A Lecture on the History & Architecture of the Church of St Firmin Thurlby
Delivered by Mr William Groome of St John’s College Cambridge
In the School Room Thurlby on the evening of
Thursday April 6th 1865
First a brief note on Architecture as we see in Churches.
Gothic Architecture is divided into two classes, according to the date at which the style prevailed Anglo Saxon styled prevailed before the Norman Conquest and is distinguished by triangular headed arches, by a peculiar arrangement of stones, which form the angles of the towers, which is called “long and short work.”
After this came the Norman style, and many of the peculiarities of the Norman Period are seen in it, thus we have semicircular arches resting on capitals supported by plain single pillars.
Immediately following the Norman comes the Early English Style. The great peculiarity of this style is the high narrow pointed archway called the Lancet Arch.
The style, which succeeded the Early English Style, was the Decorated. This style was so called from the profusion and rich character of its decoration both in wood and stone.
The last of the styles, properly so called, is that which was common between 300 to 400 hundred years ago and which is known as the Perpendicular. This style derives its name from the mullions or panelling of the windows being perfectly upright or perpendicular and in this way it is distinguished from the decorated. Another peculiarity is the shape of the archway, which is flatter and more obtuse heading than preceding styles. Many churches of this age are even more full of decoration than those in the style technically called Decorated
We now turn to the Church of St Firmin.
Part of the tower of Thurlby church appears to be of the Anglo Saxon style of architecture, which is called long and short work. In all probability many of the stones that form that tower have occupied their present position for more than 900 years. The body of Thurlby church is in the Norman Style and many of the peculiarities of the Norman period are to be seen in it, thus we have the semicircular arches resting on capitals supported by plain single pillars. All the arches in the body of the church are of this style and we may notice that the capitals are all ornamented differently, no two are exactly alike.
In the south wall of the chancel, on the inside, is a semicircular arch in a very strange position ornamented with one of the most peculiar features of the Normans Style, the Zigzag Ornament.
The whole of the north porch is in the Early English style as is also the outer arch of the south porch. Immediately above this arch is a little trefoil headed recess, this is supposed to have been intended for the image of the patron saint St Firmin. This trefoil ornament representing three small leaves forming one large one is believed to be a symbol of the Holy Trinity- the three in one. The chancel and the transept are also in the early English style.
In the chancel, on each side are two tall, narrow lancet windows, wider in the inside than in the outside and on this account called splayed windows, we see another specimen in the belfry, in the pretty little window now filled with stained glass representing St Andrew with his cross.
The large and magnificent East window (now filled with stained glass, the costly and liberal gift of Thomas Cooke Hubbard Esq. the Lay Rector) is in the perpendicular style. It seems to have been inserted about 200 years after the chancel was rebuilt, very probably in place of three tall narrow lancet windows of the Early English Age. The perpendicular mullions and panelling, the peculiarities of this style, are very clearly defined in this window. but it is almost entirely free from the decoration so common at that period. The reredos below (the generous gift of Mrs Worsley) which consists of seven obtuse headed arches of this style, is much more full of ornament, in the middle is an ornament of a long and oval shape, this is intended as a rough representation of a Fish, and is regarded as the symbol of Christ.
A very beautiful and very ancient wooden screen of the Perpendicular Age is still preserved in the church, having been placed at the west end near the belfry *
The north chantry is somewhat larger than the south giving the plan of the church the appearance of hanging over to one side. Many have supposed that this was intended by the original architects and founders to be a symbol to remind the worshippers continually of the drooping of our Lord’s head whilst He hung upon the cross.
Directly above each of the two pillars which support the arches in the nave of the church is a very rough, ugly fiendish head ** These were supposed to represent the flying away of the evil spirits from the church as a holy place.
The font is of Barnack stone and very ancient at least 500 years old. In passing we may notice the existence of the beautiful stained glass window*** in this Baptistry inserted by the late Vicar (the Rev. C F Worsley) in memory of his father.
In Thurlby Church there were originally five altars, the high altar in the same position that the present altar now occupies – two smaller side altars, one in each chantry, and two others one in each transept. Some 300 or 400 years we would probably have witnessed all these altars in use during the day – by the priest and men and women of all ages performing their morning or evening devotions. Within two to three hundred yards of the church was an Abbey called Broomsby Abbey. This building (which was formerly moated around) is now used as a farmhouse, and is in all probability that which is occupied by Mr Bettinson and is known as the Manor House. From this foundation the Church would naturally be well supplied with priests and other ecclesiastics necessary for the performance of its services, and its existence will, we may suppose,be in part for the size and beauty of the neighbouring church.
Proof of the existence of these altars, in former times, at any part of the church, is usually supplied by the presence of the little niche, or recess in the wall, The head of which is generally highly decorated, and which looks as if it has been intended as a water receptacle, this is called a Piscina or water drain. It was here that the priest washed his hands and rinsed out the chalice after the celebration of Holy Communion, the water which had been used for this purpose was regarded as sacred, and to prevent its further application to any common use, was pored down this Piscina or water drain, where it was conducted by a little pipe to the ground below. These are not to be mistaken for a Stoup which was a hollow scooped out to hold Holy water at the entrance of the Church, either in or near the porch, where the worshippers crossed themselves with this water as they entered the church.
There is still remaining in Thurlby Church what appears to have been the cover of the stoup, at the doorway which forms the entrance to the North Chantry, when this part of the church was desecrated, and used as a schoolroom, but which is now blocked up. Near the Piscina, just mentioned, is an aumbrey or locker in the wall, and almost directly opposite in the north wall is another of larger size. This latter has a door of very ancient carved work, and the former has also some early wood carving of the kind known as perforated screen work. In these aumbries were kept the cup, the chalice, the plate or paten, and other articles belonging to the service of the altar.
In the south wall in the chancel of the Church, adjoining the aumbrey, is a pointed recess known as the Sedilia, these in most churches were used for the priests as seats when they were not required in the service.
On each side of the chancel is an oblique opening in the wall, which separate the Chantries from the Chancel. These openings are known among archaeologists as Squints or Hagioscopes, and were intended to enable the priests and others who were worshipping at the side altars to take part in the service at the High Altar and especially to be witnesses to the elevation of The Host.
Directly above the pulpit there is an opening in the wall, which is approached by means of a staircase in the North Transept. With regard to the intention and use of this several theories have been started. The most probable appears to be that it was the entrance to a small gallery immediately over the screen which separated the Chancel from the Nave of the church, this screen was called the rood screen, and the gallery above, the rood loft. In it were generally kept a crucifix or rood, images of the Virgin Mary, St John and other Saints, as well as any relics, of the possession of which the church should boast.
Whether the Romans or our ancestors the Britons of those times had any temple or place for public worship at Thurlby, is a question, which we cannot decide, but we have seen, when mentioning the tower, that the Anglo Saxons had an edifice for public worship here. The body of the Anglo Saxon edifice was in all probability destroyed by the Danes who ravaged all this part of Lincolnshire. How many years passed after their visit before the body of the church of Thurlby- as it now stands-was founded we have no authentic records to decide. From the general style of the building one would suppose that it was very early in the Norman period, probably soon after the coming of the Conqueror. In the western most pillar of the South Aisle of the Church, about three feet from the ground, there is a small shallow triangular headed recess, about ten inches in length and seven in breadth. This forms one of the many interesting antiquities of the Church. In it was inserted a dedication stone, on which there was an inscription stating the year in which the church was founded, the name of the founder, the name and the title of the King then reigning, and the name of the patron saint.
The writer records that he met with the following notice “Thurlby Church near Bourne was dedicated in 1112, by Robert Bloet, Bishop of Lincoln, the church and Manor then belonging to the monastery at Peterborough
The writer also found the following information about St Firmin in “The Book of Days”-“St Firmin”- a Bishop of Amiens and Martyr The Patron Saint is St Firmin- a Bishop of Amien and Martyr. The following comprises of all the facts of his life, the history of which is well authenticated.
St Firmin was born in Spain, rather more than 1600 years ago. Of his early life we know nothing until he crossed the Pyrenees as a Christian Missionary. Full of energy and holy zeal he preached the great truths of Christianity in many of the large towns of France. His preaching to the heathen Gauls was attended with much success and so greatly was his talent appreciated both by those who had sent him out, and by those who managed the affairs of the church in France, that he was appointed to the Bishopric of Amiens, at that time one of the most important Dioceses of France.
Amongst his converts was Faustinian the Roman prefect there. This man was the governor of the district, and his conversion would undoubtedly very greatly tend to increase the strength and importance of the infant church. So great was his attachment and so deep his gratitude to St Firmin, as the instrument of his conversion, that he gave to his infant son the name of Firmin in honour of the holy missionary. How long Faustinian lived to assist St Firmin by his counsel, influence and example we are not told, but he was in all probability dead before the commencement of the great Dioclesian persecution.
Amongst those who suffered was St Firmin. He was beheaded on the month of September 303. In all paintings he is represented as walking with his head under his arm. Firmin the son of Faustinian piously built a church over the grave of his godfather and eventually after taking holy orders himself succeeded as Bishop of Amiens presiding over the See for forty years.
The church at Thurlby seems originally to have been in the gift of the Abbot of Burgh, who held much of the land in the village. In the year 1156, William Waterville, the then Abbot of Burgh, founded the Nunnery of St Michaels at Stamford “ in which “as the deed hath it “he assembled no less than 40 virgins living in true religion and pure virginity” To the nunnery, thus founded, he presented the living connected with three separate churches The Church of the Blessed Michael the Archangel at Stamford, the Church of St Martin at Stamford and the Church of St Firmin at Thurlby in Lincolnshire. The deed by which the last mentioned living was handed over to the Nunnery of St Michael may be found in “ Peck’s History of Stamford. “
In accordance with the deed the nuns of St Michaels always presented a Vicar to the Church of St Firmin’s Thurlby until the 30th year of Henry VIII. The nunnery of St Michaels seems to have been amongst the last which fell and the patronage of the Church of St Firmin at Thurlby was made over to the Provost and Fellows of the College of King Henry VI at Eton in whose hands it has continued since. The value of the livings at the present time (1865) may be roughly estimated at between £400 – £500 a year. In the year 1856 the church underwent a thorough restoration
*believed to bee the screen that now stands on the south side of the chancel behind the choir stalls
**these cannot now be seen
*** believed to be the window in the north transept.