Is this Britain’s finest Baroque church?

Great Witley ChurchIt may come as a surprise that what might be the finest Baroque church in Britain will be found, not in some great city, but in rural Worcestershire. This is Great Witley Church.  It dates from 1735, when it replaced an earlier medieval parish church that had stood nearby. The new church was built by the then owners of neighbouring Witley Court, the Foleys, for their convenience, but not as a private chapel; it has always been a parish church.

Great Witley, baroque churchDedicated to St Michael and All Angels, Great Witley Church began as a relatively modest brick affair with a plain interior and clear glass windows.  Later, the exterior received limestone cladding and fancy balustrades and finials.  It has a clock tower with a natty-looking gilded dome cupola, topped off with a golden orb and cross. In 1747, the interior underwent a massive make-over with the installation of decorations taken from the chapel at Canons, a palatial house built for the 1st Duke of Chandos in Edgware, near London.  Canons is reputed to have been amazing, but had a very short life.  It was built between 1713 and 1724 from the wealth Chandos had amassed as paymaster-general to the Duke of Marlborough.  But the family fortune was lost and, in 1747, Canons was demolished, its contents sold, and some of the chapel’s decorations and its organ were bought by the 2nd Baron Foley.  The impact on St Michael and All Angels, Great Witley, is quite astonishing.  In fact, unless you’re prepared for it, I can tell you from personal experience that opening the door and stepping inside is a jaw-dropping moment.  This is the kind of church interior you expect to see in Austria or Italy, not in dull old Puritan Britain.

Great Witley, church, ceilingEntering Great Witley Church is like being surrounded by sections of decorated icing from a large and over-elaborate wedding cake.  Clearly, the instructions were to leave no surface unadorned.  There are ten painted glass windows depicting the life of Christ and Moses receiving the Ten Commandments. They were created by Joshua and William Price and date from 1719.  Three large oil on canvas ceiling paintings by the Italian artist Antonio Bellucci (1654 -1726) depict the Descent from the Cross, the Ascension and the Nativity. Ten small paintings of cherubs surround the three main paintings and there are further paintings over the windows.  Ornate gilded ceiling and wall decorations are made of papier-mâché, using moulds taken of the original plasterwork at Canons.

Foley Monument, Great Witley ChurchGreat Witley Church also boasts one of the tallest funerary monuments in the country, the 26 feet (8 metre) high Foley Monument.  Let’s face it, it’s not everyone that can claim any sort of funerary monument, let alone one of the tallest in the Land.  The Foley Monument dates from 1737 and portrays the first Lord Foley, Thomas, and his wife, Mary, with five of their children who predeceased them.  The monument was designed and sculpted by the Flemish artist John Michael Rysbrack.

Great Witley, visit West MidlandsChurch windows, BaroqueFont, Victorian, Great WitleyNow, call me a Philistine*, but I confess to finding all of this Baroque bling a bit much.  It is, of course, undeniably skilfully executed, and it certainly makes a statement.  Gosh, yes.  But it is like too much make-up and a revealing dress at a funeral.  In short, whilst there is much to admire, even some beauty, it is excessively immoderate and a just a little disconcerting.  I’m sure God is impressed, though.

We may disagree.  Either way, Great Witley Church is certainly worth going out of your way for; of course it is.  Particularly when you discover it also has a crypt, still occupied by lead coffins and served by a coffin chute.  The mind boggles; I don’t know how I missed that.

St Michael and All Angels, Great WitleyAnyway, you have to visit Witley Court next door and you can calm down afterwards in the lovely tea room next door.  The people are charming and serve buns!

* “Mike, you’re a Philistine.”

 

68 thoughts on “Is this Britain’s finest Baroque church?

  1. Ruth Gill

    Asa student my boyfriend ( now husband) and I were exploring near our college in his home county as we climbed over the fence and explored the damaged and neglected Whitley Court. We visited the beautiful chapel which as you can imagine took us by surprise as the rest of the property was so neglected and ruined. There was no security and we wandered round the grounds on more than one occasion. We need to return now.

  2. Lisa G.

    So, you think God easier to please than yourself, Mike? Ha! An interesting thought. 😀 It is a very beautiful place, and spacious looking – no columns! But I don’t know anything about architecture. I’m not keenest on Baroque everything, although I do like that era’s music. And the angels holding up that font are very appealing. Paintings inside a church are something I’m not used to. Thanks for another captivating post. 🙂

  3. Polly Macleod

    WOW I think it probably could be Mike, definitely jaw dropping stuff, the exterior certainly belies the interior. As an Essex girl I’m used to seeing too much make up! Well worth a visit if I’m ever in the area, and next door for tea and buns 🙂

  4. marmeladegypsy

    It is a little much, but quite an experience to be sure! One certainly wouldn’t expect the inside from the outside, would they? That Foley monument is pretty over the top. But it is beautiful and I’d love to see it. Sometimes a little bling is just the thing!

  5. Mj Hoop

    My Worcester cousin lived in the neighborhood and took me to Witley Church before Witley Court was opened to the public. So long ago!!! Thanks for the photos. You have more than I do! This church does “belong” in Italy, but I’m glad some of the English appreciated this sort of overdone bling. I love it. Wish Tony had shown me the coffin chute. But likely he didn’t know of it. Not quite enough reason to return to Worcester after all these years.

  6. Ellen

    Really not sure that God is impressed. I once called a car salesman an uncircumcised Philistine. He was a bit taken aback not understanding me. I was pregnant at the time and all my blood was not flowing to my brain. Happy new weekto you.

  7. Clare Pooley

    I think I’d also experience a jaw-dropping moment on entering this church. What a beauty! I’m not sure that I wouldn’t find all the decoration a little distracting if I worshipped there but perhaps I’d get used to it in time! We all have such Puritanism in our blood and this glorious decoration goes against the grain. Give us a hard pew to sit on, stone floors, a cold, whistling draught down the neck, an Amos Starkadder preacher and we’re happy.
    Thank you for this post, Mike; another church to visit whenever I visit Worcestershire.

  8. Easymalc

    Baroque just doesn’t seem to fit into the English countryside somehow, but I would still have to go and have a look at it. I’m not sure if that makes me a philistine or a hypocrite 🙂

  9. hilarymb

    Personally – you might feel like a Philistine … but we’re all grateful you’ve shown us this amazing Church – and obviously we need to visit at a weekend to make sure we can see the crypt and the coffin chute. What an incredible place – I’d have to visit a few times to take it all in … and yes your description is brilliant … wonderful to see … cheers Hilary

  10. John at By Stargoose and Hanglands

    The answer to the question in the title is easy – Yes!
    Tastes differ from person to person and across time. It’s not so long ago that Victorian churches received very little praise – Pevsner dismisses most of them as of little importance – nowadays we can see the beauty more easily. A church near me which has Victorian frescos throughout its chancel was nearly whitewashed over in the 1970s, the PCC voted to do the necessary restoration work by a single vote. I hope they don’t let you on to the PCC here!

    1. Mike@bitaboutbritain Post author

      Ah, you misjudge me. In the unlikely even I ever served on a PCC I’d want to preserve the heritage of the place. There is certainly beauty in Victorian churches – even the hideous ones!

  11. 56PackardMan

    I agree with you about the Baroque style being a bit much. Be that as it may, this Baroque gem would certainly be worth a visit in person. I’m glad I was able to visit via your blog!

  12. Helen Devries

    Odd, isn’t it that the Foley’s ‘clothed’ the chirch from Canons…and then, eventually, their own palatial dwelling was stripped down too.
    Just on a practical note…how would you go about fitting the stuff from the Canons’ chapel into another building Lots of adjustments needed and a lot of skill to get it all together.

    1. Mike@bitaboutbritain Post author

      Yes, that’s an interesting observation. As to the practicalities, I believe the ceiling paintings are attached to wooden frames, which in turn are attached to the ceiling – which must have been remodelled somehow.

  13. artandarchitecturemainly

    Thank you. I love it 🙂

    In London at least, I think the baroque churches were more Christopher Wren and the European model, and less in response to dull old Puritan Britain. The problem with comparing Great Witley to, say, St Paul’s in London, is that 1] Great Witley was designed for a rural area and 2] Great Witley was built 40 years later.

  14. Anabel @ The Glasgow Gallivanter

    I was guiltily thinking what you were thinking, it’s too ornate, then you said it and I felt ok again. I loved this bit: “too much make-up and a revealing dress at a funeral”! Still, I also agree it is very impressive and I’d love to see it.

  15. Eunice

    What an amazingly beautiful church, we should have more British churches like this. I love the first interior photo, it’s gorgeous 🙂 I hope I get the chance to visit some day – thanks for posting about it 🙂

  16. Jenny Woolf

    Good grief what an amazing place! I have never seen any other rural English church even remotely like. It is absolutely minimalist compared with so many Austrian and Spanish churches so find it very harmonious and not too blingy at all ! 🙂

  17. willedare

    Thank you for another terrific post. I love that so much of this Baroque architectural bling was re-used (“Decorations taken from the chapel at Canons, a palatial house built for the 1st Duke of Chandos in Edgware, near London… the family fortune was lost and, in 1747, Canons was demolished, its contents sold, and some of the chapel’s decorations and its organ were bought by the 2nd Baron Foley.” Now I need to look at a map and see where Worcestershire is. ps: Also very sobering/sad that so many of the Foley children predeceased their parents. I send a deep sigh across the ages…

  18. Helen Kain

    What a great write-up, Mike. Makes me very eager to visit Great Whitley Church. I think the Marlborough connection bears out in the over-the-top decor. The chapel at Blenheim is similarly appointed. Good Grief!!!

  19. markspitzerdesigns

    Mike – I second your feelings about the interior being a bit over the top; but, after all, the Baroque was all about bling, so you may have put your finger on what ‘they’ thought was their greatest success.

  20. John

    Wow, this church is so beautiful! It’s somewhat modest exterior hides the beautiful interior. I couldn’t find anything about a coffin chute.

  21. Judy Masrud

    Actually I think it’s “Mike, you’re *such* a Philistine!” And I would love to see this place. I hope they don’t try to scrape off the ‘too much makeup’ before I get a chance to visit.

A Bit About Britain welcomes visitors. What do you think?

%d bloggers like this: