St Barnabas, Alphamstone, Essex

Sator Square, pentagram and script

The little village of Alphamstone is recorded in the Domesday Book, but there is archaeological evidence that there was a settlement nearby in the bronze age

The churchyard has several sandstone sarsen stones which may or may not have formed a stone circle.

This is not the only mystery. The church built in the 12th century on the current site had lost its original dedication. The idea to name it after St Barnabas is due to the village holding its annual feast and fair near St Barnabas’ Day until 1776.

There are three pieces of graffiti fighting for notice in the chancel. The first is two inscriptions by Nicholas le Gryce, who was the priest from 1576 to 1593. They both read: “This chiancell was repayed wyth newe tymber work by me, Nycholas le Gryce, parson Anno 1578.”

Le Gryce was a bit of a ‘character’, to put it mildly. He was twice brought to court for enclosing common land, and twice for blocking the highway so that no horsemen or carts could pass. He also forced his maid to sleep in the same bed as his son. When the inevitable happened and the maid became pregnant, he dismissed her and sent his son away.

The other piece of impressive graffiti is the Sator Square in one of the windows in the north side of the chancel. The window dates to the 13th century. This is one of the few examples of the enigmatic word square that appears in different variants across Europe. Early examples have been found at Pompeii and Herculaneum. There are numerous theories about its meaning, with some linking it to the type of word puzzles made by the early Christians, and others claiming a magical meaning. In the later context, the placement of the Alphamstone square is possibly relevant, as it is in close proximity to a window, as is the square from the Maison Forte de Reignac in the Dordogne that appears in our Raking Light header. This opens the possibility of an apotropaic usage. It is interesting to note the close proximity of of a pentagram as well. Other examples of the Sator square are one on a small tablet in the museum at Cirencester and another on a larger tablet in Manchester Museum, known as the Manchester Word Square.

By the later part of the Medieval period, it seems that this type of word square began to find new meanings being variously used as an aid to women in labour, as a means of quenching fires and even as a cure for insanity, something that might be very useful at the moment!

The discovery of the Alphamstone square even made the national press.

There are several pentagrams in the church, with the most concentrated grouping being around the south door.

Nicholas le Gryce was not the only person who left their name on the church. There are several examples of script with several names left in the sedilia in the south side of the chancel.

The south arcade has a few drawings of animals, dogs or possibly horses.

The most common type of graffiti in the church has to be crosses with many scattered throughout the building. A particularly deeply carved, headless Maltese cross can be found near the south chapel.

There is a good example of a compass drawn daisy wheel on the column facing the south door. A couple of other plain compass circles are elsewhere in the church along with some Marian marks and a butterfly cross. An interesting chalice is on the south side of the chancel arch over a clear Alpha and Omega.

The south porch is of unknown date. The brick walls are covered in names and initials. The wooden bench has initials and some Marian marks on it.

The usual collection of names and initials are scattered throughout the church. The earliest date is 19th century.

Raking Light would like to thank Desmond, Susan and Jenny who, not only gave up their time to show us round the church, but also interrupted their day to root out old pamphlets and church guides so that we, and this report, could be better informed. We hope that this report goes some way to repaying their kindness.

Report by Anthea Hawdon and Linda Wilson.

 St Barnabas
Lamarsh Road

The church is normally open during daylight hours. There is parking nearby.

Search terms: sarsen stone, sator square, script, pentagram, dog, horse, cross, maltese cross, headless cross. butterfly cross, merel, partial merel, daisy wheel (compass drawn), compass circle, medieval graffiti, historic graffiti, knotwork lozenge, diamond, IO ladder, chalice, alpha omega, cross hatching, marian marks, M, names, initials, AE, H, 1837, RS, IOR, IS(reversed), 11, 6, N(reversed) G, RL, 1900, 1908, Ma, el, umm, NW, NJ, R, W, 1830s, 1800s, 1900s