The Church of St. Helen's (1876) - Cliffe History

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A Paper read therein before the Kent Archaeological Society on July 26th, 1876,
The name of this parish was anciently Clyva, Cleve, or Bishop's Cleve; afterwards West Cliff, and Clyff, or Clyffe in the seventeenth century, as in the map of Kent in Philipott's book Kent Surveyed; and now the name generally given to the place is Cliffe-at-Hoo. Although the parish is not actually within the Hundred of Hoo, it is thus designated to distinguish it from others of the same name.
The Church is dedicated in honour of St. Helen, mother of the Emperor Constantine the Great, a personage chiefly remarkable on account of the legend, which represents her as the discoverer of the actual Cross upon which the Saviour suffered.
The Church which stood on the site of the present building, and which has entirely perished, with the exception possibly of a very rude and ancient doorway, still to be seen in the exterior of the north wall of the north Chapel, was, with some other buildings (to which it may be reasonably conjectured this doorway led, but which have also perished), (There is a raised space in the churchyard immediately opposite to this doorway, which would seem to mark the site of some building, and it has been asserted that there are foundations there.)the place where the seven Anglo-Saxon Councils were held, viz.:— Cloveshoo or Cloveshoe in A.D. 742, 747, 798, 800, 803, 823, and 824. The Canons passed at the Council of the year 747 are worthy of attention; one of them, the ninth, enjoining residence on the Clergy in their respective parishes, has been forgotten here, the present Rector being the first for fully a century, who has been properly resident upon the benefice.
Other places, it is true, claim to have been the scene of these Councils, but when the position of Cliffe is considered, geographically and ecclesiastically, being readily accessible by river and sea communication from all parts of England, and not so very far distant from the Metropolitical City of Canterbury, it -would seem to have as good, if not a better, claim than Abingdon, or Chelsea, to be the place where these assemblies were held. Besides this a priori argument in favour of the supposition, there is also more or less indirect evidence in its favour to be derived -from the fact that the Rectory of Cliffe (In ancient times there was a perpetual vicarage as well as a rectory belonging to this church, but when the vicarage was merged into the rectory is uncertain. The Vicarage House, which was probably built of timber and plaster, was pulled down shortly after the Restoration. Two fields belonging to the glebe still go by the name of the Vicarage field and marsh) was for many centuries an Exempt Jurisdiction, the Rectors having been their own Ordinaries, only visitable by the Archbishop of Canterbury in person. (This Jurisdiction was taken away by two "Orders in Council," dated respectively August 8, and December 23, 1845.)

The present Church is faced with Kentish rag and flint in alternate courses; some Reigate stone appears also, and the materials seem to have been used more than once before. The fabric consists of western tower, nave, north and south aisles, south porch, north and south chapels built transept-wise, and chancel; the whole forming a cruciform plan. Its extreme dimensions are, from east to west 149 feet, and from north to south, across the transepts, 82 feet. The tower, nave, and transepts are Early English, and are said to have been built about the year 1260. The chancel is thought to have been rebuilt, and several "Decorated" windows inserted in the nave aisles, during the time of Archbishop Whittlesey, who about the year 1350 was Rector of Cliffe. One solitary beam, with pierced spandrels, in the nave, is exactly like the tie-beams of the roof erected in Cooling Church during the reign of Edward III. Its insertion was probably needed when the nave aisles were widened at this time. In the south aisle an arch, inserted within the Early English arcading upon the west wall of the south transept, may be of this or of rather later date. The arms of Archbishop Arundel, upon the ancient chancel roof (which has been unhappily demolished, together with the east window), would seem to suggest for that roof likewise a somewhat later date. He occupied the See from 1396 to 1414.
The tower was repaired, and its staircase rebuilt, a few years ago. In 1857, when Sir Stephen Glynne visited this Church, the bells had been taken down to be recast, and he saw them lying on the ground within the tower. In 1862 they were recast, by John Taylor and Co., of Loughborough; and, in 1864, two more were added from the same foundry. The tower now contains a peal of eight musical bells, and the ringing chamber is approached by a newel staircase. There is a rude external doorway to be observed on the south side of the tower. The south porch has a parvise or room over it, by no means an uncommon arrangement, Here the parvise is not, as yet, put to any practical use; but in some places it is used as a vestry or as a library. The floor of the parvise and the turret stairs leading to it have been recently restored, but the turret itself still needs restoration. There are some masons' marks to be seen on the outside arch of the porch. The nave (of which the declination of its floor to the north is remarkable) was reseated with open seats two years ago. The font, which was removed some years since from its accustomed place, has an octagonal bowl, with concave sides, on a buttressed stem. An iron bracket in the western pillar of the south arcade of the nave, from which the font cover was suspended, remains to mark its original position. The nave arcades consist each of five Early English arches, which spring from circular columns having moulded capitals and bases. Over each column of the two arcades there is a clerestory lancet window, well splayed.
The transepts were originally uniformly decorated with bold arcading, and enriched with paintings. On their east and on their western walls, were two large Early English blindarches, well moulded, on slender banded shafts with moulded caps and bases. In the middle of each of these wall-arches was a large, single, lancet window. On each side of these windows, and above them, the wall was decorated with paintings, which filled the wide spaces intervening between each window and the arch in which it stood. Some of these paintings still remain, but their colours are sometimes more, sometimes less vivid, varying according to some unknown atmospheric conditions.
In the south transept (There has been at least one altar in this transept, and a piscina still remains,) the painting on the east wall, south of the southernmost window, represents the Last Judgment. The subject is boldly treated, in five series of figures. At the top we see the Saviour in Majesty, seated upon a rainbow; below Him the angelic host; beneath them the Resurrection of the Just; lower still the Unjust appear, with an avenging angel, sword in hand, in their midst, and beneath them gape the jaws of hell. On the north side of this window the subjects cannot so clearly be seen; one seems to be such a scene as that of David beheading Goliath.
In both transepts one arch of the arcading on the west wall was broken into when the nave aisles were widened, but in both cases the original Early English wall-arch was preserved, and the apex of the original lancet window still remains in situ. Beneath them was inserted in each case an arch which opened into the extra width of the aisle.
In the north transept this open arch is small and does not descend to the ground; in the south transept the arch is larger, it is open to the ground, and has disfigured the original arrangement much more. In the north transept we see, above the most southern window in its east wall, the bold conventional pattern or diaper used around the arches of the windows; another pattern appears above the southern arch which opens from this transept into the nave. At the side of the same window in the east wall the paintings are still visible, but very dim. The martyrdom of St. Edmund the King seems to be the subject represented.
The north transept, now converted into a vestry, was until recently fitted up with a " bench/' and used for the Rector's Court, for, as has been already mentioned, the jurisdiction was in the Rector, who was ex officio Commissary of the Bishop of Rochester, and exempt from all ecclesiastical authority except personal visitation by the Archbishop of Canterbury. The piscina for the altar remains, and also the upper angle of the right hand side of the reredos of the altar, which serves to mark a mis-restoration of the sill of the window adjoining it, which, as it is now, would descend into the middle of the old reredos. The piece of furniture in the middle, dividing the clergy vestry from the choir vestry, is made out of the old pews, and opens on both sides, being used to keep the surplices, etc., belonging to the clergy and choir. Two curious hollowed stones, one perfect, and the other much broken, are here preserved. They are supposed to have been holy water stoups. This north chapel is separated from the rest of the Church by an oaken screen of late Decorated or early Perpendicular character.
The pulpit, which was placed on its stone base two years ago, seems to bear its date upon the bracket of the hour glass, 1636. The ancient roof of the nave was destroyed in 1730. There are left in the windows of the north aisle some small fragments of the ancient stained glass, the Blessed Virgin with our Lord as a child in her arms, and a ship, (ln the " water " in -which the " ship " floats are some curious representations of fishes, and in one of the windows of the south aisle the figure of a ram's head is still to be seen) besides which all else has perished, " which thing is an allegory."


In the east end of the south aisle is a piscina made of pieces of window tracery, probably inserted in a hasty way during the short return to the old services in the reign of Queen Mary. This piscina was discovered when the old pews were removed. The altar to which it belonged probably stood against a low wall, such as still remains at the east end of the north aisle. In both aisles the ancient string-course may be traced, beneath the windows, and around the doorways; in the south aisle, the old seats of masonry remain around the walls of its west end.
The chancel, at the entrance of which there is no arch as is generally the case, has six ancient windows, arranged in pairs, four of Flamboyant, and two (the easternmost) of Kentish tracery. The east window, together with the old roof, was removed in 1732. Rector Green has left a record of their removal in one of the Register books belonging to the Church. ("Memdum. The roof of the church was taken down, new laid, and the Lead new cast anno 1730. And the roof of the chancel anno 1732, at which time the east window was pulled down and rebuilt, and both Church and Chancel ceiled.

“Mr.  DAVID BROWN - Churchwardens.
(Signed) G. GKEEN, B.D.

The steps of the chancel were destroyed, and some parcloses removed, about 1640, when Dr. Annesley (an ancestor, by the way, of John and Charles Wesley) was intruded into the Rectory, from which Dr. Griffin Higgs had been ejected. Since the present Rector came into residence in 1869, the chancel steps have been replaced, the floor repaved with tiles of good design ; the missing portions of the sedilia, which are of very elaborate late " Decorated " workmanship, restored ; the oak reredos of 1732 removed; and the choir-seats rearranged and added to. (This Griffin Higgs was a man of some mark; for Anthony a "Wood in the Athenca Oxonienses devotes upwards of a column to his life and doings. Son of Griffith and Sarah Higgs, he was baptized at South Stoke, Oxon, 28th Oct., 1589. His grandparents were Nicholas and Maria Higgs who lived in Gloucestershire. He was B.D. of St. John's College, Oxford, and D.D. of the University of Leyden, having been resident chaplain to Elizabeth, Queen of Bohemia, from 1627 to about 1638. Besides being Rector of Cliffe, he was Chaunter, i.e. Head of the Chapter, of St. David's - a dignity now merged in the Deanery established in that Church by the Welsh Cathedrals Act. He was a protege of Archbishop Laud, and by him collated to the Rectory of Cliffe, and presented to the Chauntership of St. David's, which was Archbishop Laud's option in that See. King Charles I. in 1638 made Dr. Higgs Dean of Lichfleld, but from all three preferments he was ejected ; and he died at the place where he was born, Stoke Abbot, otherwise South Stoke, December 16, 1659, and was buried in the chancel of the Church there.)
Only six of the stalls are ancient. There used to be six more, which with other "carved work” are said to have been burnt as fire-wood many years ago by an Anabaptist churchwarden; when probably the ancient organ case, mentioned by Hasted, likewise perished. An Archbishop's head has been inserted at the end of the string-course on the north side of the interior of the chancel, in the place of an exceedingly modern "devil," which till recently confronted the battered physiognomy of a monk, which for ages, through good report and through evil report alike, has preserved a mingled aspect of benevolence and self-satisfaction. By these two heads the condition of the ancient customs of Cliffe are kept alive — the principal manor here, or rather a moiety of it, having till the Dissolution belonged to the Monastery of Christ Church at Canterbury, and the other  moiety with the advowson of the Rectory having been vested, in the Archbishop. Now the advowson is all that the Archbishop holds at Cliffe. The sedilia canopies are groined; and the cusps of their arches bear grotesque carvings. Just west of them is a small priest's door. Opposite to the sedilia there is an Easter sepulchre—a tomb-like erection under a handsome five-foiled arch, each foil of which is trebly cusped. Here, in pre-Reformation days, the Crucifix was laid on Good Friday, and replaced on the altar on Easter morning, both actions being accompanied by certain solemnities. Immediately west of this Easter sepulchre, is a blocked ancient doorway, which probably led into the vestry. The stained glass in the upper part of the windows of the south side of the chancel was discovered, carefully laid by in a box, in that disgraceful place at the west end of the north aisle called the bone-hole, which, it is hoped, will soon be abolished, and a proper shed erected elsewhere for the sexton's tools. This glass was found to fit exactly the place it now occupies, except the easternmost window, which is composed of fragments—a portion of which represents a castellated building, not unlike Cooling Castle, as to the meaning of which, however, tradition is silent. This ancient glass was reset by Messrs. Powell and Sons of White Friars, London, who also replaced the former miserable common quarrels with the present glass. The stairs leading to the ancient rood-loft still remain, and we can see the loft doorway, high up in the west end of the north wall of the chancel, but the doorway leading to the loft-stairs, from the north transept, has been destroyed and walled up. The remains of the ancient rood-screen have been preserved as well as they could be, and only stay where they are until they can be replaced by a new screen, which could be done for about £80, sufficient of the original being left to serve as a guide for reconstruction.
The east wall of the chancel on examination last year disclosed distinct traces of the reredos of the ancient altar. It was five feet high, by seven feet six inches wide, and it had a low pediment; but the whole of the lower part of the east wall was in too ruinous a condition to be treated, except at very great cost,
otherwise than it has been, viz., the defects made good with stones and cement, and the wall plastered to match the side walls. At the same time the ancient jambs of the east window were found in situ, built of Reigate stone much exfoliated. They were fifteen feet apart; and the sill of the window is seven feet above the level of the highest part of the chancel floor. The spaces between the ancient jambs, and the sides of the present miserable aperture, were found to be filled in with broken fragments of the beautiful "Decorated" window, which must have been something like the pattern, cut, with that intention, in the panel of the new Litany desk. This was copied from the beautiful " nameless window" mentioned by Rickman and Sharpe, and, as it is thoroughly congruent with the side windows, the "nameless window" may by a happy accident be the lost east window of Cliffe Church. The chancel was doubtless embattled like the rest of the church, until Rector Green perpetrated his Vandalism, leaving the upper courses of masonry all disordered, and so differing from the alternate courses of flint and rag in the lower part of the walls. The " rusticated" brick work on each side of the east window outside marks the width of the ancient window, the top of which would be considerably above the present roof.
The built-up doorway in the north side of the " sanctuary," opened into a vestry, similar to that at Stone, near Dartford. From the churchyard we see the corbels of its very low roof, as well as a piscina and an aumbrie, still remaining in the exterior of the chancel wall. The foundations of this building lie immediately below the turf and could readily be traced.
The Communion plate belonging to the Church is (with the exception of the paten) of no great interest. It is of massive silver, and comprises—flagon, chalice, and two salvers, and was presented to the Church by Rector Green. The paten, of pre-Reformation date, is of silver gilt and is enamelled. There is represented upon it the Father as "the Ancient of Days" enthroned, and supporting the Son hanging on the Cross, above the head of which is the Holy Dove, and round the rim is this


It has been engraved for the Instrumenta Ecclesiastica of the Camden Society.
The Registers date from the year 1558, and the more ancient ones have been newly bound at the cost of the present Rector.
The churchyard is very large, being about two acres in extent, and has in it some wrecks of ancient elm trees; but it contains, so far as is known, no memorials of any historic interest. At its east end there are some ancient timber houses, formerly occupied by the priests of the chantries within the
Church. They passed into lay hands at the Reformation, and having been long used as "Poor Houses," have been again sold. There is an interesting window belonging to one of them visible from the street. (The village green adjoining the churchyard on the south goes by the name of the Butt-way, and is probably an unenclosed portion of the area upon which the parish butts were set up in the days when the use of the long-bow was obligatory upon every able-bodied free-man below the rank of Knight or Esquire. The archery practice generally took place on Sundays and Holy Days after Divine Service.) Of monuments in the Church, there is in the nave a stone, probably a coffin lid, bearing this inscription:—


There is also a beautiful slab with a floriated cross, and another of a more simple design, both without any legend, also a very large wedge-shaped stone without inscription. In the north
aisle there is a large slab of Reigate stone inscribed—

With a half-length figure of Elienore. This is figured in the Gentleman's Magazine of 1794, plate iii., page 809. This monument is now unavoidably concealed by the new seats. There are also some seventeenth century brasses for the family of Faunce; one of the series is missing.
(Here lyeth the body of Thomas Faunce yeoman, who had two wives Alyce & Elizabeth & had issue by Alyce 2 sones and one daughter & by Elizabeth one sonne and 2 Daughters. The sayd Thomas Deceased yc first day of July 1609 beinge of y° age of LXXXllH yeres : and Alyce dyed ye first daye of Marche 1592 being aged LXifi yeres : Thomas His eldest son'e by Alyce being Mayor of y° cittie of Eochester at his Fathers decease. Here under lyeth interred the body of Bonham Faunce late of this parish Gent: aged 66 : Hee had issue by his two wives Elizabeth and Mary eich of them one childe; Hee dyed the 16 day of February 1652.)

In the south aisle there is a very late brass for Elizabeth Gissome, (Heare lyeth the body of Elizabeth Gissome late wife of James Gissome of this parrish who departed this life the 14 day of November 1668 being aged 19 yeares & 10 moneths Vivit post funere virtus.) also a stone for the Baynards (Here lyeth the body of Richard Baynard who departed this life May day 1672 aged 4(1 years. Here lyeth the body of Dorryti Baynard late wife of John Baynard of this parish who departed this life ye 21 day of September 1667. Also here lyeth the body of Richard Baynard sone of John and Dorryti Baynard who departed this life March 17th 1671 aged 8 years. Here lyeth the body of John Baynard Husband to Dorryti Baynard and father to Richard Baynard who departed this life May 7th 1676 aged 56 yeares.)  of this parish; and on either side of the east end of the nave there are modern tablets erected by the parishioners in memory of Rectors Simpkinson and Burney. There is also on the eastern respond of the south arcade a brass plate which records the gift by John Brown of certain lands to the school in the year 1699.
In the chancel are two large stones with the matrices of their brasses, evidently in memory of ecclesiastics—probably Eectors of the parish, but who they were it is impossible to say. In one of the Register books the burial of Mrs. Annesley, the wife of the intruded Rector, in the time of the great Rebellion, is recorded as having been effected to the east of the largest of these two stones. Just east of the organ is a slab of Bethersden marble, much defaced by time, and with no legend; also there is another with the matrix of a small half length brass of an ecclesiastic, under the tiles in the middle of the chancel between the choir-seats. It was so shattered that it was left as it was, and the levelling for the tiles just allowed them to cover it and the stone above mentioned. There are also to be seen outside the Church under the foundation of the west wall of the south aisle some pieces of ancient gravestones, which have evidently been improperly diverted from their original purpose into foundation stones.
In conclusion, it is to be hoped that many years will not elapse before Cliffe Church, one of the largest and most interesting in West Kent, shall have undergone a thorough restoration; which, however, must be a work of very considerable cost, it being roughly estimated that it would take from £1500 to £3000 to complete the satisfactory restoration of the chancel; and at the very least from £3000 to £4000 that of the nave and aisles. And as Cliffe is now, owing to the establishment of Cement Works, recovering rapidly from the decay which overtook it after the fire, by which the greater part of the town, as it then was, was destroyed some three hundred years ago, there seems every prospect that its noble Church may again become as highly appreciated by a large and devout congregation (illuminated, however, by a purer and more primitive Faith), as it ever was in its earliest and best days of construction and enlargement.

Reproduced by kind permission of the Kent Archaeological Society.
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