History of St.Wilfrid's, Barrow upon Trent Trent
Over many years, several and various views have been put forward and published about the origins and history of our Church building. These have often been at odds with each other, so, in an attempt to put an end to the speculation, the services of a distinguished historic building expert were employed to try to give a definitive view of the actual age and development of this building that we all think we know so well.
The archaeologist, Peter Ryder M.Phil., has stated “This is an intriguing building, and its development is not easy to reconstruct”. However, he goes on to say that, following intensive examination, he comes to the following conclusions:
The Nave, the main body of the church, is essentially an Anglo-Saxon building, rectangular in shape. The original Anglo-Saxon quoins (distinctively large and square stones that form the corners of the building) are visible at the corners of the nave where it now adjoins later extension walls. On the eastern side of the nave, the original wall and original roofline can still be clearly seen. This part of the Church was probably built in around 800-900 AD and is mentioned in the Domesday Book.
At about the time that the Church and surrounding lands were given to the Knights Hospitallers in 1165, a series of new building works began. The North aisle appears to have been built around this time as was the Chancel – the area that houses the altar.
The South aisle was added about 100 years after the North aisle, and the Tower and South porch appear to have been the final phase of building in the 1400s. At about this time, the roof of the Nave was raised and the small high windows, the Clerestory, added. In a recess in the South wall is an alabaster effigy of a priest. It has been dated as pre-1350 and it has been suggested that this may be the earliest example of an alabaster effigy of a cleric in England.
The Chancel has been shortened in its lifetime; this has probably happened because the priest was responsible for the upkeep of the Chancel in Medieval times whilst the parishioners looked after the upkeep of the main body of the Church. It would appear that we had a series of delinquent priests who neglected their duties to the extent that the eastern end of the Chancel fell down and had to be rebuilt, probably around the time of the 15th century. At the time of repair, the Chancel was reduced to about half of its original length.
This period in our history was one of tumult and disorder. The Great Famine and Black Death led to the devastation of the population, and many rural people left their villages to try to find work in towns. Maybe this is what caused the fall into disrepair of our Church.
Several of the external walls of the building contain Grave slabs. These are ancient grave markers that have been recycled by successive builders of the church when making alterations to the Chancel. The grave slabs are sculpted with pictures of various types of crosses, swords and other designs.
The body of the Church is supported upon several large pillars. These were provided to support the wall structures when the Church was enlarged from its original rectangular box. The builders of the North and South aisles will have punched through the original walls to create the new side aisles.
The pillars of the South aisle are original structures but have been crudely hacked away at their bases by our vandal forefathers who decided that the installation of their box pews (to keep themselves warm from the winter draughts) was more important than the beauty of the original stonework of the columns!
There are squints that give visual access from the side aisles to the altar in the Chancel. The one from the south aisle is an extensive structure, whilst that of the north aisle is even bigger – in effect, this is a tunnel that leads from the south aisle into the Chancel. At some point, the builders decided that they had been a little too cavalier with the amount of wall stone that had been taken away! The infill can clearly be seen at the east end of the south aisle, presumably restored rapidly before the wall fell down!
A small squint is also visible from the north part of the east wall of the Nave through to the area that would have contained the high altar prior to the foreshortening of the Chancel. Could this have been a squint from an anchorite cell located in that corner of the church? (Anchorites were religious recluses who were confined within a cell within the church building). More recent research has suggested that this “infill” mentioned above might have been a wall built to close off this possible anchorite cell.
At the east end of the Nave is evidence of a substantial rood screen, with the marks of a West Gallery on the west wall where parishioners would provide music for the services during the 18th century
Our ancestors were not above defacing their Church with Graffiti. There is evidence all around the building at various levels, and there are sword and spear sharpening marks on the doorways and Nave arch.
Much research is presently being undertaken, and new discoveries about the Knights’ Hospitallers, their connections with our church and the influence of the local aristocrats upon the development of this area, are changing our understanding of the history of St Wilfrid’s.
In conclusion, it would seem that earlier historians did not really understand the importance of this modest parish church. It would appear that St Wilfrid’s is one of only two intact Knights Hospitallers churches left in the country, and as such, should stand proudly alongside its close neighbours, Melbourne and Repton.