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English Church Architecture -

Durham County (U.A.).


ROMALDKIRK, St. Romald (NY 995 222)     (August 2008)

(Bedrock:  Carnoniferous Namurian Series, Yoredale Group)


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.  (See the photograph above.)  Its patron saint was reputedly the son of a Northumbrian king but nothing else seems to be known about him whatever.  


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 proferred by Pevsner in 1966 (in, it should be noted, the North Riding of Yorkshire volume of “The Buildings of England”), 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.  Even so, the name of the village itself, of course, is enough to imply an important Saxon church was once to be found here, and the position of the aisles - which are Norman in their essentials, whatever finer interpretation be placed upon them - set back from the chancel arch, suggests they represent the enlargement of a former nave.


The arcades are composed of round arches formed of two unmoulded orders, springing from 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" (shown left) were added "roughly a hundred years later", to which the notes available within the church add the words “in the style of the N. arcade”, an argument it would be very hard to sustain in the absence of documentary evidence.  The Norman basis for the work is clear from the round unmoulded arches, the circular piers, and the W. responds with keeled shafts supporting the inner order of the arches above, which are almost identical, for example, to the responds of the nave arcades at Staindrop, some nine miles to the west, where they can probably be attributed to the late twelfth century. However, any attempt to date the work more closely at Romaldkirk seems simply to invite trouble:  it is actually difficult to say anything with certainty, but the arches appear to have been re-pointed at the very least, and any or all of the capitals could have been scraped or re-cut.  Certainly the N. arcade capitals (see the example illustrated right) differ from those opposite (as, for that matter, do  the capitals within each arcade), but there are a number of scenarios that could account for this, such as a much smaller time gap of a mere decade or two, or the involvement of two masons involved in the building’s construction, simultaneously.  The description of the S. arcade as a thirteenth century copy of its counterpart seems doubtful if only because that was not what mediaeval masons generally did, the stylistic unity of a building being of little concern to them (although the thirteenth century mason at Staindrop did retain the round-arch form when he extended the nave westwards, even though he was happy to change the style to match his tower arches in all other respects).


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, 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 above, set in a triangle with curved sides. 


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 right) has two tiers of these reticulation units, one each above and below the springing, 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 E. window to the chancel, 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.


The north and south chancel windows are mostly restored or renewed, except for the easternmost S. window with standard reticulated tracery of the Decorated period.  This window 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, the upper of which probably 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).  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 (sic), albeit that it rises again by one step to the sanctuary and three more around the altar.  This 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 though, 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 employed 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, for good or ill, thrown back on the products of his own imagination.