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English Church Architecture -



KIRKBY STEPHEN, St. Stephen (NY 775 088)     (April 2009)

(Bedrock:  Permian, Penrith Sandstone)

This is a substantial town church (shown above, from the south) where most of the architectural interest is to be found inside.  The exterior is attractive but largely renewed although the fine broad tower, rising in two stages to battlements and pinnacles at the corners and mid-points of the walls, is still essentially Perpendicular.  It retains its original W. doorway with shields in the spandrels, its three-light W. window with supermullioned tracery, and its two, two-light bell-openings in each wall, with supermullioned tracery and ogee-pointed hood-moulds suggesting a late fifteenth or early sixteenth century date when curvilinear forms were re-entering Britain from the Low Countries.  (In fact, Pevsner declared the date of the tower to be “c. 1506”  while the very inadequate leaflet about the building, available in the church, suggests “about 1550”.) 


The rest of St. Stephen’s consists of a steeply-pitched grey-stone chancel with shorter, two-bay chapels, and a red Permian sandstone nave with aisles, transepts and S. porch.  Windows are an assortment but consist of lancets in the sanctuary (i.e. beyond the chapels) and W. wall of the N. transept, and three-light, square-headed supermullioned windows in the aisles.  The clerestory windows are two-light, square-headed and untraceried except for the westernmost on each side, which has three lights.  However, only the N. transept lancets appear to pre-date the restoration of the building, carried out in stages between 1847 and 1871.  The transepts are of equal length and the N. chapel, only slightly narrower than the S. chapel, but the N. aisle is little more than a third the width of the S. aisle, which gives the church an unbalanced appearance from the west and even more so within.


In fact, as one enters the church after a circumnavigation of the outside, one half expects to find that, with the exception of the W. tower, this is entirely a Victorian building.  It soon demonstrates it is not, for the majority of the interior is thirteenth century in date and distinctly impressive in addition.  The seven-bay nave arcades (shown above, from the west) are characteristic of the Early English style, composed of double-flat-chamfered arches supported on circular piers with octagonal abaci - a form that could be as early as c. 1220.  Bays 1 to 6 from the west seem to vary slightly in width but the difference becomes dramatic with the easternmost bay, which is not only much narrower than the others but also a little taller, giving the arch a lancet-pointed (rather than two-centred) shape. Presumably there was once a reason for these discrepancies but it is not easy to guess what it might have been unless a reduction in the width of this bay was necessary for structural reasons when the transepts were added later. The latter open directly into the nave after the intervention of short wall pieces and the floor has risen the height of one step, through double-chamfered arches springing from semi-quatrefoil responds.  (See the photograph below left, taken from the northeast, showing the W. respond of the arch from the nave to the S. transept, together with part of the S. arcade and the arch from the S. transept to the S. aisle.)  That might suggest they are later, say c. 1270-90.  The very wide arch between the S. transept and the S. aisle, is also double-chamfered but supported on semi-octagonal responds with particularly prominent capitals. This may be fourteenth century work.  The N. transept has a niche in its E. wall which might once have functioned as a reredos. The tower arch is tall and formed of two flat-chamfered orders, the outer of which is continuous down the jambs.  The chancel and chapels are almost wholly Victorian but the restorers have re-set the thirteenth century trefoil-cusped piscina and three-bay stepped sedilia in the S. wall of the former (illustrated in the thumbnail, below right), and they are attractive survivals even if they are a little awkwardly carved, with ornamented capitals that appear to be groping towards stiff leaf.  The N. chapel, known as the Wharton Chapel, contains the organ to the west and a tomb-chest to the east, commemorating the first Lord Wharton (d. 1568) and his two wives, Eleanor and Anne, and featuring recumbent effigies of the three with dogs at their feet.  The S. chapel, known as the Hartley Chapel after Sir Andrew de Harcla, the first Earl of Carlisle, who was hanged, drawn and quartered in 1323, contains a tomb recess in the S. wall and a tomb-chest in the northwest corner, with a recumbent effigy of Sir Richard de Musgrave (d. 1499).  


Finally, two other features of very different ages must be mentioned briefly.  The first, now standing at the west end of the nave, is a section of a tenth century Anglo-Danish cross-shaft, bearing a well-preserved carved figure of a chained devil in Jellinge style.  The second, in complete contrast, is the heavy but richly-designed Victorian pulpit (illustrated below), constructed in 1871 from Shap granite and brown and green Italian marble (church leaflet).  The round balusters supporting the handrail are especially effective and the work as a whole is reminiscent of Butterfield.