The Font

St. Chad's Church font
St. Chad’s Font

The font at St. Chad’s is very significant indeed. On a spiritual level, it reminds us that many generations of Kirkby families have brought their children here to be baptised – welcomed into the church family – and therefore that we are part of something with deep and ancient roots.

As a work of art it is a stunning example of early Mediaeval craftsmanship which gives us an insight into the religious mindset of the people who made it.

On a personal level, if we look closely, we can look into the faces of real people from many centuries ago and imagine them looking back at us and into our world from across the mists of time.

The font shows a scene of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden being tempted by the devil in the form of a serpent, a figure which is thought to be a cherub holding a sword aloft, a figure which is believed to be the Archangel Michael killing a serpent and seven figures who are generally identified as “Priests”.

But how old actually is it? This is the first question most people ask about the font and the honest answer is that nobody knows for certain.

It cannot have been made before the year 960; that was the year in which the Saxon King Edgar “The Peaceful” (ruled 959 – 974) ordered that all babies must be brought to baptism before reaching the age of 37 days. Unlike modern practice, in which the infant is sprinkled with water, Saxon babies were baptised by full immersion – which accounts for the shape and size of the bowl.

It cannot have been made after 1200 as by that time work such as this had gone out of fashion in favour of Gothic architecture. There are two strong theories as to its likely date; both are backed by evidence but neither is conclusive.

The Victorian antiquarian W.J. Roberts first examined the font in 1845, at which time it had been dumped in an outbuilding next to the chapel and was coated with a thick layer of whitewash23. At the time the Vicar, Rev. Cort, had absolutely no interest in cleaning the font or restoring it to its rightful place within the house of God. Roberts and his colleague made several detailed drawings of the font. By the next time they saw it, in 1853, Rev. Cort’s successor Rev. R.H. Gray had had the font cleaned, fitted on to a new cylindrical shaft and installed in the chapel.

Roberts’ theory was that the seven “priestly figures” on the font represented the seven Orders of the Priesthood as laid down for the Saxon Church by Archbishop Aelfric of Canterbury; as he was Archbishop between 995 and 1005, the font cannot be dated any earlier than 995. If it is Saxon then by default it cannot have been made later than 1066, the year of the Norman invasion.

F.C. Larkin, writing in 191924, was of the opinion that the font is considerably later. By the time he studied the font it had been moved into the current church building and sited atop a new circular plinth. Larkin also had the benefit of photography and illumination which had not been available to Roberts seven decades previously.

Larkin admits that the coiled snakes around the base appear as though they could be Norse in origin – in Norse culture the snake symbolised both infinity and evil – but, equally, the snake could be found in the mythology and culture of several other peoples. He argues that the sculptor may have had the Norse culture in mind when carving the font.

The arcade – the pattern of eleven arches around the font, separated by columns and acting as niches for the carved figures – also presents some dating problems as the architectural features shown are in a mixture of Saxon (stepped column bases) and Norman (the column capitals) styles.

Larkin’s evidence for dating the font being Norman rather than Saxon comes from his detailed study of the figures themselves, particularly those of the seven “priests”. They appear to have beards which clerics generally did not in Saxon times but which had become very common by the end of the 11th century. He also notes that the vestments the figures are wearing are of a style which would not be seen much before the start of the 12th century.

If, as Larkin suggests, the 3rd “priest” is actually St. Chad then a date after the mid-12th century is possible, for there was a revival in interest in the saint at around this time; this is when many of the great churches dedicated to him in the Midlands were founded. The evidence for this figure (P3 on the diagram) being St. Chad comes from what appears to be a ray or beam of light he his carrying.

St. Chad, so the story goes, went to visit King Wulfhere to encourage him to repent of his many sins and follow the way of Christ. Whilst St. Chad was waiting for the king, he hung up his outer garments upon a sunbeam coming through the window. When King Wulfhere arrived and saw this he tried to do the same but, unlike St. Chad’s, his clothes fell to the floor. Upon seeing that the sunbeams obeyed St.Chad but not himself, the King recognised the holiness of the saint and duly repented of all his wrongdoing and injustice.

This story did not become popular before about 1150. Larkin’s theory hinges upon the identification of P3 with St. Chad being correct; if it is, then 1150 is the earliest possible date for the font. Larkin further notes similarities with a font at Winchester which is known to date from about 1170, so it may be that a date a few years either side of 1170 is most likely.

What we do know is that even the latest likely date makes the font around 850 years old and as such it is the oldest man-made artefact in the Kirkby area.