Tuesday, October 2, 2012

The Demise of the Medieval Rood Loft

Judith Arnopp

Before the Reformation the focal point of all churches, even small ones, was the Holy Rood; a great crucifix that stood high above the congregation upon the Rood beam above the chancel. The cross was often accompanied by figures of Mary and John where candles were kept burning, paid for by the many bequests for 'the light to burn before the Rood.’ 

Access to the beam was by way of the Rood Loft, usually an ornately carved and painted structure set just above the Rood Screen beneath the chancel arch.  On occasion the priest would preach from the loft, lit by the candles about the Rood, the added height and position providing extra impact to his sermons.

During the Reformation of the Church the changes did not at first, affect the Roods although it was ordered that the accompanying images be removed.  There were those at this time who saw the Rood as a prime object of idolatry and instances of vandalism are recorded, but the Rood was allowed to remain and there was no major demolition of the Roods until the reign of Edward VI.

Early in his reign his zealous reforms called for the removal of all shrines, images, candlesticks, painted images on walls, screens and even on the stained glass windows. This general destruction began in London in 1548 and spread throughout the realm.

Although many reformers regarded them as Popish idolatry the figures about the Rood were highly valued in most parishes. When they were ordered to be destroyed many parishes, unable to face their ruin, hid their prized images away and later, at the time of Queen Mary’s reversal of the reforms, they were simply brought  out of hiding and reinstated in the church.

It was during the Elizabethan Injunctions that irreversible damage occurred when anything connected with the old religion was ripped out and burnt on huge bonfires.

With the Roods and Rood figures gone, the loft itself had little use and in the following years most of them slowly decayed until they were removed altogether. The stairs that led to them were largely blocked up and plastered over but in a few churches, the stairs still remain today, built into the solid walls, leading nowhere, a reminder of our medieval past. 

There are no Rood Crosses left in Britain today but some Screens remain, often ornately carved and painted. They stand as testament to the changes the church has endured and marking the medieval divisions between the earthly and divine. Very few Rood Lofts are left although some have been reconstructed, as only a small amount survived the upheavals of reform.

I recently had the good luck to visit The Church of Merthyr Issui at Patricio in Mid-Wales which houses a splendid unspoiled example of an intact Rood Loft and Screen.

Patricio is a tiny church nestling on a hillside in a wooded valley; a valley infused with natural peace where the only sound is of grazing sheep and birdsong. The building has no ostentatious grandeur, no opulent riches on display but for me, the simplicity adds to its charm. It is the sort of place that makes an atheist pause and begin to question his convictions.

Somehow, possibly due to its remote location, Patricio escaped the devastation of church reform and stands today pretty much as it did in the medieval period. On opening the door you are assailed by cold, the smell of damp and the impact of a thousand years of prayer. 

The floor is slate, the walls are stone and, here and there, a wall painting peeps from beneath the layer of white wash. There is the depiction of Time, a skeleton with scythe and hourglass, reminding us of our mortality; the Royal coat of Arms; a biblical text in thick, black, forbidding script … but it is the Rood Screen and Loft that draws your eye and pulls you toward the altar.

It lies beneath the chancel arch, stretching the width of the church, a masterpiece of craftsmanship, laden with carved  leaves and flowers concealing a dragon, the emblem of evil, consuming a vine, the emblem of good.  

The loft and screen are in an unpainted state, it has never been painted, the Irish oak has  been left to flaunt its own natural beauty which makes it, as far as I know, quite unique. You are forced to stand and stare until, at length, you stretch out a finger to trace the path of the ancient chisel.

A short stone stairway is cut into the wall, the Tudor headed doorway suggesting it was added later than the two stone altars which have also somehow escaped the destruction ordered in the Elizabethan period.

I love this place. I do not want to leave. My camera clicks, recording what I see but there are things the lens can never quite capture; the serenity of the graveyard, the cool tranquility of the interior, the brush strokes of long dead painters, the chisel marks of the carpenter on the Rood Loft and Screen, the antiquity of the incised consecration crosses on the altars. And, most of all, it can never capture the whispering echoes of  the prayers of the long dead congregation. 
You will have to make the journey there to experience that.

Photos by the author. For information about Judith's novels and work please visit her webpage: www.juditharnopp.com


  1. Many Catholic churches--once Catholics were allowed freedom of religion in England in 1829--were built in the 19th century with Rood Crosses. Here is a beautiful example in Dorchester-on-Thames, St. Birinus: http://www.newliturgicalmovement.org/2008/01/traditional-mass-returns-to-st-birinus.html

  2. Great piece Judith - and I love Rood Screens (there are some particularly fine ones in Devon). And Cullompton church still does have the carved wooden base of its medieval rood - called the Golgotha - but it's the only one I know of. http://standrewscullompton.com/history.

    1. Thank you Judith for sharing. Forgive my ignorance, does this mean that all the stone built medieval C of E churches we see in England today were all at one time Catholic churches before the reformation? I have never thought of it like that before.

    2. In short, yes. Furthermore the same applies to saints so, for example, Edward the Confessor is a saint to RCs and Anglicans alike.

    3. @TheTudorKey: "built medieval C of E churches we see in England today were all at one time Catholic churches before the reformation?"
      If you want to put it like that, then the land they were built on was owned by the ancient, pre-Augustine Church in England, quite a lot of which now has still remained in Roman Catholics hands despite all the Tudors did following Roman Catholic separation.

  3. Really interesting! Well done!

  4. Thank you for all the lovely comments. I have always loved the rood screens but it is the rood lofts I am now mostly interested in as they are very rare these days.
    and, yes, Thetudorkey, they were, although they didn't refer to themselves as 'Catholic' then as prior to the reformation there was just one Church.

    1. Thank you Judith, now I understand. Best wishes, Debbie.

  5. I love this...thank you for the fascinating post...

  6. Lovely post. I never knew this. Thank you very much.

  7. What a lovely evocative piece, thank you Judith.

  8. I just loved this post and adore the pictures. It saddens me to think of all the things lost during the Reformation. Your words of how you felt while there resonated within me.

  9. Thank you for your comments. I really appreciate them. sometimes when I write a blog I wonder if anyone is actually interested in the strange things I write about. It is nice to know it isn't just me - lol.

  10. I may not always comment, but I love reading the posts. Keep them coming.

  11. Very nice post.Enjoyed studying this, very good stuff.
    medieval irish church history

  12. Bettws Newydd [Monmouthshire] has a screen, loft and cross


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