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English Church Architecture.

 

ROMALDKIRK, St. Romald  (NY 995 222),

COUNTY DURHAM. 

(Bedrock:  Carboniferous Namurian Series, Yoredale Group.)

 

A predominantly late-twelfth/ early thirteenth century church,

suggesting that a familiarity with contemporary architectural work further south

was sometimes tenuous at this date.

   

Romaldkirk, which was formerly in Yorkshire, is now one of the most attractive villages in County Durham, and the church with its apparently unique dedication, occupies a commanding position, overlooking the large green.  Its patron saint was reputedly the son of a Northumbrian king but nothing else seems to be known about him whatsoever.  

 

His one church, however, is a fine one, formed of a long chancel with a N. vestry and organ chamber, a short aisled nave with transepts and a S. porch, and a diagonally-buttressed W. tower.  The church guide, written by Canon John Lee, rector from 1953-77, outlines a complicated history for the building which differs at a number of points from the history proffered by Pevsner in 1966 (in, it should be noted, the 'Yorkshire North Riding' volume of The Buildings of England (Harmondsworth, Penguin, pp. 311-312)), some of which cannot really be supported on purely stylistic grounds, but Canon Lee was probably justified in pointing out that the short wall pieces on either side of the chancel arch, extending westwards to the start of the three-bay nave arcades, are likely to be the remains of an earlier, Saxon building, even though the evidence of long-and-short work, to which he referred, appears distinctly tenuous.  Yet the name of the village itself, of course, is enough to imply an important Saxon church was once situated here, and the position of the aisles - which are Norman in their essentials, whatever precise interpretations are placed upon them - set back from the chancel arch, does certasinly suggest that an earlier nave has been enlarged.

 

 

The arcades are composed of round arches formed of two unmoulded orders, supported on circular piers with modest capitals of varying designs.  Pevsner described them both as 'late twelfth century'  but Canon Lee said that 'the present north arcade and north aisle were built about 1155  [and] the south aisle and its arcade' (illustrated above left) were added 'roughly a hundred years later'.  Yet both are essentially Norman-Transitional in character, and although some of the capitals on the N. side might, arguably, be considered cruder (see the example illustrated above right), the W. responds to both arcades, with keeled shafts supporting the inner order of the arches above, are almost identical to those to the nave arcades at Staindrop, some nine miles to the west, which are probably late twelfth century in date, and some of the arches at Romaldkirk appear to have been re-pointed at the very least, while any or all of the capitals could have been scraped or re-tooled.

 

Be that as it may, however, the external walls of the present S. aisle and transept (which, in the former case, may well be wider than the original) do appear to be thirteenth century work, as seen most especially in the windows on this side of the building, with typical Early English Y-tracery.  (See the photograph of the church viewed from the southeast, below left.)  There are four of these altogether - two in the E. wall of the transept and one each in the south and west walls of the aisle.  The most interesting window in these parts of the church, however, is the S. transept S. window, formed of five trefoiled-lights beneath a round arch, with outer lights subarcuated in pairs above encircled trefoils and the inner light with a large trilobe in the head. 

 

Pevsner dated the N. aisle and transept, on the basis of the more important of their windows, to the early fourteenth century, but Canon Lee ascribed the same windows to the fifteenth century, and while their tracery does appear, in essence, to be a variant of reticulated tracery, which would support Pevsner, the design is sufficiently odd, not to say inept, to render any dating speculative.  In fact, of these windows, those in the N. transept E. wall and N. aisle W. wall are square-headed, with septfoil-cusped lights and a row of reticulation units above, each cinquefoil-cusped at the top but uncusped at the base (except insofar as it is unavoidably shaped to tessellate with the heads of the lights below).  However, the two-centred N. window to the N. transept (shown above right) has two tiers of these reticulation units, one each above and below the springing, where they are separated by a castellated transom, which might be cited in support of Canon Lee.  Perhaps the only conclusion that can be drawn is that whatever the date of this work, it cannot be judged a success, yet it is almost a monument to geometry when compared with the chancel E. window, where the tracery units are all utterly misshapen, and which was described by Pevsner as 'a perverse Perpendicular design of five lights… [that] looks like a protest against all rules'.  Perhaps…  Yet the incompetence of this design is of such staggering proportions, it is hard to believe that even the poorest of masons could have fashioned it, so perhaps there is a logical explanation for its form, the most plausible of which might be that it was constructed entirely from fragments (whether from here or elsewhere), in the sixteenth century or later.

 

In any event, the north and south chancel windows are almost entirely renewed or restored, except for the easternmost S. window with standard reticulated tracery of the Decorated period.  This has three lights while the other three on this side, have two, but all four are separated by buttresses terminating in crocketed pinnacles above the battlements, the central one of which, like the southeast diagonal buttress, has a niche in the centre for a statuette.  The chancel N. wall has an adjoining vestry to the east, formerly of two storeys, of which the upper probably once served as a dwelling for a hermit or chantry priest (cf. Staindrop again, or High Coniscliffe in Darlington, or - to take just one example among many from southern English counties – Toddington in Bedfordshire).  Inside the church, the chancel arch is formed of two orders bearing deep hollows which die into the jambs, while unusually, the chancel floor is two steps lower than the nave, albeit that it does rise again by one step to the sanctuary and by three more around the altar.  This lower floor level may be one result of the chancel’s nineteenth century restoration, when the excellent mosaics were laid, around 1894.  Two cinquefoil-cusped arches recessed in the S. wall, clearly designed to serve as a piscina and a credence, are set within a larger, ogee-pointed crocketed arch beneath the three-light S. window.  

 

The W. tower is fifteenth century work which rises in three stages to two-light, transomed bell-openings and surmounting battlements, with short pinnacles at the corners.  The three-light W. window has supermullioned tracery beneath a segmental arch, the tower arch is formed of two flat chamfers that die into the jambs, and there is a ribbed vault underneath, with a central opening for the bell-ropes.

 

The church contains just one monument of significance, to be found in the N. transept, where an effigy of Sir Hugh FitzHenry (d. 1305) lies on a tomb-chest.  The combination of the known date with Sir Hugh’s straight-legged (as opposed to cross-legged) attitude and the details of his chain mail, are useful for comparison with and the dating of, effigies of unknown knights elsewhere.

 

Finally, the font (shown left) presents another strange design, formed in this case of a circular bowl decorated with three tiers of horseshoes, supported on a stand with shafts at the angles and hollows in between.  This again, could be Norman or Early English and, as with some of the other designs in this building, may also suggest that a mason working this far north in the uncertain times of the early Middle Ages, was frequently in only tenuous contact with artistic developments further south, and thus often thrown back on the products of his own imagination.