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FEATURE: Revealing the secrets of Whaplode’s historic church




St Mary's Church in Whaplode. Photo by Michael Fysh. (SG2601017-030MF)
St Mary's Church in Whaplode. Photo by Michael Fysh. (SG2601017-030MF)

Cyril Hearn has spent years researching the history of St Mary’s Church in Whaplode, deemed as the only official Norman church in South Holland.

What he has uncovered is not something you would find just by searching the internet.

Historian Cyril Hearn in the Norman Nave of the church. (SG2601017-043MF)
Historian Cyril Hearn in the Norman Nave of the church. (SG2601017-043MF)

He has trawled through pages of academic and historical documents, consulted with Cambridge and Oxford Universities, The British Library and figures such as Professor McNeil from York University, ‘one of the most prolific historians in ancient and medieval church history’.

Now Cyril hopes to pass on his wealth of knowledge of both that of the church and the village by forming a new history group.

He said: “There is no point having one individual who has seen the best part of 70-odd years have all this information; so that is one of the reasons I am setting up this group, but also because it is important that more people get a flavour of the place.”

I met Cyril (77) at St Mary’s to find out more.

Whaplode had the name Quapplode, also spelt Quaplode or Quaploade. ‘Quap’ was the term for an eel-like fish and ‘lode’ was the name for a river.
Historian Cyril Hearn

He said: “When you walk into the church, I hope you notice the ‘wow’ factor. These pillars (supporting the grand arches inside the building) belong in a cathedral. They do not belong in a village church in Medieval times.

“Back then, Whaplode was a town with a larger population than Spalding or Holbeach. It was one of three islands within a great fen, the others being Crowland and Thorney. Thorney has an abbey, Crowland has an Abbey and the original plan was to build an abbey here at Whaplode.”

However, pressure was put upon the monks by the Norman barons and hierarchy and instead of building an abbey they had to build four churches in a row along the ancient banks of the sea from Kings Lynn to Fleet. Whaplode was the fifth in the row, going down from Kings Lynn.

“We believe there was an ancient coastline that ran from Lincoln to Cambridgeshire,” he said.

The Irby Tomb inside the church. (SG2601017-035MF)
The Irby Tomb inside the church. (SG2601017-035MF)

“This would have been bog or fen. Whaplode had the name Quapplode, also spelt Quaplode or Quaploade. ‘Quap’ was the term for an eel-like fish and ‘lode’ was the name for a river.

“This (Whaplode) was a harbour that traded with the continent long before Boston.

“The Romans built sea defences and there are names of places here such as Barrier so and so and Hurdle Tree Bank, part of the Fen wall that was built. Moulton Seas End and Surfleet Seas End were where the sea ended.”

Cyril moved to Whaplode in the late 1990s. He is originally from Liverpool and used to work in the motor industry for Ford, plus spending ten years in the RAF. He is now recognised as the local historian for the church.

He said: “I fell in love with Whaplode and want to enthuse other people about the place.”

It is believed that there was once a Saxon church built on the site of the current building. The stone used to build the present church is said to have been brought from Barnack by barge and transported down the Fen rivers and causeways.

Mounds of earth were built and the stone loaded onto that and the earth taken away bit by bit as the church was constructed.

Inside the church are two stone coffins that were discovered when part of the floor of the south aisle collapsed in the 1850s. The coffins each contained a priest, which is known because of the chalice and paten (small dish used to hold bread during the Eucharist) on the breast.

“My challenge to everybody is go and find me another one that is as elaborate as this,” Cyril said, pointing to the decoration on one of the coffins. “Even Westminster does not have as elaborate a carving on the stone top.”

Other significant points of interest in the church are the altar stone which is still in one complete piece with a cross in each corner and one in the centre which was believed to have been done by a bishop on the day it was consecrated. It is thought the stone came from Alwalton, dating back to the Saxon period. Then there is the distinctive chancel arch which reflects the Norman influence and the magnificent tomb of politician Sir Anthony Irby and his wife Lady Elizabeth Irby, a wealthy family from Whaplode.

“There is so much in this place. It’s more than 800 years of history.”

○ Another key point in St Mary’s history is the Whaplode Riot of 1481-1482. Crowland Abbey was demanding money from Whaplode “without bothering to repair the church.” The townspeople rebelled and demanded that they be allowed to harvest the wood from the trees that stood within the churchyard. This was in order to repair and make good the fabric of the church. The Abbot denied access, which led to the people rioting and chopping down as much of the timber as they thought necessary. As the situation got out of hand, the Abbot sent his steward to the town to control the situation. The response of the townspeople was to seize the steward and take him hostage.

This story, and many more are among those that Cyril will be revealing to the history group.

It is hoped that the group will join in projects to help educate people about the history of the church, putting together leaflets and brochures and also taking up the challenge to help construct a model of how St Mary’s could have looked as an abbey.

The group will meet again on Friday, November 3, at 2pm at the church and hope to meet once a month.

To find out more contact Cyril on 01406 371848 or the church warden.

SEE ALSO:

Ownership quest under way in Whaplode’s ‘village with sculptures’

Whaplode maze reaches the ‘end of an era’



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