Discover the dragon slayer of Dartmouth Park
- Credit: Andrew Whitehead
Dartmouth Park, on the south side of Highgate, is not the sort of area where there’s much call for dragon slayers. And the splendid high church, high Victorian, St Mary Brookfield on Dartmouth Park Hill is not the obvious home for a centuries-old depiction of an obscure Celtic saint.
But one of the treasures of St Mary’s – a church with an interior much more interesting than its barn-like exterior might suggest – is a wonderful 500-year-old alabaster work of St Arthmael (that’s the name on the plaque, but he’s Armel to his admirers). He’s not the best known of saints but he has quite an impressive back story.
Armel, the son of a Breton king, was born in South Wales in the early sixth century. He returned to Brittany and did all the things so typical of saints of that era: killed a dragon (by drowning it in a river, as depicted in the bottom right of the alabaster), founded a few monasteries, churches and hospitals, and had a village named after him.
Some historians have suggested that Armel was in fact King Arthur, who headed over to Brittany after his abdication, though even among the New Age faithful, this theory does not seem to have gained traction. Another slightly more credible version is that his grandmother was Arthur’s sister.
The cult of St Armel flourished particularly in the reign of Henry VII, which is no doubt how a Breton saint came to be commemorated in Nottingham alabaster almost a millennium after his death. It’s a charming piece, found in a loft in Llangollen in north Wales about a hundred years ago by the then vicar of St Mary’s. He passed on a second piece to his brother, who was the vicar of Teddington at the time.
“It’s thought that they both came from an altar piece of a medieval church in Wales which was probably destroyed at the time of the reformation or during the civil war," according to Father Guy Pope, speaking a few years ago towards the close of his three decades as the vicar at St Mary’s.
“They were subsequently hidden and probably no one realised just what they were until the 20th century. There are traces of paint on it suggesting that it was originally highly painted which was a common practise.”
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Its home is in one of the more interesting Victorian churches in north London. St Mary Brookfield (not in Brookfield at all) was established as an 1870s breakaway from St Anne’s on Highgate West Hill (which is in Brookfield but now prefers to stake claim to Highgate).
It seems that St Anne’s wasn’t all that comfortable with kids from Highgate New Town who, according to one less-than-charitable account, "looked disagreeably, smelt disagreeably, and brought fleas into the church".
St Mary’s was from the start in the high church tradition, designed by the Gothic Revivalist architect so closely associated with the Oxford Movement, William Butterfield, and making use of his trademark polychrome style, that is the use of coloured bricks and stone to form geometric patterns.
Butterfield was pursuing his most renowned work – the design of Keble College, Oxford – at much the same time as he was working on St Mary’s, and there are striking similarities in architectural style.
As befits its high church and anti-elitist origins, St Mary’s was reputed to be the first church in the area to have free seating, with no private pews or pew rents. The roof was blown off and much of the stained glass destroyed during the Second World War, but it’s been well restored and is listed by Historic England as II*.
When some time back I asked Father Guy about the alabaster, he could recall just one previous enquiry about this religious artefact during his long years at Brookfield. His successor, Father Damien Mason, reports a modest upsurge of interest.
“We have had several people come to visit the church specifically to see the alabaster, including someone who has done quite a bit of work on the Welsh saint," he says.
If you want to make a pilgrimage to St Armel, St Mary’s website states that the church is normally open every day between 9am and 1pm, and there’s a community café three days a week.
Andrew Whitehead is the author of the Curious series of books about different localities of north London, including Kentish Town, Camden Town - both co-authored with Martin Plaut – King’s Cross and Crouch End.