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Great Canfield

History of St Mary's Church Great Canfield

The church at Great Canfield, like all those in this area, goes back deep into history, exactly how far we may never know.  Canfield has been settled for a very long time, it is served by the River Roding and amongst the numerous finds around the area there is a Neolithic axe head, Celtic coins and roman remains.  It is pretty likely the church foundations were laid under the auspices of the de Vere family in the second half of the twelve century.

The church is fundamentally a manor church and famed for its treasure, a thirteenth-century painting of the Virgin Mary and the Holy Child in a niche behind the altar.  This is said to be one of the best 13th century representations of the subject in the whole country. It is the kind of thing that was destroyed during the Reformation. Fortunately, at Great Canfield it was whitewashed over, instead of being scraped down.

Some 150 years later in the reign of Charles II, a sculptured monument to the Lord of the Manor was placed on the east wall, covering the niche and its forgotten picture.  Two more centuries passed before a discerning vicar became convinced that the altar should not be surmounted by the figures of a bygone worthy and his wife.  The monument was moved to the nave in 1888.  Behind it was revelated the niche with traces of colour where the whitewash had perished and after 350 years the fresco of the Virgin and Child emerged.

The dedication of the church to the Virgin Mary had been completely forgotten and when the church was re-opened after the restoration of 1876 it was dedicated to St Peter.  But the medieval cross in the circle below the figures, proved conclusively that the church was first St Marys and that is should now have double dedication to St Mary and St Peter.  The painting, mainly in red ochre on the plastered wall in manner of a true fresco, is a typical English work of the mid 13th century and illustrates the theology of the time which dwelt on the exalted power of the Mother and the Son rather than on the merely humans aspect of maternal love.  It stands as an example of the wealth and colour that adorned our medieval churches.

Another special feature is the group of five Fylfot-Crosses and Norse carvings in the upper stonework of the porch, most likely to have been carved sometime during the 12th century. The row of Fylfot-Crosses can be seen on the left side of the main entrance. Also carved here is representation of Norse mythology where the ravens Hugnin (thought) and Munin (memory) travelled across the world every day collecting information for the god Odin. The opposite column features another Norse face and what appears to be a snake. Whether these are Norse carvings from an earlier building, or perhaps relate to Biblical stories, or as the guidebook suggests Christian doves on either side of God, is unclear.

Inside the church in the Norman archway to the chancel you will find an 11th century Saxon burial stone which can be seen with the aid of a mirror. Minor battles must of course taken place through this part of Essex and maybe the Scandinavian burial stone at Great Canfield is the gravestone of a warrior that was killed at this time. Quite how and why an Anglo- Scandinavian burial slab found its way into the walls of Great Canfield church is lost in history.

Great Canfield church, with its Norman arch, two pillars decorated in Norse style with possibly, Odin a god of the North decorating a Christian church, and a Scandinavian burial stone lodged in the chancel, it has some fascinating secrets

Where to find us

St Mary’s Church

Church End

Great Canfield



St. Mary’s Church is situated in the Church End part of Great Canfield village. Great Canfield is situated north west of High Roding village, off the B184 Ongar-Great Dunmow Road.

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