St Alphege Church Tour
By 1200 Solihull was fully established and William de Odingsells, established a moated residence at Hobs Moat, around 2 miles from the centre of Solihull. In 1242 William acquired a Royal Charter for a weekly market and annual three-day fair at Solihull on the eve, the feast and the morrow of St. Alphege, the 18th, 19th and 20th April, confirming that Solihull was a thriving market town.
His son Sir William de Odingsells was knighted in 1283. Like his father he was an active soldier, and he achieved the high position of Chief Justiciar of Ireland. He married Ela, daughter of the Earl of Salisbury and great grand-daughter of Henry II. The extensions which he made to his moated home, set within the medieval park, witnessed to his rank and status. So too did his great scheme to rebuild the church of St Alphege which had stood in the centre of the town since c.1190.
The picture shows the probable aspect of the church c. 1250. First to be built c. 1277 were the fine chancel and the chantry chapels but progress was interrupted by Sir William's death in 1295. The manor was sold and the rebuilding continued slowly, not reaching its completion until 1535.
A Guide Book is available from the St Alphege Bookstall in church.
The West Door
The west door and the great window above it form a uniform composition in the Perpendicular style. Both the surrounding arch and the oak doors date from the 1535 rebuilding of the nave.
Nowadays this is the processional entrance on major festivals and the exit for bridal parties. The positioning of the font has symbolic meaning. As the font is at the entrance of the church so it is by baptism in the font that a new member enters the life of the church. The stones on either side of the door are deeply incised and are known as arrow stones.
The incisions are arrow sharpening marks. To maintain a trained body of archers Edward III commanded, in 1363, that every man should practise at the butts on Sundays and holidays, all other sports being forbidden. The long marks have been made by Broadheads, the round by Bodkins - types of arrowheads used with the long bows of the time.
To the right of the door, at the base of the angled buttress, is a surveyor's bench-mark recording the height of 433.31 feet (132 metres) above sea level. There is another on the brick wall on Church Hill.
St Thomas à Becket Chapel
In the stonework behind the reredos can be seen the tower buttress on to which the wall of the north transept was built. In the angle between the buttress and the archway, later blocked, was the original chapel of St. Thomas à Becket. The builders of the first church would have shared the popular reverence for the martyred Archbishop who was murdered in 1170 and canonised in 1173.
There were close parallels between his life and death and that of St. Alphege to whom the church had been dedicated. The chapel was reordered when the north aisle was built and later desecrated when it became the family pew of the owners of Hillfield Hall and later of Malvern Hall.
The chapel was restored in 1944. The altar is a good seventeenth century chest given by Rector Clive. The reredos contains a fine Crucifixion painting by Gaspar de Crayer (1584-1669). It is a copy of a painting by Sir Anthony van Dyck. The pediment contains the shield of Henry Greswold Lewis of Malvern Hall and was part of the screen to the family pew. On the south wall of the chapel is a Jacobean monument containing a brass, dated 1610, to William and Ursula Hawes, the builders of Hillfield Hall. Below it in a modern window opening is a stained glass panel from Hillfield Hall, containing the coats of arms of Fielding, Greswold and Aston. Opposite, in the north wall, is a dramatic portrayal of the martyrdom of Thomas à Becket. Dated 1956, it is by Lawrence Lee well known for his work on windows in Coventry Cathedral.
Before 1856 the nave would have presented a very different picture. The rubble or rough stonework was plastered and, with the ashlar or dressed stonework, was lime-washed, the roof timbers concealed behind lath and plaster and the windows filled with clear glass. The Victorian ‘scrapers’ changed all this and in doing so revealed its history.
Above the west tower arch can now be seen the housing of the roof of the original nave. In the respond pier to the north is the springing and lower curve of an arch leading to an early chapel whilst to the south, above a more recent opening, is a blocked window, formerly in the south wall of the first nave. This is the only remaining clear evidence of the style of the first church and is plainly Norman.
The north aisle and porch, in the Decorated style, date from c. 1360. This was the start of the rebuilding of the nave but building work ceased, probably as a result of the Black Death which ravaged the country from 1348. Not until the sixteenth century did the population of Solihull return to its earlier level of 930. To meet their needs, and in spite of the prevailing religious confusion, the great nave and south aisle were built in 1535. The Churchwardens' Accounts detail the donors of timber for the roof. One of them was Richard Greswold who died in 1537 and was buried beneath the stone slab which now stands, totally defaced, in the south-west corner of the nave.
The impressive roof is described as an arched trussed rafter roof and merits a mention in the most authoritative History of Architecture by Sir Banister Fletcher. The outward pressure of this roof together with inadequate foundations on the underlying clay has led to an outward spread of the arcades. In 1948 arches and buttresses were built to prevent further movement.
St Katherine Chapel
This chapel is approached through a modern screen on the rear of which are depicted symbols of the Passion. It was beautifully refurbished in 1944 together with the former chapel of St. Nicholas which became the sacristy. In each there is an original piscina; that in St. Katherine's Chapel is set in a handsome reredos with paintings of the Saints who are commemorated by chapels in the church.
The great memorial tablet was put up in 1726 and records the history of the Holbeche family. From 1500 until 1738 they were a notable Solihull family, eight of them serving as Churchwardens, and many were buried in the chapel. From them were descended the Short family who are commemorated in the north window and whose descendants hold the Lordship of the Manor.
The north window also contains fragments of fifteenth century glass. Three brass plates commemorate the Averell family, five of whom were Churchwardens and one gave 'a lode' of timber in 1535. To the barrel vaulted wooden ceiling are fixed bosses which were removed from the aisle roofs. The display case contains a variety of interesting items including a Tudor alms box and shackles from the cells below the Town Hall which stood in the churchyard until 1880.
St Antony Chapel
This chapel was formed in 1535 at the east end of the south aisle. Its dedication to St. Antony at that time is surprising. He is regarded as the founder of monasticism and in 1536 an Act for the Suppression of the Lesser Monasteries was passed. By 1540 there were no religious houses left anywhere in England.
This chapel, too, was desecrated and for many years was the pew of the owners of Longdon Hall and Silhill Hall. It was restored in 1953. The reredos and piscina date from the creation of the chapel. The central niche of the reredos probably contained a representation of the Crucifixion with the twelve Apostles on either side and St. Antony in the separate niche on the left. The surrounding decoration contains four faces as well as bosses of foliage.
The altar, however, was reconstructed using an original altar slab found, in pieces, beneath the floor of St. Katherine's Chapel. The incised alabaster slab marked the grave of Thomas Greswold d. 1577, and his three wives. He lived in the Manor House in the High Street. The slab and that of his father Richard were discovered in 1879 beneath the pews. High up in the respond pier is the outside of the blocked Norman window already noted from the nave.
Opposite is an unusual flat headed window which contains good glass by Kempe (dated 1898) showing scenes from the Resurrection. This chapel is the setting for the beautifully decorated Altar of Repose and for the Watch of Prayer on Maundy Thursday.
The Chantry Chapel
In 1277 William de Odingsells, who was knighted in 1283, founded the Chantry of Haliwell (or Holy Well) for the singing of masses for the souls of his ancestors, his descendants and himself.
To maintain a priest it was endowed by William with land near St. Alphege's Well, and also by his mother Joan and her second husband, another Ralph de Limesi. In 1438 an endowment by Thomas Greswold was added. No doubt Sir William intended to be buried here in a tomb appropriate to his high rank, but he died in Ireland, in 1295, and was buried there.
The stained glass shields, in the window overlooking the chancel, recall these families and form a link with members of the American Griswold family whose ancestors left Warwickshire for New England in the 1630s.
By an Act passed in 1547, all Chantries were suppressed and in 1566 the revenues of this chantry were added to those of St. Katherine's and St. Mary's Chapels which in 1560 had been diverted to pay the stipend of a schoolmaster. Thus began the Free Grammar School which ultimately became Solihull School.
The Chantry Chapel of St Alphege is a room of colour and beauty. The delightful east window (1908), with its rich details of flora and fauna, is by Bertram Lamplugh, a follower of the Arts and Crafts movement. Windows on the north side portray the life and martyrdom of St. Alphege. There are traces of ancient wall decorations which are a reminder that the pre-Reformation church had been rich with colourful murals. With the Blessed Sacrament reserved here this beautiful chapel becomes a centre of private prayer and devotion.
Architecturally and visually this, together with the Chantry Chapels, is the most splendid part of the church. In the Early Decorated style, it was built c. 1277 by Sir William de Odingsells. It is similar to that at Long Itchington and, most remarkably, to that at Buxted near Uckfield in Sussex where many of the details are almost identical.
The chancel is dominated by the great east window the tracery of which shares with other windows the unusual detail of double cusps. The stained glass, made by William Wailes of Newcastle upon Tyne, has a jewel-like brilliance. The lower half (1845) depicts Our Lord with the Evangelists and their symbols, and the upper half (1867) depicts the Greater Prophets - Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel and Daniel.
Six wooden statues (1951) surmount well carved original corbels. As patron saint, that of St. Alphege stands traditionally on the south side of the high altar. The corbels were sketched by John Constable who stayed twice at Malvern Hall.
The notable communion rails date from 1679 and are a reminder of changing patterns of worship over the centuries. Sixteenth century reformers destroyed the old altars and replaced them with communion tables lengthwise in the centre of the chancel. In the seventeenth century, by Archbishop Laud's order of 1630, the table or altar would have been restored to the east wall and it would be protected from abuse by dogs and others by wooden rails.
The Churchwardens' Accounts record in 1746 the purchase of the high altar for £1 16s. 0d.
The priest's door in the south wall had on its outer side a sanctuary knocker which gave right of sanctuary to a fugitive.
Note also: the reredos, formerly the screen entrance to St. Katherine's Chapel, the simple stone sedilia and the piscina, once ornate and now mutilated. In the window above the piscina is portrayed Rector Archer Clive and his family 'In memory of kind friends and happy years'.
St Francis Chapel
A rare and unspoilt medieval chapel. With the Chantry Chapel above, it is an undercroft with a stone rib-vault which springs from finely carved corbels similar to those in the chancel. The two-storey arrangement of these chapels is very rare. Little has changed since 1277 when this was the chantry priest's chamber and his chapel.
He was fortunate to have a degree of security and comfort not given to many. The ancient door could be secured by a draw-bar, shutter hinges still exist in the jambs of the windows and in the west wall is a fireplace, a very unusual feature in a church.
The most remarkable survival is the original altar. As was obligatory in all medieval churches the mensa or upper surface of the altar is a single slab of stone on which five crosses are carved - at each corner and in the centre - symbolising Christ's wounds. Visible on its front edge is an altar sepulchre in which, by tradition, were sealed small fragments of some holy relic. In the north side of the altar is an aumbry or cupboard in which sacred vessels were kept.
Another unusual feature is the use in the altar steps of slabs of cannel coal. This is a hard bituminous coal which polishes readily. They were formerly in the high altar steps but their origin and significance has not been explained. The windows portray St. Alphege, St. Francis and St. Clare, both of Assisi, and St. Thomas à Becket.
The medieval altar is a rare survival.