St Oswald's Church

School Lane, Ashbourne DE61AN

Tel: 01335 343 052

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Ashbourne means “stream where ash trees grow” and is thus the old name for Henmore brook which flows through the town on its way to join the river Dove at church Mayfield. The church is mentioned in the Doomsday book, and it must be presumed that there was a Saxon building here, and also a later Norman one. William II gave the church to the Dean and chapter of Lincoln cathedral, and apart from a short hiatus in the 13th century, it remained in their hands until Victorian times, when it was transferred to the Bishop of Lichfield.

Standing at the end of one of the most distinguished streets in this part of England, Ashbourne St Oswald’s is certainly the grandest church in Derbyshire. It is a Church of almost cathedral-like proportions: a lofty Spire 212 feet high, with its 20 dormer windows, crossing tower, long chancel, and transept with eastern aisles (but oddly, one nave aisle only, to the South).

The church stood here in Saxon times and its patron saint is the martyred king of Northumbria from where Christianity reached this part of England. The oldest part now surviving above ground is the elegant 13th century chancel. The dedication of this is recorded in the small brass plate (incidentally, the earliest known inscribed brass in the country) which is now in the south transept Lady Chapel. It reads in translation:

“in the year 1241 after the incarnation of our Lord, on the eighth day before the kalends of May (24th April) this church was dedicated and this altar consecrated in honour of Saint Oswald, king and martyr, by the venerable father, Hugo de Pattishull, Bishop of Coventry”

Three pairs of linked lancets give light to each side of the chancel, the western-most, on the south side, shortened to accommodate an especially lavish priest’s door which has six orders of colonettes. Two major structural alterations to the chancel were made in later centuries. The first was the insertion of larger windows in the 14th century to give more light where it was most needed – three-light reticulated nearest to the crossing early in the century, and perpendicular at the east end at the end of the century. The other change was the lowering of the roof level, common enough in the later Middle Ages (the weather moulding of the original steeply pitched roof can clearly be seen on the east face of the tower). Dr Cox, writing at the time of Sir Gilbert Scott's major restoration in the 1870s, deeply regretted that the opportunity for returning the chancel to its “original outlines” had been missed: “the high blank walls (he is referring to the space between the windows and the battlemented parapet) kill the grace of the lancet windows” …. he wrote.

Also of the Early English period are the eastern parts of the transepts (note the triple lancets in the north transept). The Decorated period, in the following century, contributed the tower and splendid spire, it’s angles enriched by ball-flower ornament; it received its weathercock, according to local accounts, from a 19th century incumbent who insisted on being hoisted to the top of the spire in person, complete with top hat.

The transept arcades, the nave and south aisle, the chancel windows referred to above, and the big window with intersecting tracery in the south transept, all belong to this 14th century. The nave arcade is of special interest. This is the most inventive period of English Gothic and this shows in the variety of pier mouldings and the carving of their capitals. Above the deeply carved leaves can be distinguished kings and mitred bishops, fighting animals, an enigmatically smiling woman in a wimple, and that favourite subject of the mediaeval carver, Jack-in-the-green - here he appears in triplicate on one capital. The nave suffers, however, from the absence of a north aisle, which was probably planned but never built.

The last mediaeval phase of building - the perpendicular - gave Ashbourne it's lowered roofs and clerestory windows, it's east window and the much finer south  transept window which retains some decorated characteristics. When congregations expanded in the 18th century, galleries were installed as the cheapest solution to the problem. (What a pity that this was not used as an excuse to build a north aisle!) Some of the galleries were entered from outside through the nave windows, records the scandalised Dr Cox, “the mullions forming the casements of the door.” Seemliness returned with some 19th century restorations and the removal of the galleries.

Some late mediaeval heraldic glass survives in the east window, and there are still earlier fragments in the north transept, but most of the windows are filled with late Victorian glass by Kempe and others. This is mostly unexceptional and Kempe’s, as always, is richly coloured and well detailed, but some of the garish chancel windows, in particular that depicting David and Goliath, called down the wrath of John Ruskin, who described them in a letter to the vicar in 1875 as “the worst piece of base Birmingham manufacture which … I have ever seen put in mockery of religious art … caricatures of Bible history which would disgrace a penny child's book of “Jack and the Giant-Killer”.” The admirable Ruskin is worth quoting further: “the mere loss of serviceable light in a climate where the sun is not allowed to shine one day in seven would be a weighty objection to the introduction of even the best painted glass in English churches.” His parting shot to the unfortunate vicar was to recommend that “the striking but macabre skull obelisks of your churchyard gate” be broken up for road metal.

A notable exception is the 9105 Turnball window on the south wall of the nave. It was installed in memory of sisters Monica and Dorothy, who were tragically killed in a fire. It is by Christopher Whall and is one of the finest examples of 20th century Pre-Raphaelite stained glass in the country.

Ashbourne church is rightly noted for its tombs. Nearly all of these are now in the north transept. It was originally the burial place of the Cockaynes and later of their successors at Ashbourne hall, the Boothbys. The tombs of the other local families of substance, the Bradbournes, which once occupied the south transept, were transferred here in the 19th century. With one exception, all the heads of the Cockayne family for 200 years have their memorials here, whether in stone, alabaster or brass. The earliest of these, poignant in its contrast, is that of the aged Sir John Cockayne, who died in 1372, lying side by side with his robust son Edmund, resplendent in chainmail and surcoat, who died at the battle of Shrewsbury in 1403. Another Sir John, Edmond’s son, and his wife Joan, lie alongside: John in full plate armour, his wife in twin-horned head-dress are shown in splendid detail in the local alabaster. Shield bearing angels line the sides of the tomb. The last of the Cockaynes had burst outside the panel screen which confined his ancestors. He is Sir Thomas (died 1592), soldier and courtier, one of the founders of the town's grammar school across the street, author of a treatise on hunting. Now he kneels under an arch facing his wife, Dorothy Ferrars, across a prayer desk. Below them their three sons and seven daughters, nicely graduated, pray for their souls. Less than 100 years after this, the Cockaynes, impoverished by their support of the king in the Civil War period, sold Ashbourne hall to the Boothbys. The most famous monuments here is, of course, Thomas Banks’ white marble effigy of the sleeping Penelope, celebrated also as “simplicity” in the painting by Sir Joshua Reynolds, an infant prodigy who died at the age of five in 1791.

“She was in form and intellect most exquisite. The unfortunate parents ventured there all upon this frail bark and the wreck was total.”

There are other inscriptions in Latin, French and Italian. The sculptor Chantrey, deeply affected by the tomb, paid deliberate homage to Banks in his well known sleeping Robinson children in Lichfield cathedral.

On a brackets on the east wall of this Chapel, choc- a-block with solemn memorials to the dead, is a curious stone head, reputedly that of a mediaeval Bishop, presiding  over all with a benign smile. One’s abiding memory of Ashbourne church is that of smiling heads. Look up almost anywhere in the church and you encounter a conspiratorial grin or an understanding smile.

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