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Little Malvern Priory
Notes on the Church
The original twelfth century church was a late Norman building consisting probably of nave, transept and chancel, with a low tower over the crossing. Only the barest fragments remain today, the scalloped capital ant shaft to the left of the entrance door forming part of the original nave arcade, and a very small fragment on the opposite (south) side into which in the fifteenth century the Perpendicular doorway leading to the cloister was inserted.
The rest of the nave has entirely disappeared, though from the style of the now existing building, it is evident that the twelfth century Church had been rebuilt in the last quarter of the fourteenth century. It was intended then to rebuild the nave, proof of which is to be found in the completeness of the west arch of the Tower, moulded, as it is both inside and outside. Apparently this work was never carried out, but as a result of recent excavation in the nineteen-sixties, it is interesting to see how far west the original building actually extended. The actual west end of the Church was more or less in a line with the present front door of the Court, the Tower being almost equidistant between it and the extreme east end.
Excavation has also revealed the foundations of the cloister, which ran to the southwest corner of the Monastic building and terminated in the original entrance to the Prior’s Hall.
As it is today, the Church consists only of the space beneath the Tower and the Choir of the formerly cruciform building, which now together form the ‘nave’ and the chancel of the present Church. The transepts and Chapels became ruined and were walled off, probably in the late sixteenth or early seventeenth century.
Apart from having thoroughly restored, or as he said ‘builded’ this Church, Bishop Alcock (whose coat-of-arms — a mitre and cocks’ heads — can be seen in the tracery of the east window) appears to have inserted the arches to the east of the transept arches, between the present ‘nave’ and the now ruined lateral Chapels.
He also strengthened the tall windows on either side of the sanctuary by inserting the Perpendicular transoms halfway down. (Notice the beautiful rectilinear tracery in the head of each window.) He built the east window and filled it with stained glass, said to have been made by the same craftsmen as those who made the glass at Great Malvern, and ranking next to York Minster in its excellence. He also probably made the two, now walled up, doorways on either side of the Altar for a processional way. Beyond this may have been the Lady Chapel, although in a building of this size, there is more likely to have been a Vestry.
It would be tempting to assign to Bishop Alcock the building of the top stage of the tower with its fine panelling, but it is believed to be work of a period earlier than his restoration. It seems that after the Dissolution the tower was to have been demolished, and that a start had actually been made by removing the pinnacles and parapets, the bases of which are still in situ, but that the work was stopped. The present roof was put up later to repair the damage already done to the tower. The wall plates and principals of the original roof, at a much lower pitch, still remain under the present roof.
As to the interior of the Church, one cannot now state where the fourteenth century screen, that which today divides the ‘nave’ from the chancel, originally stood. The richly carved rood-beam (notice the trailing vine pattern on its western side), which now rests on the screen, was originally higher up.
Immediately to the east of the screen are the ten Monks’ stalls, which would have formerly stood under the Tower and across the now walled-up transept arches. The destruction of the stained glass is thought to have been wrought by Cromwell’s troops during the Civil War. The carved misericords were also hacked away but the hand rests remain, one of the best being that of two pigs with their heads in a trough (third on right) while the sometimes grotesque little human faces are said to be caricatures of the Monks or of the craftsmen. Above the stalls, on either side of the chancel, are squints to allow a view of the High Altar from the Chapels, which were not necessarily restricted to the use’ of Lepers. Since this was a Priory Church, the Monks would have used the Chancel, and the laity would have used the side (chapels, having had no access to the Chancel.
The fifteenth century tiles on the sanctuary floor are similar to those in the Priory Church at Great Malvern, and no doubt came from the same kilns for they were made in large quantities and exported even as far as St. David’s in Wales. (It is believed that the tiles were made in Malvern)
The font, which appears to have been made from the base of a pillar, is of no special interest. The present ceiling replaced, subsequent to 1824, a wooden one that was divided into panels with a carved boss at each intersection. Some of these bosses have been preserved and arranged in the form of a cross on the present plaster ceiling. Notice also the wooden frieze of the original ceiling above the East wall
The hatchments on the walls are the coats-of-arms of the different families at the Court; those on each side of the organ are of the Russells, while those on the left hand side of the Chancel belong to the Beringtons.
The window, now in the North Chapel arch, was originally the East Window of this Chapel. On the fourteenth century tracery is a fragment of contemporary glass that is thought to represent God the Father in a group depicting the 'Coronation of the Virgin'. On the ledge opposite this window are the two sides a table-tomb, on which are four charming figures of ‘weepers'. It is of late fourteenth century work, and may have been the tomb, which Thomas Habington saw in the North transept arch, and on which be thought were the arms of Bridges.
There were formerly live bells in the tower of which only one remains today- Recent research suggests that this bell, just over 26 inches in diameter and weighing about 4 l\8 cwts, is probably a genuine example of the work of John of Gloucester and dates from about 1350. It is inscribed in gothic capitals without any break between the words and with two letters upside down -"Ave Maria Gracia Plena Domins Tecvm" which points to it having been the "Angelus" bell; that is that which was and still is often rung at 6 a.m., 12 noon and 6 p.m. in memory of the Annunciation and in honour of the Incarnation.
Although the South Choir Chapel is now a ruin, it would appear that it was still in a good state at least up to the beginning of the eighteenth century when "that learned Antiquary, Thomas Habington" gave a detailed account of the glass in the windows in his "Antiquities of the Cathedral Church of Worcester" (1717).
For years, the ancient building has been the parish church in a backwater of the County. Bishop Alcock’s rebuilding lasted nearly five hundred years but, by the end of the last war, the church was again in need of urgent repair. The Society of Friends of the Priory was formed in 1954 and, since then, through the efforts of all concerned, clergy and laity alike, the church has been provided with a new porch, the windows have been repaired, the walls stripped of their plaster, the tower roof replaced, the stonework made good and the vestry refurbished.
Much has and is being done to beautify the interior by local weavers, woodcarvers, metal workers and flower arrangers. The church possesses a chalice with paten cover dated 1571, which is still used. It also has a fifteenth century crucifix, given to the church, which is decorated with medallions showing the symbols of the four evangelists and is so constructed that it can be used as a processional cross.
Some excellent photos and a different slant on the history of this church is on the web at http://www.paradoxplace.com