The Chancel

Chancel Arch

The chancel arch is part of the original Norman church probably built in the last 20 years of Henry I or perhaps the early years of Stephen i.e. in the first half of the 12th century. Around this time the Earl of Warwick, Henry de Newburgh, may have given the possession of the Manor of Berkswell to Ralf de Mandeville (or Amundeville). Ralf was succeeded by his son Nigel, who, Dugdale in the 17th century says “had his seat” in Berkswell. It is likely that the church was commissioned by this Norman family for the salvation of their souls and to impress the local populace and thus consolidate their power.

The sandstone used is consistent with local stone and could have been mined nearby. The exact order in which the 12th century build was constructed is not known but archaeologist Dr John Hunt suggested (in 2014) that the crypt beneath the chancel may have originally been a church; then the chancel was built above followed by a short nave with the extension to the crypt beneath; finally the nave was lengthened to include the two rounded arches leading in to a narrow north aisle.

Until the mid 16th century a wooden screen went across this archway dividing the nave from the south aisle. The screen would have included a carving Jesus on the Cross and was to divide off the Nave from the sanctity of the Chancel where the priests performed the holy Eucharist service.

During the years before the reformation the rood screen across the chancel arch was lit by beeswax candles provided for in the last will and testament of John Miles, single man of Berkswell, 1541.

Chancel Stalls

These stalls were given in 1909 in memory of Mr John Feeney, who is buried in the churchyard. The pattern of these seats is the same as that used in the choirs of the great cathedrals and abbeys of the monastic foundations of the Middle Ages.

The small ledge of the tip-up seats gave support to tired bodies during the long night services, but should one slip forward in sleep the seat would crash down and wake up the offender bringing him unwanted attention. It is a reminder that in the first 400 years of this church's life one of the important functions of the clergy was to pray seven times a day for both the living and the dead. Wealthy patrons built, added to and helped maintain churches on the expectation that prayers would be said in them which would facilitate their own and their family's passage to heaven.

The total cost of the stalls, together with the marble floor in the Chancel was £1219.6s.7d, a considerable amount in 1909 when it was paid.

Six bishops with connections to Berkswell church are depicted at the end of the stalls:

  • St Chad, Bishop of Lichfield 669-671. Chad is credited with bringing Christianity into the area where Berkswell lay in the Forest of Arden in the kingdom of Mercia. He founded the monastery at Lichfield but died from plague soon after.
  • St Dunstan was Archbishop of Canterbury 960-988. As part of the hierarchical Roman Catholic church Berkswell parishioners came under their priest, then their Bishop, then the Archbishop and finally the Pope. Dunstan was a renowned musician, illuminator, metal worker, reformer and politician;after his death he became one of the most popular Anglo Saxon saints around about whom many stories were woven.
  • St Wulfstan was Bishop of Worcester from 1062 - 1095. A “local lad” born in Long Itchington Wulfstan became the Bishop of Worcester and administered the diocese of Lichfield 1071-2 (within which Berkswell lay at this time). Canonised in 1203 Wulfstan was the only English born Bishop after 1075, all the other positions of power being in the hands of the French speaking Normans.
  • Robert de Limesey was appointed Bishop of Chester by William the Conqueror in 1085. Under Henry 1st Robert went to Rome as ambassador and while there organised to move his See to the wealthier abbey of Coventry. William of Malmesbury’s account of this Bishop is contradictory, accusing him of keeping his monks short of food and neglecting their education but then concluding that Robert was an agreeable character, a great entertainer and one who began great buildings at Lichfield (see M J Frankling, Oxford Dict. Nat. Biog.) In the time of Robert de Limesey, Berkswell Church, if it existed, would have been a small wooden structure sitting on stone foundations.
  • Hugh Latimer was Bishop of Worcester from 1535 to 1539. Although Berkswell was not in the diocese of Worcester at this time (see table below) it is likely the people would have heard his fiery sermons. When the Berkswell church tower was cleared out in 2011 some Victorian copies of his sermons were found there and their powerful message could still send a chill down the spine today. (Latimer was burnt at the stake under Mary 1 for his strongly held protestant beliefs.)
  • John James Stewart Perowne was Bishop of Worcester from 1891 to 1901. A renowned scholar the Bishope Perowne Church of England College in Worcester is named after him and his son. Berkswell was part of the Worcester diocese at this period.

Over the years the boundaries and titles have altered and the location of the See has moved. Berkswell has accordingly been in different Diocese:

  • About 656 - Diocese of Mercia formed
  • 669 – 1072 - Diocese of Lichfield
  • 1072-1102 - Diocese of Lichfield Chester and Coventry (See at Chester)
  • 1102-1183 - Diocese Coventry, Lichfield and Chester (See at Coventry)
  • 1183-1644 - Diocese of Coventry and Lichfield
  • 1644-1836 - Diocese of Lichfield and Coventry
  • 1836-1918 - Diocese of Worcester
  • 1918-present - Diocese of Coventry
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