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English Church Architecture -

Bedfordshire Central (U.A.).


EATON BRAY, St. Mary (SP 970 207)          (June 2003)

(Bedrock:  Lower Cretaceous, Upper Greensand Formation)


Standing on glacial head above upper greensand, this church (shown left, from the northeast) is built of Totternhoe stone dug from the extensive quarries in the lower chalk, a mile and a half to the north.  Seen from outside it is an undistinguished building with windows in an assortment of minor Decorated and Perpendicular styles, but inside it is made memorable by the way in which the softness of the clunch has been exploited, not to create a display of decorative work above the nave arcades, as, for example, at Burwell in Cambridgeshire or Saffron Walden, Essex, but in the elaborate treatment of the nave arcades themselves.


In fact, St. Mary's, Eaton Bray, notwithstanding its modest size, has probably the best Early English interior of any church in Bedfordshire with the single possible exception of St. Mary's, Felmersham.  This is due entirely to the five-bay arcades, the north one especially.  The precise dating of these is debateable, Pevsner considering the S. arcade to be the earlier and the church guide (correctly in this writer’s opinion), the opposite, but both are thirteenth century work.  The S. arcade (illustrated in the first thumbnail below left) is composed of arches bearing two orders of hollow chamfers with broaches, supported on octagonal shafts whose capitals provide the interest with their prominent stiff leaf decoration.  The N. arcade (below right) is much more ornate, and about as rich as one might see anywhere.  Here the arches bear no less than six orders of deeply-carved rolls, and the piers consist of clusters of four greater and four lesser shafts, some so hollowed out behind as to be almost detached and all of them with capitals displaying the most exuberant of stiff leaf (second thumbnail below left).  This arcade rests on a respond to the east and a carved corbel to the west, and fragments of masonry in the N. wall of the aisle opposite suggest half arches might once have crossed it, to act as flying buttresses.  Perhaps these were never finished, but the majority of what was done appears to have been at the expense of William de Cantelupe, who was awarded the manor by King Stephen in 1205.  What remains is thus partly a monument to him and partly a celebration of Totternhoe stone.


As for the rest of the building, the present chancel arch fits the late fourteenth century best (it bears two sunk quadrant mouldings, for the dating of which see Appendix 2 and the entry for Balsham, Cambridgeshire), while the chancel itself now appears chiefly fifteenth century work although a nice thirteenth century piscina in the S. wall suggests its dimensions remain unchanged from that time.  The chancel is skewed slightly to the south in plan, and the shape of the nave aisles also requires comment, for they are wider along the three eastern bays than along the western two, creating spaces for two-bay chapels and porches immediately west, an unusual arrangement in the Middle Ages, whatever its precise date.


Finally, mention must be made of the important circular thirteenth century font that stands in the S. aisle, on five columns with more stiff leaf.  The S. door is also noteworthy, for although it is new, the exceptional thirteenth century ironwork of its predecessor has been reinstalled.