Sir Ninian Comper and Our Lady of Egmanton

The tiny village of Egmanton in Nottinghamshire lies a couple miles from the route of the Great North Road, a major thoroughfare that in medieval times linked London to York. The medieval parish church in the village is primarily of the fourteenth century and is dedicated to Our Lady, under the title ‘Our Lady of Egmanton’. Tradition holds that in the Middle Ages the church was a particular shrine of Our Lady and there was an image that had become a centre for pilgrimage. The medieval documentary and architectural evidence for that is spurious and the idea seems to be primarily a nineteenth century one, based on the misreading of Tudor wills. Local people such as Richard Cuxton in 1531, did ask to be buried in the ‘Church of Our Lady of Egmanton’, but that request is no evidence of any form of devotional and cultic activity - if the church had been dedicated to St Margaret, Cuxton would have asked to be buried in the ‘Church of St Margaret of Egmanton’. 

Regardless of the truth of it all, by the late nineteenth century a cult of ‘Our Lady of Egmanton’ had been established here and by 1912 a Guild of Our Lady of Egmanton had been formed. In 1929 the first annual summer pilgrimage was held.
Photo of the 7th Duke of Newcastle-under-Lyme.  A photo taken in 1900. 
The catalyst for all this devotional development was Henry Pelham-Clinton, 7th Duke of Newcastle (1864-1928) of nearby Clumber Park, who was both Lord of Manor of Egmanton and was also the patron of the living. He was a prominent Anglo-Catholic and he ensured that an Anglo-Catholic tradition was firmly established in all of the churches under his patronage. It was he and the successive priests he appointed to be the Vicar of Egmanton, who encouraged the establishment of the cult of Our Lady here. The Duke was a prolific church restorer and was an early patron of the designer Ninian Comper and in 1895 Newcastle invited Comper to restore Egmanton church. Comper and Newcastle were both the same age, they were in their early thirties and as all young Anglo-Catholic men of their era were, they were enthralled with a passion for the aesthetics of the Middle Ages. The chance of returning a medieval church to an approximation of its medieval form and then using it for revived medieval ceremonial must have been extraordinarily exciting. Under Newcastle’s patronage and Comper’s aesthetic genius, they would together transform the simple village church in Egmanton, into a glorious evocation of the late Middle Ages and reverse the visual impact of the Protestant Reformation.  The building is a triumph. 

You enter the tiny church through the south door, under the organ case. You are immediately confronted by an extraordinary rood screen. This was introduced by Comper in 1896. A complete ensemble based on medieval East Anglian precedents.  At the top of the traceried screen is blue and gilt coving, supporting a functional rood loft.   

The rood beam supports a series of lights and then the rood group itself at the centre, the images of Mary and John bracketed out on corbels and a red rood light before the image of Christ Crucified.  The whole thing is backed by a panelled tester, which throws the brightly coloured rood group into relief.  

Back to the screen below, this is decorated in full polychromy, with four figures of prophets, in this case based on the figures on the surviving medieval screen at Attleborough in Norfolk.  There were no medieval precedents in Nottinghamshire for Comper draw on.   

Passing through the rood screen into the chancel, which was rebuilt by Comper and entirely refurnished by him. The high altar is, to coin the phrase that Comper invented himself, an ‘English altar’. By that Comper means an altar that is surrounded by a fabric dossal and riddels, supported on four posts. 

Here the posts are cast iron and on top are four gilded 'Nuremburg' angels.  The altar of stone is still hung with the textiles that Comper introduced.   

Above the altar the sacrament was reserved in a hanging pyx. The cloth canopy of the pyx is still in position and underneath it is a modern pyx cloth but without a pyx in it. 

When it came to the pyx Newcastle spared no expense and the pyx Comper designed was of silver gilt made in 1898 by the foremost firm of Goldmsiths of the late nineteenth century, Barkentin and Krall.  The pyx is now in the Victoria and Albert Museum in London, but perhaps one day it will return. 

Behind the high altar and forming a stunning reredos to it, is the fourteenth century east window, which is filled with glass by Comper.  There is a figure of the Virgin and Child surrounded by the Holy Kindred in a fifteenth century English idiom, using rich blues, ruby reds, murrey purples and with plenty of yellow stain. 

On the north wall of the chancel is the shrine of Our Lady of Egmanton, also designed by Comper.  The centrepiece is an image of the Virgin and Child, which is probably based on northern European precedents, drawn from surviving images and woodcuts and is here richly polychromed and gilded.  She stands on a painted bracket against a backdrop of gilt rays.  Around the rays is a garland of red and white roses that create a Mandorla.  It's a glorious ensemble and the shrine is still the focus of present day devotion.     

Leaving the chancel and heading to the west end of the church there is one more thing for us to see.  As we look up above the south door we entered, there is the suspended organ case. The organ case is also richly decorated like the rest but drawing it's inspiration from north German work of the fifteenth century.  It has wings decorated with fictive damask and topping the whole thing is another lovely image of the Virgin and Child.    

So we take our leave of the church of Our Lady of Egmanton.  The village here is very small and the congregation who attend the church is dwindling, although they have managed to restore the rood screen in recent years.  The annual pilgrimages continue and they give the place a partial sense of the purpose that Comper and Newcastle had for it. 

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