Journal Volume 4 2004
A priest, an altar and a Window (continued/2)
In the sanctuary of St Matthew's Church Newtownmountkennedy is a black oak and extensively carved altar known as Ridley’s altar on which Holy Communion has been celebrated for hundreds of years. I cannot fully vouch for its authenticity, but if true, it must be a most valuable and historic possession.
Nicholas Ridley, 1500 - 1555, an English bishop, reformer and martyr was educated at the Universities of Cambridge, Paris and Leuven. In 1537, having shown leanings towards the Reformation he was made chaplain to Cambridge University, later chaplain to Thomas Cranmer, Archbishop of Canterbury. He was appointed chaplain to King Henry VIII in 1541. Ridley helped Cranmer to complete the Book of Common Prayer and the 39 Articles of Religion. On the death of Edward VI Ridley supported Lady Jane Grey's claim to the throne but was arrested by Mary, a Roman Catholic, and imprisoned in the Tower of London. Here he wrote statements defending his religious opinions. In 1554, refusing to recant, he was declared a heretic and excommunicated. He was tried under the penal laws instituted by the Catholic Queen, which provided for the execution of heretics. Ridley was burned at the stake in Oxford with fellow Bishop, Hugh Latimer in 1555.
At the Reformation and as Bishop of London, and elsewhere, Ridley encouraged the abandonment of the existing high stone altars remote and screened from the people and to be replaced by wooden tables or altars situated in the body of the church so that worshippers could stand or kneel around it to receive the sacrament. Such destruction of high altars appear today to be acts of vandalism, but its purpose in part helped the church to discover how the congregation could take their part in the Eucharist which is still being explored and implemented today in so many realistic ways.
The altar in St Matthew's conforms in a remarkable way to this significant alteration in the position of the altar. Instead of just being ornamentally carved at the front, where it could be seen by the congregation as is usual, it is also carved at the north and south ends and each side of the four legs are also carved. This suggests that worshippers standing or kneeling all around the wooden altar could view the carved decorations.
An extract from the “Architectural Setting of Anglican Worship” in describing altars in England and Ireland says:
"The Church of Newtownmountkennedy, Co. Wicklow, possesses a communion table known as Ridley's altar, which is said to have been used by him in celebrating the Holy Communion. The table was brought from England by William Sewells, one of the founders of St Colomba's College, Rathfarnham in the middle of the 19th century and used as an altar in the College Chapel. Later it was purchased by a Rector of Newtownmountkennedy for his church. No evidence is forthcoming as to the history of the table before it came to Ireland, or how it became connected with Ridley's Name. The table might be 16th century. It is 5ft 2 in long, 2ft 4in wide and 2ft 8in high”.
On measuring it I find that this is exactly so. It has elaborate carving to the front and sides with Latin and Jerusalem carved crosses, crowns, and significantly, Bishop's mitres etc.
In retirement, with more time to spare, my daughter Katie and I have made extensive research into the history of Ridley's altar.
Rev. William Sewell and others in 1843 established the Eton type College of St Colomba's College at Stackallan, Co. Meath. It was however Irish orientated and the prayer book used in the College Chapel had English on one side and Irish on the other so that the boys might more easily learn their native language. A Chapel was converted from an old coach house and various pieces of church and school furnishings were bought or acquired by Sewell in England to help furnish the new Chapel and school. Most of these can still be seen in the present College. These pieces are mentioned by name except for what is called “a valuable gift” from Magdalene College, Oxford, where William Sewell's brother Richard was a Fellow and Vice Principal. One may speculate if this was the altar. In 1848 the College moved to a new site at Rathfarnham where a wooden Chapel was built. This was replaced in 1880 and the old furnishings listed as stalls, Pulpit, organ and lectern were moved to the new Chapel. There is no mention of the altar because it was at this time the latter was acquired by the Rev Henry Irwin for St Matthew's. A stone cross inset on the terrace at St Colomba's marks the spot where the altar stood.
Last year I asked the local well-known archaeologist Christian Corlett to examine it. He was very interested and said it could well be 16th century. He advised contacting the National Museum for their opinion. They sent three specialists who advised dating it by dendrochronology. However in order to perform the procedure, a licence to alter an archaeological object must be sought from the Irish antiquities division. On further advice it seems this would not be possible through lack of sufficient tree rings in the wood of the altar.
In parallel with local Irish information we sought to find something of the altar's previous history from the historians of Cambridge and Oxford universities. They were extremely interested and provided us with additional information about Ridley and furnishings in university Chapels with which Ridley was associated. They will inform us of any developments. The endeavour and excitement is in the chase, not the kill. Although the final history and origin of this altar has not yet been concluded in spite of a research file two inches thick the chase still continues for the history of Ridley's altar which is still used every Sunday and Wednesday in St Matthew's Church, Newtownmountkennedy.