Residents in a Derbyshire village have stumbled upon the earliest known alabaster effigy of a priest in the UK during the modernisation of a medieval church – a discovery which experts have described as “exciting beyond our expectations”.
The forgotten monument has been uncovered in St Wilfrid’s, in Barrow upon Trent, a 10th century church which is being completely transformed into a multi-functional community space thanks to a grant of more than half a million pounds from the Heritage Lottery Fund.
The exciting discovery was made when the pipe organ was removed and conservators have confirmed the monument has more medieval paint than any other effigy from the era – including significant traces of pure gold.
Dating back to around 1348, the identity of the effigy remains a mystery, although it is believed to be the priest John de Belton who is presumed to have lost his life to the Black Death while serving the parish.
Church warden Anne Heathcote, who is the sixth generation of her family to hold the position, said: “Few people even knew the effigy existed, so it has been a complete joy to discover that he is so significant. Although his face has certainly been damaged, possibly during the reformation, it is still possible to see the beauty and skill of the sculptor; his gown has exquisite patterns.
“After the conservator ran some tests on his medieval paintwork it was discovered to be the oldest in existence and they found pure gold and samples of azurite, red, green and black paint.
“She said it was ‘exciting beyond our expectations’ and we were offered a grant to employ a specialist, because there was so much interest in the unique chance to study an effigy of national importance like this.
“He weighs a tonne-and-a-half and the experts had to make huge efforts to actually access him. It seems he would have been very ornate and covered in bling, which is why there has been such excitement.”
Work started on the transformation of grade-1 listed St Wilfrid’s in May and will be completed in time for Christmas services. The project is costing in excess of £800,000 which has been achieved by a £563,000 national lottery donation, grants from various organisations and the tireless fundraising of the Friends of St Wilfrid’s.
Although the church looks the same externally, inside the entire building is an ultra-modern open plan space with underfloor heating, stackable chairs and dimmable halo-shaped LED lights hanging from the ceiling.
It is hoped that the flexible space will be used by community groups for exercise classes or meetings, while there is a music mixing desk and amplifier for recordings and rehearsals, plus a large screen that will enable films to be shown inside.
The 150-year-old pews were sold to villagers, while the 1890s pipe organ has found a new home in a church in the Loire Valley, in France.
When the doors reopen on the Anglo Saxon church, which is mentioned in the Domesday Book, visitors will be able to discover more about its rich history on a digital trail using their mobile phone.
Undoubtedly, the start of the tour will be the effigy whose head is cradled by an angel’s hands with a dog nestled at his feet.
The monument has been lovingly restored and encased in protective glass, with a mirror positioned behind it so visitors can see both sides of the intricately carved monument.
Mrs Heathcote added: “Everything we have done at St Wilfrid’s has been to make the building more user-friendly and accessible to the community – we were determined that our church should not close.
“The church is still suitable for services, baptisms, funerals and weddings, the beauty is that now guests can get married, then have their photographs taken in the churchyard while we transform the inside into a space for the wedding reception.
“It’s hard to know what John de Belton, or whoever the effigy represents, would make of it – but I like to think that they would be see the beauty in preserving the church for future generations.”
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