A warm and sunny Sunday morning in August 2011, and a visit to the church of St Mary at Lower Benefield. The Benefield's (Lower and Upper) are two small villages half a mile apart just to the west of Oundle. The church of Mary covers both villages and is situated in Lower Benefield, close to the site of where Benefield castle used to stand. Benefield Castle was a 13th century stone ringwork fortress, which replaced a fortified Norman manor house. The castle was abandoned early in the 14th century and all that remains today is a mound surrounded by a large ditch.
There was a medieval church on the site of the prersent church, and indeed, the chancel at St Mary dates from the 14th century. However, the rest of the building fell into disrepair and was pulled down. The structure that we see today was built in 1847 by James Watts Russell. Cycling in from the back road from neighbouring Brigstock, the slender elegant spire makes for a lovely sight. Those heading on the A427 towards Upper Benefield and then on towards Weldon will see the spire of St Mary dominate the landscape across what is some very beautiful East Northamptonshire countryside.
Standing in the church grounds and looking upwards one of the things that I first noticed here is some ornate stone carvings at each side of the tower. One is a human creature, one is a lion, another an oxe and the final carving is an eagle. These are symbolic of the four evangelists, with the Human face symbolic of Matthew, the Lion representing Mark, the Oxe being Luke and John being the Eagle. Revelation, chapter 4 verse 7 talks of these four creatures being sat around God's throne "The first living creature was like a lion, the second was like an oxe, the third had a face like a man and the fourth was like a flying eagle"
Those interested in stone carving will find plenty to interest them here, although what is on offer is of no real age. Three stone heads pictured below are fabulous pieces of work, with the human faces twisted in anguish, replicating the work of the medieval stonemasons of hundreds of years before, warning the onlooker of what could await them in hell.
When North compiled his Victorian study of the church bells of Northamptonshire, there were five bells hanging here. These days there are six bells here with one courtesy of Taylor of Loughborough being added in 1911. Several of the bells pre date the building of the present church, with the oldest being dated 1713, and cast by Henry Penn of Peterborough. Thomas Eayre of Kettering cast two of the bells with the first being dated 1733. This has the inscription "Omnia Fiant Ad Gloriam Dei" which translates as "Let all things be done for the glory of God"
The second of Eayre's bells is dated 1755 as has the unusual inscription "Omnis Carnalis Vis Fortis Congruit Herbis Thomas Eayre Fecit 1755". After consulting my Latin speaking Facebook friends we have a translation as follows..."All the mighty strength of man is as grass." This jogged a memory of another Facebook friend who knew this as being taken from a Bible passage. I Peter chapter 1 verse 24 reads "All men are like grass and all their glory is like the flowers of the field; the grass withers and the flowers fall, but the word of the Lord stands for ever". Fascinating to think that this might have been a favourite Bible passage from someone connected with St Mary, some 280 years ago.
One bell was cast by R Taylor of St Neots in 1813. This has on it the names J Hammerton and R Rowell, who were the churchwardens of the day. The final bell is dated 1847, the year that the church was rebuilt, and was cast in London by C&G Mears.
Despite the close proximity of the main road, the church grounds are very peaceful and quiet. Entrance is through an impressive lychgate, pictured bottom right. Lots of the graves here, like the bells, are older than the church itself. It was good to see that a few of the more interesting graves had been built in to the west wall of the churchyard. One of these is a deaths head stone. These feature human skulls and were designed to symbolise the mortality of man to the onlooker, who would probably not be able to read. These types of grave are not all that common in this area but there are a few still about. The script is long since faded on this one but by the look of the grave I would date it to around the mid 18th century.
This church is kept locked to visitors. According to some internet research there are two misericords here that came from Fotheringhay, after the church there was greatly reduced in size following the disolution of the monasteries in the 16th century. From Fotheringhay they found a home at Tansor before coming to Lower Benefield in the early 20th century.
A lovely church, in a picturesque setting. Having started off the day by worshiping at Brigstock, this was the first church of the day that I had photographed. After leaving Benefield I made the short (but uphill!) trip to Weldon and there was another nine churches to follow after that before heading back to my bed and breakfast. A very pleasant time spent here in some gloriously sunny weather.