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English Church Architecture -

Cambridgeshire.

 

ISLEHAM, St. Andrew (TL 643 744)     (September 2005)

(Bedrock:  Upper Cretaceous, Lower Chalk)

 

The present W. tower (shown right, from the southeast) was constructed in 1863 to the designs of George Edmund Street (1824-81) as a replacement for one that had collapsed two years earlier.  The rest of the building consists of a chancel with N. vestry and an aisled nave with transepts and S. porch, and dates largely from the Decorated period, albeit that it was substantially remodelled one hundred and sixty years later in Perpendicular style when the present clerestory and nave roof were added.  Responsibility for this phase of building has been ascribed by some to John Wastell (fl. c. 1485 - d. 1515), one of the most important English architects of his generation, and although the attribution seems to depend almost wholly on a single feature, the work in this one particular is indeed almost identical to that by Wastell elsewhere, as will be seen below.

 

The earliest work at Isleham, however - apart from bits of twelfth and thirteenth century masonry remaining in the northeast and southwest nave angles - is the N. transept of c. 1300 and an original lancet in the N. aisle W. wall.  The transept has a Y-traceried W. window, a very tall three-light N. window with intersecting tracery, and a window formed of four cinquefoil-cusped lancets set in an encompassing arch to the east.

 

The chancel, vestry, aisled nave and S. transept, including the arcades to the height of the springing but now only a few of the windows, are part of the main reconstruction that appears to have taken place c. 1330, a date deduced from the Rochester Diocesan Registers (sic), which record that, “In 1331 Hamo, Bishop of Rochester, on Saint Luke’s Day, dedicated the church at Isleham, where he had rebuilt the chancel at his own expense, and, by the request of the monks of St. Edmund’s, held an ordination there on the Ember Day in Advent”.  The chancel retains two original, over-large two-light windows to the north and three to the south, all with reticulated tracery.   The piers of the five-bay aisle arcades are formed of four major and four minor shafts:  this is probably early fourteenth century work but, pace Pevsner, the arches of two orders above, bearing sunk quadrant mouldings, seem more likely to belong to the remodelling. The easternmost bay on each side communicates with the transept rather than the aisle, and the westernmost bay to the south appears to have been blocked off from the outset to form a priest’s chamber.  The chancel arch is similar to the arcade arches (but obviously taller), as is also the arch from the N. aisle to the N. transept.  However, the arch between the slightly narrower S. aisle and the S. transept bears two hollow chamfers carved at intervals with fleurons, and dies into the jamb to the south.  It seems possible this was the original form of the arcade arches.

 

The Perpendicular work at St. Andrew’s includes the S. porch, the nave above the aisle arcade capitals, and most of the building’s windows, notably the three-light, four-centred ones with supermullioned tracery comprising the clerestory.  These are noticeably much finer than the three-light untraceried windows in the N. aisle, which are Perpendicular certainly, but which appear to have been inserted some years earlier, at a time when funds were more limited.  The S. aisle has two, three-light supermullioned windows east of the porch, with supertransoms above the central lights and inverted daggers above lights 1 & 3.  The S. aisle, S. transept and nave to the south are embattled, whereas the N. aisle, N. transept and nave to the north are topped with plain parapets.  The S. transept windows now have supermullioned tracery and are three-light to the east and south and two-light to the west.  The restored, five-light chancel E. window (illustrated left) displays intersecting subarcuation with through reticulation, with inverted daggers above lights 1, 3 & 5, two tiers of reticulation units separated by castellated supertransoms above lights 2 & 4, and a group of four daggers in the window apex above light 3.  Inside the church, the elaborate decoration above the arcade spandrels is based on the repeated motif of a double-cusped quatrefoil in a circle, around and inside which are mouchettes, shields and rosettes.  (See below right and the thumbnail below left.)  The string course is carved with fleurons and is castellated above.  The porch, which is two-bays deep, is largely renewed externally and even patched in brick, but inside, the windows are set in their mediaeval arches, with sunk quadrant mouldings and side shafts. 

 

It is necessary to consider the extent to which these features support the supposition that Wastell was in charge of this remodelling.  Churches where he is known to have worked include Great St. Mary’s in the centre of Cambridge and those at Lavenham, Suffolk, and Dedham (on the W. tower) and Saffron Walden in Essex, while his non-parochial work includes the central tower at Canterbury Cathedral (“Bell Harry”), the retrochoir at Peterborough Cathedral, and the crowning fan vault at King’s College, Cambridge, together with other work there.  When these buildings are examined together, it is possible to draw up a list of elements commonly encountered in Wastell’s work.  They include:

  1. window traceries with supermullions splitting to form "Y"s;

  2. the unusual combination of trefoil-cusped lights with cinquefoil-cusped sublights;

  3. quatrefoil oculi;

  4. turreted towers and angle turrets to any part of the building to be emphasized;

  5. openwork parapets and battlements;

  6. compound arcade piers of lozenge section, with semicircular shafts to all four sides, separated by casements;

  7. decorated friezes immediately above the aisle arcades;

  8. carved decoration in the arcade and chancel arch spandrels, largely based on blank quatrefoils in circles;

  9. fan vaults for the most prestigious work, with four-centred arches separating the bays.

 

A comparison of this list with the Perpendicular work at Isleham, shows only numbers 7 and 8 really to be present, which might be thought to cast doubt on Wastell’s involvement.  However, when the arcade spandrels here are compared with those at St. Mary’s, Saffron Walden, then the work is seen to be so very similar that it is inconceivable that anyone could have designed the one without at least a close familiarity with the other.  At Saffron Walden, Wastell is known to have worked for a time with Simon Clerk, but Clerk died in 1489, which seems rather early for his association here since the roof is dated 1495.  The most logical conclusion then, is that Wastell was connected with this building at least for a short while, even if he did little more than provide designs for the internal carving.  Of course, if it could be proved that he did more, then it might be possible to augment the list of features representative of his work, given above.

 

At Isleham, the second most prominent Perpendicular feature is undoubtedly the handsome nave roof (shown right, from the east), yet this seems to owe much more to other local churches than to any known to be by Wastell. (Compare, for example, the nave roof at All Saints', Worlington in Suffolk, just across the nearby county border.) However, we know the date would fit for along the cornice runs the legend, “Pray for the good prosperite of Crystofor Peyton and Elizabethe hys wyf and for the sowle of Thomas Peyton sqwyer and Margarete hys wyf fader and moder of the seyd Crystofor Peyton and for the sowles of al the awncestre of the seyd Chrystofor Peyton qwych dyd mak thys rofe in the yere of owr Lord MCCCCLXXXXV  [1495]  being the X yere of King Herry VII”.  The whole thing is an excellent piece, some 47’ (14 metres) above the ground, in which single hammerbeams are alternated with castellated tie beams.  The latter support no less than seven pairs of queen posts each, rising to the principal rafters, and are decorated with carved faces.  The hammerbeams bear ten angels holding the Instruments of the Passion, four of which seem largely original.  The transept roofs are also well executed but dissimilar:  that to the north is flatter and divided into three bays whereas the S. transept roof is divided into four;  both are decorated with carving on the principal timbers.  The aisle roofs go with the nave roof and have figure corbels on the wall posts at the ends of the principal rafters.

 

At least the tower requires no speculation about its parentage for it is known to be by Street - or, at least, by someone in his office.  It was dismissed by Pevsner as “crude and insensitive”,  but while certainly not one of Street’s more inspired offerings, it scarcely warrants such invective, if only because it is actually a rather understated affair.  Tall but narrow, it rises to battlements and a short pyramidal roof behind, and has a semicircular projection to the southwest rising halfway up for the stair turret, two-light transomed bell-openings with reticulated tracery, and a three-light W. window with outer lights higher than the central light and a wheel of trefoils in the head.

 

Some of the church furnishings must be described next.  There is a piscina in the southeast angle of the chancel and a sedilia to the west, now undivided into bays, while of woodwork, there are several return stalls with misericords beneath the chancel arch, and the S. door ascribed to 1670.  The seventeenth century communion rails (illustrated left) are best described in Pevsner’s words: they are, “full of character [with] alternating turned balusters and a kind of stalactite and stalagmite forms nearly but not quite meeting. [There are] little pyramids on finials on the top rail.”  

 

The church contains a lot of monuments dating from the late fifteenth to early seventeenth centuries, of which only the most striking will be mentioned.  These include the fine canopied tomb chest set against the chancel N. wall, with traceried spandrels and blank cinquefoil-cusped arches inside at the back, and with brasses on the chest itself commemorating Thomas Peyton (d. 1484) and his two wives.  Two of Thomas’s descendants have been given still more expensive (and much less attractive) memorials in the S. transept, consisting of large tomb-chests with effigies on top, heavy canopies supported on bulging Corinthian columns, and achievements above those, sacred to the memory of Sir Robert Peyton (d. 1590) and Elizabeth Rich, his wife, and Sir John Peyton (d. 1620) and Alice Osborne, his wife.  Finally, brasses in the S. transept floor commemorate Sir John Bernard (d. 1451) and Ellen Malory, his first wife.