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English Church Architecture -

Durham County (U.A.).


STAINDROP, St. Mary (NZ 131 207)     (August 2008)

(Bedrock:  Carnoniferous Namurian Series, Yoredale Group)


County Durham is an underrated county which has some beautiful countryside and some very attractive villages, of which Staindrop is one.  The church (shown left, from the east) stands at one end and is a large, important building, about which there is much to say, though probably nothing that is new.  The kernel of the present church appears to have been a small rectangular Saxon structure which once occupied the space now corresponding with the three eastern bays of the nave.  Its most substantial remains are the two round-headed windows, one each to the north and south (the former blocked) in the spandrels above the easternmost piers, where they have been intersected by the arcades below (see the S. window illustrated in the thumbnail below right), but there are also a few other fragments of pre-Conquest masonry to be seen, including a former sundial, high up on the left of the present chancel arch.  The date is likely to be the early eleventh century for it seems that a few decades afterwards, but still prior to the Norman invasion, a small tower was added to the west, where the fourth bay of the nave from the east now stands (and not, pace Pevsner, the present tower, which is another bay to the west again).


Perhaps the Norman contribution to the church consisted of the construction of the original aisles and the concomitant knocking through of the Saxon nave walls to insert what were originally three-bay arcades, but if that was the case, then the date was certainly late.  Separated from the additional western bay by short intervening wall pieces, these consist of double-flat-chamfered arches supported on circular piers and responds formed of an order of keeled shafts between narrow-chamfered outer angles.  (See the N. arcade, right, and the S. arcade in the thumbnail below left.)  The capitals vary but one displays leaf volutes while another resembles waterleaf (which is to say, it appears to be based on broad upright "cabbage" leaves), and the hood-mould over the S. arcade is decorated with nailhead, a late Norman or early English motif.  Taken together, these features suggest a date scarcely earlier than c. 1180 and certainly later than the “early twelfth century” ascription given in the notes on the building  provided in the church, although Pevsner's suggestion of “c. 1170-80” is probably just about admissable even though he created what appears to this observer the false distinction of describing the nailhead as “nutmeg” moulding.


It seems likely that the transepts were added next, perhaps two or three decades afterwards.  Subsequently the S. transept was absorbed into the widened aisle, but the N. transept retains a slight projection and, more importantly, its three equal N. lancets, set in deep splays in the wide N. wall.


It was probably in the mid to late thirteenth century that the Saxon tower was removed and the church continued westwards by a fourth nave bay where the tower had previously stood, with a new tower being constructed to the west of that, flanked by two-bay extensions to the aisles. Thus the westernmost bays of the now four-bay nave arcades, and the tower arches to both the nave and the encompassing aisles, are all in the same style, save only that, unlike the tower arches, the nave arches are still round.  All are composed of two flat-chamfered orders however, the inner supported on semicircular shafts with fillets and the outer, on rectangular orders to the responds, with narrow chamfers at the angles.  The compound piers which this arrangement produces at the northeast and southeast corners of the tower (illustrated left, in the photograph of the northeast pier) create impressive internal perspectives.  The tower is lit by a narrow  lancet, which only just fits in beside the large square stair-turret (contemporary with the later bell-stage) projecting beside it to the north (i.e. on the left), making the tower appear curiously wide when viewed from that direction.  (See the photograph below right, taken from the southwest.)  At the same time this work was going on, it appears the chancel was reconstructed and extended, and the large northeast vestry built, although it was probably only then what would today be called "one and a half storeys" high (that is, with the upper storey constructed within the roof space, as in a modern chalet bungalow) rather than two full storeys as now.  Perhaps the upper floor provided a dwelling for a hermit or anchorite priest (cf., for example, Romaldkirk in this county,  or - to give one just example from southern England - Toddington in Bedfordshire).  The stylistic evidence for the date of this work includes a double-flat-chamfered chancel arch in a similar style to the tower arch, with a semicircular respond with a fillet supporting the inner order, and the three-bay stepped sedilia between the two easternmost windows in the chancel S. wall, with stiff-leaf corbels between the trefoil-cusped bays, shafts with fillets at the ends, and mouldings around the arches including a roll with a fillet.  


The bell-stage of the tower looks like an early fourteenth century addition and a curious one at that, for it is corbelled out from the stage below, creating a top-heavy impression. The bell-openings have cinquefoil-cusped Y-tracery and there are battlements above.  In contrast to these uncertainties, the S. aisle, with its segmental-arched, reticulated windows, is known to have been widened in 1343, when Ralph de Neville established three chantries here.  A small projection at the southeast angle, looking externally almost like a large buttress, is actually a tiny sacristy.  Simultaneously, while this was being built, the S. transept was removed beyond the line of the aisle and the S. porch was constructed – a low, windowless structure with, however, a steeply-pitched stone roof, supported by a ribbed tunnel vault.


Most other windows in the church are Perpendicular in style, if not necessarily so in date.  The N. aisle appears to have been widened in the early fifteenth century and has tall, untraceried, square-headed windows (seen left, in the photograph of the church viewed from the northeast).  The chancel windows are very elaborate in the two westernmost bays (to the north as well as the south, where they have been squashed in to the west of the vestry).  The easternmost S. window has supermullioned tracery and the E. window is Victorian.  The clerestory windows are three-light and untraceried and carefully aligned with the arcade apices below.  The far more steeply-pitched, pre-clerestory nave roof-line, can be seen above the chancel and tower arches.


The church contains a large number of important monuments, including two recumbent effigies in recesses beneath the easternmost S. aisle S. window.  Of these, the left hand one (illustrated below right), which lies beneath blank tracery set inside a crocketed gable, commemorates Euphemia de Clavering, the mother of Ralph de Neville mentioned above.  Most other important monuments in the building may be found in the west ends of the aisles. The two large tomb-chests in the S. aisle depict:  (i) in alabaster on the right, the first Earl of Westmorland (d. 1425) and his two wives (the second of whom was Joan Beaufort, half-sister of Henry IV);  and (ii) in blackened oak on the left, the fifth Earl of Westmorland (d. 1564) and his first two wives.  The N. aisle contains a single tomb-chest in white marble, on which rests a fine effigy of William Henry Vane, first Duke of Cleveland (d. 1842), by Sir Richard Westmacott (1775-1856) (son of Richard Westmacott the Elder and father of Richard Westmacott the Younger), but of equal importance here are some of the wall monuments on the N. and W. walls, including: (i) a wall monument commemorating Henry, second Earl of Darlington (d. 1792), by Robert Cooke (fl. 1780-1817), showing the earl looking up at a floating cherub; (ii) an unsigned monument dedicated to Sophia, Duchess of Cleveland (d. 1859), with an effigy lying on a tomb-chest and a wall panel above replete with a very sentimental depiction of an angel conducting her soul to heaven; and, higher up, (iii) a wall monument to Katherine Margaret (d. 1807) of Darlington, again by Robert Cooke, showing an angel lifting her from her bed.


The church woodwork is more rapidly described.  The tall but simple fourteenth century screen has a four-light section each side of the central gates and applied tracery on the dado.  However, the fifteenth century choir stalls are more impressive and consist of twelve misericords (including two return stalls) on each side, beneath tall panelled backs with applied alternate tracery, in very dark wood.


Finally, a note should be added on the use in the church of two unusual local building stones:  the font with its octagonal bowl, curved downwards and decorated with blank shields, is of fifteenth century date and constructed of dark grey Egglestone marble, and the chancel floor was repaved early last century using tiles of black Frosterley marble, both of which are actually crinoidal limestones from horizons near the top of the Dinantian sub-system (formerly known as the millstone grit) of the Carboniferous period.