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 which
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
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 man,
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."
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
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 (1¼ 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 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:-
1. J ADKINS AND L FAIRBROTHER CW JOHN
BRIANT HERTFORD FECIT 1797
(diameter 27½ inches)
2. +THE REVND PRYCE JONES OFFICIATING
MINISTER T.TAYLOR & SON FOUNDERS LOUGHBOROUGHJ 1855
(diameter 28 inches)
3. THE REV. PRYCE JONES CURATE. W.& J. TAYLOR
FOUNDERS 1834. (and round the rim) OBEY OUR CALL
THE RIGHT THE GOOD OLD WAY, SHUN SCHISM'S
WILES, NOR EVER FROM IT STRAY.
(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)
6. THAT ALL MAY CWM AND NON MAY
STAY AT HOM I RING TO SERMON WITH
A LUSTY BOM 1679.
(diameter 38½ inches)
Priest's Bell: RF & J H
(diameter 12½ 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
small stone with carved lettering west of the organ, in the
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.
inside and outside the church were transcribed by the Helmdon branch
of the WEA in 1998, and later in 2018.