'Hidden away in the depths of the Cambridgeshire countryside, this small Parish Church contains one of the finest brasses in the country'
The Small hamlet of Westley Waterless has been virtually unchanged for hundreds of years. It lies a short drive from the beautiful city of Cambridge and does not even get a mention on most maps, although perseverence in locating it, hidden amongst the flat field systems and miriad of small roads and hedge-rows of the county borders, is well worth the effort.
One could easily be forgiven for just driving past if you suddenly spot it, as it looks from a distance no more than a Chapel of very minor importance. On closer inspection one is soon aware of it's ancient pedigree and once inside, a quick look at the visitors book confirms it's popularity with those who have become aware of it's rare jewel, the magnificent brass of Sir John and Lady Alyne de Creke.
This little secluded church of flint and rubble construction with Tudor brickwork in various points is dedicated to Saint Mary the Less and although it's now in the Early English style, earlier work is known to have existed. Today the building comprises an early 13th Century Chancel, 14th century Nave of three bays, with aisles and North and South doorways, and a 19th century turret containing one bell.
Right away the curious name, Saint Mary the Less, leads to one wondering how the church got it's name and there are three possible theories: (a) That there may once have been a church dedicated to St Mary the Great, (b) that the dedication was once St Mary in the Leys, and (c) that St Mary the Less refers to St Mary Magdalen rather than to the Blessed Virgin Mary.
There are no other Church ruins anywhere in the area that were once dedicated to St Mary and records dating back to 1543 only refer to it as St Mary's. During the early days of the church it belonged to Magdelen College, Oxford and one must therefore assume this is where it got it's name from.
The interior of the church, although small, has some interesting features other than the brass of Sir John and Lady Alyne. In the east end of the south aisle, dating from the late 13th century, is a recumbent effigy in stone. The figure, with tonsured head resting upon a cushion borne of two Angels, is supposedly of a layman in the attitude of prayer. It is believed to have at one time been accompanied by another effigy alongside, although there is now no evidence at all surviving.
Another feature is the lovely thirteenth century Font. It is, as usual, of octagonal shape and ornamented with simple panels of tracery on the faces, each one being different. Behind the font, and now mounted on the walls, there are several tombstones which look late Saxon, although I can't be certain of this. They have a very unusual design similar to other Saxon tombtones I've seen.
Another interesting feature is one of several pieces of graffiti found in the form of scratchings on the soft clanch stonework of the window surrounds. These can be found on the east edge of the upper south window of the south aisle of the Nave. The markings, which date from the fourteenth century, appear to record the produce of a number of vines which were grown around the walls of the church to supply them with wine required at Mass.
This lovely little church however is primarily noted for the unique brass to the memory of Sir John and Lady Aylne de Creke. This brass ranks as one of the finest surviving in the country and attracts visitors from all parts of the globe.
Dating from 1325 and mounted upon a slab of Purbeck marble, the two slender figures measure approx 5 1/2 feet in length and as originally laid were embellished with a surrounding legend, double canopy coping both figures and shields of arms at the top and at the feet. The Brass is the earliest of those that represents a man and his wife in the country. It is also the earliest of the six survivors depicting the cyclass period of armour and is one of only two which bear the craftsman's mark as opposed to an actual signature. It is believed to be the work of one Walter le Masun and when it was lifted for re-setting in 1967 it was found to be made of new materials rather than re-used material as was the normal manner of the period.
Sir John, a Lion at his feet, is clad with banded mail, but with an addition in the shape of plate defences. Protecting the body is the cyclass (a type of surcoat) which is a little curtailed at the front and reveals beneath it the hawberk and hacqueton ( a padded garment which protects the body from chafing). He wears a fluted basinet which also had visor or neck defence mail and shoulder protection came from the roundels in the shape of Lion's heads. The defensive shield is suspended from the right shoulder on a strap known as a gigue and is shown with the arms of the de Creke family. Lady Alyne is also a uniquely graceful figure alongside, having a lapdog at her feet and being dressed in the finest clothes of the period.
The Creke family are thought to have originated from North Creake in Norfolk. The family are known to have had possessions there since the reign of Henry II and from Bartholomew de Crek, who died in 1187, a regular line of descent is traceable to our Sir John de Creke who lies in the church. Sir John's father, Walter de Creke, was descended from a younger member of the family and moved to Westley Waterless during the reign of Edward I when he purchased the manor from John de Burgh.
In 1306, Sir John de Creke was appointed an assessor and collector in the county of Cambridge and in the same year recieved the honour of knighthood. For the first six years of the reign of Edward II he also served as Sheriff for the counties of Cambridge and Huntingdon and in1310 he was also made one of the justices of over and terminer, for the trial of offenders indited before the conservators of peace. The following year he was given the lands and tenants of Walter de Langton, Bishop of Lichfield, who had fallen out of favour, and in 1313, together with Bartholomew de Badlesmere, Constable of Bristol Castle, they were mandated to;
' Take charge of the town of Bristol, and hold it in safe keeping.'
This was a period of great instability for England, the Barons were again rebelling, this time with King Edward II over certain favours he had given to minor members of the Nobility, firstly Piers Gaveston and later the Despenser family.
The Barons eventually took action when Hugh Despenser the Younger seized the district of Gower in Wales, an inheritance of the earl of Hereford, and a civil war threatened to envelop the country. In opposition to the King and the Despensers were the powerful earl's of Lancaster and Hereford, the Lords Audley, Mowbury, Damory, the two Mortimers and Roger de Clifford.
Sir John de Creke and his son Walter joined with the barons when a powerful army was raised and without waiting for an answer to demands for justice, the army ravaged the estates. On 28th May 1322, a special commission met and proceedings were issued to try Sir John and his son Walter for their part in forceably entering the estates of the earl of Winchester and those of the Despenser family and that they had been;
'Breaking into houses, carrying away horses, sheep and swine, and destroying the parks and trees'
The results of the trial are not known, and it is not even certain if it ever took place at all as the de Creke's don't seem to have suffered. In these turbulent times the support of a powerful Baron meant escaping justice and the law if it happened to be in their interests. It is recorded though that in June 1322 Sir John was summoned to perform military service against the Scots, but he returned a plea that he was unable to attend due to age and infirmity. Sir John de Creke continued to serve in several other new appointments and continued to represent the county in Parliament at Westminster until his death in 1325. He was twice married, firstly to Alyne who lies beside him, and secondly to Johanna Breton, who survived him by several years.
After that rather long diversion dealing with the exploits of Sir John de Creke, we return to the church. The next period of history for the church, that is recorded , is on 22nd March 1643, when Dowsing, one of Cromwell's Generals, visited the church and gave orders to take down the cross at the porch and remove eight 'superstitious' pictures. He also ordered the minister to level the steps. The next mention the church gets is in 1752 when it is recorded in a volume of "Magna Britanica" as being a Saxon building in the county. The church had a Saxon tower originally, but this fell down in 1855 and it is believed that modifications to the tower in the 14th century, while working on the new Nave, had weakened the structure.
Open - All year round.
Entry - Free.
OS Map - No 154 ref 4864
Saint Mary the Less
The church of St Mary the Less has changed little in over 500 years and today remains a place of worship and gathering venue for the local population. The hamlet of Westley Waterless is situated approx 8 miles to the east of Cambridge off the A11 at the turn off to the A1304 to Six Mile Bottom. The Hamlet itself is a further 3 miles SE of this position and is only reached by a miriad of winding small roads.
There is a little story as to my interest in Sir John de Creke and to my finding his brass. Nearly 20 years ago my parents moved into a small 16th century cottage just outside the town of Battle in East Sussex. When they moved in, there was a tapestry on one of the walls of Sir John de Creke c1325 , where it remains to this day. For many years, when I returned home, I had the figure of Sir John staring down at me as I slept and for a long time I wondered who he was, where he was from and most importantly, where his brass could be found.
For a few years I didn't try too hard to track him down and all the research I did do to try and find him drew a blank. One day while reading Peter Coss's, 'The Knight in Medieval England 1000-1400' in a chapter on effigies and brasses he mentions a brass being similar to that of Sir John de Creke's at Westley Waterless, that was all. I soon found it on a good map and earlier this year I paid my homage to the man, who it seems I have known for many many years.
The Church of St Mary the Less, like many rural churches, has difficulty in maintaining the buildings in their former glory. Repairs become a drain on the finances, so it is important for people who do visit to contribute what they can to help maintain their upkeep. Recently, in fact at the time of my visit, a repair and redecorating programme was being carried out on the internal structure and the whole church was littered with these building materials with some parts being chained off. I expect by now this work has been completed and the visitor will find a much prettier scene than the one I witnessed.
I did enjoyed my visit to this charming little church and was overjoyed to have eventually found Sir John de Creke with the added bonus of his wife as well, who I didn't know was there with him. The church is a really lovely example of a small ancient place of worship that has been kept alive by a no doubt loving congregation who, judging by the recent repair work, intend it to last for many more generations, I do hope so.
Information was obtained from;
The Parish Church of Westley Waterless - Rees KM Davies MA.
The Three Edwards - Michael Prestwich.
The Plantaginet Encyclopedia - Elizabeth Hallam.
Abbeys and Priories of Medieval England - Colin Platt.
The Knight in Medieval England 1000-1400 - Peter Coss.
The Oxford History of Medieval England - Nigel Saul.
Sir John and Alyne de Creke - H Martin Stuchfield of the Monumental Brass Society.
Ordnance Survey Maps - Crown Copyright.
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