The Church of St Benedict, generally contracted to St Bene’t’s, has been a has been a place of prayer and worship for nearly a thousand years. It is a building initially of Saxon construction. It is the oldest surviving church, and also the oldest surviving building, in the county.
The exact date of the initial construction is in dispute; estimates vary between the tenth century and the reign of Edward the Confessor, but there are good grounds for placing it in the reign of King Canute, about the year 1020.
As well as being connected to the college of Corpus Christi by historic ties and present-day involvement (see History), the church is connected physcially to the college by a blocked-up passage which is now part of one of the Old Court rooms. It ends in a hollow pillar in St Bene’t’s Church which contains a spiral staircase and portholes from which one can view the church (specifically St Anne’s Altar and the south aisle of the church). The staircase continues further to a bathroom with a bath set at what appears to be coffin level in the adjacent graveyard.
The tower is the most notable part of the dressings, and apart from the 15th-century windows, it remains almost unaltered. The splendid Saxon archway that connects the tower to the rest of the church boasts two carved beasts noted by Nikolaus Pevsner. I think they are lions – one appears to have a fish or something similar in its mouth. The nave and, it is believed, part of the chancel are of Saxon origin, and the four cornerstones of the original church, or quoins, are still extant.
The north and east walls of the chancel were rebuilt in their original positions in the 19th century, but the south wall, which may be part of the original Saxon church, was allowed to remain. Work of several periods may be seen in it:- two widely-splayed blocked windows, probably of the 13th century, the sedilia and double piscina, much mutilated, of the 14th century and a blocked segmental-headed opening of the late 15th century, which gave a view of the high altar from the adjacent building. The bases of the Saxon chancel arch remain beneath the floor, and those of its successor, of the 14th century can still be seen. The existing arch is modern.
South of the chancel is an interesting brick range, put up between 1487 and 1515, which consisted originally of upper and lower chapels adjoining the church, connected with Corpus Christi College, but the lower chapel is leased to the church as a vestry.
The nave has suffered much alteration, but the lower part of all four Saxon quoins, of long and short work, remains. It is probable that the original height of the roof ridge was much the same as at present, and that there were at first no aisles. The walls were pierced or rebuilt, to form the existing arcades leading to the aisles, later in the 13th century. The clerestory, which has been much altered and renewed, dates from the fifteenth century, when a new roof, of lower pitch than the original one, was ordered in 1452. All the existing roofs in the church are Victorian.
The aisles were rebuilt and enlarged and the organ chamber added in the nineteenth century. The wall of the spiral staircase of the adjacent college building can be seen in the south-east corner of the south aisle. The altar in the same aisle is part of a medieval stone slab, probably of early date. The north aisle contains a seventeenth-century bier and a fire hook for removing the thatch of houses which had caught fire. The chest may have belonged to the Guild of St Catherine which was founded in this Church in 1389.
The tower is a good example of its date. The long-and-short works of the quoins, the double belfry windows with moulded balustrade shafts separating the lights, and the great arch leading in the church, are all characteristics of late Saxon work, though the two beasts on the imposts of the arch are not paralleled elsewhere. The large single-light belfry windows are insertions of the year 1586. There are six bells, dated 1663, 1588, 1607, 1825, 1610 and 1618. Fabian Stedman, who supposedly invented change-ringing, was said to be parish clerk here in 1670 and is believed to have taught the system to the ringers in the tower, although now the bell-ringers are saddened by the news that our Fabian Stedman might be a different one, and the change-ringing one might have lived in London. We don’t know yet.
St Bene’t’s then is a church with some unusual features which helps to account for its special atmosphere and individuality.