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Helmdon Historical Articles

Saint Mary Magdalene, Helmdon - A History

an article by Jean Spendlove

Helmdon Church from the South-east, drawn May 1988 by Bob WallisThe oldest aspect of the church is probably the site itself. There is no evidence to suggest that Helmdon's previous church, wooden and thatched, no doubt, did not stand here, although the present village is all below. Scraps of prehistoric and Roman artifacts have been found not far away, but Helmdon village is probably no older than its name - Helmdon, Helma's valley, a name formed from a personal name in the fashion of fairly early Saxon settlement. Perhaps they came from the West Saxons in the south, in the sixth or seventh century. It might be a hundred years later before they wanted a Christian church. Maybe they had already buried their dead on the hill above the wet woods of the valley bottom. Across the road, the field is embanked. The medieval manor buildings were here, and humps and bumps in the field suggest their layout; but maybe Helma had palisaded the area first, choosing the gravelly side of the valley, because it was rich in springs, and in spite of its facing north.

Many have have believed that the big yew in the churchyard is older still, and date it at some 1700 years, and suppose the church stands on a site of pagan worship. But if the present tree has taken so long to grow, when Helma came it would not have been particularly striking. A careful recent study of the growth of yews has suggested a much later, much more precise, and indeed more suggestive date for ours. An April blizzard in 1908 caused so much damage that some old boughs had to be cut out.

Of any Saxon church there is now no trace, and most of the present church was built in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, though it has been restored and the tower rebuilt. Until modern times, most probably it was at every stage a product of both local craftsmen and local stone. Fine Helmdon stone was just the other side of the valley. It was being dug for use elsewhere at least as early as 1356, when Sulgrave church was rebuilt, and from an early date it seems that Helmdon masons both quarried and worked their stone. Maybe even the finest work was done by Helmdon men. If so, were the Helmdon men, who themselves worked in various places in the district wherever their stone was used, as up-to-date as the travelling masons had to be, who worked any stone anywhere and spread the latest styles? Competition may have made them so. Or, being independent of outside assistance, did they hand their styles down longer from father to son, and so build in a somewhat old-fashioned way? If we date the medieval church by its style, the usual method, these possible reasons why Helmdon's may not be as accurately datable that way as most small country churches must be borne in mind.

The oldest item in the church now is the Early English piscina, which was found under some old pews during the restoration of 1875-6 and "placed in the wall near where it was found", i.e., just inside the north door, where it would be more usual to find a stoup for holy water. Assuming the first part of the church to be used is the present nave, the oldest extension to it seems to be the south aisle, to whichPiscina, drawn by Bob Wallis the chancel has been joined, as is clear from the outside. This aisle, including the door to the south porch, is probably early thirteenth-century. The pillars and arcades that side are older than those on the north, with thicker hexagonal pillars on dissimilar bases, and quatrefoil capitals - a late Norman or Early English solidity. The wall tomb in the south wall, with a head over the peak of its arch and coffin-shaped slab in Purbeck marble, is of about the middle of the same century. Whether this aisle was the south aisle to a Saxon or Norman church, or whether it was itself the body of a church which was extended alongside by the addition of the present nave and north aisle, or whether the original design of the church took a century to build, seems impossible to tell. Certainly the north aisle and the chancel were not very much later.

There is an inexplicable piscina on the outside of the north wall of the chancel partly obscured by the east wall of the much later vestry. It seems to be of a date with the south aisle, or perhaps the north one. The altar it served must have been north of the present main altar. It has been suggested this was the original main altar, because the moulding over the window by the organ, and the rabbeting of the chancel doorway on its north side for a door, suggest that all the north wall of the chancel was at the time an outside wall, and that the outside of it was its south face, and, of course, that here was then no chancel where the present one now stands. Yet this idea supposes a layout oddly wide and off-centre: a chancel where the present vestry is, and a nave where the present north aisle is, and all the width of the present nave like an inner aisle between it and the south aisle. On the other hand, if that vanished altar served only a north chapel which has been demolished at some time since, then an earlier chancel (perhaps using the Early English piscina) stood where the present one is. In that case we only have to conjecture why, when the north wall was pierced between the new chancel and an older chapel by a window matching the one on the south side, its hood moulding was applied as it were inside out. There is no north chapel on the earliest plan in the County Record Office, made in 1768. It could have gone at any time in the intervening four centuries.

The north aisle's slightly lighter pillars with hexagonal capitals, and windows similar to the south aisle's though more deeply cusped, suggest its later date was late in the thirteenth century. For each of the aisles, there is a scrap of heraldic glass which seems to offer a clue to the date; but in each case the clue is too vague to date the building. In the south wall, at the west end, the apex of the glass represents the arms of the Warennes Earls of Surrey; and in the north wall, straight opposite, a similar piece represents the arms of the Earls and the first Duke of Lancaster. Both these families engaged in the running conflict between king and barons, both by intrigue and in arms, and acquired (or sometimes lost) widely extensive holdings in land, in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries. Marshall Martin has drawn our attention to the heraldic glass, but he cannot suggest a reason why or when these families may have had an interest in Helmdon. It would be interesting to know whether these families left such marks in other churches in other areas.

The most easily interpreted medieval glass is at the east end of the north wall. It commemorates William Campiun; and the Age of Chivalry Exhibition,1988, accepted 1313 as the date for it. It was still in medieval lead till it was cleaned and reset in 1976-7, so it is not very probable that it has ever been moved from its original site, though it is the shape and size, more or less, for any of the north or south aisle windows. If it began in its present place, then the north aisle was built by 1313.

The window is both important in itself and also valuable evidence for other parts of the building if we can but read it right. William Campiun is represented as a mason at work. Representation in medieval glass of any artisan at his trade is in England a rare survival, and this one is perhaps the earliest. Campiun must have been a notable mason, and a local A photograph of the Campiun Windowman, most likely a Helmdon man. Medieval artists and architects so seldom signed their work that the commemoration of a mason's name was itself a distinction, and a higher one than a visitor would receive. (The name has often occurred in the district: the last Campin in Helmdon, who was a tailor, died in 1969). This window to William Campiun shows that masons were important in Helmdon in 1313. The chancel close by bears this out. Its two quite different styles were both in widespread use between 1295 and 1320. The simpler taste of the interwoven tracery in the big east window is easily seen to arise from the simple Early English arch form, which as late as 1300 appears conservative, though the text books date such interwoven tracery between 1295 and 1300. The more elaborate Decorated style of the other windows, in spite of the flattened arch of one of them, belongs to the early fourteenth century, and similar Decorated work continues for another century or so. But both styles of window here have the same kind of hood mouldings of about 1310, so apparently all the chancel work was achieved in only a few years.

The concurrence of the two so different window styles in interesting. The more conservative work was presumably the first done, because the east window was the natural place to begin. It is a fine window, but (unless there has been an early and clumsy restoration) the sweeping lines were not quite achieved: the outer mullions are bent where they cross near the top of their arcs. Yet the chancel was continued in the more elaborate and novel fashion of the day, with ogee arches and ogee curves in the tracery. Perhaps the work was put into other hands. If so, this could be a point at which the limitations of the home craftsmen showed, and outsiders finished the chancel. Yet the Campiun glass would surely not have been set up at a time when outside craftsmen had been brought in to show up the shortcomings of local work. Nor is it really very likely Helmdon would have taken on the expense of outsiders' work in a new and elaborate and therefore costly style, when local men might have had employment in their own church. (Helmdon had no resident and wealthy lord to pay for the whole for his own credit, and the richer masons would have been among those local men expected to contribute.) It may be that the Decorated style was the preference of another mason or group of masons who were the only Helmdon alternative to the maker of the East window. It is not improbable that the dominant mason now was William Campiun.

Richard Marks, in his short but thorough study of the Campiun window*, offers a probable suggestion of how the inscription on it originally read. At present it reads: WILL'S CAMPIUN F [ ] OP' LAPI [ ] O DNI M C [ ]. He suggests, WILL'S CAMPIUN FECIT HOC OP' LAPIDIS ANNO DNI M CCCXIII , or "William Campiun made this stonework in the year of our lord 1313."

The Sedilia, drawn by Bob Wallis in May 1988To which stonework would this refer? The north aisle itself where the glass was placed, should have been finished some time before 1313, and in any case it is hardly unusual enough for such a commemoration, unless perhaps Campiun both did the work and gave it and the stone. The chancel, on the other hand, which seems to belong much more closely to 1313, contains ambitious work. Apart from the east window, there is the Decorated work of the other windows, the door in the north wall, the aumbry, piscina and sedilia, and a string-course which draws the eye up to the eastward light, and another one just below the roof. It does not follow, even if William Campiun was the mason chiefly responsible, that he was the only one at work even on the detail. All the hood mouldings in the chancel, and the sedilia, have heads as label-stops, and it would be easy to think they were done by several hands, although some have been damaged and crudely repaired. Some are serious, some gently comic; the window to the vestry has a dog's face on one side. Some are individual enough to be portraits of local people, not necessarily meant to be complimentary. The heads of the sedilia have a family likeness. The Decorated features in the sanctuary seem rather low down today, lower than they were meant to be, because when the Victorian tiling was done in the sanctuary, the floor was raised too.

Recent calculations of the date of the yew provide unexpected confirmation that the early fourteenth century was a time of great achievement in Helmdon's church, and that the local masons were working in a style that was fashionable. By careful measurement of the trunk between the bulging exaggerations of either root or bough development, by measurement of the rate of growth in some of this yew's wood (in the litany desk in the church, made to commemorate Florence Wonnacott, who died in 1913), and by comparison with other yews that can be precisely dated from documentary evidence, and by dismissing the suggestion that an individual yew can suspend its growth for some hundreds of years, a tree specialist (Stephen Dennis of Hereford) has come to a precise calculation of this yew's rate of growth. He measured the trunk in 1991 and in 2000, and in the interval the girth increased by two and a half inches. Calculating by what he considered its normal rate, in 1991 he gave the date of the yew's planting as 1313; and in 2000 corrected this to 1309. He had not then read about the Campiun window. If he is right, this yew was planted as a young sapling east of the chancel while that splendid work was nearing completion. Men of Helmdon may have been planting a source of long bows, but if they were also attending to the symbol of eternity in an evergreen tree of long life, then they were seeing the symbol as Christians would see it. In that case it is merely romantic or Gothick fantasy to associate this yew with Druids a thousand years before. The first twenty years of the fourteenth century really were a time of pride in Helmdon. The Scottish triumphs of Edward I and the tragedy of Edward II may have seemed less important.

The original tower, from which the present tower's windows were taken, was shaped like the present one which copied it in 1823, except that the door was inserted in the west wall, large enough for a bell to be taken through. The original probably belonged to the end of the main building period, the fourteenth century. So the fourteenth-century church was complete, with nave and side aisles under a single steep roof. In the last quarter of the fifteenth century the clerestory was built and the present agreeable proportions achieved, at the north by three and at the south by four two-light windows. The centre two on the south are paired in one frame and do not seem crowded. The roof then was rebuilt in its present flattish shape, and covered with lead, and aisles and nave provided with matching parapets. Most likely the previous roof was thatched. At the close of the century the porches were added. The church was then almost as we see it now.

Since the fifteenth century work has been chiefly maintenance and furnishing, with spells of persistent and energetic repairs of stone, wood and lead alike. The west window of the south aisle seems to have been releaded in the late sixteenth century. There may have been some damage at the Reformation. If old glass of religious importance was then destroyed, the fewness and the merely secular character of the survivals is more understandable. These were all cleaned by the York Glaziers Trust at the same time as the Campiun window. Also about the time of the Reformation the church's dedication was changed from St Nicholas to St Mary Magdalen. The three oldest of the present bells were cast in 1679, at Chacombe, and the others from 1797 to 1855, farther afield. The memorial stones which pave part of the chancel are late eighteenth-century. They and the wall monuments in the church chiefly commemorate clergy and their families. Helmdon still had no resident squires to intrude a secular dignity here.

In the early eighteenth century there was a pulpit with a desk below it for the clerk, where the present pulpit is. The church was furnished then with a few scattered pews, and open forms seated the rest. In 1768 both kinds were cleared out as inadequate and worn out, and replaced with box pews with doors in four blocks clear of all the walls, divided by a central aisle and the passage between the north and south doors. An unusual amount of maintenance was done to match this improvement, and over four hundred square feet of paving laid, and the church painted, even the pillars. The pews were for the use of the people who paid for them, at twelve shillings (60 pence) a seat, and changed hands by purchase and succession like other property. There had been one new pew in 1768, by the tower, and since it was in good order it was altered to fit in with the new set and matched across the aisle for the owner. This common proprietary attitude to seats at services lasted here for another hundred years. There were in the plan of 1768 two unallotted pews just inside the chancel. According to the plan of 1870 which seems to represent the church as it had been for some time, one of these became the Rectory pew, and there were some "open seats" in the chancel right up by the sanctuary, where one can hear the sermon least easily. This, presumably, is where those "cottage people" sat who had not been provided for in landlords' pews. These free seats were not included when the clerk's wages were calculated on the basis of 214 seats at threepence (1 new pence) each, so the whole church must have seated almost 250. At the same time, 1769, the font was set up north of the central aisle in the west bay of the nave. Baker in the 1820s described the font as small and modern. The present one looks nineteenth-century but perhaps it is a little older and is the one which was set up in 1769. A gun-barrel was provided for that, presumably for its plug-hole. The pew near the font ran round three sides and was called the "christening and school pew" in the 1768 plan. The church's accommodation was enlarged again in 1821 by the erection of a gallery in front of the tower, above where the organ then was. Stairs reached it at the centre back from under the tower. Six pews of about four places each were allotted to certain households, and the centre was "for the singers". The church had reached its maximum capacity of about 270 seats. The 1821 census gave Helmdon's population as 486. If the seating sufficed for the fullest congregations, then on normal Sundays probably over half of Helmdon's population were absent from the main service, a few of whom may have attended any minor service of the day, if there were one. The Baptists did not build their chapel in Helmdon until 1844.

the North Porch, drawn by Bob Wallis in May 1988
The North Porch of St Mary Magdalene


A policy of piecemeal repairs over many generations accumulated a dangerous dilapidation. The tower was enough damaged by lightning to have to be rebuilt in 1823. It is forty-six feet high, and slightly out of alignment with the nave and chancel. The parish aimed to copy the original, but the battlements incorporate red brick on the inside, perhaps from the brickworks at Weston. This was about the time the quarries fell out of use for good quality stone. In 1861 a porch was being rebuilt, probably the north one. The churchyard and porch gates were added a little time before 1876. In the seventies, however the parish also undertook a general restoration, at a cost of nearly 1,600 raised in the manner of the time by subscriptions chiefly from surrounding landowners and clergy. It is a sad comment on the decline of the local industry that the work was done by a firm from Lincoln which submitted the lowest tender. By now Helmdon's quarries had closed, and the masons who stayed had become builders in stone from elsewhere and in brick; one, Taylor, tendered, but not cheaply enough. But enough "native" stone was available for most of the repairs and for the one considerable addition of modern times, the vestry and organ chamber at the north-east corner designed to carry on the design of the north aisle. A rail like the one across the chancel was to separate the vestry from the north aisle. The fifty-year-old gallery was removed but the whole body of the church was pewed, right back to the west door of the tower, with unappropriated sittings, two hundred in all; and stalls for the choir were made in the chancel. These and the matching desks, altar rails, pulpit and lectern in pitch pine, are the present furnishing. The sanctuary was extended westward and raised and tiled. The floor of the body of the church was lowered nine inches, and boarded among the pews. Oil lamps were set up on standards on the pews, and brackets provided for the tower and pulpit. The architect, C.F.Law of Northampton, and the parish were alike concerned to preserve as much as possible of the old work. They found the little carved stone by the organ, and left it exposed, and the Early English piscina. The apex stained glass in some windows was left in place, and quarries elsewhere replaced by the present cathedral glass. Some of the lead may have been old and soft; in the eighteenth century the glazier was repairing windows and replacing quarries nearly every year, charging for lead, and solder, and wood to heat irons.

Victorian care for the fabric, however, did not include enlightened responsibility for the roof, though it was ordered to be "reconstructed". The roofs of the nave and aisles were fairly flat, and leaded. The nave roof is divided into only four unusually wide bays. Thus the middle two tie beams carry over half of a great weight. The Victorians replaced one of these two and one other of the tie beams, in the nave, and most of the smaller rafters throughout, and they boarded in stained deal, under large sheets of new cast lead. The architect who examined the work sixty years afterwards wrote that "the defects of the roof seem to have been camouflaged in the past rather than dealt with". One of the middle tie beams seemed to be still the original beam, but "entirely eaten away by beetle grub" at one end, which had been spliced, and at the other it was resting on the corbel but not on the wall. The westernmost beam had been cased in deal and was "riddled with beetle". He thought that the two centre beams were so bad at both ends (though one was Victorian) that they were no longer tying the clerestory together, but their weight and the roof 's was acting through the curved braces beneath to thrust the walls outward. In consequence of the beetles and of the major roof reconstruction that followed this report in 1936, only a little of the original timber remains. The work on the beams was done in English oak and the debt paid off in two years. At this time the lead was replaced by copper sheeting. This time the money was raised by the efforts of all kinds of village people. In 1937 the chancel roof had to be tackled.

The 1875-6 restoration led to other enhancements. The reredos was given by James Fairbrother in 1882, and the curtains made soon afterwards; an oak cover was got for the font in 1885; a stove was installed in 1887 by a legacy from a Mr Humphrey, which has since been replaced; and in 1891 a lamp was set up at the churchyard gate. Electric light was installed in 1939.

In the late twentieth century some large restoration work was undertaken to the Victorian vestry roof, and to the pinnacles, parapet and roof of the tower; and the nave roof was again repaired and its copper replaced by lead.

The most striking addition to the church this century has been the glass of the east window, installed in 1917 as a result of the bequest of the late Rector, Percy Wonnacott, in memory of his wife. There had been a small part only of the older stained glass left there. These must be the pieces at the top of the windows above and beside the side altar. The oak and glass screen under the tower arch was put up in 1950 as a memorial to Canon Bartlett, Rector 1918 - 36, "for the good work he did in the Parish", and that under the vestry arch at the same time, given by the Rector Dr Morris, who also put up the board for clergy's names. A recent addition to the warm colour in the church has been the beautifully worked kneelers, of which hardly two are alike although they are planned within an overall colour-scheme.

The church's six bells are inscribed as follows:-

(diameter 27 inches)
(diameter 28 inches)
FOUNDERS 1834. (and round the rim) OBEY OUR CALL
(diameter 30 inches)
4. H BAOLEY MADE MEE 1679. (Recast by Taylors in 1890)
(diameter 32 inches)
5. HB 1679 (Recast by Taylors, 1951. (Some metal cut
from it is stored in the belfry)
(diameter 38 inches)
Priest's Bell: RF & J H
(diameter 12 inches)

These were not the original bells. The church inventory in 1552 mentioned four bells and a sanctuary bell. Apparently in the late nineteenth century the ringing of the bells still was more informative than it is expected to be nowadays. On Sundays one bell was rung at nine in the morning. Then all the bells were chimed for service, and then the priest's bell by itself for a minute or two and finally the tenor as "sermon bell". If Evensong were going to be said, the second bell was rung after morning service. Some long peals are recorded under the tower. The ladders up the tower are not suitable for public access.

Architectural and other features to be particularly looked for:

† the Early English piscina near the north door;
† the Campiun window in the north aisle and the other fragments of early glass;

† the medieval lead removed from the Campiun window and displayed in a frame nearby
† the sedilia, piscina and aumbry in the chancel;
† label-stops and corbels of carved heads, inside the church and out;
† small stone with carved lettering west of the organ, in the chancel;
† internal and external string-courses;

† a scratch or mass dial on the south wall of the chancel under an angle of the string-course
† the yew in the churchyard east of the church;
† some interesting though badly worn late seventeenth-century and eighteenth--century grave-stones, and eighteenth- and nineteenth-century wall tablets on the outside of the church.

* Richard Marks "An English stonemason in stained glass" in Alan Borg and Andrew Martingdale, The Vanishing Past, Studies in Medieval Art, Liturgy and Metrology presented to Christopher Hohler, BAR International Series III, 1981. Marks argues here the case for the reading of the date, based on Sir Henry Dryden's reading of the final part of the inscription in the later nineteenth century, which is now lost.

By Jean Spendlove (text) and Robert Wallis (drawings),
in consultation with the Rector, Roger Caldwell, 1988.

Text revised by Jean Spendlove, 2002 and 2008. 

Additional drawings by Jenni Roberts, 2001/2.

Front cover drawing by Robert Swinford, c 1992.

The inscriptions inside and outside the church were transcribed by the Helmdon branch of the WEA in 1998, and later in 2018.

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