Sir Stephen Glynne, brother in law to William Ewart Gladstone, the great Victorian prime minister, was a kindly, reticent bachelor who occupied his time visiting and describing medieval churches.
At his death in 1872, aged 65, he had accumulated 106 volumes of his own notes made on visits to over 5000 churches. These notes are an invaluable record of medieval churches at a time, just before, they were being “improved”, often beyond recognition, by the great wave of Victorian restoration.
Stephen Glynne detested the modern, that is, nearly everything that had been built in the previous century or more, and sought solace in the old and antique, rejoicing in the heritage of the medieval church.
He found the church of St Michael in Egremont, which had an incongruous apse placed in the east wall in 1752, detestable. “The church in its present state is surpassing in ugliness from the lamentable alterations it has undergone. . . . the windows are all of the vilest description . . . There is a modern apse added . . . and much hideous painting and kaleidoscopic glass.” However, he did approve of the “the fine Early English work” which remained.
Ten years later, in 1869, when he visited the remnants of what was once the mighty Holm Cultram Abbey, he rejoiced in the ruined nobility of the surviving nave: “Yet in spite of these sad mutilations it is still lofty and spacious and has a general appearance of grandeur. . . . Happily the original fine Early English arcades remain built into the modern walls.” He was unhappy with the “ugly pews” and thought that the windows were of “the worst modern kind”.
The “small but curious” church of Cross Canonby, which was little altered from the original medieval structure, met with his approval with the exception of the windows, which were “wretched modern insertions”. He delighted in the font, “a very curious Norman one – the basin square and presenting on each side varied foliage in high relief – all very well executed.”
The font in Crosthwaite was “a good Perpendicular one” and, revisiting the church, twenty-five years later, after it had been restored by Sir George Gilbert Scott, he found it “greatly improved in every way”. Brigham Church, with its long northern chancel, had “a singularly fine Decorated window of five lights, of beautiful flowing tracery”, but the font, which probably dated from the seventeenth century, was “small, fluted, of poor modern make”.
St Michael’s at “Burgh on the Sands” had “a tower of a very curious character, of a strong military character and evidently intended for purposes of defence . . . the lower part has a stone vault and has the appearance of being used as a prison.” He felt that “the church has a rough irregular look outside and has injudicious modern alterations.”
Glynne visited the “humble” church in Stanwix in 1833, eight years before it was replaced by John Hodgson’s much larger structure. A rough drawing taken in 1833 shows “the nave and chancel with an open bell turret over the west end.”
In the course of more than a dozen visits over fifty years, Sir Stephen Glynne recorded the details of over fifty churches in Cumbria, providing an invaluable record of the county’s medieval architectural heritage as it stood in the middle of the nineteenth century. This fine and scholarly edition by Lawrence Butler supports the extensive church records with detailed notes, a glossary and a brief biography. The editor has chosen to leave out Glynne’s thumbnail sketches of details of doorways and tracery. He has, however, added, a very useful selection of contemporary drawings and photographs of individual churches which are the perfect complement to the precise observations of the original text.