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English Church Architecture -



BURWELL, St. Mary (TL 589 660)     (January 2018 [sic])

(Bedrock:  Upper Cretaceous, Lower Chalk)


Burwell is a large village situated on chalk at the edge of the Cambridgeshire peat fens.  The material for nearly all the older buildings is a nice vernacular mix of wood, flint, gault bricks produced from the nearby gault clay, and clunch quarried from a narrow, hard seam of lower chalk known in Cambridgeshire as Burwell rock and in Bedfordshire as Totternhoe stone.  The use of clunch in Burwell may be seen in barns, a couple of which have recently been converted to houses, and in the interior of the church, the outside of which is constructed of flint.  Recent development has been considerable, but at least around the old part of the village to the south, it has been mostly in gault brick and generally sympathetic.


St. Mary's church (shown left from the northeast) consists in plan of a chancel, an aisled nave with N. and S. porches, and a W. tower with mediaeval vestry adjoining to the south that "perhaps formerly [was] a treasury" (Pevsner). A little of the original Norman tower remains, mostly reused, but otherwise this is a church not only deriving from a single build, but where, by long-standing tradition, the name of the master mason appears to be known.  He was Reginald Ely (c. 1415-1471), master mason at King's College Chapel at the time of this commission, and court architect to Henry VI, for whose queen (Margaret of Anjou) he built Queen's College, Cambridge (begun 1448).  That the parishioners of Burwell were able to afford his services suggests their relative affluence and the scale on which they wished to build.  What they got for their money was the finest parish church in Cambridgeshire in Perpendicular style, yet also one of considerable originality.  The design of the aisle window traceries - in which circles of four small daggers set diagonally, fill the spaces above tall ogee lights (see the photograph right) - may have been developed by Ely from earlier work at Great Shelford (completed in 1411) or Wingfield in Suffolk (where work was in progress in 1415), but he made it very much his own at King's College Chapel as well as here, and it continued to be used after his death, by John Melford, his one-time apprentice, who employed it at Cavendish and (less successfully) Long Melford in Suffolk. For the precise dating of the present work here at Burwell, there are two pieces of evidence available, the first being an inscription above the chancel arch on the E. side, giving the date "1461" ,and the other being the coat of arms of John Higham in the chancel, the vicar of this church from 1439-67.


Seen from the west, where the view is still largely open, Burwell church stands out impressively against the skyline.  It is entirely embattled and the tower is tall and turns octagonal at the bell-stage, as do so many Cambridgeshire church towers, influenced as they are by Ely Cathedral.  At Burwell, the tower is surmounted by a lantern with spirelet, and  an octagonal stair turret at the southwest angle projects above the battlements.  Internally, two restored Norman windows look into the nave above the tower arch.


The church is now entered through the N. porch.  This has five niches for statuettes above the outer doorway, three of which are canopied, and a fan vault inside.  The inner doorway is set in a square surround with traceried spandrels, and has an order of bowtells at the sides.


The interior of the church is spacious and cool, the result of the use of clunch and of the absence of heavy stained glass which could so easily have ruined the effect. The nave and aisles are five bays long and the chancel, three. The chancel and tower arches are of similar design to the nave arcades (the N. arcade is shown left), where the piers and responds are of overall rhomboidal section, with the addition of clusters of three bowtells towards the openings and single semicircular shafts towards the nave and aisles, separated by casements.  This is a section, as Birkin Haward pointed out, designed to combine the necessary width across the thickness of the wall, with "the least visual bulk and the greatest clear span between piers" (Suffolk Mediaeval Church Arcades, pub. Suffolk Institute of Archaeology and History, 1993).  The shafts towards the nave, rise up between the clerestory windows to corbels that give the appearance of supporting the wall posts of the roof above. (Structurally, the forces on them are slight or non-existent as the counter-thrust to the downward and outward pressure from the roof, is provided by the nave walls pushing in against the wall pieces from the sides.)  This is another design that John Melford would later use at Cavendish and elsewhere, but since at Burwell there are two clerestory windows per bay rather than one, further shafts have been added, to separate them, rising from the apices of the arcades below, and this, together with the relative softness of the Burwell rock, has led Ely on to cover the entire space beneath the clerestory with two tiers of cinquefoil-cusped blank arcading which, by extending down into the spandrels of the arcades, accentuates the element of verticality and adds to the sense of height. (Contrast this with the later work of John Wastell at Lavenham in Suffolk and Saffron Walden in Essex, which is more flamboyant but loses this emphasis.)  These tiers are separated above the chancel arch by a third featuring wheels of mouchettes and a wheel window in the centre that looks out above the chancel roof. 


In the chancel, the chalk has allowed the carving of elaborate niches between the windows, all different but all supported by large angel corbels (one of which is shown right).  The niches on either side of the E. window are especially large and grand, but all are of sufficient height for the tops of their canopies to be made to appear to support the wall posts of the roof, which in their turn are decorated with carved wooden figures.  The chancel roof is of low-pitched couple construction but the nave roof is supported by arched braces with openwork tracery in the spandrels.  The wall plates here, in the chancel and the aisles, are decorated with carved figures and animals.


Roofs apart, however, the church contains no old woodwork of importance, nor any really significant monuments.  By far the biggest of these is to be found in the N. aisle, commemorating Thomas and Alice Gerard (d. 1608) and featuring two kneeling figures facing east, with their hands clasped in prayer, and a long inscription in Latin.