Stone coffin lid.
Stone coffin lid.

Our ancient monuments have been treated with savage recklessness. Till within the last few years the western bay of the north aisle was walled off from the church, and coals deposited in it. On removing this wall we found it contained fragments of figures of knights in elaborately wrought chain armour, and of ecelesiastics in delicately carved drapery. And doubtless the church was, in times of old, very richly ornamented with the monumental effigies of great and good men, lay and ecclesiastical, some of whom had benefited, and all of whom had revered it whilst living, and whose dying wish it was that their bones should rest in peace under its sacred roof. But the destruction of the monasteries by a sensual, selfish, cruel tyrant, and the Reformation which followed—productive of incalculable good in some respects though the latter was—undoubtedly poured a torrent of irreverence over the land, from the effects of which our sanctuaries are suffering to this very day

Thou jealous, ruthless tyrant! Heaven repay
On thee and on thy children’s latest line
The wild caprice of thy despotic sway,
The gory bridal bed, the plundered shrine,
The murdered Surrey’s blood, the tears of Geraldine.

One ancient monument alone remains perfect, a plain slab in the chancel, with this modest inscription, so exceedingly unlike the presumptuous bombast of modern days: "Orate pro anima domini Johannis Albarne quondam vicarii de Blida, qui obiit vicesimo sexto die mensis Junii, anno Domini MoCCCCoLXXoVIo." Of other slabs, and crosses, and inscriptions, numerous fragments, but only fragments, are to be seen. The stone coffin lid, of which I have given an engraving, was found in the church floor with its face downwards.

The archbishops of York during their occasional residence at the palace of Scrooby, within four miles of us, would find the church of Blyth the only sufficiently large and convenient one in the neighbourhood for purposes of ordination, and would consequently "celebrate orders" in it. Thus in 1356 archbishop Thoresby, as we find from his register, held an ordination in our church "die Sabbati quatuor temporibus proximo post festum sanctae Luciae virginis:" that is, on the Saturday in the Ember week next after the feast of St. Lucy the virgin; and conferred the four orders of sub-deacon, deacon, priest, and acolyte on persons not only of his own but of dioceses as remote and distant from each other as St. Andrew’s, Lichfield and Coventry, Norwich, Carlisle, and Lincoln. Some were ordained ad titulum paupertatis, which was that of a monk; some ad titulum patrimonii sui, which was that of a man of a certain private income; and some ad titulum beneficii sui, that of a benefice. Some ad omnes ordines, that is, to all the minor orders at once of ostiarius, lector, exorcist, and acolyte, and to the major order of sub-deacon. Some to the orders of sub-deacon and deacon at once. Since the Council of Trent this ordination of a person as subdeacon and deacon on the same day has been discontinued in the Church of Rome, and intersticia, or an interval of twelve months, must transpire between the two.

Plan of Blyth church, 1860.

I now come to the destroyed, the severed, and the mutilated portions of our church. The external view and the ground plan will, with what has already been said, enable my readers to understand with sufficient, and I doubt not with painful, clearness the destruction and the spoliation which this sanctuary has undergone. The dotted lines in the ground plan indicate a transept and choir terminating in an apse, now destroyed. And here I must state that this part of the plan is not founded on mere inference, for on September 14, 1857, on being informed by the then gardener of Blyth Hall, an intelligent man, that he had discovered, in making a garden walk in the pleasure grounds east of the church, the foundations of a round wall, and on receiving from him an account of the precise situation of such foundations, I made a measurement from the spot occupied by the head of this round wall, which was doubtless the boundary wall of the apse, to the foot of the outer arch now in the hall garden, and found the distance to be 61 feet. In the same engraving the letters H H point out a bay of the nave and a bay of the north aisle severed from the church, and claimed by Mr. Walker as owner of Blyth hall.

The external view of the church discloses a round arch at the east end, being one of the four upon which the central Norman tower rested. As the stranger advances up the churchyard of Blyth his attention is arrested by the singular appearance of the east end of the church. He sees a stately arch with a dark deep grotto-looking place behind it, commonly known as the Aviary— a name which explains itself. He further observes the eastern wall finished off at the top in two inverted semi-cycloid looking lines partly with modern tiles; no eastern window; and the eastern and northern sides of the church entirely cut off from the churchyard and the access of the parishioners by a wall built of stones, which from their very form and aspect prove that they came from the church or the monastic buildings.

Can any account be given of this scandalous and deplorable desecration? To answer this question I must premise that the first lay settlers on the site of the ancient monastery planted themselves on a spot which, however convenient to them from foundations and walls already made to their hands, was far too near the church to be productive of anything but mischief to it. The Saundersons, and others before them, had since the Dissolution resided at Blyth Abbey, as the house was then called ; and it is only fair, although we cannot prove the fact, to suppose that they had some share in the work of destruction, by permitting, if not encouraging, dilapidation of the eastern portions of the church to go on. From the Saundersons the estate passed by purchase to the Mellishes in 1635. In 1684 Edward Mellish, the son of the purchaser, pulled down the old hall and built a new house.. He kept a diary with full accounts of his expenditure, and in 1689 he tells us what the new house, with "outhouses and walls about the grounds, repairing the church end, making the vault and pew in the church" (I quote his own words), and other matters, had cost him. I cannot but think, then, that Edward Mellish, finding the church end as he calls it in a dilapidated state, for we must suppose that the conventual choir had fallen into disuse, really, although by a soft euphemism he speaks only of repairing, levelled to the ground the portion of the choir east of the transept, together with the transept and central tower; that he severed the bay of the north aisle and the bay of the nave from the church, and turned them to secular uses ; cut off all approach to the eastern and northern sides of the church by a wall ; finished off the eastern end in the manner in which we now see it, and blocked up the lower windows of the north aisle, which happily were re-opened twenty years ago.

Architectural detail, Blyth church, 1860.
Architectural detail, Blyth church, 1860.

Certain it is, for habemus comfitentem reum, that he made the large family vault under the severed bay of the nave, and the pew, that is gallery, in the north aisle, cutting pier and capital and window in the most wanton manner, taking up one entire arch of the nave with his steps, projecting his "pew" far in advance into the nave through another arch, and establishing under it in the background a dark and dismal dungeon, which ever since his day has witnessed every detestable abomination.

And now if any of my distant readers should ever enter Blyth church they will see Edward Mellish reposing in effigy against the dead boundary wall of the nave, on his right arm, on a soft pillow, under elegant drapery, and an elaborate panegyric, quietly and complacently, as if utterly unconscious of having done any wrong to the sacred edifice.

I have only to add, by way of completing my account of the desecration and mutilation of the church, that at some period subsequent to the spoliation of the convent the outer roof of the north aisle has been dropped beneath the openings of the triforium, and these openings have been turned into windows, the heads of the arches being blocked up with masonry. What adds to the singularity of the whole is, that the ground under the aviary, now no longer I am glad to say used for the purpose implied by the name, is occupied by the vault of the Mellish family, which in my time has been three times opened for the interment of the dead; and that the roof above is repaired. by the parish.

I am constrained, by a sense of justice to myself, to state that this condition of things has always given me pain; that I have in season and out of season remonstrated against it; and that in the years 1853 and 1854 I began to persuade myself that I saw a restoration of the church, so far that is as it remains, in prospect. The patrons and rectors, Trinity College, Cambridge, very cordially seconded my efforts by undertaking to fill the great arch of the aviary with a window, to transfer the chancel from the south aisle to the nave, and to assist in carrying out the rest of the work. My parishioners many of them offered liberal subscriptions, and I was encouraged by the promise of aid from distant and eminent quarters. How and by whom this good work was defeated it boots not to tell. I was once disappointed and mortified; I am now contented and resigned. Howbeit, after a peaceable endurance of more than a quarter of a century, I feel entitled to state that I have been assured over and over again, by persons quite competent to offer an opinion upon the subject, that no length of time can give the claimant of the severed portion of our church a title to the property—nay to add, that I can quite conceive that hereafter a vicar may arise who, unless it be spontaneously ceded, as is most devoutly to be wished, will be so indignant under the present state of things as to resolve to bring to an issue the question whether the laws of Christian England sanction such desecration. For myself from feeling, I have been always unwilling to convert my church into an arena of strife. Other affecting considerations now invest it in my eyes with a character, humanly speaking, of still greater sanctity, and demand that none other save the accents of peace be ever heard within its walls.

I can only express my most fervent prayer that the restoration may hereafter be again undertaken under a better star and a more favourable combination of circumstances, and that, not content with a mere restoration of what remains, another generation will boldly and generously and vigorously advance to the still greater and better work of building up again the waste places of our Zion, of carrying the church out to its original eastern boundary, and internally of making it as perfect and beautiful as art can make it, since God hath no where (in the words of Hooker) revealed that He delighteth to dwell beggarly.

Then, with a nave and chancel open from east to west, to the length of 160 feet, wherein to celebrate the sacred offices of religion, the fine old church of Blyth will indeed speak to the very innermost heart of both rich and poor, and become once more the admiration of the country.

To be spoken of as having in any degree assisted as the pioneer in so good and pious a work will in that day be to my name and memory sufficient praise; and then will one proof more be given that a beautiful sanctuary and a pure worship are most perfectly compatible and consistent with each other.