Beyond the nave is the chancel. The seclusion of this area in the medieval church was maintained by the rood screen, so called because it supported the Rood - a carved statue of Christ on the cross, flanked by the Virgin and Saint John the Evangelist, sometimes with supporting angels. The word comes from the Old English "rod", meaning "cross". Made of wood, the heavily painted and gilded screen usually ran across the width of the chancel arch.
The present chancel screen is not old, but dates from 1921. It was designed and installed by Fred Crossley, the Cheshire church-historian. The intricate carving survived the 1940 bomb damage.
The chancel, like the tower, is essentially that of Sir Hugh de Calveley's 1385 collegiate church. Only the roof is a little later, dating from 1520 when the chancel walls were heightened. It is still, however, the oldest roof in the church.
Chanters and Singers
Why did Sir Hugh de Calveley insist upon so large a chancel? The end of the 14th century, when Bunbury church was extensively rebuilt, was a period of recovery and expansion. More than a quarter of the population had died from the Black Death, the plague which swept across Europe from 1348 onwards, and forty years later society was only just returning to normal. Fashions changed, and churches all over the land were altered and enlarged to accommodate private, parochial and gild chapels. Most of these, like Bunbury, were in the new Perpendicular style.
The chancel in Sir Hugh's collegiate church was designed to provide room for a chantry staff of eleven - a master, a submaster, five chaplains, two chanters, and two singers. Their job was to pray for the souls of the king, Sir Hugh and their ancestors.
The new chancel was also the setting for Sir Hugh's magnificent alabaster chest tomb. The church was still unfinished at his death in 1394, when he was about 79 years old; his tomb was installed in 1416.
A warrior's Tomb for a Giant of a Man
This is the earliest alabaster tomb in Cheshire, made from stone quarried in Derbyshire but carved in London.
The effigy is not a faithful likeness of Sir Hugh, although he was undoubtedly very tall. Carving reached a high level of skill in this country in the 14th and 15th centuries, but more attention was paid to details of dress and armour than to faces. Traces of red and green paint which once covered the whole tomb are still visible. Damage to the tomb is mostly old: the graffiti were scratched by Civil War prisoners held in the church.
The spiked railings around the tomb, which are original, are called a "hearse'. The eight main spikes once held devotional candies, and, on special occasions today, still do.
Sir Hugh was a colourful character: while still young, he had fled the country after killing a man. From then on his life was to be one long adventure. A contemporary described him as "a man of teeth and hands, who could feed as much as two, and fight as much as ten". He fought all over France and Spain, sometimes for the English king, and sometimes as a mercenary. He survived a violent shipwreck, was captured and ransomed at least three times, was excommunicated by the Pope, was Governor of Calais and of the Channel Islands, and at last retired from battle when he was 60-70 years old. Only then did he decide to endow Bunbury Church.
Whether Sir Hugh is actually buried here is open to question. The "tomb" may be only a cenotaph, for a record from 1393, just one year before his death, refers to "John, son of John Whytemore [of Chester] being about to leave the country in the train [or armed band] of Hugh de Calveley, knight" Sir Hugh may have died, and been buried, abroad.
An Old Sea-Dog
Within the altar rails is the elaborate tomb of Sir George Beeston, restored to its original colours in 1937. He was a descendant of Sir Hugh de Calveley, who lived through the whole of the 16th century. He served four monarchs, was Admiral of the Fleet, and fought in many famous battles. Most outstanding was his part in the defeat of the Spanish Armada in 1588, when, as commander of the Dreadnought, along with four other ships, he broke the Spanish line. He was then 89, and was knighted for his services.
The High Altar
Since earliest times the altar has been an essential part - the heart - of the church. But in both construction and position the altar, too, has seen many changes. In Anglo-Saxon times it was of wood - a table symbolising the Last Supper. From 1076 it was decreed that altars be made of stone: some contained a concealed cavity for holy relics. At the Reformation (from 1538 onwards) altars reverted to being made of wood. Many stone altars were destroyed: that at Bunbury was reused as a stepping stone over the River Gowy, just below the church. The wooden altar was damaged by a land mine in 1940 and now stands in the north aisle.
The removal of the rood screen at the Reformation meant that the high altar needed alternative protection from irreverent people, and dogs. Although altar rails were first introduced in Elizabethan times, those at Bunbury date from the early 18th century. They have well-turned balusters, sufficiently close together to keep out dogs. A benefaction board, recording gifts to the parish, tells us that The Communion Table was railed out ... in the year of our salvation 1717".
On the south side of the chancel, to the right of the altar, and dating from the 14th century, are the sedilia. These canopied stone seats, in their Decorated niches, were for the clergy to sit in during long services.
Next to the sedilia is a double-drained piscina, also belonging to the 14th century. It was only rediscovered when the Victorians stripped off the plaster and whitewash accretions of centuries. The shallow stone basin allowed the holy water, used by the priest to wash both his hands and the vessels during Mass, to drain away into sanctified ground.
The East Window
The east window, behind the altar, predates the Black Death and Sir Hugh's collegiate church. In the Decorated style, it was reused from an earlier church. Compare it to the later Perpendicular windows in the aisles, for example: the stone tracery here is more complex and flowing. Fragments of medieval glass from a Jesse window (showing Jesus' family tree) were discovered beneath the floor nearby. This medieval stained glass window, dated 1343, survived until the mid-18th century, when "A great part of the east end was blown down in the Great Wind of the Spring".
Between then and 1840 the east window was blocked up, while the whole of the east end outside was covered in ivy. The present stained glass is modern. It was made in 1954 by Christopher Webb's studio, and incorporates local scenes.
While removing the ancient plaster on either side of the east window the Victorians uncovered two painted figures. On the left-hand side was an angel; and to the right, a child in arms, with the emblems of the Crucifixion - a hammer and pincers.