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English Church Architecture -



BALSHAM, Holy Trinity (TL 588 509)     (September 2003)

(Bedrock:  Upper Cretaceous, Upper Chalk)


The W. tower comes first (shown left), being clearly of thirteenth century date.  The restored bell-openings still have plate tracery and there are lancets piercing the second stage, both to the west and south.  The two to the west are now separated by a massive buttress built against the centre of the wall.  To the north, a similarly placed buttress is marked with the initials "T.S." and the date 1589, recording the attempt at that time to make up for the deficiencies of the tower's inferior masonry.  The tower was obviously still standing in the 1970s when it was bonded to a concrete shell constructed internally, but the ungainly buttresses were then considered due little of the credit for it.  The tower arch has three hollow-chamfered orders and springs from semi-quatrefoil responds.  Conceivably it was reworked in Decorated times for hollow chamfers are not common in Cambridgeshire before c. 1300.


The chancel appears to derive from Decorated times.  The five-light E. window with reticulated tracery, though now partly renewed, could serve as an exemplar of its type. Unfortunately the other chancel windows are all of restoration date, including the misleading clerestory windows each composed of a pair of lancets.  However, a drawing by the Cambridgeshire antiquary, William Cole, sketched c. 1740, shows that the chancel had a clerestory then too, albeit of a different design, which is an unusual conceit for a church without side chapels.


A brass in the chancel floor commemorates 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 - although this clearly only really means the nave and aisles - and for the [re]furnishing of the chancel.  As Pevsner has pointed out, the aisle windows (a S. aisle window is illustrated right) have a distinctly fifteenth century appearance with their four-centred arches, strong mullions, and supertransoms above the central lights, but John Harvey (writing in The Perpendicular Style, pub. Batsford, 1978) traced the origin of the particular form of the last, which are 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.  The arcades at Balsham (which are six bays long) consist of arches bearing two sunk quadrants, springing from piers composed of four semi-octagonal shafts separated by hollows.  The chancel arch is taller and wider but otherwise similar.  Presumably this also was a style considered quite up-to-date c. 1390 and it suggests caution against accepting too early a date for the sunk quadrant moulding elsewhere, which some writers,  Pevsner among them, are sometimes willing to place well back in Decorated times. 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 (shown, left, as thumbnails). Unfortunately Sleford's clerestory has for some reason been replaced by a most inadequate, flimsy structure in gault brick: the windows are still in keeping with those to the aisles and may be closely modelled on the originals, but internally the clerestory walls stand to only half the thickness of the arcade walls below, giving the meanest of impressions in what is in other respects, a quite stately building.


The church woodwork requires detailed examination.  In particular, twenty-six seats provided by Sleford remain in the chancel (the N. stalls are shown right), all different from each other and all originally misericords even though many have been subsequently 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 seeming 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 left), 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 by having twenty-one inches let into the mullions.


Holy Trinity was restored in 1870 under the general direction of William Butterfield (1814 - 1900).  Although there is very little here that shows his style, the communion rail (shown below) and altar are the exceptions, both having been made to his designs.  They are quite typical and show how some of his work anticipates the Arts & Craft movement that by this date was just getting underway (although it had yet to acquire this name).  At the W. end of the nave, the font cover is by John Burrell, rector from 1910-1935 and obviously an outstanding carpenter.  It is exceedingly 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, and John Sleford, together with various saints.  It is hung from a pulley attached to the nave roof and counterbalanced by a First World War howitzer shell set within the upper part.