This article and the accompanying photos are the copyright of Brian Oldham and are reproduced here with his kind permission
The church of stands beside Gayhurst House and faces the stables across the main lawn. Originally there had been a medieval church on the site but in 1724 George Wrighte, owner of Gayhurst House and patron of the church, obtained a licence from the Bishop of Lincoln to take it down and build a new one. At the time he described it as ‘a very old, uncomely, ruinous Building’. It was duly demolished and, by 1728, the new church which we see today had been built.
The ‘new’ church is a small building in the style of Sir Christopher Wren although there is no evidence that he had a hand in its design. Indeed, the unknown architect may well have been a local builder since his interpretation of the elements in the design is distinctly provincial. The style is Classical Renaissance and, with the church at Willen, it is the most important church in that style in the county.
It was built of warm honey-coloured stone. At the west end, facing onto the lawn, is a square tower. This is of two stages, the upper one supported on thin pilasters at angles. The doorway, windows and bell-openings are round-arched and there is a lead cupola with an arcaded drum on the top.
The nave is rectangular with symmetrical façades to the north and south. That to the north is rather plain and heavy with a curious doorway arch with two pediments, one above the other. This arch gives the appearance of having framed a doorway but does not appear to have functioned as such. By contrast the south façade, which contains the main entrance to the church, is lighter and more embellished. It has pilasters and columns in the Ionic style and a pediment above the doorway. The windows are all round-headed in typical classical style.
The chancel is lower than the nave. It has one classical window to the north and south but there is no east window. Instead there is a large semicircular niche
On entering the church one is struck by the light airy nature of the interior. The impression is of being in the vestibule of a stately home. Decoration is in white plaster with giant Corinthian pilasters supporting a baroque plaster ceiling decorated with fruit and flowers. Between wall and ceiling is a plain frieze relieved by bishops’ miters and open books. At either end are the chancel and the tower arches which are decorated identically. Blocking the tower arch is the organ. There is a large carved north door but it has neither latches nor locks and appears ornamental.
The plastering of the chancel is appropriately more elaborate than that of the nave. The decoration includes baskets of flowers, trails of foliage and a sunburst cherub heads.
The sanctuary is paved with black and white marble and is enclosed by elaborate wrought-iron communion rails arranged on a curved plan
Gayhurst church is fortunate in that it retains practically all its original fittings. All around the walls is oak panelling. In the chancel the altar table is of plain oak with square legs. Behind it is an elaborate gilded oak reredos with large panels on which are painted texts of the Commandments, the Lord’s Prayer and the Creed. These are flanked by double fluted Corinthian columns and pilasters carrying a pediment. The whole is surmounted by seven candlesticks. In front of the altar is a wrought-iron communion rail, curved to follow the arc of the steps.
The nave is entirely seated with oak panelled box pews. In the south-east corner is a single large pew which was for the Wrighte family. Opposite it is an hexagonal oak pulpit on a wine-glass shaped base with inlaid panels. Above is a richly carved tester, also inlaid with a fine sunburst. The curving stairs to the pulpit have delicately turned balusters. The pulpit was originally a three-decker, but the lower deck has been removed.
Over the chancel arch is a royal coat of arms. This came from the medieval church. The first three quarters are those of Queen Anne, but the original fourth quarter has been replaced by the horse of Hanover for George I. The royal arms are matched by another set of arms over the tower arch. This is the quartered arms of George Wright, builder of the church. An inscription below in Latin has the date 1728.
Perhaps the crowning glory of the church is the large marble monument set against the south-east wall of the nave. This depicts George Wrighte (on the right) with his father Sir Nathan Wrighte. Around them Corinthian pilasters support a pediment from which hang looped-up curtains. Set into the pediment is the coat of arms of Sir Nathan Wrighte.
The two men stand as if modeling their Georgian costumes. They have frock coats, mantles and periwigs. Sir Nathan holds in his right hand the royal seal to denote his position as Lord Keeper of the Great Seal. Although there is no inscription, the large blank marble front to the monument suggests that one was intended. Sir Nathan died on 4th Aug 1721 and George on 6th March 1725, so it is probable that the monument was erected about 1730.
The sculptor is unknown. It has been attributed, without any proof, to Roubiliac but it is almost certainly too early for him and not in his style. Pevsner suggests that it is more likely ‘by William Palmer or another of those mason-sculptors who occasionally produced work of such startlingly high quality.’ He goes on to add that ‘the Wrighte monument is certainly not only one of the grandest but also one of the most successful of its type in England.’
In addition to the royal coat of arms, two other fittings remain from the medieval church. In the sanctuary is a carved oak chair which is probably of 17th-century date, whilst the tower houses a single bell inscribed ‘Anthony Chandler made me 1678’.
The Victoria County History for Buckinghamshire states that there were two fonts, one of which was ‘modern’. The other was ‘an oak pedestal font of the early 18th century, with a lead-lined bowl 7 in. in diameter and a moulded cover. It stood on a polygonal wooden pillar ‘below the chancel arch’. This is currently not on view in the church.
The communion plate includes a cup and cover paten of 1569 and a modern chalice.
The earliest reference found to the church is in 1227. The advowson of the church has descended with the manor. A settlement of the rectory between George Wright and the rector was made in 1711 and it was annexed to that of Stoke Goldington in 1736.
List of Rectors
Brian Oldham October 2005