Marking two hundred years since Mildenhall's famous church had its amazing Gothick 'make over'

Written by David Sherratt on .

The two decorated pulpits - or ambones The two decorated pulpits - or ambones This year the Church of St John the Baptist in Mildenhall - or Minal as it is known locally - is staging a special exhibition to mark the bicentenary of the fitting out of the Church with its glorious 'Gothick' carving,  box pews and ambones or pulpits.   

The exhibition in the church tells visitors about the Rector who applied to the Diocese of Salisbury to make such bold changes to the parish church. He was supported by twelve wealthy parishioners who funded the operation.  

The exhibition gives details of the re-designing of the church as it is recorded in  documents held in the Record Office in Chippenham.
 
Greatly admired by the twentieth century poet and romantic, John Betjeman and featured in Simon Jenkins's book 'England's Thousand Best Churches', the furnishings
in this basically Norman building have achieved nation-wide fame - as the visitors' book clearly shows.
  
The Rector in 1816, the Reverend Charles Francis, was a typical eighteenth century parson who enjoyed the patronage of the then Earl of Ailesbury.

Educated at Marlborough Grammar School, son of Marlborough's Borough Mayor, he spent the whole of his ministry in parishes of which the Earl was Patron.  Whilst he occupied the position of Rector in two of the Earl of Ailesbury's Yorkshire parishes, he also served on Marlborough Borough Council, was Mayor for three terms and also Chief Magistrate.

The box pews - each with its own doorThe box pews - each with its own door Two of the twelve state their reason for the changes to the churchTwo of the twelve state their reason for the changes to the church "I will now thank you to get the Bishop's licence"...signed Chas. Francis"I will now thank you to get the Bishop's licence"...signed Chas. Francis Rev Francis' simple memorialRev Francis' simple memorial

In Wiltshire he was a Canon of the Cathedral and Rector of both Minal and Collingbourne Ducis, as well as Domestic Chaplain to the Earl.  A busy man indeed - even before he took on the re-ordering of St John the Baptist in Minal.

A true Protestant, in his will Francis founded the Protestant Free School in Minal to educate poor children and children of parishioners.  In the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries this school achieved a fine reputation until it was closed later in the last century - and is now a private house.

He also left sums of money to be distributed amongst the poor parishioners in Minal and Collingbourne Ducis, as well as in his two former Yorkshire parishes a month after his death. His obituary disclosed that he had a small private museum - like many parsons of the time, he was something of an antiquarian.
  
The exhibition, which will remain in the church for the summer, gives details of Francis's career both in the Church and in the Borough, with reproductions of his work done on the church building from 1802 until the major refurbishment in 1816. 

A small set of panels also record the history of the Church over the centuries from the ownership of the land by Glastonbury Abbey in the ninth Century to the re-forming of the Church in England in the sixteenth century.  There are also panels recording the more general history of the Church of England in the eighteenth century - the era of the gentleman parson to provide some background to the Francis story.  

The Medieval piscina The Medieval piscina A pillar with uncovered remains of early paintingA pillar with uncovered remains of early painting Some of the church's Norman carving Some of the church's Norman carving

Looking further back in its history, on display in the South aisle will be the medieval piscina - a washing place for vessels used during the Mass.  This had been hidden behind the 1816 panelling until it was revealed in 2014.  

The Church will be open during daylight hours during the summer months with parishioner stewards in attendance.

FOOTNOTE:  Four articles marking the bicentenary have been published in The Parish Pump - the monthly magazine for Minal and Axford:

All four articles can be read at this web address.    [Click on photos to enlarge them]

The gallery installed in 1816 - the organ came laterThe gallery installed in 1816 - the organ came later The church has a stunning exterior too...The church has a stunning exterior too...

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