The Small Town of Clare

Clare before the
Norman Conquest

The Clare Lordship

The Castle

The Medieval Town

Borough and Manor

The Parish Church

The House of Austin Friars

The Woollen Industry

The Town in the
Sixteenth and Seventeenth Centuries

Early Nonconformity

Schools and Charities

Later History of the Town




The Parish Church

We know nothing of the origins of the present church, which is dedicated to SS. Peter and Paul, but it was probably built soon after the Norman Conquest. The main structure of the church, both chancel and nave, dates from the later fifteenth century, but parts of an earlier church remain. The pillars of the nave arcades are of thirteenth century date, with deep bases which gave greater height in the later rebuilding. The tower dates from the mid-thirteenth century, though the west window and belfry windows are fifteenth century. The beautiful south porch and chapel date from c.1380, and the north porch was built a little later. The massive south and north doors are richly carved, that on the south having the Clare arms, the keys of St Peter and the sword of St Paul The front is of the same period.

The Parish Church

The rood screen must have been of unusual height, as seen from the position of the higher rood doors, reached by spiral staircases which continue to the roof and end in octagonal turrets with crocketed spires. Only a part of the fifteenth century screen remains west of the south chapel; and at the east end of the south aisle there is an enclosure formed from the screens of a late medieval chantry pew with beautiful cresting. We have most information about the interior of the medieval church from the wills of Clare inhabitants, who were zealous in their bequests to the church. Apparently a new rood loft was being build in the late fifteenth century, for in 1478 John Horold, a Clare clothier and father-in-law of Thomas Paycocke of Coggeshall, provided for the rebuilding of the rood loft, towards which several bequests had already been made. A later bequest was of five pounds for "the paynting and gilding of the Candibene before the roode". In the extensive rebuilding at the period the nave was made higher and wider, thus encroaching on the porches by one quarter of their length; and the chancel was much enlarge.

Most interesting evidence comes further from a case heard before the ecclesiastical Court of Arches in 1598. The Clare churchwardens had sued certain Chilton men for non-payment of their dues to the parish church, and evidence was taken before a commission of local clergy. The witnesses were nearly all old men of 70-80 years, many of them weavers, who gave their evidence as to the customs prevailing, as they said, "in the tyme of Poperye". They spoke of a church bare of eats, in which the inhabitants walked about during the service, paying their "devotions" into a painted bowl; and the witnesses described the ceremony of beating the bounds of the parish, when men perambulated to Chilton, where the Vicar read the Gospel at a tree called "Perrys Cross", the northern-most limit of the parish, after which "they had there some ale and drinkinges".

The registers of the church begin in 1558, and the first account book of the churchwardens dates from the end of the sixteenth century. The church has few monuments; its brasses, for example, have been plundered. Probably its most cherished possession is the early sixteenth century eagle gospel-desk, which is one of the finest in England. In front of the chancel arch is an exceptionally large stone which probably came from the Priory after the Dissolution. Its lettering is now mainly illegible but it commemorates Master Robert de Godawyk, sometime Prior {provincial of the Order of Augustinian Friars.

We may note here that the chancel was extensively repaired in the early seventeenth century, and in the east window the names of some of the benefactors at this time are commemorated by heraldic glass. Clare church, like many others in the eastern counties, suffered much from the iconoclasm of the Commonwealth men. The indefatigable William Dowsing tells in his journal of his visit to Clare in 1643 :-

We brake down 1000 Pictures superstitious; I brake down 200; 3 of God the Father, and 3 of Christ, and the Holy Lamb, and 3 of the Holy Ghost like a Dove with Wings; and the 12 Apostles were carved in Wood, on the top of the Roof, which we gave order to take down; and 20 Cherubims to be taken down; and the Sun and Moon in the East Window, by the King's Arms, to be taken down.

But Dowsing's deputies were not always as zealous as himself; the cherubim were not destroyed and the sun and moon are still in the east window of the chancel.

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