St Mary, Acton , Cheshire

Feature Sets (3)

Description

St Mary's is built of red sandstone ashlar. It has a four-bay aisled nave with a clerestorey; the aisles extending W alongside the tower, and the present clerestorey a rebuilding of 1879. The arcade piers are mid 13thc., but they have been heightened, and the capitals are late 19thc., part of Paley and Austin's restoration of 1897-98, although one of the originals survives as a loose stone in the S aisle. The W tower is also 13thc. in its lower parts. It was once over 100 feet tall, but the top of it fell in 1757 and was rebuilt shortly afterwards by William Baker. The chancel arch is 14thc., but the long chancel itself is Perpendicular, articulated inside with colossal four-centred wall arcading. It has a N chapel added after the nave aisles, and the N aisle E window survives, with its tracery but lacking its glazing, inside the church (something similar took place at Bunbury). The grandest monument is a large 17thc. chest tomb with recumbent figures of Sir Richard and Lady Elizabeth Wilbraham in the S aisle. More interesting is the wall tomb in the N aisle, with an alabaster effigy of Sir William Mainwaring (d.1399). The figural but mutilated font is Romanesque, as are a series of important carved stones, some figural, at present at the E end of the S aisle, behind the Wilbraham tomb.

History

In 1086 William Malbank held Acton of Earl Hugh of Chester. It was an important manor with a court in William's hall, land for 30 ploughs, meadow and woodland. Domesday also records two priests at Acton. In the early 12thc. the church and lands at Acton were given to the monks of the Cistercian house of Combermere by the 2nd Baron of Wich Malbank.

Benefice of Acton and Worleston, Church Minshull and Wettenhall.

Features

Furnishings

Fonts

Font

At the W end of the nave. The sandstone, lead-lined bowl was originally cylindrical or slightly tapered, but has been crudely hacked into a cup shape, thereby removing the lower part of its figural and foliage ornament. It now stands on a heavy torus moulding, and that on a cylindrical shaft, hollow chamfered at the top and with a broad chamfered base. The mutilated 12thc. bowl was dug up in the gardens of Dorfold Hall in the 19thc. and set on a new base. The bowl has a broad, flat fillet forming the upper rim, and below this is divided into 11 bays of round-headed arcading with flat pseudo-columns supporting conical capitals, all in low relief. In the spandrels of the arches are lilies, and under each arch a figure or a foliage motif. The damage to the bowl has erased the lower half of the design. The arch motifs are here numbered anticlockwise (L to R), starting with the E arch:

1. Large lily.

2. Bull with long upright horns walking R, facing front.

3. Frontal standing man.

4. Equal-armed Maltese cross.

5. Frontal standing figure, his right hand raised, palm out.

6. Lily tip of foliage motif.

7. Frontal standing figure, his right hand raised.

8. Large lily.

9. Bust of draped figure facing forward.

10. Foliage design. What survives is a diagonal stem terminating in a lily, with a lily side stem, and broad leaves visible at lower L.

11. Frontal standing man.

The figure style is crude, eye sockets and cheeks are cut back in low relief to allow the eyes to be shown as bulbous, eyebrows as curved ridges and noses as straight fillets. Mouths are thin grooves.

Dimensions
ext diameter of bowl at top 0.80 m
h of bowl 0.45 m
int. diameter of bowl at top 0.56 m
overall h of font 1.05 m

Loose Sculpture

Base

Large bulbous base of red sandstone, probably from a nook-shafted doorway.

Dimensions

diam. of shaft surface 0.19 m
h of block 0.30 m
max depth 0.23 m
w of block 0.43 m

Capital

Red sandstone nook-shaft capital. This is a tall capital, cushion shaped though without shields, and with volutes at the angle. The rest of the surface is carved with vertical fleshy leaves pointing alternately up and down, like a scallop capital with wedges. The slender necking is carved with a central groove and rows of cable above and below it, twisting in opposite directions.

Dimensions

depth 0.22 m
diam. of shaft surface 0.19 m
h of block 0.34 m
w of block 0.38 m
w of capital face at top 0.22 m

Fragment

Oolitic limestone block carved on front face only with four standing figures under an arcade of round-headed intersecting arches. This continues the frieze shown on (5), and terminates with a flat border at the R. Like (2) it had a projecting lower edge, which has been crudely cut back.

Dimensions

h of block 0.31 m
max depth 0.35 m
w of block 0.47 m

Fragment

Oolitic limestone block carved on front face only with a standing figure in low relief on a flat ground. The figure has lost his head. He wears a short pleated cape over ankle-length trousers, and holds two objects vertically, one in either hand. These are enigmatic. That in his left hand appears to be a bundle of arrows, heads upwards, and if so the object in his right hand, a broad, flat staff decorated with a zigzag groove running down it, might be expected to be a Norman shortbow (or a Welsh flatbow), shown with its string unnocked. Like (2) the block had a projecting lower edge, which has been crudely cut back.

Dimensions

h of block 0.34 m
max depth 0.34 m
w of block 0.41 m

Fragment

Oolitic limestone block carved on front face only with Christ in Majesty. Christ is seated (part of bench visible on L), facing forward and raising his right arm in blessing, the 1st two fingers and thumb raised. His legs are angled to the R, and he is shown in a garment with a hem running diagonally across his chest. His is in a mandorla, and outside this, to the L, is an angel robed and standing with wings pointing upwards. To the R a standing frontal figure here interpreted as St Peter. He holds a book in his left hand and a large key pointing diagonally upwards to the L of his head.

Little can be said of the figure style, which is crude in the extreme. Christ's is the only head which preserves its features. His head is round, and any hair or beard he once had is no longer apparent. His mouth is a thin groove, turned down at the ends, his nose a simple triangle, and his eyes round pellets set in dished sockets, with ridges above to indicate eyebrows. The only other surface decoration surviving is on the angel's wings, which have vertical reeding for feathers. The block is damaged at the bottom, and the feet of all three figures are lost, along with the bottom of the mandorla. It seems to have had a projecting lower edge, which has been crudely cut back.

Dimensions

h of block 0.32 m
max depth 0.33 m
w of block 0.47 m

Fragment

Oolitic limestone block carved on front face only with a standing bishop in low relief on a flat ground. He faces forward, holding a crosier in his right hand while holding a book against his chest with his left. He wears a chasuble over his alb and a maniple on his left wrist. The folds of the alb hang vertically and there is some undercutting of the hem. Apart from this, all surface detail is badly worn. None of his facial features survive, although the pointed shape of the mitre can be discerned. Like (2) the block had a projecting lower edge, which has been crudely cut back.

Dimensions

h of block 0.33 m
max depth 0.33 m
w of block 0.38 m

Fragment

Oolitic limestone block carved on front face only with a lattice design of grooved stems, terminating in loops at the top and either side, but cut off at the bottom edge. Each lozenge-shaped field has a pellet in the centre. The block is squared at front and sides, but irregular at the back.

Dimensions

h of block 0.34 m
max depth 0.36 m
w of block 0.395 m

Fragment

Oolitic limestone block carved on front face only with five standing figures under an arcade of round-headed intersecting arches. The arcade has cylindrical piers shown in low relief, with low simple capitals and grooved arch profiles. The figures are all eroded, but are draped and appear to have haloes. The block carries only part of a frieze of figures, which would continue on a similar block to the L, and does continue on block 6 to the R. Like (2) the block had a projecting lower edge, which has been crudely cut back.

Dimensions

h of block 0.29 m
max depth 0.26 m
w of block 0.46 m

Impost block

Chamfered impost block of red sandstone, carved on two faces with foliage on the chamfers and figures on the upright faces. The stone is generally well preserved, but the is a major loss at the R end of the R face. The L face shows a standing bird, depicted sideways, with its head to the L. The head, shown in L profile, has a long hooked beak like an eagle's, a bulging eye and small ear. The neck is long and the plumage on the chest is shown as wavy transverse grooves. The long legs are similarly plumed, and the feet have three claws. The wings are displayed and curve outwards at their tips, with feathers shown as longitudinal reeding. A broad flat stem of foliage describes a loop above the head before curving down to the chamfer, where it continues in a row of loose loops. The R face apparently shows a standing angel, although the head is badly worn and not unambiguously human. It is similarly depicted sideways with its head to the L, and the drapery and wings are treated in much the same way as the bird's. This face has a large loss at the R, involving any feet which might have been shown. The fat foliage stem encircles the head before descending to the chamfer, where it joins a chain of large links.

Dimensions

d of block 0.32 m, of which 0.22 m forms the carved surface of the R face.
h of block 0.20 m
w of L face 0.34 m

Impost block

Chamfered impost block of red sandstone, carved on one face only with a row of three human heads framed by plain foliage stems linked by clasps, the foliage continuing in a horizontal stem with spiral-ended branches below the heads, and terminating in a tangle of spiral terminals at the R. The heads are similar; elongated with pointed chins and beards. Mouths are shown with lips in relief, noses bulbous but not projecting from the surface plane, eyes round pellets surrounded by ridges for eyelids and eyebrows. All have ears, none has hair.

Dimensions

h of block 0.20 m
max depth 0.27 m
w of block 0.505 m

Comments/Opinions

The loose stones at Acton are among the most significant pieces of early Romanesque sculpture in the county. There are two groups by different sculptors, one carved in limestone, the other in red sandstone. The limestone reliefs (VI.i - VI.vi) were previously set in the stone bench that runs around the church, but this is unlikely to have been their original location. Stylistically they suggest a date at the end of the 11thc. and all belong together. The figural scenes originally had lower edge projections and were presumably arranged in one or more registers, although whether they formed a screen or simply a frieze is impossible to know. Their subject matter, including Christ (VI.ii), the apostles (VI.v and VI.vi) and representatives of the church (VI.iii) and the warrior class (VI.iv) points to a structured composition of some kind. The sandstone blocks (VI.vii - VI.x) were discovered embedded in the clerestorey wall during the restoration of 1897-98. The two imposts (VI.vii and VI.viii) are the same height but their widths differ and they were not carved by the same sculptor. It seems likely that one or the other of them should be associated with the capital (VI.x) and base (VI.ix), which belong together on the basis of the diameter of the nook-shaft they once enclosed, pointing to the existence of an elaborate doorway of c.1100.

Bibliography

  • N. Pevsner and E. Hubbard, The Buildings of England. Cheshire. Harmondsworth 1971 (repr. 1978), 53-54.

  • H. Moore, A short account of Acton Church and neighbourhood. 1930, corrected 1933, 4th impression 1981.

Location

Site Location
Acton
National Grid Reference
SJ 632 531 
Boundaries
now: Cheshire East
pre-1974 traditional (England and Wales): Cheshire
Diocese
medieval: Lichfield (to 1075); Chester (to c.1086); Coventry and Lichfield (to 1541)
now: Chester
Dedication
now: St Mary
medieval: not confirmed
Type of building/monument
Parish church  
Report authors
Ron Baxter