The parish church of St Nicholas dates from the early part of the 12th Century, although there was certainly a church on the present site before that. The present building has substantial surviving Norman architecture, but has been altered and added to in each century since it was built. From the outside, there is a clear mix of medieval flint and stone work, a tower which dates from the 17th Century (but which is built from brick that looks one hundred years earlier), 18th Century brick buttresses and 19th Century windows to the nave.
The churchyard cross is passed as one approaches the church from Falcon Square. It was erected in its present position in 1921, having been used as a support in the cellar of the Falcon Inn for hundreds of years. The base and the cross itself are modern - the cross is now used as the war memorial - but the pillar is early Norman, with richly carved decoration on all four sides. More information can be found on the War Memorial page of the website.
The heraldic badges of John de Vere, 13th earl of Oxford, above the west window
None of the changes have detracted from the church's appeal; on the contrary, it now represents a fascinating collage of local history, the building reflecting the changes in fashion, architecture and worship. In many cases, changes reflect the highs and lows of the de Vere family, earls of Oxford for almost 600 years, who built the castle and patronised the church. Their influence is everywhere; their two main heraldic devices were a star (or mullet) and a blue boar. These can be found all over the church, and indeed on other buildings both in Castle Hedingham and elsewhere across East Anglia.
St Nicholas is set apart, though, by the fact that it appears to have "borrowed" materials from buildings at the castle. Stonework and brick were re-used; it's possible that this explains the tower bricks being apparently of earlier date than its construction. It was built at about the same time that the Tudor outbuildings of the castle were demolished. This theory ties in perfectly with the badges above the tower's West window (pictured above); they are those of John de Vere, 13th earl of Oxford, who helped Henry VII to the throne in 1485 by commanding his vanguard at Bosworth.
The church building retains many of its Norman features, including - very unusually - three Norman doors. This picture of the chancel shows the priest's door, with chevron moulding and original ironwork.
The South door (right) conforms to an Essex tradition; it is known as the Skin Door, because (so tradition has it) the skin of a church robber was nailed to it as a deterrent to would-be thieves. Apparently, traces of human skin were found when the door was renovated in the 19th Century. The door is extremely heavy, and has offered little chance of a quiet entry to latecomers to church for over 800 years. The iron work, which is also well preserved, includes an animal of some sort in relief (above right). It may be a boar, one of the symbols of the de Vere family.
This picture shows the clerestory, which has alternate boars and mullets above each window; you will be able to make them out on the enlarged image. The brickwork of the clerestory is Tudor.
This is the east wall of the Chancel. The east window is reputed to be one of only five surviving Norman wheel windows. It is one of the glories of St Nicholas Church; scroll down the page for a view of its stained glass from the inside. One of the shallow Norman buttresses is just visible in the picture; poised close to its top on a horizontal ledge running beneath the window is a creature. It's described by the Church guide book as a "basilisk or lizard dragon", though it looks more like some sort of cat. It's very weathered, so it's hard to be certain. It always seems to be ready to pounce - a footpath runs directly beneath!
Close to the south door - the Skin Door - is an external stoup (above). This is quite an unusual feature; the guide book suggests that it may well have had a hinged cover, and been used by "passers-by in a hurry."
The sturdy beauty of the Norman arches lining the nave are the first feature to strike visitors to this wonderful building. However, it has a great deal more to offer; from the Norman wheel window, resplendent especially in the morning sun, to more hidden treasures such as the misericord carvings in the chancel.
Fragments of the rood screen are of the 15th century, although much of it dates from the restoration work of the late 19th century. It includes carvings of animals and people. The characters are alive – grimacing, tongues out - preserved by a craftsman's skill.
The Saxon Stone, a stone carving set into the south wall of the Lady Chapel. The "Saxon Stone" is set into the wall of the South Chapel. It's probably early Norman, though it could have been preserved from the earlier church. It depicts a rather forlorn looking character; various theories have been proposed as to the subject's identity.
One of the favourite features of the church are its misericords. The base of the seats in the chancel are richly decorated. One of them (pictured above) depicts a fox carrying off a priest (he's being carried by his legs; his cassock has fallen back towards his head), whilst preceding them is a wolf with a horn.
Against the north wall of the chancel stands the tomb of the John de Vere, 15th earl of Oxford. Alive at the time of the dissolution of the monasteries, he was therefore unable to be interred at the de Vere's traditional resting place, Earls Colne Priory. The tomb was moved from the centre of the chancel during restoration work in the 19th century. The figures of the earl and his countess are carved into the distinctive touchstone tomb. Images of their children are carved into the sides, with their names above. Unfortunately, their sons are now obscured because they face the chancel's north wall.
The earl's coat of arms are pictured here. He was a Knight of the Garter, so they bear the famous inscription, "Honi Soit Qui Mal y Pense". A report read by Richard Almack Esq., F.S.A., at a meeting held at Castle Hedingham in 1853 described the coat of arms as follows:
"The tomb of the de Veres, has the arms of the Earls of Oxford impaled with Trussell, and the effigies of the Earl and his wife. The supporters are a harpy and blue boar."
Close to the South door is a Norman cushion-stoup. The guide book states that this "may have come from an earlier Norman church on the site. Its style is similar to that of the churchyard cross but contrasts strongly with the style of the capitals". Curiously, the cat-like creature in its centre is upside down, so people have speculated that the stoup represents some sort of re-use.
Although those responsible tried to emulate a Norman style, the sedilia was unfortunately over-restored in the 19th Century, making it difficult to detect its original design. It has three seats, for priest, deacon and sub-deacon, and a piscina.
The face of a crowned lady stares out from another age. The stone on which she's painted may once have been set into the sedilia. As with the Saxon Stone, there has been much debate about her identity; not so very long ago villagers believed the stone to show the face of Poll Miles, condemned as village witch.
The present tower dates back only to the early 17th Century, and, since the Tudor buildings erected by John de Vere, 13th earl of Oxford, were demolished at about that time, may well have been built from reclaimed brick from the castle complex. The bricks match an early Tudor style, and much of the stonework used appears to have been reclaimed from the castle. The final arches between nave and chancel, and the chancel arch itself, are of English style; they contrast with the other arches, which are Norman. It seems likely that there was once a tower in this position - such a feature would not have been unusual in a Norman church.
There is a small doorway high above the nave, now inaccessible , which in this context might have provided access to the belfry. Others have speculated that it may have accessed a rood loft; the rood screen was probably not originally in its present position. Either way, it's clear that the church has changed a great deal through the centuries; it must have looked very different in the mediaeval period.
The present tower houses a peal of six bells. Five are only around 100 years old, but the Tenor was cast around 1430. It is known as Johannes (the name is cast in an inscription on the bell), possibly referring to John de Vere, 12th earl of Oxford (1408-1461). He and his eldest son were attainted and executed by the Yorkists during the Wars of the Roses; the de Veres were one of the few noble families who remained staunchly loyal to one side during the whole thirty years of fighting. The Twelfth Earl's son, also John, went on to avenge his father and achieve greatness as Henry VII's most trusted aide. It is his badges that adorn the West window. During his lifetime much renovation work was carried out on church, village and castle.
Also housed in the tower is the magnificent church clock. It is 102 years old, but has only ever had three winders! It keeps extremely good time.