St Mary's Church datestone 3

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This article by Arnold Taylor was first published in the 1989 Annual Bulletin of La Société Jersiaise

A piece of epigraphic evidence, the traditional interpretation of which is said to "upset the understanding of every other church" in Jersey, and which, whether or not it be properly described as a 'slab', we are told "caused more difficulty in interpreting Channel Island churches than any other feature" during Mr McCormack's investigation of them, clearly has an exceptionally strong claim to the most scrupulous examination and, if need be, re-examination, in order that its implications for the historical development, not only of the church to which it is intergral, but also, where relevant, for the chronology of the whole group of Jersey's churches, may be seen more clearly.

Further study

To subject the epigraphy of the Saint Mary datestone to such further study is the purpose of the present paper. In contributing it the writer is particularly mindful of an obligation to Joan Stevens, who remained unshaken in her belief that there was no case for not continuing to accept 1342 as the obvious and correct reading of the stone's date, a belief strongly supported and endorsed by Jean Arthur. The importance of the matter is underlined by the consideration that the 1342 date, if correct, makes the Saint Mary stone "by far the earliest dated stone so far recorded in the island".

Commenting on Miss Arthur's note in the 1986 Bulletin, Mr Bisson and Mr Aubin say their alternative reading of 1542 "has been fully accepted by Doctor Taylor and Doctor Rodwell. For my own part I do not dispute this. However, because of the sharp divergence of view, I have felt called upon to look at the evidence again, and to do so in the light of a wider range of approximately contemporary parallels for both interpretations of the Saint Mary inscription than I had realised was desirable at the time I first became involved in the argument.

This was in 1984, when a letter from Joan Stevens sought my opinion on the then novel suggestion that, because of the first of the three Cs in the Saint Mary inscription appears to be cut somewhat differently from the two Cs that follow it, it should be read as a V, with the two following digits equivalent to suprascript, the whole thus being read as M. V. CC.XLII (1542) instead of the hitherto unquestioned M.CCC.XLII (1342). In reply, I said I would myself certainly have read the Saint Mary date as 1342, and that it put me in mind of the 1326 date cut in the lintel of the dovecote at Garway (Herefordshire), of which I would produce photographs. These I was able to secure and send a week or so later, still seeing the Garway inscription as providing a not dissimilar, if rather rudimentary, piece of Lombardic date carving, separated in time by only 16 years from the hitherto accepted date of the Saint Mary stone.

In acknowledging receipt of the Garway photos, Joan cogently wrote "Anyway, if it were 1542, could it be in that lettering? Would it be in Latin numerals at all then? The earliest date I can think of at the moment is a 1551 on a cannon, 1551 on an arch at Mont Orgeuil, all in arabic numerals. Again, would they have made a piscina, aumbry and stoup as late as that? The Reformation had been rumbling and grumbling around England and the continent for some years by 1542.

Shortly afterwards Peter Bisson asked me to comment on a draft of the paper subsequently published by himself and Christopher Aubin in the 1985 Bulletin, mentioning that they were not only both "quite certain" that the south chapel at Saint Mary cannot (Mr Bisson's italics) be earlier than the end of the 15th century, but that Mr McCormack also was of the same opinion, and that Doctor Rodwell was "very unhappy about accepting a 1342 date-stone as authentic".

View changed

In support, the draft paper quoted the example of a ledger stone at Grandson, near Neuchatel (Switzerland), on which the date 1508 appears in the form Mo. VC. VIII, with a Lombardic M. Confronted with this weight of opinion, I accepted the new reading and 16th-century date of the Saint Mary stone, and wrote to Mr Bisson: "I now see that you are right and I was wrong".

Mr Bisson was elated, Joan Stevens downcast, writing "My colleague Jean Arthur is still not convinced, and I still find it hard to see the first C as a V", and again, later, and very much to the point, "the Cs, if for century, are no smaller than the digit for the 5, if that is what it is". Her doubts, coupled with Jean Arthur's pungent note in the 1986 Bulletin, gave the writer much food for thought, of which this article is the outcome.

The fundamental need, it is suggested, is to extend the range of relevant comparative material beyond the few examples (Garway, Grandson, the Hamptonne chapel at St Lawrence) hitherto cited. This we now seek to do. If the instances which follow seem a somewhat random selection, it is because they reflect nothing more orderly than the writer's custom, of 30 years standing, of photographing dating inscriptions when and wherever they happen to have been encountered.

There are innumerable examples of dated memorial brasses and ledger slabs throughout western Europe from the 13th to the 16th century, and thus in context with both 1342 and 1542, but it is questionable whether inscriptions on this class of monument provide the best comparisons for the purpose of determining the correct reading of a datestone on a building. Of still less relevance, perhaps, is the way in which a Jersey scribe might have dated a written document at either period.

My aim is to provide a sequence of non-funerary inscriptions, especially of the 14th and 16th centuries, and to consider to which part of such sequence the Saint Mary stone appears the more closely to relate, and to which (it must follow) it is the more likely to belong.

14th century group

Let us take the 14th-century group first. As at Saint Mary, the Lombardic M is used at Colsterworth (1300), Garway (1326), Najac (1344) and Lazise (1376), and also in the interior inscription at Great Bookham (1341); the same goes for all our earlier examples from 1063 (Pomposa) onwards. At Lazise, '300' is 'IIIc'; there would thus be nothing distinctively 16th-century about the 'Vc' form for '500' if that were the right reading of Saint Mary date.

If we now turn to the much debated first of the three Saint Mary Cs, it will be noted that the vertical closing stroke is plainly present in the third C also, and, further, that there is likewise a much weathered trace of it in the second C; the same stroke is still distinguishable, despite weathering and lichen, in all the three Cs at Garway, and is also seen at Colsterworth and on the fountain at Najac. Though it is differently treated, the crossed X at Saint Mary parallels the 'broken' XS at Garway.

Lombardic script is used increasingly less commonly after c1350, and by the early 15th century Black Letter script has generally taken over; the Black Letter inscription at Church Enstone (1382) marks an early stage in the change and as Sion (1450), Widey (1478) and Angmering (1507) show, it is the norm, both in England and on the continent, throughout the 15th and on into the first half of the 16th century. By c1550 Black Letter figures are giving place increasingly to arabic numerals on both sides of the channel, as, eg, on the tower of Saint Peter's church at Coutances (1550) or over the east window at Southwick (1555).

Moving on from the scrutiny of individual letters and figures, we turn to other aspects of the Saint Mary datestone that may be compared with what we find elsewhere. The stone has a certain vernacular simplicity which, for all the differences, is also characteristic of the 14th-century inscriptions at Colsterworth, Garway and Lazise, in sharp contrast to the well-executed formality of the 16th-century stones at Angerming, Coutances Saint Pierre and Southwick. Even allowing for weathering, this relatively inferior workmanship of itself tilts the balance of probability from the 16th towards the 14th-century reading of the date.

Another question is whether or not the datestone is coeval with the wall below it, or whether it goes with the gable edge stones, which are of a lighter colour, and look at first sight as if they might have belonged to a later re-roofing. I do not think that this is the case. Gables formed of squared blocks necessarily terminate, course by course, in stepped edges; and before their coping stones can be set in position, a sloping foundation has to be provided across the receding ends of the successive ashlar layers. This is what we see at Saint Mary.

Because they are structurally complementary there would seem to be no reason for supposing the horizontal courses and sloped edges to be other than contemporary, even though some if not all of the edging stones appear to be reused; thus the stone clasping the upper right-hand corner of the datestone looks like a reused piece of ridge cresting seen in section.

For the simple date set in two lines of figures a single block sufficed, enabling it to serve as a topping-out stone marking the completion of the work. It can scarcely be doubted, whatever may have been said in the past, that the dedication ceremony it may commemorate must have taken place in 1342 and not 200 years later.

Valle Crucis

An instructive simile is afforded by the gable of the west front of Valle Crucis abbey in Denbighshire. Both the church and the conventual buildings of Valle Crucis suffered greatly in the Welsh wars, and of over 80 compensation payments for damage to churches made before the king left Chester in November 1284, the award of £160 to the abbot and convent of Valle Crucis was exceeded only by the £250 paid to the bishop of Bangor. For how long the work of repair went on we do not know, but it was not completed until Abbot Adam's time in the first half of the 14th century. High up on the gable, rather as at Saint Mary but ten or eleven courses below the apex, is a now almost illegible inscription in Lombardic capitals: + ADAM: ABBAS: FECIT: HOC: OPVS:

Had these five words stood alone, as one suspects they would have been designed to do, they would have been approximately central to the sides of the gable; instead, the space to their right is occupied by the words IN : PACE:, and, at the end of the next course above, there are the words QVIESCAT: AMEN. This odd arrangement seems unlikely to be the result of an error in setting out, and suggests that Adam may have died just as the gable was nearing completion. The dates of his abbacy are unknown and the nearness or otherwise of the inscription to 1342 cannot therefore be estimated.

But the ashlar construction common to both, and the inclusion of a mark of date in Lombardic characters, exact at Saint Mary, by attribution at Valle Crucis, are again to be seen as pointers to a 14th rather than a 16th century interpretation of M.CCC.XLII. Also, in its present condition, the Valle Crucis gable, with the coping in position on one side and wanting on the other, helps to illustrate what has been said above about the need for some form of bedding between horizontal course-ends and sloping cover stones.

The authors of the 1985 article on the Saint Mary datestone consider "it is not safe to rely on phases of English architectural development as evidence for the dating of mediaeval buildings in the Channel Islands, which were wholly French in type with a pronounced stylistic time-lag owing to the isolation of the island communities". Nevertheless an English antiquary cannot escape feeling that there is a certain Englishness about the persona of the Saint Mary south chapel; partly a matter of overall proportions, partly of individual components.

Parallels for the tall, evenly-spaced two-light side windows, for the slender three-light east window, for the stubby diagonal buttresses (formerly at the south-west as well as the south-east) are commonplace in 14th-century work in English parish churches; the poppy-head finials of the drip stones are another early 14th-century characteristic.

Further comparisons

We may make two further comparisons. The first, because of its almost exact contemporaneity with Saint Mary, is with the chancel of Saint Nicholas, Great Bookham, Surrey, built by Abbot John de Rutherwyk of Chertsey, and securely dated by inscription to the year 1341.

Precise epigraphic dating of a whole section of a church, such as a new chancel or added side chapel, is by no means common, and so close an affinity in time between an example of the one at a Surrey church in 1341 and of the other at a Jersey church in 1342 is of interest in the present context.

Our second comparison is with the church of All Saints, Monk Sherborne, in Hampshire. Monk Sherborne belonged to the neighbouring alien priory of West Sherborne, now usually known as Pamber Priory, the only daughter house in England of the abbey of Cerisy-la-Foret, the patrons of Saint Mary, Jersey. Originating as a 12th-century building, it was not enlarged in the 14th century as was Saint Mary; rather it was 'modernised', its small Norman side windows replaced by larger windows of two lights, and the upper half of its east wall, where bases at string level remain as evidence of former blind arcading on either side of a romanesque central window, entirely rebuilt. With this latter change went the strengthening of the north-east corner with a diagonal buttress very similar to the south-eastern diagonal buttress at Saint Mary.

Such angle buttresses are a 14th-century commonplace, and the fact that so ordinary a feature is found at both Saint Mary and Monk Sherbourne would in itself provide no ground for wondering whether a Cerisy builder might possibly have been employed at both churches. But an unusual feature to be seen at the neighbouring priory church at Pamber End seems to show that direct architectural contact between Cerisy and its English dependency, at any rate in the early 13th century, may not have been as improbable as it sounds.

The pairs of circular windows east of the crossing are unusual enough to invite a search for parallels; and at Cerisy we find a very clear parallel in the triplet of circular openings on the outward side of the great gatehouse, echoed in the use of simple circles in the tracery heads of all six windows on the inward side.

It is tantalising not to know the reason for the substantial enlargement of Saint Mary in 1342, and to know the date but not to know who gave the money. The authors of the church guide speculate on the possibilities of increased prosperity from sheep farming, or a population explosion. We should perhaps not lose sight of another factor - the war with France. In 1342 Saint Mary, in common with other Channel Island churches belonging to abbeys on the French mainland, and with all the priories and possessions of the 'alien' religious in England, was in the hands of the king, who had seized them in 1337, as Edward I had done in 1295 and Edward II in 1324-25.

The French attacked the islands, and between 1337 and 1340 only Jersey remained in English hands. Could it be that the loss of the other islands to the French caused some exodus of refugees to Jersey at this time, leading to a degree of increased population and consequent pressure on space in some of the churches?

The conclusion of this reappraisal seems, at least to the writer, to be that there is a sufficiency of reasons, epigraphic, architectural and political, for abandoning the proposal to retard, by 200 years, the traditional and straightforward reading of the Saint Mary datestone, and for one at least of the participants in the controversy to cry peccavi.

We have found no example of a dating inscription that would support reading the M. CCC. XLII of the Saint Mary stone as the equivalent of M. V. ccXLII; and while M.V.c (Grandson, Melan) is a legitimate form for 1500, M.V.cc is wholly unknown. On the other hand M.CCC (Colsterworth, Garway, Najac, Church Enstone) is the commonest way of introducing dates in the 1300s, and the wider investigation here attempted offers no ground for supposing that the Saint Mary stone does not conform to it.

If this means that we cannot after all place the south chancel of Saint Mary's Church "confidently alongside all other 16th-century work" in the churches of the Islands, so be it: other reappraisals may prove to be called for.

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