From the ‘Proceedings of the Dorset Natural History and Archaeological Society’ Volume 28, 1907, an article written by the Rev. D. Holland Stubbs entitled ‘Church of Saint White, or Candida, and Holy Cross, Whitechurch Canonicorum: A Descriptive Sketch, compiled from notes made at various times by former vicars’
In the valley of the Char, near the village of Charmouth, about midway between Bridport and Lyme Regis, stands the ancient Whitechurch Canonicorum, founded by King Alfred the Great about a.d. 897. It is a building composed of various styles of architecture, and consists of nave with north and south aisles, transepts, chancel, and western tower.
The first point of interest lies in the names by which it is so honourably known. It would therefore be fitting perhaps to observe what is generally believed to be the origin of the church and its dedication. Upon good authority it is considered to have been built by King Alfred, who united a few townships of which he was presumably the owner — for it is well known that the Kings of Wessex held great estates in all this district — and built a church of stone on this his royal domain. As a rule, churches derive their names from the parishes in which they are built, but in all probability this parish derived its name from the church having been built of white stone, or possibly having been whitewashed*. (*N.B. This theory of the origin of the place-name is simple and in harmony with the well-known instance of “Candida casa ” in Galloway. Vide Article by the Rev. Charles Druitt in the Club’s Proceedings, Vol. XIX., 1898)
In his will, dated a.d. 901, King Alfred bequeathed Hwitan Cyrican to his youngest son Ethelwald. In the next century, about the year 1060, the then Rector of Withchirche, Guntard by name, who was Chaplain to William the Conqueror, “being desirous to retire into the Monastery of S. Wandragesil, prevailed upon the King to grant the two churches (Whitechurch and Sherston) to the monks of that house.” Accordingly the Rectory of Witcerce was given by William to the Benedictine Abbey of S. Wandragesil, now called S. Wandrille (near Caudebec in Normandy), and was constituted a “cell of the abbey” under the name of Album Monasterium. This connexion lasted about a hundred and forty years, during which time the monks began to rebuild King Alfred’s Church on a larger scale.
The Abbey of S. Wandrille surrendered the Rectory of Witcherch to the Church of Old Sarum in 1200. The right of presentation to the Rectory then passed to Sir Robert de Mandivel, a resident knight (whose name survives to this day in Mandivel Stoke), apparently on his undertaking to carry out the unfinished work of the abbots, and this was done in the Early English style in the early part of that century. This accounts for the different shapes of the arches and the admixture of Norman and Early English in the nave arcades. By the addition of transepts the church was now made ‘ cruciform.’ It was on Christmas Day of the year 1240 that a charter was signed by which the Rectory and rectorial revenues were assigned to the Canons of the Cathedrals of Salisbury and Wells, from which time the church became known as Whitechurch of the canons, or, in its latinised form, Canonicorum. Thus we have the earliest name of Hwitan Cyrican about a.d. 900, then in William’s charter to his Rector Guntard, Withchirche, in Domesday, Witcerce, and in later periods (1200) Whytecherche, (1228) Wittecheriche, (1240) Witcherche, or, in its latinised form, Album Monasterium, and then Whitechurch Canonicorum.
To make a tour of the church in systematic order it is best to proceed first to the outside of the western tower. This massive and lofty tower, in the Perpendicular style of architecture, is a conspicuous object in the landscape for miles around, and is used as a landmark by vessels at sea when making for the port of Lyme Regis. With its buttresses it is thirty-two feet square and seventy-five feet high. The fine western window with three lights is, so far as the tracery is concerned, more modern, although a copy of the original. On either side of it there are canopied niches well preserved, but from which sacrilegious hands in times of religious strife have torn down the effigies of the saints. The tower contains six bells, with inscriptions respectively as follows : —
In the walls of the church are embedded many fragments of carved stone which have been preserved from former buildings probably on the same site. On the south side of the tower, and high up, is an interesting stone carving of an archaic ship and an axe. On a separate panel, and a little higher on the right, will be seen another axe and an ancient weapon resembling an iron socketted celt.
On the north side is a perfect, unweathered specimen of the same curious weapon. The ship has been supposed by some to indicate that the donor of the tower was a merchant who had obtained, by the traffic of his ships, the wealth which enabled him thus to dignify and adorn his parish church, but a more probable explanation will be found later on.
A “spoked circle,” supposed to be an old sun dial, but, more likely, a mystic symbol which had to do with solar myths, will be seen built into the south-east side of the diagonal buttress of the south transept. The most interesting fragment, however, and deserving of a paragraph all to itself, is fixed in the south wall between the tower and the porch.
It represents a two-handled cup and is supposed to be a figure of the Holy Grail. It is similar in design to the Holy Grail as seen by Bishop Arculph in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre at Jerusalem about A.D. 680. The Holy Grail, in mediaeval legend, is the Holy Cup used by Our Lord at the Last Supper, originally the ” San Great,” or Holy Dish, in which it is said Joseph of Arimathaea collected the Sacred Blood. There is a similar representation on a cross at Sancreed in Cornwall, of a one-handled cup, but it more probably refers to the ” pot and lily,” symbolical of the Annunciation and not to the Holy Grail. (Baring-Gould).
Particular notice should be taken of the south porch with its striking Inner Doorway, which is really a beautiful example of Norman work. The jambs are ornamented with circular shafts, having foliated capitals, and the circular head enriched with nail-head ornaments and pointed roll. On the eastern jamb and on the inner side of it, will be seen four roughly-cut crosses, which are said to be consecration marks. These crosses, it is supposed, were first marked in holy oil by the bishop who re-consecrated the church, or some part of it, possibly after desecration by bloodshed, and were then chiselled in their present form to commemorate the event. Of special antiquarian and ecclesiastical interest also is the old sacring-bell-hut over the west gable of the chancel. In this hung the bell that was rung at the consecration prayer in the Latin Mass before the Reformation. Nearly all over the country these sacring-bells and their huts were destroyed in Puritan times.
Projecting from the four corners of the porch are grotesquely-cut figures called gargoyles, evidently of earlier date than the part into which they were built. Others may be seen on the north side of the church, and the upper portion of the tower. On the north side also may be observed traces of a foundation which may be a remnant of the old Saxon portion of the fabric.
The Interior of the Church. — In the severely plain, yet most dignified interior, there is much more of interest than at first meets the eye of the casual observer, and much that is of great value to the student of ancient architecture. Attention is at once drawn to two arches of the south aisle, which are Norman. They date from the time of the re-building by the monks of the Benedictine Abbey of S. Wandrille. These foreign owners began to re-place the earlier church with a larger structure in the then prevalent style of architecture.
The bowl of the font is Transition Norman work. It was discovered by a former vicar, the Rev. Sir William Palmer, in a field belonging to Berne Farm, and was erected by him on a base in character with the ancient piece of work.
On the east wall of the south transept there is a painted board with tablet to the memory of Elizabeth Floyer, dated 1666, and a hatchment above showing the arms of Floyer impaling Mainwaring. The following quaint inscription sets forth the virtues of the good lady : —
Come, gentle reader, to bestow a teare,
Upon her sacred dust doe not forbeare,
Shee was a vertuous wife, a tender mother,
A neighbour kind, theres scarse left such another,
Though shee bee dead her memory will find
A name in her faire issue left behind
And in her pious life, which here below
With us, shee was too good to stay we know,
Who on her death bead thanked god most high
S’was not asham’d to live, nor feard to dye.
The vestry door should receive special attention, as it is considered a good example of mediaeval architecture. Originally there was a rood screen or loft across the chancel arch, the remains of the entrance to which may still be seen in the wall above.
The chancel is a very large one for a country church. It is simply, but effectively, furnished and adorned with oak stalls, the panelling being known as the ‘ linen pattern.’ The altar is well raised, and the whole appearance of the sanctuary from the west end is of an elevating and devotional character. The east window is bold and impressive, but not old. It was placed there by the Rev. Sir William Palmer, a former vicar, 1846- 1885. The altar rail is of the same date as the pulpit. One of the most striking features is the highly-decorated tomb of Sir John Jeffery, of Catherstone, with a recumbent figure of the knight, whose casque hangs overhead. Hard by is the smaller and less sumptuous tomb of John Wadham, of Catherstone, a kinsman of the founder of Wadham College, Oxford. There are remains of stones with matrices of missing brasses in the floor of the sanctuary. The old registers indicate that in this Church lie (in a nameless grave) the remains of a gallant sailor, Sir George Somers, born at Lyme Regis in 1554, the famous admiral who annexed the Bermudas in the reign of James I. No stone now marks the site, but a movement is on foot for erecting a tablet or brass to his memory.
The fine carved pulpit, which is Jacobean in style, was placed here in the time of James I. It serves to mark an epoch in the history of the church. Simiiarly-carved pulpits exist at Netherbury, Lyme Regis, and at Wootton Fitzpayne.
The north transept bears the date of 11 28 on a small wooden cross built into the upper portion of the east wall. It was intended to include the shrine of S. White or Candida, around which such interest gathers. Here too stood, formerly, two altars, one under each window, lighted by two small lancets. Very good specimens of foliated capitals to the arcade are deserving of special notice, particularly that representing a leaf of the water avens, or herb bennet. The north wall, it is probable, was originally of the same design as the bays of the east wall, with a lancet window, replaced later by the three-light window.
Beneath this window is the recessed tomb which is the reputed resting place of S. Wita, or Candida, and locally known as ” the saint’s shrine.” The monument consists of two parts. the lower, of a 13th century base brought from some other place, and rebuilt in its present position to bear the upper part, which is of older date. The three oval openings beneath the tomb are a common feature of such monuments. In these openings, handkerchiefs and other small articles were placed, in the belief that they would become possessed of healing virtues, and could then be carried to recover the sick. This coffin was opened by the Rev. Sir William Palmer, and was said to contain a small stone box in which were a few bones, but no documentary evidence remains of his act, nor any record of what he found there. On the top stands a small stone cross much decayed, which formed the finial of the east gable of the chancel. It was placed here for its preservation by the Rev. J. R. W. Stafford, a former vicar, in 1890. A second opportunity for examining the contents of the tomb presented itself, for in March, 1900, an ominous fissure appeared in the north wall, and it was necessary to underpin the walls, which was done by the then Vicar, the Rev. Charles Druitt. The movement of the soil and consequent settlement dislocated the old shrine, re-opening an ancient fracture in the stone coffin to such an extent that it became necessary to reset the broken end. It was during the execution of this work that the re-discovery of the relics was made.* (* N.B. Vide the Eev. Charles Druitt’s paper, ” Discovery of the Kelics of S. Wita,” in the Salisbury Diocesan Gazette for Sept., 1900.)
The broken end of the coffin having been withdrawn, there was seen within the end of a leaden casket eight inches square ; and on it, cast in raised letters on the lead, was found the following inscription : —
This proved to be the square end of an oblong, ancient, leaden reliquary of 2ft. 5ms. It was badly damaged, having been ripped open from end to end. The incrustation of oxide on the torn edges seemed to show that the damage was not recent ; apparently it had been done some centuries before. In the reliquary were a number of large bones, a good deal decayed, presumably those of a small woman. These were not disturbed in their resting place, but one of the bones which lay upper most, was measured and found to be 13⅞ins. long. The larger fragments found on the floor of the coffin were placed with the bones in the reliquary, and all the smaller fragments and dust reverently collected into a small metal box and placed within the coffin. One side of the reliquary was complete and undamaged, and on it was found cast in similar raised letters on the lead the following inscription: —
(Here lie the remains of Saint Wita.)
The whole of the relics were carefully replaced in the stone coffin, the broken end being securely cemented in its place. Formerly, it is said, there was a painted inscription on the stone front of the tomb, but the only words decipherable were:
Candida…….. Candidiorque ……..
Now the great question of interest is: Who is this S. Wita, or Candida? Certain theories have been propounded from time to time, to account for her origin and the presence of her bones at Whitechurch, but none of these can so far be proved to be more than conjecture. By some it has been thought that she was a virgin-martyr saint who suffered death under Maximian at Carthage, but it would be difficult to explain what she could possibly have had to do with a Dorset village. Some think that the abbots of S. Wandrille, perceiving a desirable connexion with a saint in the Roman calendar of the name of Candida, or White and Whitechurch, had her bones conveyed here. Others, again, that it is possible that a male saint of the name of White, or S. Candidus as he might be called, who suffered martyrdom near Utrecht in A.D. 755, is intended, as he was believed to be a native of western Dorset. But the best and most probable explanation of the mystery is that recently advanced by the Rev. S. Baring-Gould, who is a recognised authority on such subjects. He has kindly written the following notes expressly for this paper :
“Who was S. Candida, or S. White? No legend exists of her in England, but she has received recognition in Brittany under the Celtic name of Gwen, the Latin name of Candida, and the French name of Blanche, all of which have their equivalent in the English name of White. We can only conjecture as to her identity. Of Gwen we know a good deal. She was twice married. By her first husband she became the mother of S. Cadfan, the founder of Tywyn Church in Merionethshire, where his stone with inscription still remains. She was the daughter of Emyr Llydaw, a prince of Brittany, and her first husband was Eneas Lldewig. On his death she married Fragan, cousin of Cado, Duke of Cornwall. For some unknown reason, Fragan resolved on leaving Britain and crossing over to Brittany, in the latter part of the fifth century, and took with him his wife Gwen ‘ of the three breasts,’ and his two sons with her, Gwenthenoc and James, and he settled near where is now the city of S. Brieuc, at a place still called Ploufragan, or the Plebs or tribal residence of Fragan.
“Shortly after their arrival in Brittany, Gwen gave birth to another son who was named Winwaloe, a notable saint, who died in the year 550. Gwen received the name of ‘the three breasted’ from an expression in use among the Welsh and Irish, descriptive of a woman who was twice married and who had children by both husbands. At Ploufragan there is a modern statue of her as a queen, but at Scaer is her holy well, yielding an abundant outflow of crystal water, and there she is called Candida.
“What little that is reliable concerning her we know from the life of her son S. Winwaloe, but legend has been busy with her name and story, and Sebillot, in his collection of folk tales collected in Brittany, tells some of the traditional stories connected with her. According to them the connection with England is still present, but she is fabled to have been carried off by English pirates to London, but she escaped from the ship with the loss of two fingers cut off by an axe by one of the pirates — according to another version, the loss of her left hand — and to have walked on the water back to Brittany. There the track of foam left by the tide as it turns is still called ‘ the track of S. Blanche.’
“She must at one time have had a considerable cult in Brittany, as not only are there churches dedicated to her where she had her settlement of retainers, as at Plouguin and Pleguen, but there is also a parish of S. Gwen, and she is likewise venerated at S. Cast,
“In A.D. 919 – 921 there was a great influx of Bretons flying their country under their chief Matuedoi who came to England, as the Chronicle of Nantes says, ‘ with a great number of Britons,’ and they brought with them the bodies of their saints. By this means a large number of the relics of old Welsh and Breton saints arrived in England. Athelstan, although not yet King, received the refugees kindly and planted them, there is reason to believe, in Cornwall and Wessex, of which Dorset was a part. At Wareham, in Dorset, have been found inscribed stones that belong to these settlers. Athelstan placed the relics in various churches, and it is quite conceivable that he gave those of Gwen, or Candida, to Whitechurch which his grandfather had founded.
“Now it is remarkable that nowhere in Brittany is it held that her relics were preserved; consequently it is not at all improbable that when the migration took place to England, the refugees carried with them the bones of the mother of some of their greatest saints, S. Cadfan, S. Winwaloe, S. Gwenthenoc, and S. James. It is possible that they conveyed those of Gwen, the ‘three-breasted,’ to England, and that Athelstan gave them to Whitechurch, partly influenced by the name it bore. If that be the case, then Whitechurch may congratulate itself in possessing the remains of a notable mother of saints. Her son, S. Winwaloe had^ and has still, churches dedicated to him in Cornwall, Gunwalloe, Tresmere, etc., and in Devon, that of Portsmouth.
“There are several Candidas in Martyrologies, but none of these can be the S. Candida of Whitechurch. S. Candida, the martyr of Carthage, was a virgin, but both the history of Gwen and the legend of S. Blanche represent her as a married woman,
and do not admit of her having been a martyr. It is possible enough that the emblems of a ship, a ‘Celt,’ and an axe represented on the tower of Whitechurch may have reference to her legend, the axe that cut off her fingers, the ship in which she crossed the sea, and the ‘Celt’ to symbolise the pirates.”
In the church walk which runs along the outside of the church grounds there are many ancient stones built into the wall which at one time formed part of the historic building. There are also many other stones on which are carved texts of Scripture, the gifts of various bishops and other dignitaries of the Church.