Parish of St Leonard with Holy Cross and St Michael’s Methodist-Anglican Church Centre

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St Leonard’s Church, Hythe, Kent

The Green Man in St Leonard's

Church historians tell us that parts of the walls of Hythe's Saxon Church still stand, incorporated into the present walls of the North Transept. Evidence for that is in the Saxon arch (tall, and narrow-framed) in the West wall and equally telling, in the fact that the floor level of an earlier building (three feet higher than the present floor) was retained when St Leonard's was enlarged early in the 12 Century. But when you look at the other side of that arch (now inside the Choir Vestry) you see what is obviously a later, Norman-style, arch (wide, broad-framed and elaborately decorated); how come a Saxon building acquired a Norman entrance?

Here, the historians must speculate, but they came up with a convincing explanation: the Mayor, Jurats and Bailiffs of Hythe were used to holding meetings in their church, so when they had a new Church to worship in, it was logical to retain the old one as a Meeting House, and to give it a prestigious new entrance. For these were solemn men of standing, who would process up here gravely two and two of an afternoon and deliberate town matters (and perhaps pass on a little local gossip too, for they were human, and not above discussing the price of a sheep, the marriage of a lord, or the taking of a thief). So we may suppose that even as the new church walls rose alongside, the Jurats were raising a subscription list and engaging a Master Mason, (undoubtedly a Norman at this early date -around 1080) and getting a price from him for works to their meeting place and provision of an imposing doorway in the new style.

They would probably not have had to go far to find a Mason's yard, for England following the Conquest was in the grip of building fever - everywhere churches, abbeys, castles and cathedrals were springing up and the much favoured Caen stone (a nice earner for the Normans) was being imported through the South coast ports (including Hythe) and hauled inland along the rough trackways by bullock cart. The defeated Brits were paying for all this, of course, but perhaps not too unwillingly, for there was a new optimism abroad after the fears of 'the end of the world'at the turn of the first Millennium proved unfounded, and English apprentices were benefiting as they were being trained by the Norman masters in the art of stone carving and new techniques of building. [Our Jurats' problem was more likely to have been one of 'finding a builder' against local competition - it would be interesting research to list just how much building, both state and ecclesiastical, was going on within a short distance of here during these very years.]

Arches like ours were manufactured in the workshop and assembled on site; the carver had much freedom as to the decoration he favoured, and there was no slavish requirement to match one window with the next or even one side of an arch with the other - the machine-made regularity we favour was simply not looked for. The pattern of chevrons round the arch is very typical of the new fashion, and the capitals of the columns have a variety of plants and motifs giving wonderful interest and richness, (and colour too, for the stone was often richly painted), after the heavy plain solidity of Saxon work. And this individualism has given to our arch a fascinating extra feature: high up inside it on the left side against the door the unknown mason has carved - a human face. Is this our Green Man?

We all know the Green Man in tales of Faerie and as a jolly figure on a pub sign, but in a church his sprouting foliate head may be a symbol of Spring (birth, fertility and growth), or (more sinisterly) of Autumn, approaching winter, or a demon figure, one of Satan's tormentors, a warning to sinners. He may appear as a gargoyle, a waterspout, a fountain, a misericord, a capital on a column, even a door knocker. But of all the photos I have seen of him (try Google), our face is unusual in sticking his tongue out; make no mistake, this is not the usual foliage emerging from his mouth - it is a rude gesture! We can never know, but I do wonder if our Mason (a Frenchman after all), is casting a cynical and disrespectful eye on the self-important procession of the local high and mighty in their robes and badges of office as they pass through his doorway, and making his own sly comment on the venery, the rutting and strutting, the wheeling and dealing, the expense accounts, second homes and tax evasions of the ruling class?

Mike Umbers