This visit came about after going to Melbourne for an art trail in September – Melbourne is just over 12 miles from where I live in Derby and yet I had never visited the town and was unaware of the beautiful medieval church.
Please note my information is derived from the guidebook available in the church which has been comprehensively written by the Reverend Frederick Ross.
To give a brief history there is a church mentioned in the Domesday Book of 1066 but the remains of the church have long since one as it was replaced in the 12th century by the current church. The exact history of Melbourne itself is lost in the midst of time although it is known to have had a royal castle and Lord Melbourne of Queen Victoria fame gave his name to the city founded in Australia.
Like the history of the town the origins of the current church are unknown but the common theory seems to have been it built by the Bishop of Carlisle – the diocese was certainly founded by King Henry I. If indeed Adelulf or Aethewulf, the first bishop of Carlisle did build the church it was due to the fact his native town was not a safe place at the time due to the constant warfare on the border with the Scots and so it is thought he found a safe haven in Melbourne after Carlisle was captured in 1136.
By the 13th century records show that the church was used by bishops to ordain priests and it is this that gives rise to the conclusion that the building of the church would have to have been between 1136 and 1156 when Adelulf was believed to have been a resident in the town.
One unique feature of the church is that it has a two storey arrangement which apparently gives rise to the second theory of why it was built – that of a royal church as part of Henry I’s manor at Melbourne which would have meant that the west gallery was essentially his pew and the upper chancel was for his use but this would have also meant it was already built when Adelulf received it from the King.
Whatever the origins of the church it is an exceptional example of a 12th century church with all its Norman features with the additional of of a unique 2 tower facade. The door on the left has got clear carving surrounding it and is the most beautiful Norman door I have seen during my visits around my locality. According to the guide book the east end of the church had a triple apse but two have since been removed although evidence does remain both inside and outside of the church. The church is built in the classic cross shape and has again a unique feature of 3 towers in total.
I had visited the church as part of the art trail albeit only briefly so knew as my fiance and I entered the church to expect to be in awe of the exquisite architecture but even then it does not prepare you for the first time you look up the nave towards the altar – the rounded arches and solid columns so typical of Norman architecture but combined with the light from exquisite stained glass windows truly gave this church a spirituality I have only previously experienced in cathedrals such as Lincoln which I know well.
The guide book points out the different capitals on top of the columns – there are cushion, ram’s head, tear drop and figure head and also one capital apparently bears the motif of a cross with 4 roundels which I did take a photograph of but frustratingly it did not turn out clearly enough – apparently the reason for this particular capital has never been explained.
In the chancel the side walls are Norman whilst the east wall is part of the late medieval rebuilding although my photograph does not show this clearly – I took this image looking through the narthex in order to capture the stained glass window. In the chancel are the remains of 2 Norman windows and also traces of the stone vault which originally covered the chancel.
The stained glass in the east and south windows is dated 1867 and 1869 so much later and very much in keeping with the religious revival of the period – these years are at the end of the Gothic Revival artistic period. All the stained glass windows within the church are of a similar religious nature and presumably from the same period – they transform the church interior into the lux nova and give an impression of heavenly reflections in the same manner I have witnessed at St Mary’s Church in Derby and luckily on the afternoon we visited the sun shone through the windows to show this effect at its most spiritual.
The area photographed on the left is one of the areas of the church I spent considerable time in looking up to the central tower in awe of the 3 tiers of triple arches. According to the guidebook the upper stage was built in the 17th century to house the bells of which the were eventually 4 but now there total 8 with an additional 2 hung in 1882 and then 2 more in 1887 to mark Queen Victoria’s Golden Jubilee – I am not a huge fan of being in churches when bells are ringing due to a type of deafness but for this church I would more than happily make an exception!
The organ built in 1860 and rebuilt in 1981 can just be seen to the left of my photograph as I look back down towards the nave and it is a masterpiece in itself and I would love to hear it being played as the church has beautiful acoustics.
One thing I personally noted was the carved crucifix in the arches above the central tower facing towards the nave and the congregation almost seems to take the place of the rood screen in smaller churches. The effect of this crucifix is that it draws the eyes heavenwards and conveys the Biblical message.
This area is part of the wall-passage combined with the clerestory which is rarely seen in parish churches – this clerestory serves two purposes with one to let in light and the other to give access from the west gallery to the upper chancel. The north and south sides of the church have different arches – the south side of the clerestory has pointed arches and twin lancet windows, (shown in my photograph), as it was rebuilt in the 13th century by which time Gothic architecture had replaced Norman whilst in the North side the arches are the original Norman rounded style with single windows.
From a purely art history interest and by this I mean with specific regards to paintings I could not help be fascinated by the remains of a Medieval painting depicting the ‘damnation of sinners and their suffering in hell’ (Melbourne Parish Church guidebook). I had not been aware of the fact that the inside of late Medieval churches would have been adorned with similar imagery and this is the only fragment that has survived only because it was subsequently covered by a plaque.
Another feature of this church is the architectural style which shows a continental influence including with the carvings on the capitals of the chancel arch – the Melbourne cat as this carving is known is just one of the several different creatures that can be identified. The cat is smiling happily because across the chancel is a dog being restrained by a man by his tail desperate to get to the cat but unable to do so – in truth when my fiance and myself saw the dog we could not understand the significance as we did not connect the two carvings! The guidebook also refers to a ‘sheela-na-gig’ carved onto one of the capitals and this is a pagan symbol regarding female fertility and it is grotesque in its nature but unfortunately I could not take a clear image of it but if my fiance and I return I will try again and add to this blog.
The narthex, which goes across the full width of the building at its main entrance, is one part of 3 unique features of this church with the second being the the west gallery and the third the twin tower facade of the west front – all these unique features are reminiscent of churches on the continent and point to the possibility of a German architect and also the possibility of the church being built for a royal function.
This is without doubt one of the finest Norman churches in England and I have only included some of the architectural and artistic details – unbelievably my camera battery went flat on the day we visited so I was unable to take all the photographs I wanted but I have written this blog to give an overall impression of a stunningly beautiful and architecturally unique church.
The church was hugely restored and altered during the 1800’s and some of those alterations were subsequently removed but the building retains a real feeling of history as you step into it and with a unique spiritual feeling that my fiance and I have not felt in other churches. The guidebook points to the fact it has the appearance of a mini cathedral but there an intimacy in this church that you rarely feel in such large parish churches and certainly not in cathedrals – it is almost as if you can feel the footsteps of those who have gone before you seeking to worship or possibly seeking sanctuary in troubled times.
Ross, F (Reverend). 1992. Melbourne Parish Church. Great Britain. Beric Tempest.