Blyth church, 1860.
Blyth church, 1860.

The church of Blyth, uniting formerly, like so many other churches, both a monastic and a parochial church under one roof, is but a remnant. It is what the hand of man, far more destructive than the action of time, has left us of an edifice once fair and goodly to contemplate within and without. In its original form it consisted of a nave, side aisles, transept, central tower, and choir terminating in an apse. Although much of this venerable church remains, yet much has been wantonly destroyed. The conventual choir, where for four centuries and a half prayer was daily wont to be said—that portion at least which passed through the transept and extended 60 feet beyond the present termination of the church into the present pleasure grounds of Blyth Hall, the central low Norman tower, the transept, have all been swept away, whilst one bay of the nave and one of the north aisle have been in an evil hour and by ill-advised hands severed from the church and applied to all save religious uses.

I have not been able to discover in the pages of the Blyth register or elsewhere any fabric accounts of our church. Knowing however, as we do, the precise date of the foundation of the convent, having the church, so far as it goes, before our eyes, and possessing one or two independent and corroborative documents, we are enabled to fix the dates of the several portions of it with tolerable accuracy and precision.

I believe, then, that the religious, immediately after their original foundation, A.D. 1088, commenced with a Norman apse, and proceeded consecutively with the choir, transept, central tower, nave, and aisles. The existing portions of the north aisle with its rude vault of rubble; of the nave with its round arches, massive piers, cushion capitals, triforium, clerestory, and corbel table; and of the south wall of the transept; all harmonise with this date. The first change which the church, thus constituted, underwent was the substitution of an excellent early-English groined vault, with moulded ribs and elaborate bosses over the nave, for the original roof of wood. This took place about the year 1250. In the centre of the roof of each bay two ribs intersect each other at a boss, and the vault of the bay is completed by two transverse ribs. The work is light and elegant, and bears a strong resemblance to the vaulting of the nave of Durham Cathedral, and south choir aisle of that of Lincoln.

The next change was the expansion of the south narrow Norman aisle for the purpose of forming a parish church. The earliest vicar of Blyth, the date of whose institution is on record, was, as we shall shortly see, William de Flecham, AD.1256. He was vicar for nearly forty years, and appears to have had a long dispute with the convent respecting the vicarial tithes, which was settled by a deed of endowment, bearing date 1287. Not long after this the alteration in the south aisle was made. It was widened to the extent of the termination of the south wing of the transept; the old round-headed opening between the transept and aisle was replaced by two more open and pointed arches, now blocked up; and the windows inserted in the south wall, which exist at this day, and which, with the two arches just named and other features, harmonise with the date above assigned. The internal apertures of these windows are splayed from the sill to the springing of the arches; the upper portions are arched over the lights of the window with arches dying into the splayed jamb, with label mouldings and carved terminations.

Henceforth the convent and the parish possessed each their own chancels, which in process of time were defined by two separate rood-lofts in a line with each other, crossing the nave and south aisle. The latter of these screens remains, and the painted figures which I have given at the end of the volume, and which were brought to light in 1842 from the boards and matting of pews, behind which they were concealed, may now be seen with sufficient distinctness, though with a few marks of puritanical violence; with the exception of that of St. Ursula, which was found in such a state of decay as to justify its removal to a place of safe preservation. Other figures on the panels of the parish rood-screen have been cut away to make a road to the reading-desk and pulpit. The rood-loft of the convent has fared worse. With the exception of a fragment at the corner of the private gallery of Blyth Hall and the lower panels, it has been destroyed; and, what is hardly less annoying, these panels, all perfect though they are, are daubed over with paint, so as completely to obliterate the figures, except at the very base.

Interior of Blyth church, 1860.
Interior of Blyth church, 1860.

The next change which the church underwent was the construction of the present tower, which possesses great beauty, and is a striking feature both of the church itself and of the surrounding country. From an examination of the nave, both within and without, it is clear that a portion of it was taken down to make room for the tower, which at its two western angles, where it is not engaged in the wall of the nave, is flanked with buttresses of seven stages at right angles with the sides, is lighted with double-transomed belfry windows, and crowned with a remarkably light and elegant parapet, whilst its western door is decorated with crocketed canopy and buttresses pierced with panels, above which are three niches of good character, one elevated above the other two, containing in ancient times, we may presume, figures of our Lord, the blessed Virgin, and St. John the Evangelist, long since removed. The tower was built about the middle of the fifteenth century, and no work of any importance was done after it.

Previous to the year 1841 the tower contained four bells; the first of which bore the inscription "Jesus be our speed;" the second, in black letter, "IOANNES BAPTISTA;" the third, "Benedicta sit Sancta Trinitas. Joannes Cossale arte XPI composuit, A.D. M.CCCCXXI;" the fourth the date 1620. The third bell appeared to have been recast and was cracked, and all of them to have been hung at different times; in consequence of which they were not in harmony.

In the above year they were therefore taken down, recast, and two additional bells made, by Mr. Taylor, bell-founder, of Oxford and Loughborough. The new ring of bells was received at Blyth on the 2nd September, 1842, preceded by a band of music, and accompanied to the church by the inhabitants, who exhibited the most lively demonstrations of joy on the occasion. I should do extreme violence to my own feelings, if I omitted to mention that for this great and much needed improvement the parish was very largely indebted to the zeal, the taste, and the liberality of two young gentlemen, then my pupils, now my friends, and one of them a most dear friend too; who, although they have been gone from my roof for now nearly twenty years, are still remembered by both rich and poor of this place with feelings of sincere respect and esteem. I mean Augustus and Henry George Sutton, sons of the late Sir Richard Sutton, of Lyndford Hall, Norfolk, and of Norwood, in the county of Nottingham, Baronet.

The tower once possessed chimes, which have disappeared many years ago. A brass tablet used to hang in the ringing loft with this inscription: "This chime was made and set up by Tho. Kirkall of Sheafield. William Tomlinson and Gervase Mitton being churchwardens this present year 1686. Sexton, look to your charge. The work is good and large."

The latest feature in the church is the Tudor window at the west end of the south aisle, which probably superseded one of smaller dimensions, like those in the south side of the same aisle.

Ancient wills speak of guilds or fraternities of Corpus Christi and St. George, and a torch guild, to which legacies of money, corn, or land were frequently bequeathed; and of four principal lights, as well as probably of others, some of which were known by the names of Blyth Light, Strop (Styrrup) Light, the Plough Light, the Light of St. Sitha, and the Light of St. Bridget, to which also money was constantly left.

I discover no vestiges of the existence of chantries.

The parish possesses to this day lands in the townships of Blyth and Styrrup, the rents of which go to the general purposes of the church. They probably have a mixed origin, arising from legacies left "fabricae ecclesiae’ to the fabric fund, to the guilds, and to the vicars, with a view to secure the performance of religious offices. Thus, so late as 1504, Thomas Hugh of Blyth settled an acre of land in Blyth on the vicars of Harworth and Blyth for ever, 4d. to be paid out of it yearly to the former to pray for him and his wives every Sunday, the remainder of the rent to go to the vicar of Blyth on the same conditions.