The Great Canfield Carvings

This quaint looking parish church may be
hiding an interesting history.
When I lived in nearby Hatfield Broad Oak, I once cycled past St Mary's church at Great Canfield and distinctly remember a feeling that there was something special about the place. I couldn't quite put my finger on what it was exactly at the time, but there was certainly a feeling of presence here.

Nestled in the quaint but remote Uttlesford Hundred in Essex, I'm sure few know of its existence, which makes its secrets all the more enticing. As per sod's law, after moving the thirty or so miles back to my hometown, I read online about the swastika engravings inside the church that are hidden inside the inner-porch area, and it certainly piqued my interest enough to take a trip back there in the car.

Now before I go into anymore detail about the carvings, I feel it is important to explain to the reader exactly what the swastika (or fylfot as it is known in England) represents. Events over the past century and subsequent post-war propaganda, have for obvious reasons tainted this ancient symbol's image, but it wasn't always that way.

So What Does The Swastika Actually Mean?

Outside of National Socialism, the swastika is best known for its use in Hinduism, but in actual fact its probably one of the most common forms of symbolism the world over. Northern Europe, India, Persia, Slavic Europe, Greece, Native Americans and even African tribes have all traditionally used this symbol. It also found its way into most of the world's religions including Christianity and Buddhism - which has in turn also brought the symbol even further eastward into Tibet, China, Vietnam and Japan.

Without going into overkill on the detail, the Swastika is primarily a symbol of the sun, but to most cultures it also both represents good fortune and the procession through the seasons. It is similar, at least in Northern Europe, to the Celtic cross or the 'wheel of the year' which represents the four seasons. In its Christian use, the symbol was likely co-opted for a meaning synonymous with the cross, although as the swastika is depicted in the antique cultures (mosaics are found all over Ancient Greek and Roman territories) it likely gave it some prestigious meaning given that for centuries classical Greek culture was considered the only acceptable non-Christian influence within Europe.

It's use as a lucky charm in the West was being used as late as the 1930s, and it was only when National Socialism in Germany became prevalent that it would become something of a taboo. As an example, the Essex county hall in Chelmsford, England, was adorned with swastikas during its construction just before the outbreak of world war two, and as I discussed in a recent video, the council was subjected to a freedom of information request over it a few years back from a member of the public who's ignorance on the subject had clearly had got the better of them. Rest assured I think the local council took the common sense approach and made clear that they weren't considering getting rid of them.

If Germany's NSDAP had never adopted the swastika, then there is a good chance it would have become a symbol shared by all of humanity by now.  Given that the West over the last few decades has begun to look to the Orient for cultural inspiration (think Yoga for example) and the slowly converging global culture through globalism, I think it would be safe to say that the shared heritage of the swastika would have become a  much loved symbol of unity and mutual respect.

What Are They Doing In Canfield?

Whilst the fylfot or swastika can be found in churches all across Europe, it might interest you to know that in the case of Great Canfield, it is unlikely that they are of Christian origin. To gain a better understanding of why these were placed here, we have to look at the other carvings found around them and consider what was happening in England around this time period.

On the entrance pillars in the porch area alongside the swastikas, stands some sculptures that look very out of place for a Christian church. On the left pillar is the image of a bearded man flanked by two birds. The church's pamphlet mentions that this could be the 'face of God' flanked by two doves, but I think this is probably wishful thinking by the clergymen that put together the information. Looking at the image, the birds certainly don't look very dove-like. It is more likely that the birds are ravens - and the face is that of the God Odin (otherwise known as Woden in England.) One of the key traits that Odin is known for is his pair of ravens named Huginn (meaning thought) and Muninn (meaning memory.) It was believed that these ravens were responsible for flying out into Midgard (middle earth), to return to Odin with information about the world's affairs. They were also of great symbolic meaning for funerary rights - believed to be a representation of the Valkyrie who were believed would take the souls of men who had fallen in battle to either Odin's hall of Valhalla, or the goddess Freya's hall of Folkvangr.  

Whilst the church as an organisation might have a problem with having the sculptures of pagan Gods in their building, this idea is further evidenced by the sculpture carved into the right hand pillar which appears to be a man wearing a spangenhelm typical for the 10th or 11th century, with a serpent underneath. The serpent here is the key, particularly when like this one, it has a fish-like tail. Whilst it is pretty difficult to ever prove beyond all doubt, it is entirely likely that this figure here is that of Thor, who in the epic poems takes on a sea-serpent known as Jormungandr in the battle of ragnarok. Thor, being the son of Odin and also a deity of warfare like his father, might give us a clue as to why these figures are engraved here.

If these carvings are pagan, it is pretty likely that the swastikas represent the spinning of Thor's hammer Mjolnir in this particular instance - a dual meaning between a representation of the solar forces and that of Thor's strength.

Why Is There A Pagan Influence At Canfield? 

The "Odin" sculpture on the left-hand pillar, and a
number of swastika engravings behind it.
When I first went back to this site late last year, I was only really going for the swastikas as I had read about their existence online; but the moment I saw the face flanked by the two birds I was fairly convinced it was Odin before I had even had a chance to read anyone else's take on it.

My first theory was that perhaps this site had previously been a pagan temple or grove that had been destroyed by the building of the church. This was common practice in a lot of places, and there are suggestions that this happened at nearby High Laver, a village only around 6 miles south west from Canfield, as it has a large erratic stone, considered to possibly be an ancient standing stone, protruding from its outer wall. Given that the county of Essex had a history of resisting Christianity, I was initially considering that perhaps the stonemason working on the site in the 11th century felt that recording the sites original pagan use was of some importance. Admittedly however, the dates involved for this to be the case would make this a fairly difficult theory to support. Resistance to Christianity, at least on official record, had ended some three hundred years previous to this church's construction.

Inside St Mary's there is perhaps one more final clue though. Whilst I was conducting some research online I came across another blog post written back in 2009 by Thelma, and I think she may have the most likely explanation. I had missed the importance of a Saxon era tombstone on site that has been reused in part of the church's construction. The stone has animals engraved in a form of knotwork, in an apparent viking style. Thelma's theory is that there may have been a minor battle that took place in the vicinity between some local Saxon fyrd militiamen, and the invading armies of the Danish king Canute who, having just defeated King Edmund Ironside at the battle of Ashingdon in 1016, was making his way further inland. It is possible that the carvings then are a memorial for some Danish men who fell in battle, or perhaps this site was simply just used as an outpost, and the carvings are a result of boredom.  

What seems to back this theory is that the time period for the design of the church and the use of pagan symbols more or less aligns. The ravens together with the depiction of both Odin and Thor together tends to suggest a warrior's mentality amongst those who carved these images. Indeed, glorifying their victories and war Gods is what you would expect a battle hardened viking troop to do.  Also the fact that the village itself is called Canfield may give us a glimpse into the past. Canvey Island and Canewdon (a hill that Canute allegedly readied his men on the day before the battle of Ashingdon) both in Essex, are both thought to have been named after King Canute possibly in tribute. It therefore doesn't take a great leap of imagination (although it still remains an unproven theory) to apply the same logic to this particular village.

So whilst we may not be any closer to solving the mystery beyond all doubt, we do have a very interesting theory which for me at least, seems the most logical answer. I'll continue my research into this matter over the months and probably years, and hopefully more information can be gleamed through persistent trawling through library and archaeological records. But until I find any more information, I must leave this interesting site be, and be content with the theories that have come from it so far.

*These images are 360, and you may scroll your mouse over them to look around. If you're on a mobile device, you may need to turn your phone landscape to view the entire image.


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