The treasures of Meon Valley churches

For today’s blog, I am reposting a piece I wrote for the History Girls blog last December, as another of my series about the history of the area of Hampshire where my “Meonbridge Chronicles” are set, the Meon Valley.

I have only recently discovered the website of Hampshire History, which offers all sorts of fascinating snippets about the history and historical artefacts of our lovely county. It was where I learned about the Tournai font in the church of East Meon, which I wrote about in my last History Girls post. But finding that led me on to other discoveries about the treasures of the churches of the Meon Valley. Many of the church buildings are of course treasures in themselves, as I have already shown, but there are also, to some extent hidden within the churches, some especially intriguing artefacts that I thought were worth sharing.

If you are interested in the treasures of other Hampshire churches, do have a look at http://www.hampshire-history.com/category/architecture-artefacts/churches/church-treasures/.

So, today I am going to look at a few of the intriguing items in the churches of Soberton, Corhampton, Exton, Warnford and East Meon. [All photos © David Hughes]

Soberton

St. Peter’s church in Soberton is originally Norman but was extended and rebuilt during the 13th century, then again in the 15th and 16th, with further additions in the 19th century. A small tower of an earlier date was replaced in 1525 by a larger structure and it is here that there is a carving – high up, so easy to miss – that allegedly gave rise to a legend that the tower was built by servants!

Soberton 01 cropped

This photograph shows a skull and two heads, together with a key and what might be a milking pail, though some people think it is a purse. According to the mediaeval legend, the tower was built by a butler and a dairymaid, represented by the carvings of the two heads, and this idea is borne out by a plaque in the tower, which says:

This Tower Originally Built By Servants Was Restored By Servants 1881

For, whatever the truth of the legend – and it does sound unlikely! – the Victorians evidently believed it sufficiently to be able to persuade domestic servants across Hampshire to raise £70 to have the tower restored. How very bizarre!

Soberton 02 croppedSt. Peter’s does also have another memorial with a potentially intriguing story behind it. In the 13th Lady (or Curle) Chapel, there are two fragments of a headstone with the outline of a tulip flower carved into each corner and the date 1712.

The dedication on one fragment is to a man called Robart and, although nothing is known about him, there has been speculation that he might have been caught up in the “tulip mania” of the mid 17th century.

Soberton 04 croppedThe second fragment appears to refer to his wife.

Tulip bulbs were bought and sold like any other valuable commodity, especially in the Netherlands, and prices eventually reached silly heights, before the market collapsed.

 

Corhampton

In Corhampton’s wonderful Saxon church (for more about it, see my History Girls post for October) is a fabulous and rare Saxon sundial, or rather tide dial.

Corehampton 01 croppedThe word ‘tide’ was used to denote a time period and survives today in terms such as ‘eventide’ or ‘yuletide’. In Saxon times, the day was divided into eight tides, each about three hours long. The Corhampton dial is set into the wall immediately to the right of the church’s porch. The dial is divided into the eight tides, rather than the usual twelve hours. In the middle of the dial is a hole where the gnomon would have been positioned. The gnomon is the piece that projects the sun’s shadow onto the dial and would probably have been made from metal. The dial seems to pre-date the building and may even date back to the 7th century, when Bishop Wilfrith was trying to convert the “heathens” in the Meon Valley. It could have been used right up until the Norman conquest, when the use of such dials seemed to fall away.

Exton

The village of Exton forms, with Meonstoke and Corhampton, a group of three small communities that straddle the River Meon a few miles south of the river’s source. In Exton’s 13th century church of St. Peter and St. Paul there is a memorial plaque to John Young, who was Dean of Winchester from 1616 to 1645. Why does he have a memorial here? Although he was born a Scot, in 1585, he was in fact buried in Exton in 1654. He lived at a time of great political upheaval and terror in the country during the English Civil War, but was apparently a great diplomat, and was dean for thirty years until he was removed by Cromwell and retired to his estates near Exton, where he died 1654 and was buried in Exton’s church.

What is rather intriguing is that John wrote the epitaph for his memorial ten years before his death, and he included in it a cryptic message.

IMG_1773

Towards the bottom of the plaque is the following line, with certain letters capitalised:

VenI VenI MI IesV IVDeX VenI CIto

I think the Latin here is: Veni, veni mi, Iesu, Iudex, veni cito, which I assume translates as: Come, come to me, Jesu, Judge, come quickly.

But this line is a chronogram, which is derived from the Greek χρονος meaning “time” and γραμμα meaning “letter”, and is an inscription in which a date is hidden. The idea is that, taking the highlighted capital letters you use (in this case) Roman numerals to work out the encrypted date. From what I have read, the letters don’t have to be in the correct order! As I understand it, the date here is supposed to be when John wrote his epitaph. So if he died in 1654, in theory, the hidden date should be 1644. However, try as I might, I have so far failed to make the Roman letters spell out 1644! Please, if anyone else can solve the puzzle, do let me know…

Exton 02There is another, almost charming, memorial in Exton’s church: the headstone with an inscription to Richard Pratt of Preshaw (a few miles from Exton), who died in 1780. We must deduce that Richard was a bookish sort of chap, for the carving on his headstone shows a man with an elegant bookcase behind him but a figure who we must presume is Death is summoning him away from his reading.

Warnford

There is yet another interesting headstone in the church of Our Lady in Warnford, a mile and a half north of Exton along the River Meon. This one is a great deal older than Richard Pratt’s: it is 13th century and it has no inscription. But the simple cross on the stone apparently marks out the grave as that of a crusader.

Warnford 01 cropped

East Meon

I introduced the wonderful All Saints Church, in East Meon, in my last History Girls post, but promised to say a little more about the astonishing Tournai font. But, first, an interesting, if not mediaeval, story about a small stone plaque that sits on the church’s east wall. It was originally on the floor of the church and, when it was removed, underneath were found the remains of four men were found. All were buried standing up…

East Meon 01 croppedThe men were apparently four parliamentary soldiers, billeted in East Meon in 1644 before fighting in the battle of Cheriton in 1644.  It is said, but can hardly be verified, that they were the ones who stole the lead from the Tournai font to make shot for their weapons.

On the plaque are simply the words ‘Amens Plenty’. I wonder why?

And so to the Tournai font.

The font was carved in the 12th century by the sculptors of Tournai from the hard blue-black limestone from the banks of the river Scheldt in what is present-day Belgium. It arrived in East Meon in around 1150, just as the original church was being completed, and was probably a gift from the then bishop of Winchester, Henry of Blois, who was a grandson of William the Conqueror. Henry was King Stephen’s brother, the Chancellor of England and the richest and most powerful man in the country after the king.

Two sides of the font have images of birds and dragons, floating above a row of pillars.

East Meon 05

East Meon 04

The other two sides show the story of Adam and Eve.

As I understand it, this side shows, from the right, God creating Adam, and then Eve from Adam’s rib. Then Eve is tempted by the snake, which looks more like a dragon with its fangs! And finally Eve tempts Adam with the apple.

East Meon 02

On this side, I think that Adam and Eve are being expelled from the Garden of Eden. Is the angel with the sword barring the miscreants’ way back into Paradise? On the left, an angel is teaching Adam to dig and Eve how to spin (what a giant distaff she has!).

East Meon 03

There are in fact four Tournai fonts in Hampshire, the other three being in Winchester Cathedral, St Peter’s church in St. Mary Bourne (near Andover) and St. Michael’s church in Southampton, with only another three in the whole of the rest of the country, so Hampshire is privileged to have so many!

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