COPFORD, St. Michael & All Angels (TL 925 228),
(Bedrock: Eocene, London Clay.)
Essex's foremost Norman parish church.
Pevsner justifiably considered this building 'the most remarkable Norman parish church in Essex, chiefly because of its wall paintings, but also architecturally' (Nicholas Pevsner & James Bettley, The Buildings of England: Essex, New Haven & London, Yale University Press, 2007, p. 305), although the reasons for this are not immediately evident if one approaches from the west, down a grassed avenue between the Hall and the village cricket green, and at the appropriate time of the year, between clusters of snowdrops - a beautiful setting. The nave W. wall is pierced by what appears to be a thirteenth century Y-traceried window, and the building’s true age is shown only by a smaller, round-headed window in the gable, turned in Roman brick, and by a blocked circular opening either side. However, as soon as one walks (preferably clockwise) around the church, the truth is revealed, for now the building proves to consist of a tall and remarkable twelfth century nave, chancel and apse, built without structural division except in respect of the massive buttresses, supporting the walls between the bays. The three eastern bays on the N. side are lit by large, round-headed windows set in arches of two orders, also turned in Roman brick, replete with pairs of (mostly renewed) shafts with scalloped capitals to the outer order, and three similar windows continue on around the apse, making this easily the most impressive apse in Essex. (See the photograph of the church above, viewed from the southeast, and the photograph of the apse, below left, viewed directly from the west.) The round-headed priest’s doorway at the junction of the apse and chancel, and the nave N. doorway in the windowless western bay of the nave (illustrated below right) are also notable, even though the tympanum of the latter has since given way to the poverty of nineteenth century gault brick. The S. side of the church has a lean-to aisle running the full length of the nave and chancel, the external details of which are Victorian save for one original two-light Decorated window with a reticulation unit in the head. The S. porch is an attractive half-timbered piece with especially nice bargeboards, but it is difficult to say whether any part of it predates its nineteenth century restoration.
However, it is inside the building that the church proves particularly special. The purely architectural features must be described first. The S arcade is not really an arcade at all but four individual arches cut through the Norman S. wall at different times. The westernmost and two eastern arches are Norman-Transitional in style though not in all cases in date since the easternmost arch is a Victorian copy of its neighbour: all three carry a slight chamfer above jambs with narrow nook-shafts. (See the second arch from the east, illustrated below left.) The remaining arch (i.e. the second from the west) (below right) is later and formed of three orders, constructed of re-used Roman bricks around the outer order and (apparently) thirteenth century native bricks around the inner two. (See also the entry for St. Nicholas's chapel, LIttle Coggeshall, situated about five miles to the west, for another example of the manufacture and use of bricks around this time.) All four arches are tall, and the wall they are cut through, even thicker than usual in masonry of this date - probably the early twelfth century. Above the two eastern arches are the remains of the building’s original S. windows, which must once have mirrored those surviving to the north. The more westerly of these retains an order of side shafts with scalloped capitals (as seen in the photograph) while the other is blocked and seems never to have had shafts. This window head and the arch beneath, communicate between the aisle and chancel, as defined by the position of the Perpendicular rood screen, for there is no chancel arch but only a large unmoulded arch of two orders between the chancel and the apse, which may have been similar to other arches that once crossed the building between the bays, as witnessed by the surviving fragments of their springers, apparently proving the church was originally tunnel vaulted. The apse windows have an order of shafts inside as well as out, which are old here, while of the nave N. windows, the westernmost retains its Norman columns, the next has had them renewed, and the third has none at all, either now or, it would seem, at any stage in the past. Nevertheless, there is an order of shafts attached to the jambs of the Y-traceried W. window, showing there was once a Norman window here too.
Yet even after all this description, the church’s principal feature has yet to be mentioned, for pre-eminent at Copford is the amazing series of twelfth century wall paintings that cover much of the interior. The apse is entirely decorated with an astonishing variety of designs, including angels, apostles, pattern work and, centrally on the ceiling, an elaborate scene showing Christ in Majesty. (See the photograph below.) They were, admittedly, all over-painted in 1872, which accounts for their bright colours, but the work was reputedly carefully done and can probably be considered to provide a vivid impression of what many churches looked like nine centuries ago. The soffit of the arch to the apse is illustrated with the signs of the zodiac, there are more angels in the spandrels, and on the gable above, pictures of the Annunciation on the left and of a shepherd visiting the Infant Christ on the right. The nave and chancel walls are covered chiefly with patterns, but there are further Biblical scenes here as well, including Christ raising Jairus's daughter on the N. wall. The paintings on the nave W. wall have unfortunately deteriorated badly, while scenes that must once have been on the arches of the tunnel vault have, of course, only their lowest parts remaining. All these are thought to have been executed very shortly after the building was erected, and what a loss it is that the vault has been replaced by a commonplace king-post roof, dated by Cecil Hewett (Church Carpentry, London and Chichester, Phillimore & Co., 1982, p. 102) to the late thirteenth century.
A few furnishings must be mentioned briefly: the chancel has a striking but - to judge by the patterning - nineteenth century, mosaic floor; the mediaeval timbers supporting the belfry can be seen inside the nave but provide no reliable clue of their date; the Perpendicular rood screen consists of five open divisions on each side of a four-centred central arch, and has a form of straightened reticulated tracery reminiscent of the late fourteenth century, which may also be the time when the iron-bound chest between the nave and aisle was made; and last of all, the aisle contains a number of monuments, commemorating Hezekiah Haynes (d. 1764), Ann Harrison (d. 1783), Sarah Dean (d. 1741), and Mrs. Catherine Haynes (d. 1747).