77: St Wendreda’s Church, March

Wednesday, April 14, 2010
5:27 PM

A church that can truly be said to be on the side of the angels, St Wendreda’s can trace its history from an Anglo-Saxon princess through to an Australian war hero.

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St Wendreda's Church and its hammerbeam angel roof

From Sir John Betjamin to murder mystery author Dorothy L Sayers, it is looking up that has inspired visitors to the church, on the outskirts of the Cambridgeshire fenland town. Its double hammerbeam angel roof got Poet Laureate Betjamin so fired up he declared he would cycle 40 miles in a head wind to see it. Take a trip to March, and youll see what all the fuss was about. The story goes back to the life of the the eighth century saint Wendreda, after whom the church is named, and whose medieval cult inspired the glories of the present building.

Who was Saint Wendreda?

Said to be the daughter of East Anglian King Anna, she came from a family with impeccable Christian credentials. At a time when the new religion was putting down roots among the Anglo-Saxon people of England, Wendreda and her fellow royal sisters Etheldreda, founder of the monastery at Ely, and Sexburga became enthusiastic missionaries spreading the new religion. Shunning the life of a princess, Wendreda dedicated herself to healing. Eventually she settled in the small settlement then called Mercheford, then populated by humble fishermen. After her death she was buried at March, and a shrine grew up around the tomb. Pilgrims visited the isolated spot, mostly having to travel by boat to this island in the then undrained fens.

Presumably that was the first church.

No trace of the Saxon church remain, and the chances are that it was a fairly rudimentary wooden building. The Normans, as was their habit, built the first stone construction in the later 11th century. Stone being scarce in the fens, it had to be transported by water from the great quarry at Barnack, near Stamford. The font is said to be the oldest in Cambridgeshire, dating from those early Norman days although it was later modified. No doubt early pilgrims were moved to visit the saints resting place, but by this time her body was on the move. In the early 11th century, with the rampaging Danes closing in, the desperate Saxon army dug up Wendredas bones hoping they would bring them fortune. Sadly, this did not work, and they were beaten at the Battle of Ashingdon in 1016. But even this added to the lustre of Wendredas legend; conquering Danish king Canute seized her relics, but was soon converted to Christianity partially inspired by the saint, according to the monks. Her remains continued their journey, resting at Canterbury for the next 300 years. But in 1343 she returned to March, enshrined in the church dedicated to her memory. Wendredas return sparked the churchs golden era. The church was restored and pilgrims resumed their visits, among them the sick in search of a cure. More rebuilding went on after the Black Death, much of it paid for by local trade guilds, which had an important religious function.
Wealthy local patrons included Antony Hansart and his wife, who were commemorated in a 16th century brass still in the church.

What about that roof?

Plaudits have rained in for this glorious piece of art but it has had to survive two deadly enemies; man and beetles. Carved in English oak, the roof depicts 120 angel figures projected from the hammerbeams and fixed to the king-post trusses. Other figures include apostles, saints and martyrs and other angels holding medieval musical instruments. Held to represent the summit of the woodcarvers art, the roof was built from 1523 to 1526 by Suffolk craftsmen, the wood carried to March by water. The date is significant; in 1526 Cardinal Wolsey issued an Indulgence to the town of March allowing it a new priest; within a few years the turmoil of the Reformation was under way and the old church and its artistry were swept away. Henry VIIIs commissioners arrived in March 1546 at a time when saints relics and extravagent religious icons were being done away with across England as superstition. But the townspeople were not about to lose their wonderful angel roof. They wined and dined the commissioners, who went away with a lot of church silver for the kings bulging coffers and shut down the trade guilds but left the roof alone. As for Saint Wendredas relics, they disappeared, never to be seen again. Perhaps some of her adherents buried her bones to save them; we will never know.

What about the beetles?

Death watch beetle gnawed away at the roof and did a lot of damage. It cost several thousand pounds and some resplicing to remedy it. During the early 1980s the roof starting leaking, and the lead had to be recast. It costs a lot to maintain such an old building. Today, visitors are impressed by the deceptively-spacious interior and the light that floods in. A fine stained-glass window depicts Wendreda and another East Anglian saint, Edmund the Martyr. Author Dorothy L Sayers, whose father was vicar at nearby Christchurch, was inspired by the roof to give it a mention in her Lord Peter Wimsey tale, The Nine Taylors.

And the Australian war hero?

In July, 1944, 21-year-old Pilot Officer Jim Hocking, of the Royal Australian Air Force, was commanding a Short Stirling bomber. Fire broke out, and the engines cut out. Courageous Hocking ordered his crew to bale out and, to avoid crashing on to the town of March, guided it to crash land in a field beyond St Wendredas. He was killed as the aircraft burst into flames. More than 40 years later, following an investigation by local newspaper the Cambridgeshire Times, a memorial honouring Hockings selfless act was unveiled in the church.

The church is locked on weekdays but the key is available from The Stars pub nearby between 11am and dusk.

St Wendredas Church is in Wimblington Road, March. Telephone 01354 653377;
website /www.stwendreda.co.uk/index.html

Further reading
Saint Wendreda, March, by local historian Trevor Bevis.

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