Tuesday, July 12, 2011

St Augustine, Skirlaugh, East Yorkshire

click photo to enlarge
Is it possible to become a billionaire by ethical means? When I look at many who have achieved this dubious distinction I think the answer is that it's somewhat unusual. Many Russian oligarchs achieved their vast wealth by exploiting political and social chaos to transfer money and resources from the public sector to themselves. More than a few manufacturers, newspaper magnates, etc. in other parts of the world secured their fortunes through striving to become monopolies and through other predatory practices. Such people tend to shelter behind the amoral, non-ethical shield of "the market" to explain and justify their success. The donation of some of their fabulous wealth to charities or to deserving causes too often looks like an attempt to clean up their images or to salve their consciences.

What then of Skirlaugh church? It is, in John Betjeman's words, "a lavish Perpendicular church replete with parapets, pinnacles and buttresses...". Pevsner calls it, "...perfect because built not only lavishly but also quickly and to one plan." It is relatively small, certainly is lavish - I particularly like the pierced battlements of the tower - and incorporates the fifteenth century development of a nave and chancel in one with no structural divisions. When I lived in Kingston upon Hull I often stopped by this perfect little church and admired its college chapel-like appearance.

St Augustine was built in 1401-5 by Walter Skirlaw. He was bishop of Lichfield, then Wells and finally, from 1388, Durham. As his name suggests Skirlaugh was his native village though he was actually born in nearby Swine. It was during his bishopric at Durham that he gave the money for the building of the church, and it was completed a year before his death in 1406. Walter Skirlaw built a number of bridges in the Durham diocese, the chapter house at Howden, and contributed funds for the construction of York Minster's central tower. He was also responsible for much work at Durham Cathedral including the building of its cloisters. Much of this is what we might expect of a bishop of Durham. But what about the church at Skirlaugh? Was the construction of a fine church in his home village a proper use of the finances that he controlled, or was it, perhaps, a nepotistic display by the local boy made good?

I visited Skirlaugh church at a time when a prince of the press, phone hacking, the "News of the World" newspaper, and all the associated shenanigans were headlines in the press. Perhaps it was the despicable display of money, influence and power in that ongoing saga that made me wonder if this church was a result of a medieval equivalent involving a prince of the church. That's one of the problems with societies that allow people to accumulate such great wealth and power - they often exercise it in ways that undermine democracy and support themselves, and in so doing make us suspicious of what can be perfectly ordinary transactions.

Incidentally, the photograph of the church interior clearly shows the lack of differentiation between the nave and the chancel, something that is not too common in English churches. The shot also shows a recent development that is becoming increasingly common: the pews at the back of the church have been removed to make a space for a weekly coffee morning and other small social events.

photographs and text (c) T. Boughen

Photo 1
Camera: Canon
Mode: Aperture Priority
Focal Length: 28mm
F No: f6.3
Shutter Speed: 1/800
ISO: 100
Exposure Compensation:  -0.67 EV
Image Stabilisation: On