St James’ Church
Photo by Barnes Collection
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Parish Magazine (published bi-monthly)
St James’ Church, the parish church of Freiston is a Grade I listed building, built in the Norman style.
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Standing within or on the outside of this magnificent stone church we cannot fail to be impressed by its size, a great nave and tower supporting aisles to the north and south. Yet architecturally something is odd about the eastern end. Inside, above the altar, soars a great pointed arch carved with Norman decoration inviting the eye and the person to pass through. Yet it is infilled. Outside the clues are even stronger for at the eastern end ‘interior’ pillars of Norman style can be seen, partly supporting the arch just described, but obviously built to support arches stretching further each into the present field. The church was indeed far larger with transepts and presbytery to the east; all build in the Norman style that characterises much of the present lower nave - six pairs of mostly simple round arches supported by stubby circular piers and plain square capitals.
Who was responsible for building this large Norman church which probably was complete by 1200? The answer lies in the generosity of Alan de Croun, the son of a Norman baron Guy who came over with William the Conqueror. For his services Guy was regarded with a large number of ‘town-ships’ in Lincolnshire among which were Freiston, Butterwick and Fishtoft. It was his son however, that was responsible for offering the churches to the Abbot of Croyland (Crowland) for the purpose of establishing a cell of the monks. Freiston was chosen and a priory built in 1114 together with a Priory Church, all in the Norman style. The imitation Norman doorway in the south east corner probably connected the church to cloisters and the priory buildings, now all long gone, although the name persists in the 17th century building to the south.
To be given to such an influential Lord such as Guy de Croun would suggest that Freiston and its neighbours had already, before the Norman invasion, established themselves as thriving townships despite their watery locations. The place name endings of -ton, -toft, and -wick indicate Anglo-Saxon foundations with strong Danish connections. Perhaps a thousand years ago in the late Saxon period, the family ‘Freis?’ settled on this low, wet ‘island’ site, surrounded by salt marshes as the sea retreated from its higher level of the previous few hundred years. Their success in colonising these ‘new lands’ is recorded in the Doomsday book where there is ample evidence of a flourishing economy supporting a large population with more than the normal number of ‘sokeman’ or ‘freemen’. This independence of spirit and initiative had a demonstratable effect on the parish throughout the succeeding medieval period.
Photo by Barnes collection
Sadly no architectural evidence of the pre-Norman church has emerged although reference is made in the Domesday Book of two churches within the hundred of Butterwick, one of which would have been Freiston. In the 13th century the nave was lengthened to the west by adding three pairs of Early English arches - pointed with taller and more slender piers, surmounted by carved capitals. Then in the 14th and 15th centuries the Norman church was transformed lighting the low roofline to provide a new high roof supported by heavy tiebeams and decorated with angels and carved bosses. Careful study reveals some grotesque and amusing carvings high above the name. At the same time aisles were added which meant creating large clerestory windows to light up the nave. These six huge windows are in a transitional style with strong vertical lines created by the mullions breaking up at the top into simple tracery. They are typical of the mid 15th century. Now the north aisle was added mostly in brick, similar to those used to build Tattershall Castle. Was this a reflection of fashionable building style or an indication of declining wealth, unable to afford the cost of stone and happy to resort to the local building materials? The windows are still in stone, the design now reflecting a full perpendicular style with a flatter arch and mullions from top to bottom, dominating the tracery. One suspects that all this and the tower were complete by about 1500. Only the porch now remained to be added, which occurred in the following century. Again they reverted to limestone, the weathered front pillars illustrating the colitic nature of the Jurassic limestone found in Lincolnshire and an abundance of shelly fossils. Was some of this stone derived from the Priory whose fortunes were in decline?
Within, notable pieces of church furniture reflect this same time of wealth. The door you enter from the north, the wooden screens and font cover are all fine specimens of the perpendicular period. The rood screen has gone but a staircase that led to the rood remains in the square pillar on the north side. The screen on the north aisle has within its tracery a carving of an imp - the ‘Freiston Imp’! But the south screen, the entrance to the chapel of St Thomas, is considered the best.
The stone font, with its kneeling stones, is of a delicate design while the cover, cantilevered above, is particularly fine with delicate tracery reflecting the designs in the windows. It was carved, so runs the story, by an apprentice, and when the master saw how beautifully it was made, he flew into a jealous rage and killed the lad.
- In 1780 the long, official connection of the Sharp family with the Parish Church began. Alexander Sharp was appointed Clerk and Sexton in 1780. He died in 1819 and was succeeded by James Sharpe. The latter resigned in 1871. A second Alexander held the offices under his death in 1879. His widow then held them until 1900, when he was succeeded by their son Joseph, who resigned in 1926. The family put up a marble tablet on the north wall of the Church a few years ago in memory of Alexander Sharp and Mary his wife.
With the coming of the 16th century the reformation closed the monasteries and the centre of the wool trade migrated into East Anglia where a cloth industry was developing. The economy of the fenlands stagnated.
Revival had to await the 19th century when drainage of the fenland wastes and the coming of the railways reduced the isolation of the coastal villages and revived their fortunes. It was in the later part of the century when considerable restoration of the church took place, rebuilding most of the southern aisle and the tower and installing a new East window above the altar. Much cleaning, reglazing and refurbishing also took place. Today restoration and maintenance still continues.
The War Memorial erected in memory of those who lost their lives in both World Wars is in the corner of the churchyard. It bears the following names and inscription:
John Richard Barnes
William Henry Dowse
William Henry Fox
Frank Pickwell Maddison
Cecil Eley Westland
James Arthur Curtis
Charles Sidney Eldred
Herbert Henry Ward
Percy William Welbourn
In the Churchyard, near the memorial is an ashlar (masonry made of large square-cut stones) ‘Cross Shaft’ dating from the 14th century; no other details are known.
Compiled by J W & Mrs J Barnes from local knowledge together with information taken from:
References: A Bilham Boult (April 1990) from the Church Leaflet
Freiston with Butterwick: A Compilation. Trotter J R 1936
The Buildings of England: Lincolnshire Pevsner N & Harris J 1964 (rev. edn. 1989)
(last updated May 2015)