Wednesday, 14 January 2015

God Spede the Plow - St. Agnes Church, Cawston

There are four-winged angels looking down at us from the rafters, dressed in feathery uniforms, always watching over us, spying on us. They are God's Staasi, and their presence keeps us in line. Meanwhile, a band of stained-glass angels strum and pluck their stringed instruments, as the late afternoon light shines through them, casting their colours on the wall and the stone slabs on the floor.
The church is a liminal zone, a theatre of war where the battle for the human soul takes place. Imagine how it would have looked five hundred and more years ago. It would have been a blaze of colour - the roof, most likely painted blue and with stars, imitating the vaults of heaven, with colourful messengers of God, wall paintings all around the interior, and the richly-painted rood screen in front of the altar. Among the saints depicted here is Sir John Schorn, who tricked the Devil into being trapped inside a boot, and for his troubles he now finds his image obliterated by iconoclasts.
There are three beautifully carved misericords (although they may have previously belonged to another church), one of which is a stag with foliage spewing from his mouth and nose, like the green men of Norwich Cathedral. I've never come across one like it before.


The church was built by the de la Pole family, a bunch of robber barons who made a lot of their fortune from acquiring land and growing barley. At the back of the church is an old plough, and carved into the gallery woodwork are these words:

God spede the plow and send us ale-corn enow
Oor purpose for to mak at crow of cok
of the plow-lete at Sygate
Be merry and glad
Wat Goodale this work mad.

Ale-corn is barley; the plow-lete is the ploughers guild, who probably met in a pub called the Plow; Sygate is an area on the outskirts of the village; and Wat Goodale is a pun - the name of a person, and an exclaimation of quality. We are reminded just how important the brewing industries were to the lives of people in the middle ages, at a time when a lot of water was contaminated, and the only safe thing to drink was something which had been brewed.

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