St Candida and Holy Cross
When Sir Frederick Treves wrote his superb description of Dorset around 1900, he describes the Marshwood Vale as ".....a somewhat sullen hollow, shunned by man for there is hardly a habitation in it." Yet in Norman times there was a castle with a vineyard and Robert de Maud was so taken with it that he was prepared to be indebted to the tune of "....£380, five marks, five palfreys and four Norway hawks to have the Barony of Mirswude." Indeed, according to the excellent guidebook, William the Conqueror thought so well of it that he appointed his personal Chaplain Guntard to the benefice. It was, at one time, the largest parish in England and claims to have been founded by Alfred the Great, who bequeathed it to his youngest son Ethelwald (890).
The interesting name is derived from Canon's Whitchurch because the tithes were divided between Salisbury and Wells. The church, popularly known as the cathedral of the Marshwood Vale is simply magnificent and is dedicated to the little-known saint, St Candida, who was originally called St Wita. There is no doubt that there was a Saxon church on the site, but nothing now survives before the earliest part, which is the C12 south doorway protected by the C15 porch. The nave and central section are C13, although some of the south windows and the lights in the clerestory are of 1848-50 by Joseph Butler of Chichester. The Early English (1190-1310) capitals of the nave arcade are beautifully carved with deeply cut flower and wild plant designs. The arch to the middle bay of the north arcade is pointed and has another deeply-cut zigzag motif. High up on the south side of the chancel arch is a door, which would certainly have once led to the rood loft. The splendid tower, which greets the visitor on entering the churchyard, is C15 and the south porch is also from this period. In the chancel, there is a fine elaborate example of a stone canopied monument with a recumbent effigy of Sir John Jeffery, one of Queen Elizabeth I's knights, who died in 1611. Also in the chancel is a memorial to Sir George Somers, born in Lyme Regis in 1554 and a contemporary of Sir Walter Raleigh. He is generally credited with the discovery of Bermuda, giving great assistance to the American colonists and being William Shakespeare's inspiration for the 'Tempest'.
The pulpit is an excellent Jacobean example, decorated with large arches. There is a most impressive organ, rather hidden away in the south transept. The font is Norman and cauldron shaped with an intersecting arch decoration.
Probably the principal reason for the church being built was to enclose a shrine to St Candida, although there does seem uncertainty about her origins. For 900 years, local legend suggested she was a Saxon Christian woman who was murdered by the Danes. They landed at Charmouth, ran riot in the area, pillaging and killing as they went. Other hypothetical origins were offered in C19, but most collapsed after careful scrutiny. Nevertheless, her C13 shrine is still in the north transept and takes the form of a stone altar like structure with three oval (mandorla) openings into which limbs can be placed in the hope of healing. Handkerchiefs or notes are sometimes left in lieu of people too sick to come themselves. In 1900, when repairs were being undertaken as a result of settlement, a lead-lined casket was found containing the remains of a small woman, who had died aged about 40. The words "HIC-REQUECT-RLIQE-SCE-WITE" ("Here rest the remains of St Wite") were found on the lid, clearly indicating that these were indeed the remains of the saint. The survival of the shrine is most remarkable and exceedingly rare because all were supposed to have been destroyed during the Reformation. In medieval times, the shrine would have been a major pilgrim attraction and, as a result, a major source of revenue for the church.
The Trust gratefully acknowledges images and text by Robin Adeney ©