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Church Post Code PE8 5AF

Church Closed to Visitors - Opened by Arrangement

To put it mildly, it was a chilly January morning in 2023, and a revisit to the church of St Mary, Lower Benfield. The village here is tucked alongside the main road which runs from Oundle to neighbouring Upper Benfield. Oundle is just over three miles to the east; Lyveden New Built, an unfinished Elizabethan house, now run by the National Trust, is a short distance away across the fields to the south west.

I had previously visited here some ten years earlier, when stopping at nearby Brigstock on a four day churchcrawl; a cloudy Sunday morning, cycling in after taking in a service at Brigstock.

I arrived early and took a quick look around the village; with a thatched dog eagerly eyeing up an owl on a roof nearby, with a dragon close by. I always look out for the thatched animals, but a dragon was a new one on me!  Entry to the church is via a lychgate to the north east, at the end of a narrow lane.

With the exception of the birds, the only noise was from a couple of central heating systems in neighbouring houses, steam rising up from the vents in the cold. I spent a few minutes tracking a Wagtail as it flitted around the south wall of the tower, settling on every stone head in turn before hanging from the broach spire in an impressive gravity defying fashion.


The church here dates from 1847; built by John Macduff Derick, an Irish architect, for the Watts Russell family. It replaced an earlier medieval church and there are plenty of gravestones in the grounds here which pre date the church.

A few of these are set in to the west wall of the church grounds, including one which looks to date from the early 18th century. The script is long since illegible, but the deaths head is still discernible at the top; the human skull reminding the onlooker that Man is mortal and will die.

The church that we see today consists of west tower with spire, nave with north and south aisles but no clerestories, north chapel, north porch and chancel.


This is a church of impressive dimensions. The square west tower is buttressed up to the belfry stage; with tall elegant octagonal broache spire rising up, with two tiers of irregularly spaced lucarne windows. At the four corners of the tower are the symbols of the four gospel writers or evangelists.  Matthew is symbolised by an Angel, Mark by a Lion, Luke is symbolised by an Ox and John by an Eagle, with the aforementioned Wagtail having reached this one as I photographed it!

There are stone heads throughout the exterior. One exquisite carving of a female figure caught my eye against the north porch. At the west end, there are two figures, male and female, possibly husband and wife. The male figure appears to be in distress; eyes flicked towards the female who, eyes flicking back, looks far from impressed.

The church from the east is impressive, with substantial chancel with five light east window, above which there is an empty image niche.


When Thomas North compiled his Victorian study of the church bells in Northamptonshire; published in 1878, there were five bells in the ring. He listed them as follows… The first of the ring was cast by Peterborough founder Henry Penn. This has the Latin inscription ‘Melodiam Ordior’ which translates as ‘Begin the Melody’.

The second in the ring was cast by Thomas I Eayre in 1755. He was a founder who worked out of Kettering. This one is inscribed ‘Omnis Carnalis Vis Fortis Congruit Herbis’ ‘All the strength of flesh is but as grass’.

The third of the ring in North’s time was cast by Mears of London 1n 1847, with this bell being cast when the church here was rebuilt. The fourth was another from Thomas I Eayre, this one dated 1733. This one reads ‘Omnia Fiant Ad Gloriam Dei Gloria Deo Soli’; ‘Let all things be done for the glory of God Glory to God alone’.

The final bell of the ring was from Robert Taylor of St Neots in 1815. This has on it the names of the church wardens of the day, J Hammerton and R Rowell.

The situation today is that there are now six bells here, with a new first of the ring being added by Taylor of Loughborough in 1911.


This is an important church; rebuilt under the influence of the Oxford movement’s ideals. This movement started in the 1830’s and their belief was that the Anglican Church should move towards the catholic faith in terms of their liturgy and devotions; moving towards a ‘High Church’ style of worship and away from the changes made during the Reformation of the mid 16th century. This led to a style of worship called Anglo Catholic.

This church is known as a Tractarian’ church, as the Oxford movement’s beliefs were known as Tractarianism after their publications called ‘Tracts for the Times’ which were printed between 1833 and 1841.

 It is interesting that the architect here, John Macduff Derick built, between 1842 and 1845, St Saviour’s in Leeds, which Pevsner called the most important Victorian church in the city and the one which marked the beginning of Anglo-Catholicism in England.


I met the church warden who was kind enough to unlock for me and I really enjoyed the time that we spent together. We entered in through a small door on the north wall of the chancel.

The chancel, as mentioned earlier, is original to the medieval church and was not rebuilt with the rest of the church.

The chancel was bright and welcoming and is noted for some misericords which came from the church at Fotheringhay, which was reduced in size following the dissolution of the Monasteries. Further were sent to nearby Tansor and Hemington. I apologise that there are no photographs of the misericords, a glitch either with my camera or my brain (probably the latter) meant that the photos were sub standard and not useable here!

The altar is plain and simple but what goes on around it is anything but! Gilded angels hold candles at each of the four corners. The reredos is also gilded, and contains five scenes, central of which is the crucifixion. To the right as we look at it is Mary presenting Jesus to Simeon in the temple; Anna looking on. Close by we have the nativity, with the wide men presenting their gifts. Joseph is not present in either scene.

To the left we have Mary, Joseph and the baby Jesus in the manger and a delightful depiction of the annunciation. There is a real tenderness to this as the Angel Gabriel kneels down to be at Mary’s level as he tells her of what is to come.


At the top of the reredos are some shields, two of which I will mention. One of these has an illustration of Christ’s pierced hands and feet. The other shows a trinity shield.  This was a diagram which was often used to explain the concept of the trinity. It consists of four nodes. The three outer nodes would have been labelled with the elements of the trinity “Father” “Son” and “Holy Spirit”. The inner node would have been labelled “God”. Six lines connect the nodes and these lines would have been marked either “is” or “is not” Twelve statements can be made as follows…

   The Father is God"   "The Son is God"   "The Holy Spirit is God"   "God is the Father" "God is the Son"   "God is the Holy Spirit"   "The Father is not the Son" "The Father is not the Holy Spirit"   "The Son is not the Father"   "The Son is not the Holy Spirit"   "The Holy Spirit is not the Father"   "The Holy Spirit is not the Son"

On the south wall of the chancel is a triple sedilia, the seating for the priests, with a piscina, for the priest to wash the holy vessels used in the mass, in the traditional place to the east of that. Also traditional in the post covid years is the bottle of hand sanitiser which is present close by.


The east window is of five lights and the glass here has, unusually, John the Baptist at the centre, flanked by the four evangelists. John points upwards towards Heaven; the Holy Spirit in the form of a dove and the Agnus Dei, can be seen in the tracery. This is a copy of a window that can be seen in Ely cathedral.

A rood screen, which dates from the time of the Victorian restoration, separates nave from chancel.  It has symbols of Christ’s passion running across the top. We have the bag of money that Judas betrayed Jesus for, torch, cockerel, whipping post, scourge, crown of thorns, nails, tunic, dice, spear, hyssop stick, hammer and pliers.  Over the top of this is a coloured carving of the crucifixion, with Mary the Mother of Jesus and St John in their traditional places beside the cross.

Over to the north we have a four panel window which has a beautiful portrayal of Jesus at the house of Mary and Martha. Martha was a doer and is depicted with a serving platter as she was busily engaged in preparing lunch. Mary was more reflective and is shown at prayer at Jesus’ feet. Mary was later to anoint Jesus with pure nard shortly before the arrest.

Here, we also have a depiction of Jesus at prayer before and angel. This could be from the Garden of Gethsemane but if this was the case the angel would normally be shown holding the cup from which Jesus was due to drink. As it is, the ground is stony; perhaps we are seeing Jesus in the wilderness; but that doesn’t really fit either!

One further panel shows Mary and Joseph with the baby Jesus. Interestingly, Mary is shown with nimbus (halo) whilst Joseph is not. The fourth panel had me puzzled, with three women looking down over two dead children. There was a quick discussion on my facebook page and we think that it could be Herod’s slaughter of the innocents.


A two light window at the east end of the north aisle depicts part of Matthew Chapter 25, where the sheep (those judged righteous) and separated from the goats (those who are condemned); looking at verses 34 – 36. The NIV translation reads… “Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world.  For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in,  I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.’

Stained glass in the south aisle includes a three light window with three scenes of the Virgin Mary. Central is the Virgin with child, flanked by the Annunciation and the nativity. Close by, the central image is Christ holding a chalice with communion wafer ‘This is my body given for you; do this in remembrance of me’.


There are just a few other things to mention. There is an ogee arched squint at the east end of the south aisle, allowing a view in to the chancel; the east window being nicely framed. A wooden carving in the chancel is of interest. This depicts a man carrying a human skull. The skull, as is also seen on the gravestone mounted in to the perimeter wall close to the porch, symbolises the inevitability of death; the mortality of Man. Just a note though that when a child is seen to carry a skull on a monument, it generally means that this child had pre deceased his or her parents.

And on the topic of the mortality of Man, the fragility of life is illustrated by a brass plaque to Elizabeth Grant who died in childbirth in 1608. This reads ‘My child bed was my death bed. Thankes I gave to God that gave a child. And so I died’. The Latin above reads death to life’. A sad reminder of the hard lives that these people led.


Moving back outside, the wagtail had moved on, and there was the distant cry of an unseen Red Kite, circling off to the south. As mentioned earlier, many of the gravestones here pre date the church, with many finely carved eighteenth century stones, script still legible on many, with some partially sunken through age.

The angel features on many, a commonly used symbol to denote the safe escorting of the soul to Heaven. There is nothing that I saw in the grounds, though that is of any great rarity or importance, but one late eighteenth century chest tomb close to the south aisle does have a Grade II Listing in its own right.

The views out over the fields to the south of the church were beautiful; there was hardly a cloud in the sky and much of the frost had burned off whilst we were in the church. We had another six churches to visit during the rest of the day, and it was looking as if it was going to be a good churchcrawl!

The church here is normally closed to visitors, but the people there were friendly and helpful to me, which was appreciated very much. This is a fine, historic church.  Onwards and upwards, with Brigstock and its Saxon tower being the next point of call.

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