By Jon Cannon
British Archaeology, Issue 114 (2010)
Introduction: At first sight, the room beneath the chancel at Westbury-on-Trym is nothing but a Victorian heating chamber, part of an over-restored parish church in a Bristol suburb. There is a fireproof ceiling of iron and brick; gardening tools and ecclesiastical bric-a-brac are stacked against the walls. Yet this was once one of the most distinctive works of art in 15th century England – one which, just possibly, evoked the forms of a lost Anglo-Saxon church.
This crypt-like space was rediscovered in 1852. A group of workmen had just broken through the chancel floor, with a view to installing a boiler in the void below, when the Rev WH Massie, a Cheshire antiquarian, appeared. He climbed into the opening and found pieces of medieval carved stonework at his feet, and the remnants of an elaborate scheme of painted decoration lining the walls of a rough, tomb-like recess on one side.
The paintings were remarkable. There was a large coat of arms, and a narrative sequence in a tiny strip running around the recess. Groups of little figures, “elaborate and spirited, the features and expression of each countenance marked”, seemed to be engaged in moving an object through the countryside. The best-preserved portion showed a crowd gathered outside the city gates of “Worcetta”. This is Worcester, in the diocese of which Westbury was located before the Reformation, and the arms belonged to John Carpenter, bishop of Worcester from 1443 until his death in 1476: the painting depicted Carpenter’s funeral procession, which started at Worcester and finished at Westbury.