(« back to home page)

English Church Architecture.


COLCHESTER, St. James & St. Paul (TM 002 253),


(Bedrock:  Eocene, London Clay.)


One of a number of important, mid to late fifteenth century churches in East Anglia, showing the influence of the master masons who worked on King's College Chapel in Cambridge.




The second half of the fifteenth century saw the rise of a handful of exceptional master masons in Suffolk and Cambridgeshire, who carried out major work for both the Church and the Court, and who came to be sufficiently well-regarded to be invited to dine with kings. Three of these men, namely Reginald Ely (fl. 1438-71), Simon Clerk (fl. 1434-1489), and John Wastell (fl. 1485-1515), who was formerly Simon Clerk's apprentice, were responsible in turn for the design and erection of King's College Chapel, whose foundation stone was laid in 1446, nine years before the outbreak of the War of the Roses, but which was only completed, after the various hiatuses resulting from the conflict and at least two major changes of plan, in 1515, twenty years after the Battle of Bosworth  Three others, who came to prominence through their apprenticeships or other working associations with the first three, were Robert Antell (fl. 1440-85), who may have been the man recorded working at King's College under Wastell's direction in 1508 (John Harvey, English Mediaeval Architects; a Biographical Dictionary, Gloucester, Alan Sutton, 1987, pp. 8-9), John Melford (fl. 1460-1509, an erstwhile apprentice of Reginald Ely (Birkin Haward, Suffolk Mediaeval Church Arcades, Hitcham, Suffolk Institute of Archaeology and History, 1993, p. 142), and John Brond (fl. 1492-1518), who may have succeeded John Wastell as abbey mason at Bury St. Edmunds in 1515 (English Mediaeval Architects, p. 35).  Between them, these men built or heavily influenced the design of more than a dozen major churches in their home counties and neighbouring north Essex, and these are described in detail on this web-site, where an attempt is made to unravel their building history.





This is a large and impressive town church (shown, left, from the northeast). Almost wholly Perpendicular, it consists of a W. tower, an aisled nave with a N. porch, and a chancel with tall and splendid chapels.  However, it is the relatively modest, diagonally-buttressed W. tower, rising in two stages to surmounting battlements and a surmounting Victorian spirelet, that is the oldest part of the building, as witnessed by the little thirteenth century blocked lancet turned in re-used Roman brick(?) below the bell-openings in the S. wall.  The tower stair turret shelters in the re-entrant between the tower and the S. aisle and rises about halfway up the tower's total height.


The aisles and porch have had their exterior detail renewed but the chapels are largely original and faced with flint above basal flushwork friezes.  The great three-light windows (or four-light in the case of the S. chapel E. window) are almost identical to Dedham’s aisle windows, of which more later, and feature supermullioned tracery with trefoiled, ogee-pointed lights and sublights, strong mullions, and quatrefoil oculi. (See the photograph right, illustrating a S. chapel S. window.)  The restored five-light E. window to the chancel has a quatrefoil in the oculus and outer lights subarcuated in pairs. 


The interior of the church is a fine one, notwithstanding the clear evidence of its phased construction.  The two eastern arches of the nave arcades are probably late fourteenth century work but either slightly different in date, north to south, or the work of different masons for although the piers are all octagonal, the arches carry a hollow chamfer and a sunk quadrant to the south (as shown in the photograph, far left) and a hollow chamfer and a wave moulding to the north (near left). However, Pevsner and/or James Bettley, writing in the 'Essex' volume of The Buildings of England (New Haven & London, Yale University Press, 2007, p. 266) ascribe the N. arches to c. 1300, which seems too early to this writer, and describe the mouldings on the S. arches as two hollow chamfers, which might suggest that that work is indeed earlier, but as the photograph shows, is not actually the case. 


Nevertheless, what is certain is that the two western bays of both arcades are later, for here the arches bear wave mouldings and the piers have shafts towards the openings only and are unmoulded to the north and south, producing a design which is similar to that at St. Peter’s church, half a mile to the west, where a date of c. 1450 has been proposed.  (See the photograph above, showing an internal view of the nave, looking west.)  The chancel arch and the arches between the aisles and chapels are different again:  these too are Perpendicular but now they have become as slender as it is possible to be - indeed, too slender to look satisfactory.  Yet that does little to impair the internal appearance of the church overall, due, in particular, to the impressive chapels themselves.


Here the affinities are entirely with St. Mary’s, Dedham, although not with Dedham alone, for the two-bay arcades between the chapels and chancel (illustrated below left) not only copy the design of the nave arcades there (albeit that the Dedham arches are four-centred rather than two-centred), but also the nave arcades at Stratford St. Mary, just over the county border in Suffolk, and - going backwards a little in time - the nave arcades at St. Mary's, Martham, Norfolk, and Blackfriars' church (now St. Andrew's Hall), Norwich, where the mason was considered by Birkin Haward to have been Robert Everard (fl. 1440-85), master mason at Norwich Cathedral from c. 1452 (Suffolk Mediaeval Church Arcades, Hitcham, Suffolk Institute of Archaeology and History, 1993, p. 387).  Everard had an assistant by the name of John Antell, who appears to have died in the same year as his master but who may briefly have inherited the use of Everard's moulds, enabling him to pass them on to other masons in his family.  The most important of these was Robert Antell, who was probably a son or grandson, and if these deductions are correct, then Robert Antell might have been the master mason of the chancel chapels here.  Haward suggested a date for the work of c. 1500 and thought the chapel roofs were probably contemporary.


Finally and, perhaps, surprisingly, the church contains no memorable furnishings and only one important monument, albeit one by the great early eighteenth century statuary, John Michael Rysbrack (1694 - 1770).  (See the photograph above right.)  Unmentioned by Gunnis in his Dictionary of British Sculptors, it seems to have been identified first in Michael Craske's groundbreaking study, The Silent Rhetoric of the Body (New Haven & London, Yale University Press, 2007, p. 375), but it is a fine piece of work in grey and white marble, commemorating a local benefactor, Arthur Winsley (d. 1727), who died without heirs and donated his entire fortune  to the foundation of twelve charity houses in Colchester, save only for £200 which he left to his executors to pay for this monument.  Depicted according to his own specification, reclining on his left hand and holding a book in his right hand, he requested that its inscription should be 'as my most judicious friends think proper' (Craske).  Consequently, as he would probably have wished, it is suitably matter-of-fact, and only the book bears anything resembling a eulogy, encapsulated in the legend, 'Go thou and do likewise'.


[Related buildings the reader may wish to examine on this web-site include Burwell and Isleham in Cambridgeshire, Dedham, Saffron Walden and Thaxted in Essex, and Cavendish, Denston, Hessett, Lavenham, Long Melford and Stratford St. Mary in Suffolk.]