St Wynstan’s Church

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From the outside this looks like many other English churches with its tall spire. What marks it out as special is the Saxon crypt which was the burial place of the Kings of Mercia. It has been described as ‘one of the most precious survivals of Anglo-Saxon architecture in England.’ John Betjeman goes as far as to describe it as ‘holy air encased in stone’.

Repton was where Christianity was first preached in the Midlands and a monastery was founded in here around 653. This had both men and women and was ruled by an Abbess who was of noble if not royal rank. A crypt was constructed in the first half of the 8thC, during the reign of King Æthelbald as a mausoleum for the Mercian Kings. Originally built with a wood roof, King Wiglaf added the four barley sugar columns and vaulting to carry the weight of a chancel built above it in the 9thC.

It contained the tombs of Æthelbad (757), King Wiglaf (839) and his grandson, St Wystan, who was brutally murdered in 849 by his guardian who wanted the throne. There were claims of many miracles after his death and the crypt became a place of pilgrimage. It became so popular two staircases, north and south, were needed to manage the flow of pilgrims.

The monastery was sacked by the Danes in 873/4 who destroyed the wooden buildings and set fire to the church. St Wystan’s remains were removed and the church lay in ruins, although the crypt survived. A new stone church was built in the 10thC. North and south aisles were added in the 13thC. These were widened in the 14thC and heightened in the 15thC when the clerestory was added. The tower and spire were built in 1340.

The church was restored in the 19thC with a new roof and new stained glass. The box pews were replaced and many monuments removed. The parapet round the roof was added.

An Augustinian Priory was founded near the church in 1172. The Priory was dissolved at the Reformation and most of the buildings were demolished apart from the arch of the 13thC gatehouse and the guest house which is now part of Repton School.

The church is set in a well tended graveyard with old gravestones round the walls. The tall battlemented tower has corner pinnacles and a very tall, slender spire. The nave is battlemented with a smaller and older chancel at the east end.

Entry is through a large buttressed 14thC porch on the south wall which has pinnacles and a statue of St Wystan with a crown at his feet. The statue dates from 1911 but his sword disappeared and was replaced in 2003. Above the porch is a small room which was used as a school room. Originally accessed by stairs from the south aisle, stone stairs were added from the porch in the 19thC. These lead up to locked door. There are stone benches round the walls of the porch, with a roll of honour on the wall and a list of 17th and 18thC benefactors on the wall. The two large columns are Anglo-Saxon and were removed from the east end of the nave during the 19thC alterations. There are two carved Anglo-Saxon stones.

An old wooden door with big hinges and heavy metal studs leads into the church. Above is the Royal Coat of Arms of George III. Inside are large octagonal pillars with pointed arches separating nave and side aisles. The 15thC timber roof has carved bosses and there are carved stone bases to the beams in the north aisle. The plain glass windows in the clerestory make the church light.

The window at the back of the south aisle has an image of Ælfthritha, first abbess of Repton Abbey. On the wall near it is a replica of a carved 9thC grave slab.

The font is under the tower The oak screen on the south wall incorporates panels from the medieval pews and used to be part of the organ surround, before it was moved to its present position at the east end of the south aisle.

On the south wall is a lovely carved memorial to Gilbert Thacker and his wife Elizabeth. His claim to fame is that he was responsible for pulling down most of the priory buildings.

Higher up in a rather nice marble memorial to Waklin of Bretby, who died in 1617, and Ellen his wife, who died in 1614. They are kneeling face to face at a prayer desk with their son kneeling on a cushion below.

Near is a large stained glass window with images of Diuma, one of the first Christian missionaries to Mercia and first bishop of the Mercians, Next is Wystan, grandson of King Wiglaf who was murdered and buried in the crypt. Next is Guthlac who was a soldier but was received into the church and became a hermit. Last is St Chad, who was responsible for building Lichfield Cathedral and was fifth bishop of Mercia.

There is a low pointed arch above the chancel. This is the original 19thC chancel and is small and very plain with low wood paneling around the walls and a large 14thC plain glass window. There are wooden choir stalls, a wooden altar rail and small altar.

At the east end of the north aisle is St Catherine’s Chapel which has a small altar and a large marble memorial to the right of the window of Francis Thacker of Grey’s Inn who died in 1710, with a stone bust set between arches with a urns and a shield above. The stained glass window has images of St John and the Virgin Mary on either side of Christ holding a chalice.

In the north aisle is a stained glass window with images of Anna and also of Simeon withe the baby Jesus. Above is a small window with a fragment of 14thC glass representing one of the Mercian Kings.

Between St Catherine’s Chapel and the chancel, by the steps leading down to the crypt is a rather battered alabaster effigy thought to be late 15thC.

Steps at either side of the chancel lead down into the crypt. There is a light switch by the north steps. A sign says there is a one way system, but the south steps are not lit. The steps are narrow and uneven with little head room. A wooden doorway leads into the crypt.

There is little natural light as there are only two small windows high on the walls with louvred shutters. There is a locked, small wooden door to the outside.

The crypt is lit by electric lights along the base of the walls. These are designed to illuminate the very rough uneven stone floor rather than to aid photography, especially as the ceiling is whitewashed. The earlier tombs were moved into recesses in the walls to make space in the centre or Wystan’s tomb. There is now nothing left of any of the tombs and the crypt is empty.

There is a double row of round pillars with a raised spiral pattern and bulbous capitals supporting the vault of the roof. Square wall pillars have a recessed panel down their length.

In the centre is a modern metal candelabra with tea lights for visitors to light from the large candle burning on the floor and say a prayer.

The church is open daylight hours and is free.

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