North Transept Wall Paintings - Cliffe History

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St. Helen’s Church

(A brief pen-portrait of the interior)
North Transept Wall Paintings

In the North Transept can be seen the remains of fine 13th century wall paintings which were uncovered in 1864.

It’s thanks to the efforts of a hard-working curate, the Reverend E. H. Lee (the incumbent being the Venerable Archdeacon Croft, who was non-resident in the parish), that work was undertaken to repair the plasterwork. Whilst this refurbishment was taking place, the ancient 13th century fresco paintings were discovered and their restoration was left in the capable hands of Professor E. W. Tristram: he also produced, in 1932, the framed facsimile of ‘The Martyrdom of St. Edmund’ shown below.
It is also interesting to note that whilst the restoration of the North Transept was taking place not only were the wonderful medieval paintings brought to life.

The wall paintings highlight the story of St. Edmund, England’s original Patron Saint, prior to the introduction of St. George by the foreign occupation forces.

St Edmund was born on Christmas Day 841 AD, Edmund succeeded to the throne of East Anglia in 856. A Christian from birth, he fought alongside King Alfred of Wessex against the pagan Viking and Norse invaders (the Great Heathen Army) until 869/70 when his forces were defeated and Edmund was captured by the Vikings. He was ordered to renounce his faith and share power with the pagan Vikings, but he refused.

The paintings show the subsequent death of St Edmund.

In the lowest scene a figure on horseback is addressing three ill-favoured men, variously armed with, sword, bow, and hatchet. The figure on the horse holds up one hand in the form of entreaty, the other being laid on his breast. The men evidently mean mischief, and their countenances depict every evil passion.

The Danes finding him in their power, dragged him from his horse, stripped and tied him to a tree, and shot him to death.

In the middle course, the compartment on our left represents two Danes in the act of shooting, their bows are bent; and the King stands opposite to them tied to a tree. After he had been thus killed, he was beheaded, and thrown into a wood.
 
The 13th Century Wall Paintings

 
 
The adjacent compartment on the right shews a man in the act of cutting off the head. When the Danes leave the neighbourhood the King's friends search for his body, this they find, but can nowhere discover the head; the story runs that a wolf brings it to them in his mouth (some such animal appears in the upper course, in the compartment on the right side), and the head when brought into contact with the body at once adhered to it, proving by the miracle that they really belonged to each other. Thus assured, the friends pay the last rites to the martyred King by burying his body (which is shewn in the upper compartment on the left). The figures are well drawn and sketched with a bold hand.

 
The date that this was supposed to have happened, according to Abbo of Fleury, who quotes St Dunstan as his source, was 20th November and this is the date for St Edmund’s Day: England’s original patron saint where his flag, a white dragon on a red background, would be flown with pride.
 The Flag of St. Edmund

Interestingly, while removing the soil preparatory to laying down concrete for the pavement, they uncovered the foundations of an earlier wall. It ran parallel with, and close beside, the base of the existing east wall of the transept. It was four feet thick, and was met, at a point fifteen feet and three quarters north of the chancel wall, by a cross wall, or pier four feet square, at right angles to it. Beyond this cross wall a similar pier, four feet square, terminated this ancient wall. In the arch by which we enter this transept from the north aisle it is believed that there are the remains of the older (Norman) Church.
 
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