Pentlow Church is a very old Saxon church, probably over a thousand years old, and possibly even dating from the early years of the seventh century during the revival of Christianity in East Anglia. The Church of St. Gregory and St George (previously St George but its original dedication is unknown), is one of only four ancient round towered churches in Essex and is its most northerly church. Experts in Anglo-Saxon churches date it back in the middle Saxon period (c. AD 650-850). It has kept almost all its original two-cell layout, with a long narrow rectangular nave, and a narrower stilted apsidal chancel: The only other examples of eastern apses in Essex include those at Great and Little Maplestead, some eight miles to the south.
The church, originally just nave and apsidal chancel, was built to straddle a circular tumulus, or mound, in the valley floor of the Stour, in a landscape crisscrossed with prehistoric crop-marks. The walls were built in 10 inch bands of whole flint, stones and erratics, and are around two and a half foot thick. The walls are of uncoursed construction with large mortar gaps. The internal width of the nave is twenty foot, the maximum possible for an oak roof span with the technology available at the time.
The distinctive round tower is much later in date, pissibly as late as 1320. It owes its design to a much earlier tradition. The main entrance to the church was originally though the west door, in the Byzantine fashion, but this grand doorway is now is merely the entrance to the ground floor of the tower, which was built in front of it. The base of the tower now serves as the vestry, and its grand doorway was the original entrance to the church. The doorway is tall and narrow, with a later outer face applied to the west of it.
The apse and the west main-entrance seem to be a byzantine influence, based originally on roman secular public buildings, and very rare in East Anglian churches. Pentlow Church is one of only six round-towered churches with an apse. It is more usual to see a south door and a square east-end to the chancel with a large west window above the altar, a layout that owes more to the Celtic church. There has been a suggestion that the chancel was originally smaller and rectangular, based on the fact that the foundation plinth of the apse is incomplete.
The mound that the church was built on did not have a flat top, so it was cut into the mound so that the original entrance was at ground level. This meant that the more conventional south entrance, when eventually inserted, required a step down into the church.
If the church is so early, it was no village church, but as large as the technology of roof-construction at the time would allow. A church of this date would have been erected by the local theign, and its use as a parish church came much later. The nearby Pentlow Hall was established early on in Saxon times as one of the major residences in the area whose manorial boundaries once reached across the Stour into what is now Cavendish, and excavation confirms that the site was occupied in the mid-Saxon period. The church would seem to be part of the complex site, including manor and mill. A church of this type would have been a church of 'second foundation' rather than a minster, and a badge of high-status for the theign, who would have funded the priest. By the reign of Athelstan (925-40) possession of a church like this was a necessary qualification for promotion at court. It could also provide other temporal rewards for the Theign: not only could he have the final say in the appointment of the priest but also could claim a proportion of the tithe.
The original west door is still in place, tall and narrow. At the apex is a stone-carved muzzled bear or perhaps a lion. The muzzled lion had the religious symbolism of a door keeper in Saxon times and also was used as a declaration of Roman inheritence in Charlemagne's time..The first alteration to the church seems to have been the insertion of carved mouldings into the door in the west entrance, covering part of the original. These door Jambs have carved circular attached shafts with scalloped and carved capitals. There is a square carved abacus and moulded base. This was inserted before the tower was built, and is the earliest worked stone other than the original west doorway. It was by no means the last insertion of worked stone.
The Saxon walls have had later doors and windows of Caen stone cut into them at various times from the Norman invasion up until the 1886 restoration. Few East-Anglian Saxon churches originally had worked stone in them due to the difficulties, at the time, of shipping it from the nearest stone-quarries in the Midlands. Pentlow Church originally used large flints and glacial erratics at the quoins and reused occasional roman bricks at points (above the chancel arch) that required extra strength. The corners of the west wall of the chancel seem to be original and give strong indication of a Saxon origin. There are no surviving original doorways or windows, though a trace is visible in the flints above the north door.
Sir William FitzHumphrey, whose family owned Pentlow Hall for a long time, refurbished the church in 1322. The round west tower and the original north chapel might date from this time though his chantry Chapel was rebuilt in the late C16 of rendered brick with crow-stepped gables. The current Chancel arch, with its two external butresses was probably inserted at this time. Originally, the chancel was probably separated from the nave by a triple arch, but what we see now is a two-centred single arch of a twin moulded order with attached moulded and crenelated shafts. Its west face has a moulded label with a carved head at apex. The North East angle is splayed and may contain the remains of the back of the staircase to the former rood loft. The rood screen would have been wooden, but we can only imagine what it looked like.
At this time, the West door must have gone out of use and the South door would have then become the main entrance to the church. The West door (4 ft. 7 in. wide, and 10 ft. 3 in height to the soffit) was covered by the round tower, which masks part of the Saxon carved and moulded doorway. The ground floor of the tower became the vestibule. It is possible that the round tower replaced an earlier porch. In Norfolk, some round towers grew almost organically by repeated additions to a round porch. Here, any previous porch would have been entirely removed. The current south porch was added in 1886, though it includes some old oak timbers in the roof, presumably from a previous building. It has has a four-centred doorway, moulded label and face stops. There is a cross below the apex. In both the east and west walls of the porch, there are two- light windows with pointed heads.
The crenulated round tower is a late one, and may have had its battlements from the start, made with some brick for strength. Above the nave roof, it retains its flattened side towards the east. It is over four feet thick and of a very different form of construction from the earlier church, faced with neat close rows of flint, evenly sized . Two of the belfry windows seem to be original. There is an upper doorway opening into the nave, 1ft 11in wide and 4ft 7in high. This would seem to have been the original means of access to the upper floors of the tower, via a staircase, but it is blocked up, probably when seats were first put in the nave in the 15th century. A balcony existed below the door until the 1886 restoration. The vestibule on the ground floor of the tower has small restored wind eyes west and a modern two-light window in a two-centred head with label. The first floor has three rectangular windows. The Bell floor has two early fourteenth century windows of two lights in two -centred heads facing North, East, and West. Towards the south is a restored fourteenth century window of two cinquefoiled lights under a two-centred head. Of the bells, one is by John Thornton 1711 and all the others, two from 1665, one dated 1635, and one 1628 are by Miles Gray.
The current roof of the church is not original. It is now an excellent Victorian roof, tiled with red plain roof pegtiles, and the plans for it are in the Essex Records office. This happened in 1887 when the chief part of the church was thoroughly restored at a cost exceeding £1,000, under the direction of Mr. W. M. Fawcett, architect, of Cambridge. The Nave roof has moulded wall plates and two crenellated tie beams matching the Chancel roof but with one tie beam and a King post. No record of the previous roof has come to light though the pitch must have been similar judging from the abutting round tower. It would have been thatched for a great part of its life.
The apsidal chancel would originally have had high narrow windows, widely splayed to distribute the light. The apse ‘s circular shape precludes the standard large east window seen in most churches, yet one was inserted in the Victorian ‘restoration’. This has two ogee lights with tracery over, with fourteenth century splays and rear arch. The south wall has two restored fourteenth century two-light windows with pointed heads. Between them is a doorway, also inserted in the restoration with chamfered jambs and two centre-arch stops.
In the semicircular apse is a fine altar-tomb, belonging to Edward Felton who died in 1542 and his wife Frances, the date 1542 being scratched upon it; There is a floor-slab commemorating John and Katherine Kempe: dated 1739. The Communion Table is seventeenth century, with turned legs and moulded upper rails. The communion rails seem to be contemporary with the table, with fine twisted balusters and moulded rails. Similar balusters have been re-used in the later choir stalls.
The north wall of the nave has windows matching those of the South wall of the Chancel which probably date from the 1322 refurbishment but which were restored in the Victorian restoration. . Between them is the Victorian doorway with chamfered jambs and two-centred arch over which are signs of a previous Norman arch. To the East there is a three-light window with a flat head.
The south wall now has a pair of two-light windows in two-centred heads, one of which is Victorian, and the other originally a fourteenth century, much restored, and a three-light round-headed window with a flat label over. The south doorway aligns with the north doorway.
There is a wooden parish chest, possibly sixteenth century, with a curved Iron-bound lid, carved in one piece from a hollowed-out tree trunk.
The pulpit is relatively modern, dating probably from the Victorian restoration, with ogee tracery. There are two Hatchments in the Nave.
The west window was inserted as a memorial of the War. There is a fourteenth-century piscina with a trefoiled head, and a plain stoup which no longer has its basin, east of the south doorway of uncertain date.
In the North wall, there are two Niches with rounded back and pointed head, both painted red; in the south wall, two, one with rounded head and one with obtuse triangular head, all possibly 16th-century.
The late Tudor north chapel is taller than the chancel, surmounted by crow-stepped brick battlements, and lit to the east by a re-used fifteenth-century Perpendicular window of three cinquefoiled lights with tracery over in a two-centred head. The interior of the Chapel roof has a billet ornament to the wall plate supporting a panelled, barrel vault, ceiling decorated with Tudor ornament and brattishing. The jambs are probably fourteenth century. In the north wall is a window of around 1600, and of three four-centred lights under a square head. Further to the west is a doorway of around the same date, with a moulded four-centred arch. There are niches in the north Chapel over the north doorway with rounded back and pointed head.
There is a large tomb chest in the northeast corner, with prostrate effigies lying on top, commemorates Judge George Kempe (d. 1606), his son John Kempe (d 1609), and John Kempe’s wife, Elinore Drew (d. 1609). George and John are dressed in furred robes and Elinore in ruff and elaborate head-dress. They had ten daughters and four sons, all of whom are depicted on the south side side of the chest, the daughters in dresses and ruffs and the kneeling sons wearing cloaks. This chapel was thoroughly repaired at the expense of the Rev. E. W. Mathew at some time before 1842, and at this time, the monument was repainted.
George Kemp whose life spake to his virtues
Lies here entombed after his ende of dayes
Fame tells the world his life and death was such
As Truth's report can never rayse too muche
Religion justice mercy bounty peace
With faithful plainnesse was his fame's increase
In King's bench courte full fiftye years found just
Who reades this truth but needes comend him must
Prom race of worship his life's beginninge spronge
Of William Kempe esquire the sixt and youngest sonne
Whose manor house Spaynes Hall in Essex knowne
Tells from what roote this worthie branch was grown
Seventy six years he liv’d and children eighte
Five sonnes three dawghters on his age did wayte
Monday on March the three and twentith day
In peace Death's hand did take him hence away
One thousand six hundred and six of Christ the yeare
His soule as wearie of her mansion here
Made haste to heaven with Christ for aye to dwell
Happie are they that live and die soe well
Here lyeth John Kempe that worthy esquyer
That never detracted the poor man's hire
Of veritie and knowledge a studious seeker
Of word and promise a faithful keeper
Chaste Elinor Drew of Devonshire
Daughter of John Drew an esquyer
Was his virtuous wife by mother descended
From Cecill's name nowe worthelye honoured
To him children seven and seven did she beare
As by this monument to you doth appeare
He lived fortie eight yeeres too short a time
And dyed the seaventh of January one thousand six hundred and nine
Heaven hath his soule through Christ his grace
Earth his body entombed in this place