Ancient stones and new beginnings – a Spring saunter through St Nicholas churchyard, Sevenoaks

 

 

Another view of St Nicholas with a war memorial in the foreground.
©Carole Tyrrell

On my previous spring saunters I’ve wandered through two of London’s large, sprawling cemeteries; Kensal Green and West Norwood but this year I thought I’d stay nearer to home.    St Nicholas is my local church and within walking distance of my home.  It’s in a prominent position in the town as it’s at the top of the hill and  opposite the entrance to Knole Park, another local landmark.   One of its most famous Rectors was the preacher and poet, John Donne, who was in post from 1616 until 1631 and is commemorated with a metal plate on the pavement outside. Every time I visit its churchyard I find something new and at a time when Nature is beginning to awaken again what better excuse did I need?

The present building’s shape dates from the 13th century and in fact the present nave dates from 1270.  It replaces an earlier church.  The north aisle was added in 1320 and the chancel south aisle and tower around 1450.  There have been many later alterations but the basic 15th century structure and style remains.  In 1995 excavations took place to create more meeting rooms in what may have been the crypt.  The interior of the church has some monuments dedicated to prominent local families.

But it’s the churchyard that fascinated me.  Intertwined with plain Victorian headstones are some wonderful examples of 18th century tombstones adorned with memento mori.  A couple are naively executed but others are finely carved with the wonderful 18th century calligraphy accompanying them.

The Spring sunlight illuminated the thick patches of moss and lichens that had carefully draped itself over the monuments and memorials.  It made the subtle hues and shades really stand out; the combination of green and gold or browns seemed to gleam amongst more subtle hints.

Some of the lichens looked as if someone had taken a paintbrush loaded with colour and then dabbed it onto the stones.  Moss has the effect of softening the edges of stones and letters and, where it replaces letters completely, gives a more organic feel to the epitaph.

A spreading horse chestnut tree was laden with sticky buds already beginning to burst into leaf. ‘How many years has it stood near the church door marking the seasons and years?’ I thought.

The spreading horse chestnut is now into full leaf burst.
©Carole Tyrrell

A chaffinch called loudly for its mate from the closed part of the churchyard.  I had explored this in October and seen its large carpet of prickly sweet chestnuts as a fox had turned tail and run back to where it had come from.  There has been a piece of bone abandoned on top of a flat headstone and I hoped that the fox had brought it in from a nearby butchers rubbish bin…….now alas this part of the churchyard is closed due to Health and Safety as it’s so overgrown.  On this visit I disturbed a fluffy ginger and white cat who soon fled in the same direction as the fox.

The closed part of the churchyard.
©Carole Tyrrell

Three large patches of snowdrops clustered protectively around the base of a tree, their pristine heads nodding in the breeze as if deep in conversation.  Primroses had begun to stud the grass and I saw my first ever cowslip amid headstones.

The tiny bright blue flowers of Speedwell blossomed beside a small tombstone and a red-tailed bee, one of the first signs of Spring, buzzed along the top of the grass.    Dog violets, a much underrated flowers in my opinion, frothed plentifully beside the iron entrance gate.

 

Nearby, was not so much a carpet of Spring flowers, but more of a small rug of them.  More Primroses, the bright yellow of Lesser Celandine, another harbinger of Spring, and more dog violets all combined to make a wonderful collection of green, yellow and purple.

There are some remarkable epitaphs in St Nicholas churchyard and this one which has now been incorporated into the fabric of the church caught my attention.

The epitaph reads:

To the Memory

of John Braithwaite Chief Coachman

to his Grace Lionel Duke of Dorset

He died by an unfortunate fall from

Ye coach near Riverhead in this parish.

His loss was greatly lamented

and by none more than

by his Lord and Master

to whom he was a most just and faithful servant

This sad accident happened

on the first day of July in

the year of our Lord 1723

 

 

 

With the Caring for God’s Acre project which is linked with the bio diversity recording site, irecord, biodiversity within cemeteries is being examined more closely. They are real havens for wildlife especially in big cities as they are an invaluable green space that’s accessible to everyone.  I’ve always enjoyed exploring cemeteries partly for this reason whether it be standing waist high in wild flowers on a hot July day in the meadow at Kensal Green cemetery or counting butterflies along the side paths leading to the Courtoy Mausoleum in Brompton Cemetery.

Sadly the Spring sunshine was replaced by April showers but Mother Nature ignored this and kept bursting forth regardless.  I’m already looking forward to my summer saunter within St Nicholas.

©Text and photos Carole Tyrrell

References and further reading

https://www.sevenoakssociety.co.uk/upper-high-street-west/255-st-nicholas-church

https://www.stnicholas-sevenoaks.org/

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Symbol of the Month – The Lily Cross

The magnificent Lily Cross on the Goodhart memorial in St Georges churchyard, Beckenham.
©Carole Tyrrell

 

I have always loved the magnificent Lily Cross in St George’s churchyard,  Beckenham as it’s such a bold and well carved one.  It’s also one of the largest memorials with the churchyard and is dedicated to a prominent local family, the Goodharts.  There is a poignant epitaph as well.

The epitaph to the Goodhart family beneath the Lily Cross. St Georges churchyard, Beckenham
©Carole Tyrrell

The Lily Cross is in the form of a Celtic Cross with the  four arms of the Cross each ending in a lily flower.

Lilies have always had a special and long significance with death.  In the 19th century their pungent, heady aroma was purportedly used to disguise the smell of the recently deceased’s body when it was the custom to have them rest at home prior to the funeral.   But the lily has also been seen as a representation of the soul’s return to innocence after death.

This is because of the lily’s strong associations with purity and innocence and with its colour of pure white it’s especially linked with the Virgin Mary.  Hence its other name the Madonna Lily.  In Christian Art, the Archangel Gabriel and the Virgin Mary are often depicted as holding a lily.

But there are other variants on the Lily Cross and these are:

  • The Flore Cross
  • The Patonce Cross
  • The Fleur de Lys Cross

These are more stylised versions of the Lily Cross.  In the Flore or Fleury Cross the arms end in a representation of flower petals and usually a lily. They often have three points at the end of each arm which represent three petals which is the version that I have usually seen without realising it.  A variation may be two points or horns or crowns but I haven’t seen this variation  yet.

A Flore cross in St Nicholas churchyard, Sevenoaks
©Carole Tyrrell

The Patonce Cross is any form of cross which has expanded end in which each arm ends in floriated points like the Flore or Fleury Crosses. In heraldry, the three petals represent faith, wisdom and chivalry and the four arms of the cross spread these to the four corners of the world. As a Christian Cross, the three petals represent the Trinity and the total of twelve petals symbolise the Apostles.

According to seiyaku.com, it’s claimed that the term Patonce is derived from the French word for the paw of an ounce or Snow Leopard. However it looks nothing like the paw print of a leopard but has been interpreted as the French being whimsical or romantic.

 

 

The Fleur-de-Lys Cross has similarities to both the Fleurie and Patonce Crosses in that it has liliform ends to the arms of the cross as they do. But these represent barbed fighting spears which are used in French heraldry.   The entire cross is a very stylised lily that has heraldic associations  especially in France where it was traditionally connected with royalty.  When Pope Leo II crowned Charlemagne as Emperor he was reputed to have presented him with a blue banner emblazoned with a golden fleur de lys.  However, after the French Revolution the fleur de lys was less obviously  associated with royalty.    Edward II is said to have used it in his coat of arms to emphasise his claim to the French throne.  Iwww.senyaku.com it’s claimed that this cross has been adopted by modern sub cultures such as the Goth movement who know it as the Gothic cross and New Agers who call it the Lotus Cross.

But a brief word on the cross as symbol.  It wasn’t always the primary emblem of Christianity and in fact, it wasn’t adopted until after the 2nd century. Prior to this it was the fish symbol, the ichthys, that was used by early Christians to identify fellow believers and often appears carved or written on their tombs.

The Ichthys, the symbol used by the early Christians prior to adopting the cross.
Shared under Wiki Creative Commons

In Christianity, the cross represents the Crucifixion and is a sign of Christ and faith.

But the cross also appears throughout many cultures and civilisations in several forms.  The cross of Horus, or the ankh, was used by the ancient Egyptians and, as it was often held in the hand of a god or powerful person, it’s a symbol of power.

Nefertiti receiving the ankh.
©https://goodlucksymbols.com/ankh/

The swastika was another ancient form of the cross. But is now unfortunately associated with death and destruction due to its adoption by the Nazis.  But originally it was seen as a sign of good fortune and came from the East as these two examples show:

However, even for Christians, there were uncomfortable connotations to the cross. For centuries, it had been used as a method of punishment, not only for early Christians, but also for wrongdoers such as criminals. However, its adoption as the central symbol of the Christian symbol is attributed to a dream of the Roman Emperor, Constantine, in AD 320. In this he decided to abandon the Roman pagan gods and pray to the Christian god.  According to Douglas Keister:

‘During a midnight prayer Constantine gazed towards the heavens and saw a group of star that looked like a huge, glowing luminous cross.  After he fell asleep, Constantine had a dream in which he saw Christ holding the same symbol and instructing Constantine  to affix it to his standards.  He defeated Maxentius.  As a result he had the emblem applied to all of his standards and emblems’

When I began researching this post, even I had no idea of how many variants there were on the Lily Cross or, indeed, on crosses in general.  It makes a stroll through a churchyard or cemetery even more intriguing now that I can spot the subtle differences between the various types.  Although I have often seen lilies carved on headstones and memorials I have yet to see one as lovely as the St George’s Lily Cross.

©Text and photos Carole Tyrrell unless otherwise stated

References and further reading

Stories in Stone, Douglas Keister, Gibbs Smith, 2004

http://agraveinterest.blogspot.com/2011/04/different-types-of-crosses-in-cemetery.html?m=1

https://www.seiyaku.com/customs/crosses/fleur-de-lis.html

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fleur-de-lis

http://www.ancientpages.com/2016/10/10/ancient-symbol-fleur-de-lis-its-meaning-and-history-explained/

https://www.quora.com/What-is-the-symbolism-of-a-fleur-de-lis

http://www.ancientpages.com/2018/07/28/10-christian-symbols-explained/

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Christian_symbolism

https://www.google.com/search?q=the+different+types+of+crosses+explained&oq=the+different+types+of+crosses+explained&aqs=chrome..69i57j69i64l3.7747j0j7&sourceid=chrome&ie=UTF-8

https://www.britannica.com/topic/cross-religious-symbol

http://www. headstonesymbols.co.uk/