St Mary and St Margaret Church

‘The Quiet Simplicity of English Country Architecture’ C E Bateman

At some time during the 15th century, perhaps as early as 1400, a large timber-framed church was added at the west end of the Norman stone chancel possibly by one of the Devereux family who became connected with the manor at this time. Conjectural drawings of 1893 by local architect Charles Bateman can be seen inside our church. These show its probable appearance as a large half-timbered building such as you might find in the Warwickshire countryside. Wooden churches are not the norm, but they do exist; Barston near Solihull was another such. There was at that time a plentiful local supply of wood. However, sandstone is found in a ridge running from Northfield to Sutton and was quarried to build the ancient churches of Northfield, Kings Norton, Handsworth, Curdworth and Sutton Coldfield. Yardley Church was built from an outcrop of sandstone found locally at Glebe Farm. Stone was transported several miles to build churches away from the sandstone ridge such as St Giles at Sheldon. Why then was Castle Bromwich church built in wood?

The lord of Castle Bromwich manor, using local labour service and oak trees from his own estates, built this large extension to the tiny Norman church. It was as much a sign of his status as built to the glory of God.

Acorns when William was a Lad
The trees used were of great dimensions; the posts holding up the roof are some 23 feet tall and 20 inches square. They must have been some hundreds of years old when they were felled. These trees had grown from acorns which had fallen before the time of the Norman Conquest.

Bateman’s drawing of 1893 is conjectural, but based closely on the evidence of the medieval timbers he found in the 18th-century church as it still stands. As can be seen, he was cautious about the appearance of the chancel, and he may have been wrong about the position of the bellcote.

Carpenters’ marks on the east side of the roof timbers show that the framework was laid out on the ground facing away from the chancel and then raised up to meet it. The posts stand on stone bases and the floor appears to have been paved with stone.

Inside the church the timber would have been as visible as on the outside; there would have been no ceiling and the roof beams were visible from the floor. There was no seating for the congregation; and the main part of the service would have taken place in the chancel, behind a wooden rood screen, out of sight of the congregation. The church door may have been at the west end roughly where the font is now, with a door near the altar in the south wall of the chancel for the priest to enter.

Text Box: Bateman’s drawing of how the medieval church may have appeared, looking from the chancel towards the west end. The roof timbers and posts as seen here are not conjectural - they are still in place. Post-and truss roof construction is typical for this region.

Unique Survival
Remarkably, the posts and the massive wooden roof of this medieval church are still in place and can be seen. By removing the decorative surround of a pillar in the south aisle part of the medieval woodwork is revealed.

The 18th-century rebuilder has shaved off the square corners of the posts to form round columns with laths nailed on as a key for the plaster. Here visible are the wooden posts 600 years old which still hold up our church roof today.

A Massive Medieval Roof
And our magnificent medieval roof can be seen. Gain access through a modern door in the bellringing chamber for a visit well worth the effort. The square-cut oak beams are massive and the whole framework is held together by wooden pegs. Medieval timber was used green so that as the wood dried out and shrank, the pegs were held tightly in place.

There is evidence in the roof space of paintwork on the beam over the chancel arch. From this beam would have hung the Rood, a carved wooden figure of Christ crucified. It is likely too that the internal plasterwork was painted. Scenes showing the life of Christ and the saints served as a visual Bible for a congregation who could not read.

Pictures in stained glass may have been in some of the windows. In the high-level windows of the clerestory there were diamond leaded panes some of which survive behind the present plasterwork. The walls of the church would have had windows with small rectangular panes. Some medieval glass is displayed on the wall by the entrance to the Foden Room. It is Flemish c1590 of very good quality and fine detail. One series shows the gruesome deaths of some of the church’s martyr saints. The brightness of colour after several hundred years is remarkable. Another series of 17th-century glass depicts flowers and fruit and has a rhymed calendar giving the feast days of the Church’s year. It came here from the Hall. Whether it was originally from this church is not known.

Whatever was the appearance of the interior and the actual and exact external treatment of the old Church and its timbering, windows, and doors, there could not have failed to be a most charming effect of colour. The silvery lines of the old oak, the mottle surface of the plaster and moss-covered roof against the dark belt of yew trees, and blue sky beyond lighted up by the rays of the setting sun, throwing long and dark shadows across the perspective, would have made a picture to gladden the heart of anyone who loves the quiet simplicity of English country architecture. - C E Bateman 1893

Bells in the Belfry - but where?
By 1716 there were three bells. Local architect Charles Bateman believed that additional strengthening in the supports of the second and third trusses of the roof at the west end showed where the belfry must have stood.

Text Box: Bateman thought that extra uprights on the second and third trusses may have been to support the weight of a belfry. Although no evidence remained, he believed it stood here near the west end of the old church.

However, examination of the first and second trusses show that they are not linked by a ridge beam, suggesting that the belfry may have between these two trusses flush with the west wall on the end of church.

To add to the mystery . . . while it is known that there were three bells by 1716, a belfry in either position would certainly not have room enough for more than a single bell.

Three bells were recast in 1716 and two more added. It is not known where these extra two bells could have been hung.

It may be that a small bellcote, holding a single bell, stood at the very end of the medieval church. This would probably have been built when the timber nave was added to the small Norman chapel c1400.

At some time during the Middle Ages two additional bells were cast. The later building contract of 1724 states that the builder, Thomas Clear alias Smith should

‘pull or take down the old Steeple now standing upon the said Chappell’

and rehang the bells in the new tower. This suggests that something rather larger than a bellcote was in place for the bells. A steeple rises to a point, unlike the present tower. This steeple may have been built when the Devereux family consolidated their connection with the manor in 1572. Although there is no documentary or archaeological evidence for a steeple at the west end of the old timber-framed church, the bells must have been hung somewhere!