones.

The altar itself is just an inch short of 3 ft. high, and the original pall and tasselled cushions are still in use. The flour is, or was, a dark red-purple, with heavy gold fringe, and the altar-pall is pulled out at the lower corners, giving the altar the appearance of being longer than it really is. Altar coverings of this kind are sometimes to be seen in thirteenth-century miniatures, and although their place was taken latterly by the flat straight-hanging frontal familiar to us now, this large loose-fitting type survived in places. There is an interesting eighteenth-century example in a well-known French devotional book.

The design in the midst of the front consists of rays surrounding a crown of thorns, within which is the sacred monogram surmounted by a cross, while the three nails and a heart are beneath. The heart appears also on the almsdish.

A pulpit-hanging with the same design on a smaller scale was found in the house a few years ago, but has not so far been restored to use.

The linen altar-cloth is fringed all round and reaches to the ground in front, and beside the corporas there is a long narrow strip of very old and fine linen. This seems to be a survival of the early medieval type of corporas, which had four folds to the length and three to the breadth. The two eastern folds were turned up behind the chalice and used to cover it. Afterwards, the easternmost fold was severed from the rest and formed a separate strip such as this.

The altar-pall and cushions are removed out of service-time, while the ornaments appear only at the Communion. These consist of two very fine gilt candlesticks, a large and handsome alms-basin, two flagons, two chalices with covers, two sanding patens with covers, and two knives (but these are modern). In accordance with the medieval custom, these are all set out upon the altar by way of decoration, even when all are not required for use. The covers to the chalices and patens are surmounted by crosses. The flagons have 'Holiness to the Lord' on their lids, while the body is engraved with the crown of thorns surrounding the words 'The Blood of the New and Æternal Testament'. Each chalice bas engraved upon its side a figure of the Good Shepherd carrying a lamb upon His shoulders, while one has also the inscription 'My blood is drink indeed', and on its cover 'My mesh is meat indeed'. On the paten-covers are the words 'My Love is crucified', and on the patens themselves 'This is the true Bread that came down from heaven'. The plate is dated 1640 and 1654, and has been dealt with more fully in Trollope's Church Plate of Leicestershire.

The custom has only lately been discontinued of placing two handsomely bound books or textus, for the Epistle and Gospel respectively, on the altar north and south, leaning against the east wall between the alms-basin and candlesticks. These were in addition to the two service-books, and it is a very striking survival of an early custom. There were other cases of survival at Winchester Cathedral, Christ Church, Oxford, and Peterborough, but probably all trace has now disappeared except from old pictures. There are also rubrics for the same in eighteenth-century French missals.

The original books in the library at Staunton Harold, and have crucifixes engraved on both back and front. The books that replaced them are now in the church chest, and a painting in the library shows that at one time they were placed outside the candlesticks at the extreme ends. The Bidding Payer bas never been discontinued.

Marks on the stone-work prove that the pulpit had a sounding-board at one time, and its removal is a disaster, as the position of the pulpit just beyond the spring of an arch puts an enormous strain on the preacher's voice.

The separation of the sexes has been rigidly preserved from the first, the men being placed on the south side, and the women on the north. At the Communion all the women receive first, the men afterwards, and only one railful is allowed within the chancel gates at a time. Each communicant kneels upon a separate cushion.

There is a font at the west end, but rather too much to one side; it has a good cover of simple character worked by brass chains. The priest stands facing north.

A fine screen of Renaissance character separates the nave from the tower and supports the west gallery where the organ stands. Above the organ a species of wooden tympanum covers the apex of the tower-arch, and serves to display the Shirley arms painted on an oval escutcheon. The whole composition is strangely reminiscent of the medieval rood-screen with its loft and tympanum. although it is in reality more to be connected with the pre-Reformation west galleries.

The gallery holds the choir and the very sweet-toned little organ, without pedals, by Father Schmidt. This has been moved eastwards at some time, possibly to give more room in the belfry, but the organist and singers are now distinctly cramped. There is no question as to the genuineness of the organ. Mr. Francis Burgess, the well-known plainsong expert, wrote as follows after examining it: 'The organ stands in its original case in the west gallery, and is now practically the same as when it left the builder's hands some two centuries and a half ago. It contains the usual specification of the period (Open and Stopped Diapasons, Principal, Fifteenth and Sesquialtera), most of the stops being drawn in two halves, a convenient device for a one-manual instrument. The original pipes, entirely of wood, are somewhat the worse for wear, but they still show signs of the superb craftsmanship of their maker. The tone is "small", but by no means ineffective, as the organ is well placed in a splendidly resonant building.'

A verger in gown, carrying a wand, used to add to the dignity of the chapel and its services; but the last occupant had held the post so long, and become so identified with it that at his death no successor was appointed. The gown and wand are still in existence.

Before closing this paper one question arises - Where is the litany-desk? Knowing what we do of the Caroline era, and knowing, too, that Sir Robert Shirley was the very embodiment of all that was best in the ideas of the time, it is hard to believe that what was then looked upon as so essential a piece of furniture could have been missing. There are seventeenth-century litany-desks still existing in Durham Cathedral (the gift of Bishop Cosin) and the parish church of High Wycombe, Buckinghamshire, and it seems highly probable that there was one at Staunton Harold, which was removed during the eighteenth century or the early days of the nineteenth. There are signs that certain changes of questionable character took place about then - e.g. the space partitioned off for a vestry used to be at the east end of the north aisle, but was moved to the south aisle behind the pulpit; also, the writer is inclined to doubt whether the reading-desk was always used for reading Morning and Evening Prayer. The big Prayer Book now in use only dates from 1840, while the Bible is of 1660 - there is not real room for both on the desk, there is no seat, and it does not seem built to kneel to; this is only possible by using a very high hassock, whereas by removing the hassock and placing only the Bible on the cushion, it can at once be seen how ideal it is for reading the Lessons.

The desk below, facing north, is furnished with a seat, and may well have been used by the chaplain, as there could not be a real clerk in a private chapel.

Posterity and present-day ecclesiologists owe a deep debt of gratitude to the Shirley family for the preservation of so much that is of value both in the building itself and its traditional customs.