When the Hungarian born fourth century Bishop of Tours, St Martin, was busily comforting heretics in France, the Romans were still in our part of the world. The Anglo-Saxon “people of Hrotha” had not yet turned up to call the place “The Roothings” and there is no direct evidence that they built a church. The Normans altered that, their new foundation would be named after that most popular of French saints, St Martin.
They certainly built to last. The nave with its three original twelfth century windows, the altar stone, the Purbeck marble font and the two doorways are still there. One of the doorways is blocked up; the other has a thirteenth century wooden door with its original ironwork. There would have been a Romanesque chancel.
Imagine how it must have been: much darker, earth floor, no pews, no large glass filled windows and probably no tower. Almost certainly there would have been a crucifix, a statue of St Mary and maybe of St Martin himself. Perhaps the walls were painted in the style of the Bayeux tapestry, telling sacred stories to a largely illiterate congregation.
By the end of the fourteenth century, one of the old windows was replaced by a bigger gothic one, and a new chancel was constructed as a perfect square, 21.5 feet by 21.5 feet, with two little stone people acting as corbels.
The fifteenth century church had a new roof built and splendid new rood loft with a large crucifix flanked by a statue of St Mary and St john. You can see how a staircase was cut into the thick stone wall to give access to light the devotional candles and sometimes to enhance the liturgy. There is an incision in the cross beam above the chancel arch where the cross may have been supported.
The bell tower was built during the early sixteenth century, including in its construction ancient, Roman brick, and surmounted by a spire that some think was built at the same time, (for safety reasons the spire was dismantled in 1959). It was the last addition to the building as a Catholic church in communion with Rome. The bells however, date between 1614-1665, well into the protestant era.
Though proclaiming himself head of the church in England, Henry VIII still largely kept to Catholic liturgical practice. The destruction of the side altars, the rood screen, the statues, the stained glass images, the paintings and the smashing of the altar stone and its deposit in the moat, largely took place during the reign of Edward VI. It was then that St Martins became a very protestant church both in theology and in appearance.
Some of the destruction may have taken place later during the Calvinist dominance around the time of Civil Wars, for this area was very puritan and strongly for parliament and Cromwell. However, “when the King came into his own again”, a fine wooden porch was built which is still there.
Eighteenth century Anglicanism is elegantly represented in the memorial to the Rev John Maryon and ‘his faithful discharge of every pastoral duty’. He might have become a bishop, but he liked it in White Roding. It has been estimated that over half the incumbents of English parishes in the eighteenth century were absentees. He stayed.
The nineteenth century was a time of great religious revival. In 1878 the church was restored, the extra nave windows were added (in the same style as the existing fourteenth century ones), the chancel windows were largely replaced, a new vestry was built and the altar stone was retrieved from the moat where it had been thrown during the Reformation.
A number of memorials were erected to the clergy. One is an evangelical tract in stone, with a passionate commitment to “Jehovah – Jesus”. Another ostensibly in honour of the Rev Longs daughter, has a self-portrait. He also made the memorial to Queen Victoria, “The Well Beloved” and the first memorial in the whole Empire to Edward VII, “The Peacemaker”.
Where to find us
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The church is set along a track which runs parallel to St Martins Close