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English Church Architecture -



HATFIELD BROAD OAK, St. Mary (TL 547 166)     (1984, revised April 2005)

(Bedrock:  Eocene, London Clay)


If Thaxted is still allowed its historic status as a town, then Hatfield Broad Oak is probably the best village in the Essex district of Uttlesford.  A church was founded here in Saxon times but in 1135 a Benedictine monastery was also established on the same site, as a result of which the church was extended eastwards by the addition of a squat Norman tower, a monks’ choir and presbytery, and a Lady chapel, while to the north, the associated domestic buildings were constructed around a cloister.  The fourteenth century then saw this monastic work improved and beautified, thanks to generous benefactors, while the parishioners, for their part, rebuilt the ancient western end of the church which retained parochial use. However, when arguments arose about this, leading to rioting, Richard II (reigned 1377-99) ordered a wall to be built across the building to separate the parts serving the different communities, and, as it happened, this made it a relatively simple matter at the time of the Dissolution in 1536, to demolish the priory buildings while leaving the parish church standing.  Today, that erstwhile dividing wall forms the E. wall of the present church, and its value derives chiefly from the fact that its date - 1378 - is known precisely, although it also displays the remains of a Norman pier externally at each angle (the piers that once supported the western tower arch).  (In addition, Norman windows can still be seen in the eastern part of the N. aisle, where they have been set high up, to look out above the erstwhile cloister.)  Nevertheless, it is the E. window that is particularly instructive, as an illustration of what is still clearly, even at this time, the Decorated/Perpendicular transition.  (See the photograph above right.)  Of four lights, with outer lights subarcuated in pairs, its tracery is composed of an uneasy combination of quatrefoils and subreticulation units formed between supermullions, as if the mason responsible for the work was struggling to come to terms with the new style.  However, the three larger quatrefoils are at least of the "straightened" type that seems to have hung on in Essex, Suffolk, Cambridgeshire and Bedfordshire, especially in tower bell-openings, to around 1400 (see Appendix 2 for some other close dated examples of the use of this tracery motif), while in Norfolk a still greater conservatism is often evident in the clinging on to Decorated forms. 


Inside the church, the five-bay aisle arcades may also accord with this phase of construction (Pevsner thought some of the former church walls might actually have been damaged in the riot, in which case it must have been a very serious disturbance indeed):  they are now composed of arches bearing a sunk quadrant and a hollow chamfer, springing from compound piers formed of four semicircular shafts separated by hollows. (The N. arcade is illustrated left.)  The rest of the windows are probably later - early fifteenth century perhaps - and of mostly simple type apart from the window in the chancel S. aisle, which has five cinquefoiled lights, supermullions, a supertransom, and a quatrefoil in the oculus beneath a four-centred arch.  Also fifteenth century are the S. porch and W. tower.  The former (shown in the first thumbnail below right) is angle-buttressed, with buttresses terminating in crocketed pinnacles with blank arches on the faces and grotesques at the corners.  The outer doorway has traceried spandrels and jambs bearing two orders of bowtells;  the three-light side windows have supermullioned tracery and supertransoms.  The angle-buttressed W. tower (shown in the second thumbnail) rises in five stages to stepped battlements and has a W. doorway with traceried spandrels and a three-light W. window with supermullioned tracery and split Ys.  The three-light bell-openings are square-headed and transomed.  Except in its lack of battlements, the stair turret protruding at the southeast angle and rising higher than the tower itself, matches the rood stair turret that marks the junction between the S. aisles of the nave and chancel.


A few later features of the building are worthy of note.  The brick N. vestry attached to the nave probably dates from the late seventeenth or early eighteenth century:  it is Flemish bonded, with dark headers.  The box pews with which the entire church is fitted, are an impressive group even though they only date from 1843.  This was also the time when the attractive nave roof was constructed.


Finally, the church contains three monuments listed by Gunnis (Dictionary of British Sculptors: 1660 - 1851, The Abbey Library, 1951).  They commemorate:  (i) John Barrington (d. 1788), a standing wall monument by John Francis Moore (d. 1809), who was also responsible for a number of chimney pieces at Audley End c. 1761 and whose most important work Gunnis considered to be at Ettington, Warwickshire;  (ii) William Selwin (d. 1800), a monument (illustrated left) by Thomas Cooke of London (fl. 1796-1820) ;  and (iii) Lady Ibbetson (d. 1816), a marble wall tablet with two floating angels above (illustrated below), by John Flaxman (1755-1826), Professor of Sculpture to the Royal Academy and described by Sir Richard Westmacott who succeeded him as “the greatest of modern sculptors”.  This, however, is a very minor example of his work.  Another may be seen at the church in Lambourne in the Essex district of Epping Forest.