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English Church Architecture -



KIRTLING, All Saints (TL 687 576)     (October 2004)

(Bedrock:  Upper Cretaceous, Upper Chalk)


This is one of the most rewarding churches in Cambridgeshire, memorable not for  the nobility of its architecture but for its many disparate features of interest and for the beautiful rural tranquillity of its situation.  Approached from a lane through the grounds of a house, it stands among trees and fields in a setting that can barely have changed in generations.  Nor is there any village at a distance - just a few scattered hamlets and isolated farms among gently rolling chalk hills.


In plan, All Saints' church consists of an angle buttressed W. tower rising in three stages, an aisled nave, a chancel, an independently-gabled S. chapel, a N. transept and a very humble N. porch.  The nave is six bays long but although the N. aisle and transept together extend the full distance, the S. aisle runs alongside just the four eastern bays and then incorporates a S. porch beside the fifth.  Except for the chapel, which is of brick, the building is constructed of flint and pebble rubble with limestone and clunch dressings.


The detailed examination of the building should probably begin with what is surely its best feature, namely the S. doorway (illustrated left). This is without doubt the finest Norman doorway to be found in any parish church in the county and one that is only bettered by the priest's doorway at Ely Cathedral.  The arch is decorated with billet moulding and two bands of chevron, one of which is carved in three dimensions on the angle, the jambs have two orders of shafts with chevron and cable moulding running vertically, and the tympanum is supported, not by a lintel but by two head corbels, still with good carved detail, and is itself decorated with a roundel depicting Christ in Majesty.  This also is well preserved, and so the doorway is both surprisingly rich and a wonderful discovery for the unsuspecting visitor.  The only other feature of the building that appears entirely consistent with this time is the little Norman window in the nave S. wall, west of the porch, but inside the building, the three western bays of the S. arcade (i.e. east of the doorway) are not much later, having the octagonal piers and double-flat-chamfered orders of the thirteenth century but retaining the round arches of the twelfth.  (See below right.) They were probably cut through the pre-existing nave wall c. 1200 but whether the arcade once extended in this form a further bay eastward to the line of the present chancel arch, is impossible to determine by visual inspection alone.


The chancel is Early English in its basic masonry although only one blocked lancet in the N. wall witnesses the fact.  However, there are also two lancets with chamfered surrounds in the N. transept E. wall - which may once have been the aisle E. wall before the transept was built.  Pevsner described the rest of the church as Perpendicular, but the easternmost arch of the S. arcade (which is separated from the three Transitional arches by about three feet of walling - see the photograph right) is stylistically still Decorated, being formed of two orders bearing hollow chamfers, with semicircular shafts supporting the inner order, but admittedly there are no windows that can be similarly ascribed.  Does this arch represent a fourteenth century extension of the nave or was a former Norman-Transitional bay subsequently replaced?  Could there even have been a S. transept for a time which required a new arch in this position?  The chancel arch appears contemporary or perhaps even a little earlier, for it has similar shafts but flat-chamfered mouldings.  Next in time come the tower W. window and the four windows in the N. aisle (one of which is shown left), all with two-lights and straightened reticulation units in the heads, a design that in East Anglia seems usually to indicate conservative late fourteenth century work (see Appendix 2), in which reticulated tracery was retained from the Decorated style but presented in a superficially Perpendicular manner.  Other windows in the church are mostly late Perpendicular or Victorian insertions but the square-headed two and three-light S. aisle windows of very domestic appearance, appear to be Tudor, which the curious three-light, untraceried window in the N. wall of the chancel most certainly is, with its carved spandrels and the initials E.N. and the date 1564  carved on it internally, in commemoration of Edward, the first Baron North, who died in that year.  He was treasurer of the court set up by Henry VIII to distribute the spoils from the dissolution of the monasteries and the church guide records that he "served [his] country in ways many and various".  Above all, however, he was able to serve himself, and thus he became extremely wealthy and able to build a great mansion at Kirtling (of which only the gatehouse survives) and to found the brick S. chapel (shown right, from the east), which by the time of his death was finished and ready to receive his body.  The chapel is embattled and constructed in English bond of the reddest brick.  It has two, three-light S. windows and a five-light E. window formed in moulded brick, all square-headed and transomed, the former blocked below the transoms and the latter, above.  The large tomb chest inside, however, commemorates his son Roger, the second baron: it is a huge and, to modern tastes, hideous affair in black and white marble, featuring a recumbent armour-clad effigy, his head on his helmet.


This, though, is to jump ahead, for well before the S. chapel in date is the attractive N. arcade (illustrated left).  This is probably contemporary with the N. aisle windows and is formed of arches of two orders bearing three hollow chamfers (two on the outer order) and of piers composed of four semicircular shafts separated by casements.  Between the N. aisle and N. transept there is only a half arch performing the function of a flying buttress.  To either side of the transept E. window is a pair of niches, those on the left (shown in the upper thumbnail on the right) being cinquefoil-cusped with an octagonal shaft between and a castellated superstructure exhibiting blank quatrefoils and cusped crosses, and those on the right with ogee arches and buttresses to either side and between.  Perhaps they can be ascribed to the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries respectively.  There is a two-bay arcade from the chancel to the S. chapel formed of double-flat-chamfered arches springing from a central octagonal pier and corbels at the ends.


The roofs need to be described briefly.  A gable line seen inside the building on the tower E. wall, shows the height of the former nave roof, but the present one, of king post construction, retains some mediaeval timbers even though it is the N. transept and N. aisle roofs that are of chief interest.  Of these, the former has wooden figure corbels supporting the wall posts and traceried spandrels above arched braces, while the latter has carved flower bosses and wall posts supported on stone corbels featuring a nice range of sculptured heads (seven altogether). (See the lower thumbnail on the right.)


Finally, there are two monuments against the chancel N. wall that require mention, both signed by John Evan Thomas (1810-73) (Rupert Gunnis, Dictionary of British Sculptors 1660-1851, The Abbey Library, 1951), and yet which stylistically could hardly be more different.  Thomas spent his early and later years in Breconshire but worked in between in London.  He was one of the original guarantors for the Great Exhibition, at which he exhibited a colossal statue, later erected in Cardiff, of John Crighton Stuart, Marquess of Bute (d. 1848) and husband of Lady Maria North (d. 1841), formerly of Kirtling. It is this same couple we see commemorated here, his monument (shown above left) crisp and detailed but also rather stiff, without figures and featuring a unicorn and a horse in a square surround with bowtells at the sides and drop tracery and brattishing above, and her monument (above right) featuring Lady North herself in delicately carved profile.