The lepers’ doorway

RAINHAM IN THE London Borough of Havering, but formerly in Essex, has an attractive and venerable parish church: St Helen & St Giles. Helen (c247-c330) is mistakenly believed to have been British. Probably born in Asia Minor, she was mother of Constantine the Great. Giles was a 7th century saint of Greek origin. Much of the body of this building was constructed in the 11th century. A small doorway on the south side, which has a fine carved stone Norman arch, was added in the 12th century, and is known as the Priest’s Entrance. The main entrance is via the South Porch, which was restored or recreated in 1897. As with so many old parish churches, Rainham’s is filled with interesting features, some of which I will describe.

View through the squint (hagioscope) in Rainham parish church

The simple stone font bowl is from the 12th century. Almost as old as the church, it stands on a carved stone pedestal, created in the 15th century. The nave is flanked by sturdy square columns that support semi-circular arches typical of the pre-gothic era. The arch above the chancel has geometric carvings (chevrons), a fine example of Norman architecture. At the southeast corner of the nave, there is an old wooden door, covering the entrance to a spiral staircase that used to lead up to a no longer existing gallery. The door was originally located in the above-mentioned Priest’s Entrance, and was constructed in the 13th century. On the floor near this old door, there lies the black gravestone of John Harle, who built nearby Rainham Hall in the 1720s. His wife and son are also buried beneath it. Near to the grave, there are a couple of memorial brasses set in the floor.

Close to Harle’s gravestone on the wall of the south aisle, there is a niche in the wall and below this, part of a late 12th or early 13th century piscina. This small basin was used by the clergy for washing sacred vessels used during a service. The nave receives natural light through several clerestory windows. In Rainham’s church, these are shaped like human eyes. Probably installed in the 13th century, their shape is extremely unusual in English churches.

The lady, who was kindly showing us around the church, pointed out a slit in the north side of the western end of the chancel. The slit, which passes through the thick wall, is not perpendicular to the wall. It runs from the northwest to the northeast. It is what is known as a ‘squint’ or a ‘hagioscope’. These were incorporated into churches to allow worshippers a view of the high altar when their view was obstructed by the walls of the side aisles in churches where the width of the chancel was considerably less than that of the combined aisles and nave.

Our guide suggested that the squint in Rainham’s church might have been used by diseased worshippers such as those suffering with leprosy. She believed that these unfortunates would have been admitted to the church by the small north door and confined to the northern aisle. By peering through the squit, they could glimpse the crucifix on the high altar in the chancel. Where or not this was really what happened, I cannot say, but I like the story.

We were extremely lucky to have been able to enter the church because, as we learned later, it is often closed. We happened to arrive when our self-appointed guide and her colleauges, all volunteers, were decorating the building with flowers.

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