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English Church Architecture -

Bedford (U. A.).

 

FELMERSHAM, St. Mary (SP 991 579)     (July 2009)

(Bedrock:  Middle Jurassic, Great Oolite Group)

This is Bedfordshire's premier church in thirteenth century style and although not especially large, judged in terms of ambition it aspires to an almost abbey-like status, as a view of the west front (above) shows.  Its architectural effectiveness is also due to the relative lack of later alterations and additions, which are confined to the present bell-stage of the tower, the S. porch, the nave clerestory, and a number of windows elsewhere.  Nineteenth and twentieth century restoration to the Early English fabric, which is apparent in many places externally, has otherwise been true to the original work, at least in spirit, even if it is not always possible to tell whether it has been true in specific details.  The church is best described outside, then in, beginning with an external anticlockwise circuit commencing from the west, where the ground drops away very steeply to the road below.

 

The church is cruciform in plan and so the W. front presents the W. wall of the nave with its narrow aisles alongside. The aisles have small lancets at this end, with a complex moulding round their heads, rising from an order of colonnettes below.  However, the nave presents three tiers of (admittedly now restored) display on a grandiose scale, held between prominent angle buttresses and beginning below with a W. doorway flanked by two-light blank arches with plate tracery and two orders of colonnettes.  If this can be trusted, then it probably provides a valuable clue for dating, for plate tracery generally gave way to bar tracery around 1245.  The central doorway has no less than seven orders of shafts, supporting an astonishingly rich array of keeled rolls.  This is extravagant work which was obviously executed by a mason of unusual ability, regardless of expense.  The tier of display above comprises a seven-bay blank arcade distinguished by groups of four completely detached shafts supporting a complex arrangement of similarly detached mouldings based loosely on dog-tooth and rolls with fillets.  Finally, the upper tier of windows, though obviously of post-clerestory date (an unavoidable conclusion which Pevsner seems to have overlooked), is very much in keeping with the work elsewhere, save only in the Perpendicular form of the three cinquefoil-cusped central lights separated by strong mullions, for the one-light windows on either side are tall narrow lancets divided from the central window by groups of three colonnettes in shaft-rings.  If this is fifteenth century work, it was peculiarly sensitive for its day to the style of an earlier age, while if it is Victorian, a similar observation remains applicable.  (The steeply-pitched, pre-clerestory nave roof-line may still be seen fosslized in the tower W. wall, as illustrated in the thumb-nail illustration below left.)

 

The S. aisle is lit today by two inserted square-headed windows with reticulated tracery, one on either side of the porch which, for its part, was reconstructed in 1828.  The S. transept beyond (seen left, from the southeast) is curiously formed of a shallow cross-gabled section of reduced depth, emerging (as it were) through another section behind of lean-to construction, as if the original intention had been to embrace the tower on this side with a continuation of the aisle.  This odd arrangement manifests itself inside the church in half-arches crossing the tower each side of the cross-gabled section, which divide it off from a short remnant of the lean-to section further east. (See the photograph bottom right, viewed from the northwest.) Pevsner assumed these complexities were all part of the original scheme for the church, which had been deliberately planned in this way to provide a tiny transept chapel. However, this explanation is not entirely convincing for while the S. transept S. window does appear roughly contemporary with the crossing behind (having plate tracery formed of two lancet lights and an oval above and between), it nevertheless seems improbable that the intention of the builders at the outset was to construct a cruciform church with north and south arms of such markedly unequal length.  (The N. transept is about 15' longer than the S. transept and of simple rectangular plan.)  

 

The tower (shown right, from the northeast, and in the thumbnail below left, from the northwest) rises in five stages, the lowest of which corresponds in height with the walls of the transepts and chancel, and the second, with their roofs, after which there follows a very short third stage pierced by two narrow lancets to north and south, between which, on the S. side, the clock is now set.  The fourth stage comprises the original bell-stage, which features two-light bell-openings set in encompassing arches flanked by blank arches to east and west, and two, one-light bell-openings occupying the central bays of four-bay blank arcades to north and south.  The topmost stage of the tower is the later Perpendicular bell-stage, which seems likely to be of late fourteenth century date to judge by its two-light bell-openings with straightened reticulation units. (See Appendix 2 for some close dated examples of this tracery shape in eastern counties.) The tower is surmounted by battlements and a square embattled stair turret rises higher than the tower itself at the southeast angle and is prominent against the skyline.

 

The long chancel is constructed in three wide bays lit by a single lancet in each, with dog-tooth moulding around the S. arches only and shafts at the sides.  The church guide claims three of these windows are Victorian though that is not evident externally, but the attractive but incongruous five-light E. window with a form of reticulated tracery, does appear to be nineteenth century work.  The view of the church from the northeast is distinguished by the octagonal rood stair turret with conical roof, which rises in the re-entrant between the chancel and transept (and seen above right).  The N. transept is lit by a lancet to the east and, to the north, a group of three lancets with a modern wheel window above.  The N. aisle is pierced only by two, three-light Perpendicular windows, with supermullioned tracery and strong mullions beneath four-centred arches.  The nave clerestory is composed of four pairs of three-light windows without tracery, beneath very depressed arches.

 

Returning now to the S. side of the building, to enter through the porch inner door (seen left), this proves to be another splendid entrance, with six orders of attached colonnettes (four principal shafts and two subsidiaries) supporting an elaborate series of rolls with fillets around the arch. A statuette occupies a niche above, with a roll moulding around that, supported on detached shafts.  The rere-arch to the doorway (right) - which is obviously taller to allow the free inward opening of the door - is triangular-pointed with mouldings supported on tall recessed shafts like the similar rere-arch to the W. doorway and the shorter rere-arch over the much humbler N. doorway, albeit that in the latter case, there is also a hood-mould replete with head label stops.

 

The nave arcades (seen below from the west) are four bays long and composed of arches of two orders bearing a flat chamfer on the inner order and a complex arrangement of rolls on the outer order, springing from piers and responds with prominent capitals, alternately circular and octagonal in section, beginning from the west with a semicircular respond to the S. arcade and a semi-octagonal respond to the N. arcade.  However, one's immediate attention is drawn not to these but to the massive arches of the crossing, of which the flat-chamfered inner order of the west arch (nave arch) now rises from corbel shafts, a feature that may or may not be original, while the outer orders bearing a complex series of rolls, are supported on semicircular shafts below.  The north and south (transept) arches are similar to this except that they rise from three full orders of shafts and are flat-chamfered on their outermost order also.  The east (chancel) arch is like the west arch except that here, the innermost order seems to have been cut off below when the rood screen was added, most probably in the fifteenth century.  (See the photograph below, showing the W. arch from the nave, and the photograph below left, showing the junction between the N. and E. arches, from the crossing.) 

Surprisingly after all this, the church is almost entirely devoid of significant monuments or important woodwork, with the single exception of the rood screen between the crossing and the chancel, which - though repainted and probably restored - is essentially old and certainly attractive, even if Pevsner's description of it as "exceptionally beautiful" is, perhaps, a little excessive.  An inscription on the screen reads "Pray for the souls of Richard Kynge and his wife Annette, builders of this work". 

 

Finally, three other internal features of the building to mention briefly include the fact that the windows in the nave W. wall are separated by shafts in shaft-rings, while at their springing level on either side, there are massive corbels which appear to take the form of a bear and an eagle. The chancel is now particularly bare having been heavily restored internally in 1854, but it does retain a double piscina with Y-tracery and an octagonal central shaft recessed in the S. wall of the sanctuary.  The seventeenth century clock mechanism to be found in the W. end of the S. aisle, is believed to have come from St. Peter's church, Sharnbrook. The clock here at Felmersham (in the S. wall of the tower) is a nineteenth century addition.