( back to home page)

English Church Architecture.

 

BALSHAM, Holy Trinity  (TL 588 509),

CAMBRIDGESHIRE. 

(Bedrock:  Upper Cretaceous, Upper Chalk.)

 

A large and significant village church

where the nave and aisles are close-dated to the 1390s.

 

The W. tower comes first however, being clearly of early to mid thirteenth century date.  The restored bell-openings (seen left) display what Pevsner described as 'a curious stage of transition between plate and bar tracery' (in the 'Cambridgeshire' volume of The Buildings of England, Harmondsworth, Penguin, 1970, p. 295)  and there are lancets piercing the second stage to the west and south.  The two west lancets are now separated by a massive buttress built against the centre of the wall, and a similar buttress built against the N. wall is marked with the initials 'T.S.' and the date '1589', recording an attempt at that time to make up for the deficiencies of the tower's inferior masonry.  Almost four centuries later (in 1970), in a further move to shore up the building, the tower was bonded to an internal concrete shell, but the ungainly buttresses were then considered due little of the credit for its survival hitherto.  The tower arch carries three hollow-chamfered orders and springs from semi-quatrefoil responds.  Conceivably it was remodelled in Decorated times for hollow chamfers are not common in Cambridgeshire before c. 1300.

 

The chancel is early fourteenth century work however, and the five-light E. window with reticulated tracery, though now partly renewed, could serve as an exemplar of this most typical of Decorated forms.  Unfortunately the other chancel windows have all been renewed, including the misleading clerestory windows composed of lancet pairs.  However, a drawing by William Cole, the Cambridgeshire antiquary, executed c. 1740, shows that the chancel had a clerestory then too, albeit of a different design, which is an unusual conceit in a chancel without side chapels.

 

So the nave and aisles, but notice first the brass in the chancel floor commemorating John Sleford, a former rector who also held the posts, among others, of Canon of Ripon, Archdeacon of Wells, and Chaplain to the Queen.  Sleford died in 1401 and the inscription declares that it was he who paid for the building of the church ('ecclesiam struxit').  Pevsner was puzzled by this for the chancel is too early and the aisle windows suggested to him a fifteenth century date.  (See the typical S. aisle window, on the right.)  John Harvey however, writing in The Perpendicular Style (London, Batsford, 1978, pp. 139 & 142) traced the origin of the particular form, in which the supertransom above the central light is unsupported by archlets below, from the gatehouse of Thornton Abbey, Lincolnshire, under construction between 1382 and 1389.  Sleford, of course, would have been well-placed to know about recent developments in architectural fashion.  Inside the church, the six-bay nave arcades are formed of arches bearing two sunk quadrants, springing from piers composed of four semi-octagonal shafts separated by hollows, so presumably this was also a style considered up-to-date c. 1390 and it suggests one should exercise caution against accepting too early a date for the sunk quadrant moulding elsewhere, which some writers,  Pevsner among them, have been willing to place well back in Decorated times (i.e. the first half of the fourteenth century).  Above the arcades at Balsham are dripstones with especially nicely carved head label stops, of which two more terminate the hood-mould of the S. porch inner doorway.  Unfortunately Sleford's clerestory has for some reason been replaced by a most inadequate, flimsy structure in gault brick:  the clerestory windows are still in keeping with those to the aisles and may be closely modelled on the originals, but the clerestory walls now stand to only half the thickness of the arcade walls below, giving the meanest of impressions in what is in other respects, quite a stately building.

 

The church woodwork is interesting.  In particular, twenty-six seats provided by Sleford remain in the chancel (see the N. stalls, left), each different from the others and all of which were originally misericords even though many have subsequently been fixed down.  The arm rests at two levels were for use when sitting at the lower level or when perched on the ledge beneath the upturned seat (and thus appearing to stand).  They are carved with a miscellany of birds, animals and figures, ranging from monks to devils and monkeys to pelicans.  The desks have holes, probably for candles, and the graffiti of the centuries.  Six of the seats, all still hinged, back against the rood screen (illustrated right), with which they are contemporary.  The loft above is an addition of some fifty years later and the whole screen was heightened in the 1870s when twenty-one inches were let into the mullions.

 

Holy Trinity was restored in 1870 under the general direction of William Butterfield (1814 - 1900) and although there is very little here indicative of  his style, the communion rail and altar (shown below) are the exceptions, having both been constructed according to his designs.  They show how some of his work anticipates the Arts & Craft movement which was just getting underway (although it had yet to acquire this name).   The font cover over the font at the W. end of the nave is by John Burrell, rector from 1910-1935, who was obviously an outstanding carpenter.  It is exceptionally tall and composed of the most intricate openwork tracery, with figures in niches round the cover, including Hugh of Balsham, Bishop of Ely from 1258 to 1286 and founder of Peterhouse College, Cambridge, John Sleford, and various saints.  It is hung from a pulley attached to the nave roof and counterbalanced by a First World War howitzer shell within the upper part.