St. Matilda's, Potherton Priory
Potherton Priory has been the centre of almost two thousand years of Christian worship
and ministr. Now a parish Church, its members are engaged in pastoral work within the village and wider community,
including a new counselling service. There are plans for the development of a youth and community foundation to restore social
and recreational facilities which have not been available locally for many years.
The present-day interior was restored in 1988-9,
with a new marble floor and open layout, including chairs fashioned from oak which fell in the nearby Melba Forest Park during
the storms of 1987. The 20th century is also represented in the art and architecture of Potherton by the altar
frontals, the Nave fresco and the East window.
The Victorian re-ordering of the church included substantial changes to the Churchyard
and surrounding areas, and is marked by the remaining Victorian stained glass in the windows of the North and South transepts.
Pictures of the Victorian interior can be seen in the link passageway between the Church and the Erkenwald Room.
Since the Reformation, the Chancel and Sanctuary have been a Ducal Chapel of Melba
Castle, which has been the personal property of every duke since the time of Henry VIII (1509 - 1547). The Church still
has some Tudor items in its collections of plate and vestments. Memorials and gravestones mark significant men and women of
every period since then; every burial at Potherton has been at the express permission or command of the incumbent duke,
including members of royal families, naval and military heroes, and those close to the ducal household at Melba.
The Church has been known as “Potherton Abbey” for many centuries. No one knows quite
why. However, there is a legend without any documentary proof that the last Abbot of Strechey fled there at the dissolution
of the monasteries, living in comparative comfort, protected and tolerated by the Duke from his stronghold
at Melba. The word “Abbey” is said to have begun to be used round about this time. There may be confusion between
Strechey itself and Potherton.
The term “Priory” is better documented. In the 13th century,
a Priory was established here by the Abbot of Strechey to deal with the increased trade in barges through the marshes, and
to give space for warehousing away from the peace of its retreat house. The first Prior was one Benedick the Moor, a
convert from Islam who came to Potherton initially as a ship’s cook on a sea-going barge, and was engaged by the
Abbot to supervise the kitchens and gardens at both Strechey Abbey and his retreat house. The quay used in Potherton by the
bargees and ferrymen may still be seen at the end of the Vicarage garden next to a medieval raised causeway which led
from Potherton to Strechey Abbey, a reminder of days long gone when the marshes and waterways of the locality were navigable
by coast-going barges. Larger cargoes were unloaded onto ferryboats with a low draft from the river Yew at nearby
Yewhampton, in former days a busy and major river port.
During the Commonwealth period (1653 - 1660) Cromwell’s Puritans destroyed
much of the decoration and statuary in the Church, including a screen of the Holy Family in what is now the Lady Chapel in
the South Transept. The Chancel was used as a private house, and the Nave as a stable; the beams still bear the marks of soot
and burning from the domestic fires lit here during that time.
Before the Reformation, Potherton was a Chapel of the Abbots of Stretchey. Stained
glass and tilework bear testimony to the link with Stretchey Abbey, and the configuration of the columns in the Nave mark
this out as a house of the Benedictine Order of monks. Originally there would have been twelve columns; in perhaps their last
piece of building work after the last few fell down (there are only 8 now) they built a tower in the reign of Henry VII (1485
- 1509) using the new material of brick, though the old architecture of stonework.
The arcades above the nave columns date from the 13th century, using pointed
gothic arches which afford greater load-bearing capabilities and stability than their rounded Norman predecessors. The columns
themselves, however, are the original, large, rounded columns which would have supported the earlier arcades. In places you
can see the stone re-used from earlier, presumably failed, structures, including the royal motives of both William the Conqueror
(1066 - 1087) and his son William Rufus (1087 - 1100).
The large Norman Chancel arch in the centre of the Church is built of stone from
the Norman quarries at Bec. Shipped over at vast expense, this was the Saxon Abbot’s way of paying homage to the new
conquering Norman king, and protecting his chapel from destruction by the invading army. The wall itself is much older, and
is the original outside wall of the Abbot’s chapel. A consecration cross still survives etched into the North pillar.
Under the floor across the outside of this wall are the graves of seven Saxon lords.
The nave columns themselves stand on Roman brick bases, the remnants of a Roman temple
or possibly even a Church. Under the east window was found the burial urn of a Roman Christian dating from around AD 150,
and an altar stone from the same period; however, under the Chancel floor is a temple of Mithras.
In the Victorian era the church prospered under ducal patronage and that of the Lords of the
Manor, Duke Frederick taking a personal interest and encouraging allowing masons from Melba Castle to carry out various building
works, mainly maintenance and repair.
Among the treasures of the parish is the small crucifix on the altar cross
in the Lady Chapel. This is said to have been held by one of the Martyrs of the English Church during the persecutions which
ensued as a result of the reformation. The metal "thorns" are remarkably sharp making it necessary to handle the piece with
The Tractarian Movement was to took deep root at St. Matilda's shaping the life and culture of the
church permanently. Today we pride ourselves in carrying on a tradition of effective worship along two main strands:
- the first traditional Anglo-Catholic worship witnessing to the full range of that tradition, and
to the Benedictine tradition of Christian formation propounded at Potherton and Strechey for many centuries;
- the second takes the essence of this first tradition and translates it into forms of worship easily
understand by newcomers to the faith and by the children of the parish and their families; this latter worship is characterised
by the use of dance, drama, and mime, the direct involvement of children and their parents in the conduct of the prayers,
readings and presentations made during the service, and by the creative use and development of modern and classical dance
forms within the context of the liturgy.