( back to home page)


English Church Architecture.


LIFTON, St. Mary  (SX 387 859),


(Bedrock:  Carboniferous Namurian Series, Crackington Formation.) 


A substantial church in the vernacular Perpendicular style, familiar just across the county border, barely a mile away, in Cornwall.



St. Mary's, Lifton, presents itself today as an almost entirely Perpendicular building where only the Norman-Transitional font (shown at the bottom of the page, on the right) hints at its possible earlier manifestation.  The church guide (Lt. Cdr. Duncan Honey, The Church of St. Mary the Virgin, Lifton, 1978, pp. 4-5)  seeks to distinguish between extant work it considers late fifteenth century in date and work it ascribes to the middle of the sixteenth, but the distinction is not easy to make by visual inspection alone and the building is typical of the granite churches of Devon and Cornwall, especially in its the six-bay S. arcade comprising four arches between the nave and aisle and two between the chancel and chapel.  It is composed of arches bearing the usual roughly-hewn mouldings, springing from piers formed of four semicircular shafts separated by hollows, although the capitals to the shafts are round, octagonal and castellated by turns, and include on the westernmost pier, which has octagonal capitals to the shafts, simple carvings on each of their faces.  (See the photograph below left.)  The S. respond of the arch from the aisle to the chapel, displays cable moulding on its capital (as illustrated below right, viewed from the chapel) but the N. respond attached to the pier opposite (as shown at the foot of the page on the left) is much more curious than that.  The very tall tower arch is formed of two orders bearing a complex series of mouldings above two orders of semicircular shafts with octagonal capitals with more carvings on the little faces, and the tower itself, seen from the outside, rises in three tall stages supported by set-back buttresses to large crocketed corner pinnacles with small decorative battlements running round each and conventional battlements between.  The bell-stage is pierced by uncusped bell-openings with West Country alternate tracery.  (See the glossary for a definition of this term.)


Windows around the church are mostly three-light, untraceried, and set beneath square-headed openings outside and either four-centred or segmental-headed splays within.  The chapel E. window has three stepped lights beneath a little rudimentary supermullioned tracery, however, while the chancel E. window and tower W. window are four-light with lights subarcuated in pairs above alternate tracery with through-reticulation in between.  Here there is certainly some evidence, therefore, to suggest the chapel E. wall and fenestration are not of the same date or not by the same mason as the chancel E. wall, nave aisle, or six-bay arcade, but even if this hypothesis is correct, it does not fully accord with the one that is postulated in the guide.  The N. porch is two-storeyed and has four-centred outer and inner doorways and a projecting quarter-octagon in the re-entrant between the porch and the westward continuation of the nave, showing the position of the stair turret.  The church guide says this is the remnant of an earlier N. tower but the walls hardly seem thick enough for this to be readily accepted either.



Notable furnishings in the church include the late twelfth century font mentioned above, with a square bowl featuring 'corner heads' at the angles (Pevsner's description in The Buildings of England: Devon, New Haven & London, Yale University Press, 2004, p. 536) and intersecting round arches beneath saltires on the sides.  Mediaeval carpentry is limited to the ceiled barrel-vaulted roofs above the nave, aisle and chapel, which still have their narrow ribs and (in the case of the first and last) bosses exposed to view.  Finally, two prominent sixteenth/seventeenth century monuments in the chancel include a large one to the north, commemorating William, Arthur and Lady Harris (d. 1590, 1618 and 1630 respectively), featuring three life-sized kneeling effigies separated by tall Ionic columns in black alabaster, showing William and Lady Harris clasping their hands in prayer while Sir William in the centre holds his right hand on his chest preparing to draw his sword with the other.  ('Not good' was Pevsner's very fair assessment of its quality.)  The wall monument opposite, of painted stone and alabaster, is dedicated to John Dynham (d. 1641) and his wife, Margaret (d. 1649), and comprises a half-digested classical surround featuring Corinthian columns supporting a pediment, triglyphs alternating with roses along the frieze, and the crudest of figures above - presumably two angels lying on the pediment and what looks like a naked St. Peter holding the keys to the gates of heaven, standing within.