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English Church Architecture.

 

LITTLE COGGESHALL, St. Nicholas  (TL 854 223),

ESSEX. 

(Bedrock:  Eocene, London Clay.)

 

The former gate-chapel to the Cistercian Abbey.
 

 

Here, beside the old water mill, is the site of a former Cistercian abbey - one of two in Essex (the other being at Tilty), at both of which the erstwhile gate-chapels are the only significant remains.

 

St. Nicholas’s chapel (shown above from the southeast, and in an almost identical view at the foot of the page, from the northwest) dates from the early thirteenth century and consists of a single cell lit by four lancets each to the north and the south, and groups of three set in encompassing arches to the east and the west.  Its most notable feature, however, is the employment of brick in the window jambs, for this is not re-used Roman material but a very early example of mediaeval English brickwork - albeit not quite as early as at Polstead in Suffolk, where the work probably dates from the late twelfth century.  The best evidence for more precise dating at Coggeshall is probably provided by the roof (discussed below), and the evidence is important as the bricks here have been shown to have been made with clay mixed with course sand, unlike most early bricks fired from clay taken straight from the ground.  By the time this chapel was erected, therefore, it appears the Cistercians had discovered that the addition of sand reduced shrinkage.  The S. doorway is Victorian.

 

Inside the building, the windows and S. doorway are surrounded by rolls formed in moulded brick (as illustrated, left), and the remains of a worn piscina and three-bay sedilia in the same material are set in the E. end of the S. wall.  The building was sadly abused for many years following the Dissolution, especially during a period when it served as a byre.  Then it had a thatched roof, but although this was replaced in 1897 (Nikolaus Pevsner & James Bettley, The Buildings of England: Essex, New Haven & London, Yale University Press, 2007, p. 248), miraculously its thirteenth century framing was retained, formed of twenty-five rafter couples with collars and scissor braces held together with secret notched lap joints, and perhaps attributable to the prelacy of Abbot Benedict, which ran from 1218 to 1223.  The authority for this is inevitably Cecil Hewitt, who wrote: 'The precise date during which the "open" form of the notched lap joint was superseded by the "secret" form has been discovered.  This change evidently occurred during the "break" in the construction of Wells Cathedral, Somerset - between 1209 and c. 1213'  (Church Carpentry,  London & Chichester, Phillimore, 1982, p. 117).  If the chapel was begun, say, c. 1215-20, then that is obviously the date of the bricks also.