Altar Arrangements

Altar arrangements in Penn Church, Part 1

There is currently a controversy over the removal of the altar’s riddel posts, side curtains and dossal (rear curtain) and the move forward of the altar to allow the priest to stand behind it facing the congregation in the nave. In past centuries, passionate argument on these and allied subjects have contributed to the Civil War and the execution of an Archbishop of Canterbury, as well as landing a former Vicar of Penn in Aylesbury gaol.

Part One – Medieval – The Catholic church

The controversy stretches back many centuries. The pre­Reformation Catholic Church gave absolute primacy to the altar. It was not an accessory but rather the church was more the shelter for the altar, often called Christ’s Board or God’s Board. From shortly before the Conquest, wooden altars, such as we now have in Penn, were banned. A stone altar on stone supports or legs was required, made of a single slab (known as the mensa or table) symbolising the unity of the Church and the oneness of her belief. It was always incised with five crosses, one on each corner and one in the centre (as is Penn’s wooden altar), symbolising the wounds of Christ. There was sometimes a cavity for the reliquary containing the holy relic, fragments of a saint’s body or possessions, proudly preserved by every church. (Just possibly St Paul for Penn and hence Pauls Hill and Old Pauls Farm).

The medieval chancel was separated from the nave by a carved wooden Rood-screen in order to increase the sense of the chancel as a holy place. The altar was the focus of the church, the Holy of Holies, where the priest, with his back to the congregation, performed the secret part of the Mass, the mystery of transubstantiation by means of which the bread and wine were transformed into the actual body and blood of Christ. ‘Rightly performed secretly‘, said Durandus, a 13th century French bishop and Papal Legate, ‘because man can in no wise fully comprehend so great a mystery‘. The priest was seen as the indispensable intermediary between God and His people, addressing prayers to God on their behalf. The parishioners generally only took communion themselves once a year at Easter following their obligatory annual confession. For the rest of the year, they were spectators, alerted by the ringing of the sacring bell and eager for the sight of the Host in the raised hands of the priest, which was fervently believed to bring them God’s blessing.

In the first centuries after the Conquest, the altar, largely unadorned, stood out well away from the east wall, both to emphasise its dignity and significance and to allow the bishop to walk around it to touch each cross with holy oil during the act of consecration. Later, the altar was moved back against the east wall of the chancel and was often increasingly dominated by an elaborate altar-piece and reredos behind and above it, with more and more ornaments such as candlesticks reliquaries and church plate, piled on to the altar itself. In smaller parish churches, like Penn, the long east window, almost down to the altar, formed the reredos.

We know from an inventory of church goods, in July 1552, that Penn’s altar cross was flanked by ‘great candelstikes with other brasse‘, and that the Reserved Sacrament (the consecrated bread reserved for the sick and the dying) in a (probably silver) pyx covered with a costly fabric, hung above it, with banners overhead. Canon Law also required a statue of the Virgin and the patronal image, in our case that of the Trinity (represented elsewhere by the image of an old man, a crucifix and a dove), in a curtained niche in the wall on each side.

16th Century The Protestant Reformation

The Protestant view was quite different. They rejected the need for a sacriicial altar with a priest as an intermediary, arguing that Christ had already made His sacrifice for us all. They were nervous about kneeling to take communion in case they were accused of worshipping the bread and wine as the actual body and blood of Christ. They believed this to be ‘an Idolatry to be abhorred of all faithful Christians‘ on the very practical grounds that He was already in Heaven and so could not ‘be at one time in more places than one’. Thus, in 1552, Edward VI’s Privy Council ordered the abolition of all stone altars and the first Protestant Prayer Book of 1552 removed any idea that communion could be celebrated by a priest for a watching congregation, but only when ‘there be a good nombre to celebrate with the priest‘. Communion was to be celebrated by a priest wearing neither cope nor vestment, but a simple surplice like the parish clerk or the choir. The celebration was to take place not at God’s Board but at a table set in the body of the church, the priest standing on the north side, and any unconsecrated bread or wine left over was to be taken home by the curate for domestic consumption. All trace of association with the priest before the altar at Mass was removed. The Commissioners who inspected every church to ensure compliance were instructed to leave only a cup, a bell, a covering for the table and a surplice.

In 1539, after Cromwell had issued a set of Royal Injunctions radically changing practice and ritual, the vicar I of Penn was put in Aylesbury gaol, on account of the utterance by him of certain opprobrious words’. His accusers may well have been his two churchwardens.
What a precedent!

In 1553, with Mary now on the throne, stone altars and Catholic ritual were restored, but only for five years because she was then succeeded by the Elizabeth, whose commissioners ensured a suppression of the externals of Catholicism over the twenty years. The consequence of this Protestant zeal for destruction, the disparagement of outward forms and sacraments and the teaching that religion was rather a matter for individual communion between man and God was that many people disregarded their obligation to keep their parish church in good repair, especially chancels. In 1603, Queen Elizabeth wrote to the bishop of Lincoln that she ‘had been informed that divers churches and chancels were greatly decayed and were either fallen down, or were like to fall down’.

Penn’s chancel is particularly likely to have been neglected because the Penn family, the lay rectors who were responsible for it, remained Catholic for nearly a century after the Reformation.  Attendance at church was compulsory with fines for non-attenders, but only 120 people, about half the population of the parish, were recorded as communicants in 1603.

© MIles Green, May 2003

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Altar arrangements in Penn Church, Part 2

17th Century Drawing of Penn Church

17th Century: Archbishop Laud and the Commonwealth

In 1633, Charles I appointed William Laud as Archbishop of Canterbury. He was a fervent High Churchman vehemently opposed to the narrow and destructive tendencies of the Puritan wing of the Anglican Church. He was determined to restore some of the pre-Reformation practices and in so doing made many enemies and even provoked armed revolt in Scotland. He was impeached by the Puritan Long Parliament in 1640 and executed in 1643.

Many churches at this time kept the communion table at the east end of the chancel, but moved it for communion into the middle of the chancel or the nave and turned it east-west. The Puritan view was that it should stay in the body of the church, but then without a Rood-screen it had no protection and was used by all and sundry for their own purposes – by churchwardens for their accounts, by children being schooled, by workmen for their tools and even by dogs relieving themselves. Laud directed that the altar should at all times occupy the same position as the ancient altar and be railed in (usually on three sides) against the east wall, both to protect it and as a visible assertion of its sanctity and mystery. The rails were typically required to be ‘neare one yard in height, so thick with pillars that dogs may not get in‘. The rails were not intended for the convenience of kneeling communicants.

After Laud’s impeachment in 1640, the Long Parliament responded, by appointing commissioners to visit the counties to ‘destroy all images, crucifixes, superstitious pictures and altars or holy tables turned altar-wise that yet remained in churches.’ In 1643, the Commonwealth Parliament passed an Act for ‘the utter demolishing, removing and taking away of all monuments of superstition and idolatry’. This included altars and tables of stone and many altar rails.

In 1637, at the height of Laud’s influence, a Bishop’s visitation of Penn indicates that the communion table was in the chancel and presumably at the east end since it refers to wainscot over it that was in need of repair and of the need to set a board with the ten commandments above it. There was no mention of rails. The visitation revealed a church in a dreadful state of repair and neglect, with broken, partly- boarded windows and seats, a leaking roof and ‘pavements in decay‘. There were three monstrous family pews seven and a half feet high intruding into, the centre aisle of the chancel, and others in the nave and south aisle. There was a reading-seat on the south side ‘so high that it damms up the light of the chancel‘ and a pulpit on the north side.

This neglect was the consequence, typical in Buckinghamshire, of the Puritan irreverence and contempt for the church and all it stood for and the consequent grudging of every penny they were taxed for church purposes. The majority of local gentry and clergy regarded sermons as the only reason for coming to church. There is further evidence of Puritan sympathies in Penn in the survival in office during the Commonwealth of Wllllam Lincke, Penn’s longest ever serving Vicar (1607-61). About one in seven of Buckinghamshire clergy, the ‘scandalous ministers‘, were ejected from their livings after Charles was defeated in 1646, to be replaced by ‘godly, diligent and painful preachers‘. William Lincke was described, in 1649, as ‘diligent‘ and unlike his predecessor, was licensed to preach and is earlier recorded as preaching every Sunday1.
The two leading members of the parish were also clearly sympathetic to Parliament. The owner of one of the monstrous pews in the chancel was Sir Gregory Norton, who was one of King Charles’ judges in 1649, and later signed his death warrant. William Penn,  the patron of Penn church was appointed as Sheriff of Buckinghamshire in 1656.

In the 1640s and 50s, during the Commonwealth, the Communion table was required to be back in the nave, often with seats around it. In 1662, after the restoration of the monarchy, the Book of Common Prayer was reluctantly revised in an attempt to find a compromise between traditionalists and reformers. This 1662 version is still in use in Penn. It requires parishioners to take communion at least three times a year and orders that, ‘The table at the Communion time having a fair white linen cloth upon it, shall stand in the body of the Church or in the Chancel… and the Priest standing at the north side of the Table …

A drawing of the outside of Penn church, at about that time, shows a diagonally-leaded east window, narrower than today, with what appears to be plain glass. The medieval stained glass would have been removed at the Reformation or during the Commonwealth.

© Miles Green, August 2003

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Altar arrangements in Penn Church, Part 3

A new chancel designed for preaching

In 1714, Roger Penn had the chancel wainscoted and railed in and gave ‘a new Table, with a purple Cloath, edged round with a silk Purple & Gold Fringe.’ His sister, Martha, gave a crimson velvet cushion bound with a broad gold lace & fringed tassels and ‘a velvet pulpit cloth of the same colour’. Or Mather, the vicar in 1763, gave a new cloth for the communion table with gold and silk fringe, two cushions for the table and two prayer books.

John Bennet, vicar of Penn from 1700 to his death in 1715 (his portrait hangs in Penn House), recorded that he held four communion services every year attended by 50 to 60 out of a total population of 480 (109 families) and that ‘there were many at years of discretion who never communicate‘. There were also ten dissenting families five of whom were Quakers.

The appearance of Penn’s chancel, between the 1730s when it was taken down to within four feet of the ground, rebuilt and extended by some eight feet, can be seen in the Ziegler painting below, of which a photograph is hanging in the church. Roger Penn’s wainscot and rails seem to have survived the rebuild and it is probably his very low table that can be seen covered by a purple cloth, with what looks like a prayer book on a cushion at each end. There was no cross or candlestick on the table and no curtains around or any other embellishment. There were low wooden railings with kneelers in front and wainscot behind, with a fine looking east window showing Christ and his disciples at Emmaus There was no wooden Rood-screen separating the chancel and the chancel arch had been widened and rounded. Typically for an Anglican church of the period, the focus of worship had moved from the altar to the three-decker pulpit, prayers read out to the people and lengthy sermons.

Penn Church in the mid-19th Century, painting by H.B.Zeigler.

© Miles Green, October 2003
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Altar arrangements in Penn Church, Part 4

1865 – The Victorian ‘restoration’ to remake a Gothic chancel

Major changes were made in 1865. The Oxford Movement was the dominant influence in Anglican church life and they were intent on restoring appearance and ritual to what they saw as the perfection of the 13th and early 14th centuries, removing all trace of any intervening work as far as possible. The intention was to return the focus of the church to the altar at the east end. Fortunately, Penn’s nave and aisle belonged to the correct period and so survived apart from the removal of two galleries, but the chancel was a different matter. Penn’s 18th century east window was unacceptable in itself and was in an unsuitable brick setting (because it was not stone), and so the whole of the east wall was replaced in alien knapped flint containing a new Gothic window. A much larger wooden altar replaced the low table, and a cross and candlesticks were put in place. The 3-tier pulpit was removed and the wainscot taken out. The photograph of c.1925 below, shows the resultant arrangement.

The Victorian east Window from 1865 to 1931, before the riddel posts, curtain and high altar table requred a new, shorter window (reconstruction by Michael Hardy)

Much of what is now familiar to us was reintroduced at that time. Surpliced choirs, crosses, candlesticks, lecterns altar frontals and organs, were all seen again for the first time since the Reformation and in some places were greeted with anti-Popery riots. The 1851 census shows 102 people at morning service and 140 at the afternoon service at Penn, with over 100 in Sunday school. They represented a quarter of the parish. Half the parish was non-conformist, mostly Wesleyan, and a quarter did not go to any church.

1931 – Riddel posts & a new east window

East Window, installed 1931

In 1931, it was an energetic new Vicar (Ernest Smith, 1922-1937. Ed.), of Oxford Movement, High Anglican persuasion who first introduced the riddel posts and curtains that we have become familiar with. He must have felt they were very important because they obscured the bottom of the 1865 east window and so he commissioned new glass, using the unchanged stone tracery and putting plain green glass at the bottom of the window. The designer has inscribed a note on glass, which says that if the dossal should ever be removed, there is a design prepared for the bottom of the window. A faculty was granted for the new window design in 1931, but not for the riddel posts and curtains. There is no note of these latter changes in the minutes of the PCC or in their annual reports, but there is reference, on 25th June 1930, to a communion service to commemorate the Oxford Movement – probably their centenary.

(See Herbert Druce’s memories of Penn Church between the wars).


The removal of the riddel posts and curtain has restored the full length of the window

(More information at

The position of the altar and the priest nowadays varies greatly from church to church, in part dictated by how much room there is and whether the altar is a fixed part of the fabric. Evangelicals still often stand to one side, but in Roman Catholic and many higher Anglican churches, the priest generally stands behind the table facing the congregation in order to enable them to see and participate in what they are doing.


Two major themes come out of this brief review. The first is the truly astonishing extent and frequency of the radical changes that have been identified over the centuries. There is almost nothing in common between the medieval chancel arrangements; those revealed by the 1637 visitation; the 1736 chancel and window shown in H.B.Ziegler’s early 19th C painting; and those of the present day. There have been at least six different east windows and the altar has varied continuously in size, material and position. The second theme is the religious bigotry, which has so readily vandalised the work of earlier generations – of which the happier consequence is that the church has become a living historical record in which the discerning eye can catch a glimpse of the fashions and beliefs of so many of our predecessors.

© Miles Green, December 2003 (revised 2021)

Continued in ‘Interesting Vicars of Penn‘.

Continued in ‘Monuments and Memorials‘.

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