St Mary's Church datestone 2

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This article by Jean Arthur was first published in the 1986 Annual Bulletin of La Société Jersiaise

Hearty commendations to Peter Bisson and Christopher Aubin for their careful comparative study of our island's parish churches based largely on a minute examination of the physical structure of the buildings themselves and set out in their article in the Annual Bulletin for 1985.

One cannot but hope however, that they, or some other dedicated researchers, will extend the work not only to cover parish churches throughout the diocese, that is the area administered by the Bishop of Coutances at the time when the churches were built, but also into the ecclesiastical records, both locally and at the centre of the diocese. The story of the island's churches should be seen in relation to the broader history of the diocese and that of the Dukedom of Normandy as a whole.

Datestone

It is in the interpretation of the date MCCCXLII recorded in stone near the apex of the east gable of the south chapel at Saint Mary's Church that the writer begs to differ from Messrs Bisson and Aubin. The evidence of one's eyes is not to be lightly discounted. The authors illustrate two dates side by side. On the left the stone at Saint Mary's, Jersey, and on the right a dated stone from Garway, Herefordshire. The first they read as 1542, that is, taking the first C to be a V in order to make it fit the architectural evidence for the building of the south chapel as a whole which, according to their comparative study, conforms to other buildings of a 16th century date. The second date they read, as does this writer, as 1326.

Erudite friends and acquaintances shown these two dates in isolation, and therefore relying on the visual aspects alone, read the two dates either as 1342 and 1326 or as 1742 and 1726. In every case the reader put both dates into the same century. Those who decided that the first C was different from the others read it as a D inscribed in reverse, for 500, giving 1742 and 1726. One does find reversed letters on domestic buildings but on a church, where the work was supervised by the learned men of the age, it is not conceivable that an inaccurate stone would have been accepted.

Joan Stevens points out that if 500 had been intended, D was the recognised representation of this figure in Roman numerals in the 16th century and that it is difficult to see, therefore, why the mason did not, if 1542 really was intended, carve MDXLII. It is true, as noted by Messrs Bisson and Aubin that VCc was used in manuscript but, nevertheless, the eye refuses to read a C as a V. No one among these erudite friends read the first C as a V. It is interesting that one of them, who is French, noting that the first C was different from the others confidently read it as a C lying on its back with longer finial strokes than the others.

In order to prove their supposition that the first C represents a V Messrs Bisson and Aubin would need to produce a substantial number of similar examples where the building is undeniably 16h century. The same mason is likely to have carved more than one date stone in the diocese.

If one examines closely the stone on the south chapel at Saint Mary's Church one sees that the different treatment given to the first C is merely embellishment of the initial. All three Cs are closed by a vertical line on the right hand side. Each of them has a stroke on the left leading to the main curved form of the letter. In the case of the first C it starts higher up on the stone than the letter itself and leads to the straight stroke which caps the C and ends in a small upward finial stroke at the top right hand corner.

Alternatively it could be a C lying on its back as described above. In the cases of the other two Cs the stroke starts just outside the lower left hand curve of the letter, joins its main upward stroke which it follows over the top to end with a similar finial to the first. What Messrs Bisson and Aubin have taken to be a stop between the first and second Cs is in fact the beginning of this upward curving stroke and is part of the second C. It will also be noted that the third C is less clearly defined than the second.

Similarly, it will be noted that the three Cs on the 1326 stone from Garway differ as much from each other as do those on the gable at Saint Mary's and yet, strangely, the two authors read them differently.

Experience

After over 30 years experience of reading historical evidence both from manuscript sources and from inscriptions in our local stone it is the present writer's humble submission that visual evidence should not be mistrusted. One must not fall into the trap of disbelieving such evidence because it does not fit the facts as one knows them, nor, emphatically, must one be tempted to twist visual evidence till it fits known facts. Time and again experience has proven that things which do not make sense initially become clear when further evidence is found, often from some unexpected source.

It is not possible at present to explain why the east gable of the south chapel at Saint Mary's is dated 1342 whereas the comparative study of Messrs Bisson and Aubin suggests that the south chapel as a whole is of a 16th century date. Some evidence is missing which may be revealed when, as one hopes, the study of the whole subject is extended to include the Norman mainland.

It is possible either that the east gable of the south chapel at Saint Mary's Church with its stone dated MCCCXLII is all that remains from a chapel of that date or that the present chapel is built from the stone of an earlier building.

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