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In Anglo-Saxon times the altar was often made from wood but in 1076 Archbishop Lanfranc decreed that all altars should be made of stone. The original stone altar table was a plain slab incised with five consecration crosses, one at the centre and one at each corner. When the altar was consecrated these five crosses (symbolising the five wounds of Christ) were anointed with holy oil. During the Reformation these stone tables were thrown out and destroyed, to be replaced by wooden communion tables. A number of stone tables were hidden and so survived but are rarely found in situ. There is one at Forthampton and another, weighing over one ton, which was dug up at Northleach in 1902. That at Brimpsfield was found, in use as a stile, in 1937 and rededicated in 1971. The stone mensa at North Cerney, weighing 1 tons, was found in 1912, hidden upside down in the Lady Chapel for safe keeping.

The colour of the altar cloths changes with the liturgical season of the church's year. Purple, for penitence, heralds the start of the church's year with Advent, and is also used during Lent. Green, the colour of nature, is used throughout Epiphany and Trinity. It signifies Life and Hope. Other colours are used for different occasions. White, or gold, which signifies Joy, Purity and Triumph, is used on the feasts of our Lord, the Virgin Mary, angels and unmartyred saints, Easter, Trinity and All Saints' Day. Red, with associations of fire and the colour of blood, is used for Whitsun and the feasts of martyrs. Black is reserved for Good Friday, All Souls' Day and for funerals and requiems. In the past the sanctuary, together with the Rood and other figures, was veiled from sight during Lent. The hooks from which the veil hung may still be visible in some churches. In Prestbury the figures are veiled from the Fifth Sunday in Lent.


These were introduced gradually after the Reformation to protect the altar, especially from marauding dogs. In some churches people were paid to whip dogs out of church or use a pair of dog tongs to remove them. Altar rails were decreed by the Archbishop of Canterbury, William Laud (1573-1645), to prevent the altar from being moved into the body of the church, as demanded by the Puritans. The rails were usually made of wood. Sometimes the altar was enclosed on three or four sides but generally the rails went from wall to wall. During the Commonwealth period of Cromwell many rails, and other furnishings, were destroyed in the disrespect shown at that time. A delightful range of rails was produced during the 17th and 18th centuries.


The reredos formed a back to the altar and took many forms. In many churches this still dominates the chancel. The simplest form was an image painted directly onto the wall behind the altar. Sometimes a rich cloth was used. During the Gothic period carved alabaster panels were popular. The most common form is a row of niches holding statues or a group of painted wooden panels. In Victorian times many were massive and made from white marble.


Communion Table at Deerhurst

(The Puritan arrangement was to have the communion table positioned west to east.)

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The Parochial Church Council of the Ecclesiastical Parish of St Mary and St Nicolas Prestbury Cheltenham - Registered Charity No 1130933

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Last modified: 06 June 2015