Well, clearly not this 12th century Romanesque font at the Basilica of Ss Frediano e Tommaso, Lucca, Italy, especially with incorruptible eye of Saint Zita keeping watch from the altar of the adjacent chapel. However, the recent consistory court judgement Re St Peter Shipton Bellinger  Winchester Const Ct, Christopher Clark Ch. reminded us of how frequently the issue of burying unwanted fonts arises churches’ plans for reordering, and almost invariably this aspect of the petitions is turned down. Nevertheless, taking this case as an example, it is worthwhile discussing the origins of this practice and other occasions on which this disposal route has been sought.
Why and when were fonts buried?
Fonts are often the oldest surviving part of a church, and an awareness of potential mis-matches between plinth and bowl leads might lead one to question “what happened to the other parts of the original font?” However, it is important to place this in the context of changes in baptismal practice: in the early church, total immersion required fonts which were large basins set below ground level, and it was not until the early Middle Ages when infant baptism by immersion (i.e. partial submersion) and affusion (pouring Holy Water over the head) became general practice, rather than (total) submersion.
Stancliffe notes that the practice of sprinkling in the 18th century, when a few drops of water was considered sufficient, required fonts “no bigger than the holy water stoups of the churches of Italy” and “[t]his is a tradition continued by the supply of so-called ‘portable fonts’, which range in size from a salad-bowl to a complete miniature mediaeval font in plaster of Paris with a bowl no bigger than an ashtray“.
A quick Google scan of the on-line information on the burial of fonts gives a couple of pointers. In his book Fonts and Font Covers, published in 1908, Francis Bond suggests that in the case of pre-conquest fonts:
“Just as the Anglo-Saxon church gave way to a Norman church, so as a rule a Norman font would replace the Anglo-Saxon font. As for the rude old font, it would no doubt be turned out of the church; it might linger for a time in the churchyard, or be turned to domestic purposes, or be broken up; the old men had little respect for their predecessors’ work at any time, and none when it was bad work.
Therefore it seems probable that if they were carefully looked for in vicars’ backyards, coach-houses, rockeries, and the like, and at the farms and cottages, a very considerable number of fonts might be recovered, which may have been in use in the days of the venerable Anglo-Saxon Church.”
A more recent consideration of the practice of burying fonts is included in Mark Douglas’ thesis, in which he draws upon the work of Norman Pounds and David Stocker. Pound notes the social importance of baptism and the sanctity of the font for ordinary people in the late Middle Ages, , [added emphasis]:
“At the beginning of their lives they had all been brought to the church to be baptised at the font which stood just within the main entrance. This was something more than a link with the past, for previous generations had all been dipped in the consecrated water of that font, and in the future their own children would submit, no less noisily than they had done, to the same ritual. It stood as a symbol of the continuity of life. They would never let it be destroyed, and if it had to be replaced, it would most likely be buried in consecrated ground.”
Stocker’s work considers the ritual burial and reuse of fonts in Lincolnshire parish churches, and in contrast to Bond suggests that prior to the Reformation none of those studied seem to have been deliberately discarded or reused for profane purposes, stone fonts appearing to possess a `special’ status. He indicates two distinct forms of symbolic burial of font stones: burial below floor level, the preferred method for font disposal in the earlier part of the period; and a later approach in which the font bowl is deliberately left visible, either by being inverted and used as a `base or plinth’ for its replacement, or with the bowl left protruding from the ground and having a later font physically stood within it.
An example of the latter is St Andrew, Ewerby, Lincolnshire, here, which Betjeman describes as a “14th century font … contemporary with the church, but appears to be mounted on the inverted bowl of a Norman font”. Stocker suggests that the burial of an older font beneath or near the new font that replaced it may have symbolized the tradition and continuity of baptismal rites belonging to the church. Douglas comments that there are aspects of this burial and reuse which strongly parallel the symbolic reuse of earlier doorways in later parish church rebuilding.
The CRSBI, (Corpus of Romanesque Sculpture in Britain & Ireland) website identifies the font at Ewerby as an example of the seldom recorded medieval practice of font burial, and in addition to this example, there are four other instances of font burials in the county at Bassingham, Cabourne, Covenham St Mary, and Folkingham, and a further seven sites in Lincolnshire where parts of older fonts are reused as part of a newer font.
Whilst we would not attempt to draw conclusions from this cursory skim through literature of an area quite outside our “comfort zone”, the above comments give some reasons why font were buried or reused during “Middle Ages reordering”, and indicate different practices in how this was undertaken.
Fonts and ecclesiastical law
Canon F 1 Of the font provides that:
“1. In every church and chapel where baptism is to be administered, there shall be provided a decent font with a cover for the keeping clean thereof.
2. The font shall stand as near to the principal entrance as conveniently may be, except there be a custom to the contrary or the Ordinary otherwise direct; and shall be set in as spacious and well-ordered surroundings as possible.
3. The font bowl shall only be used for the water at the administration of Holy Baptism and for no other purpose whatsoever.”
Much of the ecclesiastical case law relating to fonts addresses issues of their location and whether it is permissible to have two fonts within a church: Re St Michael and All Angels Edenham  Lincoln Cons Ct, Mark Bishop Ch.; Re St Mary Lenham  Canterbury Cons Ct, Morag Ellis Comm. However, some judgements specifically address the disposal of unwanted fonts. In Re St Peter, Draycott  3 W L R 248 the Court of Arches heard the successful appeal of the Victorian Society against the decision of the Bath and Wells consistory court; the consistory court had granted permission to sell the font from a Grade II listed church, either to a public body or by public auction, [photo here]. The context of this proposed disposal was:
- the font had been in place since the consecration of the church;
- although large and ornate, the font was the work of a celebrated Victorian architect, here;
- regardless of the method by which the font was attached to the floor of the church, the principles applicable were those relating to the disposal of chattels under St Gregory, Tredington
- the Arches Court rejected the view of the CBC that the sacramental nature of the font meant that it could never be sold or disposed of for another use
In this case, the Arches Court held that the Chancellor had been wrong to conclude that: although the parish faced “substantial expenditure” this did not amount to a “financial emergency” appropriate to demonstrate a “good and sufficient ground” for the purpose of the question or the proof of a “compelling financial reason amounting to a necessity” for those purposes.
In Re All Saints Winterton  Lincoln Cons Ct, Mark Bishop Ch, as part of an extensive reordering for which a faculty had been granted, (Faculty 3808), it was intended to move a medieval font to the current location of an Edwardian font in the church. The Victorian Society objected to these proposals in general, and in particular to the burial of the Edwardian font beneath the re-sited medieval font. The case is interesting as it demonstrates the changing fortunes of the various fonts at this church. The judgement explains:
“2. The medieval font was thrown out of the church, it is assumed, during the time of the Commonwealth in the 1650’s and was lost until 1952 when it was found in a local garden and given back to the church. This font is currently located in the south transept mounted on a Romanesque capital. The font is 13th century and octagonal. It has been used for baptisms since 2000.
3. At the time of the Restoration a new font was commissioned in 1663 and this font was used until 1903 when Miss Fowler donated a new font and the 17th century font was given away. The Edwardian font has local significance because it was donated by a parishioner, and of course has been used for baptisms for about 100 years. The view of the Petitioners is that the steps on which it is mounted are a hazard.”
The Chancellor indicated that a proposal might be worked up to place the Edwardian font in another location in the church, where it would not be used as a font but could ‘co-exist peacefully’ with the medieval font. If this was not practical or desired, then new plans could be placed before him for the removal of the font from the church to store or to another church. As a consequence and using his powers under the paragraph 19.3 (1)(a) Faculty Jurisdiction Rules 2013, the Chancellor directed that in respect of Faculty 3808, that part of the Schedule which states “and Edwardian font to be buried within the church” shall be deleted from the Schedule of works authorised.
Re St Peter, Shipton Bellinger
The Rector and Churchwardens petitioned for a faculty to authorise the removal of a large Victorian font and its platform, pictured, from a position near to the main church door of a small medieval church and the placing of a new, much smaller font of Purbeck stone at the east end of the nave. It was suggested that the existing font was: offered for sale; given to another church or chapel; or failing these options, be buried in a convenient place in the churchyard.
Only two aspects of ecclesiastical law were considered by the court in relation to the disposal of fonts: the Court of Arches judgement in Re St Peter, Draycott, above, and of the relevant Canon. With regard to the latter, the DAC stated that it did not recommend the destruction of fonts, and stated the direction given by their ecclesiastical lawyers that
“In accordance with Canon Law F3 [presumably Canon F1 §3], the font bowl shall only be used for water at the administration of Holy Baptism and for no other purpose whatsoever. If it is not possible to locate the existing font within the Church or have the font used for baptism by another church or have the font stored securely, then the last resort would be to bury the font in the churchyard. We make parishes aware of the need to consider the future of the existing font, when the very rare instance of a parish wishing to introduce a new font occurs and encourage them to consider its accommodation as part of a faculty application”.
The Chancellor granted a Faculty. As to a proposal to bury the old font, the Chancellor did not consider that appropriate and made the faculty subject to the following conditions: “(a) every reasonable attempt should be made to transfer the font to another church or chapel, (b) failing such transfer, museums should be contacted, (c) failing a museum, sale on the open market should be considered, (d) whatever disposal is contemplated, my prior consent will be required.”
So the answer to the question in the title of this piece is “some used to bury them”, but now, despite a chink of flexibility from some DACs, consistory courts seem very reluctant to permit the practice. Although it has its origins in theology and spiritual anthropology, present day restrictions appear to be achieved through a creative interpretation of Canon F 1 §3 which places limits the use of the font bowl: clearly, a strict reading would also preclude their use as a plinth for a replacement font.
We understand that the Winchester Diocesan Registry has now been informed by the Victorian Society that it intends to appeal the judgement.
 S Friar, Companion to Churches, (2011, The History Press, Stroud, Gloucestershire), 201.
 D Stancliffe, Baptism and Fonts  3 Ecc LJ (14) 141-148.
 F Bond, Fonts and Font Covers, (OUP, 1908).
 M Douglas: ‘The archaeology of memory: an investigation into the links between collective memory and the architecture of the parish church in late medieval Yorkshire, Durham theses, Durham University’, pages 90-91: (PhD thesis, University of Durham, 2003): Available at Durham E-Theses Online: http://etheses.dur.ac.uk/1260/1/1260.pdf.
 NJG Pounds, The Culture of the English People: Iron Age to the Industrial Revolution, (CUP, 1994).
 D Stocker, (1997) “Fons et Origo: the symbolic death, burial and resurrection of English font stones”, (1997), 1 Church Archaeology, 17-25.
 J Betjeman, Best British Churches, (updated R Surman, Collins, 2011), page 398.