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GOSFIELD, St. Catherine  (TL 777 294),

ESSEX. 

(Bedrock:  Eocene, London Clay.)

 

A church notable for an outstanding eighteenth century monument

from the Age of Politeness.

 

 

This web-site is not much concerned with church monuments but an exception is made of some important late seventeenth to early nineteenth century examples that serve to illustrate wider trends in the art and architectural history of these years.  Although any attempt to divide a complex series of changes into discrete stages is susceptible to the charge of over-simplification, as a basic introduction to the subject, four principal phases in its evolution can be identified:

1.  the age of heraldry and ostentation, which is essentially the late Stuart period, c.1660 - c.1714, in which the aristocracy sought to depict their departed relations, bewigged and dressed in all their finery, with coats of arms to display their long pedigree, and 'symbols of mortality' (most notably skulls) to advertise their piety;

2.  the Age of Politeness, corresponding roughly to the period of the Whig Supremacy and the ascendancy of Palladian architecture, c. 1714-60 (that is, the reigns of the first two Georges), in which the new ruling class actively rejected the old Tory memes and mores and sought to present themselves as the new èlite, and their deceased relatives dressed in the timeless apparel (usually Roman togas, suggesting they themselves were like Roman senators)  that eschewed vulgarity and ostentation (skulls again, heraldic devices - not least because their pedigree often offered little to shout about) in favour of the appearance of effortless superiority;

3. the period of the 'Gothick' style, which overlapped periods 2 & 4 but which was particularly prevalent around the third quarter of the eighteenth century and was in turn a reaction to the Age of Politeness in favour of something more theatrical and exciting, frequently characterised by monsters or Death personified as a skeleton, on the one hand, and a damsel in distress on the other or some other form of female imagery calculated to add some sexual frisson;

and 4. the Age of Sensibility, in which it suddenly became not only fashionable for gentlemen to show display their emotions, but de rigueur.

These themes between them, fashioned many of the monuments of these years to a greater or lesser degree, as will appear further on the page below.  

 

 

This interesting church is essentially the product of four periods of construction during the fifteenth, mid sixteenth and early eighteenth centuries.  The first, around the 1430s, was responsible for the present nave and chancel E. window, although at the time, the former late Norman church on this site was completely rebuilt at the expense of the Thomas Rolf. Serjeant-at-Law (d. 1440), whose brass lays the tomb chest south of the altar (notes in the church).  It is thought it was his daughter, Editta, who subsequently paid for the erection of the W. tower c. 1490 in order to bring her father’s project to a completion.  However, seventy years after that, Rolf’s great-great grandson, Sir John Wentworth, who had just overseen the raising of Gosfield Hall, commissioned the building here of the large N. chapel in English-bonded brick, with a vault below, for the future burial of himself and his family, and this so unbalanced the aspect of the church from the east that it was then considered necessary to both heighten the chancel and widen it towards the south.  Lastly, in the 1730s, the widow of John Knight M.P., later Countess  Nugent, paid for a square brick room enclosing a family pew to be constructed against the W. end of the chapel, from which it is approached up six steps.  This contains a large and very fine monument by the eminent sculptor John Michael Rysbrack (1694 - 1770), which is now the church's most important feature.  The work deriving from these four building phases will now be described in turn.

 

The nave is aisleless but quite wide and has two-light S. windows with supermullioned tracery:

 '[The] finely executed [nave] roof [shown below], which is single-framed and arched to its collars, must have been an erection task of complexity and difficulty.  The arch timbers arecomposite, and their lower pieces approximate to eaves blades since they contain the eaves angle.  The collars have clasping ends to hold the principal rafters, and similarly the spur ties clasp the eaves pieces to the arch timbers; the common couples are framed in seven cants' (Cecil Hewitt, Church Carpentry, London & Chichester ,Phillimore, 1982, p. ).

 

 

The diagonally-buttressed W. tower rises in just two stages to battlements and now seems rather small for the rest of the building.  It has a brick and limestone chequerwork basal frieze, a three-light, double-transomed W. window with drop tracery, two-light bell-openings, and a projecting stair turret at the southeast angle.  Inside, the tower arch is very tall and consists of a hollow-chamfered inner order supported on semicircular responds and two flat-chamfered outer orders which continue down the jambs without intervening capitals. 

 

The independently-gabled N. chapel is lit to the north and east by three large, four-light, square-headed windows, which are transomed but uncusped.  The S. windows to the chancel, which was extended in brick, were replaced at the same time (see the photograph above, showing the chancel and N. chapel from the southeast), and the chapel arcade was constructed of two, four-centred arches supported on a central pier of rhombic section.  The new chancel roof was a gift of the 16th Earl of Oxford, of the princely de Vere family, whose emblem of a silver star was added by way of acknowledgement and compliment to the northeast chancel buttress projecting just in front of the N. chapel.

 

 

The Knight family pew is a very grand conceit from which it was intended the occupants could look down at the altar over a parapet.  Adorned with a magnificent plaster ceiling with a large oval, central panel and elaborate floral designs, and with a Palladian W. window and a doorway enriched with Ionic pilasters at the top of the steps leading up to it from the east, these superior beings might as easily have imagined themselves seated in their own splendid Renaissance drawing room as here in church - at least, had it not been for the fact that the N. wall was wholly taken up with John Michael Rysbrack’s magnificent monument to John Knight (d. 1733), depicting the deceased leaning over to comfort his widow, Anne, who is seated beside him in a an unusually equal position for the time and whose right elbow rests on an urn, intended to represent the eventual mingling of their ashes in death.  (See the photographs above and below.)   Little more than a decade before this, Anne's sister, Elizabeth Eliot, née Cragg, had also been widowed (in 1722) and had similarly commissioned a monument by Rysbrack (1694 - 1770), in hercase for St. German's church, Cornwall,  where it too was graced with an inscription by Pope, a family friend.  Elizabeth then behaved in the 'proper' fashion of the age, and under Pope's influence 'embraced Catholicism and followed the Continental pattern of a life of prayerful meditation until her death,' whereas Anne, who obviously had more spirit, promptly remarried, rendering it nevessary, in order to spare her blushes, to hide John Knight's monument 'in a kind of wardrobe'  (Matthew Craske, The Silent Rhetoric of the Body, New Haven & London, Yale University Press, 2007, pp. 280-281).   'Pope, who expected widows to behave like his own cherished mother, that is, like a catholic saint, was outraged.'

 

 

Finally a few words must be added on some of the other church furnishings and additions.  Most of the carpentry is Victorian or later but the backs of the choir benches (and, perhaps, their fronts) appear original (that is, of c. 1560 - the time of the chancel’s enlargement) and have linenfold panelling below and panels carved with figures above.  (The photograph below shows the panelling behind the choir benches on the S. side of the chancel.)   The gated nave benches east of the S. doorway are thought to date from c. 1830 and there is a 'screen-like frame dividing the western bay of the nave from the rest that may have been associated  [presumably only briefly if so] with a timber bell-turret' (Church Carpentry, p. 106).  The nave E. wall, south of the chancel arch, displays a monument by John Soward (fl. 1802 - 1838), whose work Gunnis describes as 'not very exciting', commemorating John Sparrow (d. 1838) (Dictionary of Brtitish Sculptors: 1660 - 1851, London, The Abbey Library, 1951, p. 361).  The S. porch is Victorian.

[For other churches on this web-site that discuss other important church monuments see Gosfield in Essex, Sherborne in Gloucestershire (in particular), Chevening in Kent, Coleshill in Oxfordshire, and Condover in Shropshire.]