Bishop’s Cleeve is a large Cruciform church set in a big churchyard and was built on the site of a Saxon Monastery. It is a splendid church and still has some medieval wall paintings. The west front and nave still retain much of the original Norman work. Side aisles and chantry chapels were added in the C14th. In 1696, the tower collapsed onto the chancel which had to be rebuilt. A gallery was added in the C17th. The church was in very poor state and underwent a major restoration in 1890s. Only a small part of the medieval wall paintings could be saved as the wall was unsafe and had to be rebuilt.
It is worth walking round the outside of the church before going in as there is some splendid stonework. The tall central tower is very plain compared to the rest of the church. It has battlements, turrets at the corners and winged gargoyles.
The east window in the chancel was replaced in the C19th in the Decorated style. It has elaborate tracery and ball flower carving round the outside of the arch. On the south wall is a small Norman priest’s door with more ball flower carving and a cross on top of the archway.
The south chapel between the transept and porch was originally a chantry chapel and is battlemented. The west end is still the original Norman work, although the window is later. It has a beautiful Norman doorway with chevron carvings round the arches and serpent’s heads.
The south porch is big and has a room above it. The porch played a very important role in the church. The first part of the baptism and marriage ceremonies were performed here. Penitent sinners were given absolution from their isns before entering the church. Secular business included the signing of contracts, swearing of oaths and debt collection.
The doorway has a superb Norman arch with two rows of zig zag carving at right angles to each other. Above the door are two sundials superimposed upon each other.
There is a small step into the porch and then into the church. The doorway into the church is a marvellous example of Norman work with chevron carving and a crenellated arch below. Round the outside are two dragons with intertwined tails, each swallowing another creature. The supporting arches have beautifully carved capitals, including a green man. There is a vaulted ceiling and blind arcade of interlaced arches and colonnades on the walls on either side.
Inside, the church has a Norman nave with round pillars with simply carved capitals and round arches. However in the 16th/17th centuries alternate pillars were removed to form very wide arches. Small carved Norman arches above wooden doors lead into the north and south transepts.
When we visited in April 2014, the chancel was closed off by scaffolding and polythene sheeting as alterations were being carried out to turn the chancel into a vestry and meeting room. The altar is now in the crossing with a painted triptych with a crucifix in the centre.
At the back of the church is a C17th wooden gallery supported on wooden pillars. This is reached by a big wood staircase and the choir sings from it. Below the open balustrade is a carved frieze. Underneath the balcony is a C16th octagonal font and a Norman chest made from a solid oak tree. This is now used for contributions to the church.
On the south side of the church is a chapel with the large de la Bere tomb in front of the altar. Surrounded by iron railings, this has effigies of Richard and his wife Margaret, resplendent in C17th dress. Behind them is a massive portico. Black pillars support a round arch decorated with garlands and family shields.
On the floor beside this is the C14th effigy of a woman wearing a wimple, possibly a member of the Huddlestone family who were Lords of the Manor.
On the south wall is the remains of a wall tomb under an arch decorated with ball flowers. This may have been the founder's tomb.
In the south transept is the tomb of an unknown knight, dating from about 1270, set under an ogee arch with ball flower decoration. He is wearing chain armour and has a shield. His legs are crossed at the knees, indicating that he fought in the crusades. On the inside of a blocked window is the remains of a wall painting with red fleur de lys.
The north transept contains the C15thC staircase to the bell tower, which is still in use today. The treads are made from oak logs.
On the wall of the north aisle is the remains of a wall painting, all that is left of the paintings that originally covered all of the inside of the church. Only the base remains with paintings of fish, suggesting this may have been part of St Christopher.
The room above the porch is kept locked and you can only go up if a steward is on duty in the church. This was added after the church was built and there is a marvellous view of the Norman corbel table that ran round the outside of the church. It is a rare chance to get a close up view of the carved heads.
The room was used as a school room and the paintings are the work of a C19th schoolmaster who used the walls as a blackboard. There is a skeleton and marvellous lion and tiger. A table lists the Rules of the Academy. On Mondays and Wednesdays the pupils studied writing and arithmetic. On Tuesdays, Thursdays and Fridays they studied reading and writing. There is also information about the church and a C19th Christening gown.
The church is only open when there is a steered on duty. Failing that, it is possible to get a key from the Church Office round the back of St Michael's Hall during office hours Monday-Friday 9.30-12.30.
There is on road parking outside the church.
This is an interesting church and the quality of the Norman carving on the doorways is excellent. The steward was informative but not pushy.