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St Matilda's Church

A History of St. Matilda's
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(The picture is of St. Mary', Thorpe, published by kind permission of Fr. Michael Rothwell and Alan Bostock)
 

Graves over the north of a Roman Basilica
church_from_the_north_west.jpg
photos: www.photeyes.biz

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 care.

 

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.
Academic Note:
 
Fr Ted's academic background lies mainly in the history of art, architecture and design. From time to time he writes about the subject, including parish histories. For details, and a typical website click here.
 
St. Matilda's was based orginally largely on St. Mary's, Thorpe, Egham in the Borough of Runnymede, an exercise preliminary to the setting up of a parish website. This latter never happened. It became a composite and fictional reflection of things that might have been, had St. Matilda's actually existed. Over time the exact location has been evolved along a little known estuary on the South Coast of England. All in all, the responsibility for truth, accuracy, and the content of the website remains firmly - on the whole - with "Fr. Ted". It is a tribute to all those positive things and events that happened during his ministry, and to the vast, unsung, army of loyal and perecpetive Anglicans with whom it is still such a pleasure and privilege to share the Lord's work.