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English Church Architecture -



SAFFRON WALDEN, St. Mary (TL 538 386)     (January 2017)

(Bedrock:  Upper Cretaceous, Upper Chalk)

What a splendid building this is!  Belonging to the great tradition of East Anglian Perpendicular churches, it is only rivalled elsewhere in Essex by St. John the Baptist’s, Thaxted, and although the latter is more eminently sited (tall trees rather hem St. Mary’s in during the summer), it cannot match the almost cathedral-like quality of St. Mary’s interior.  In fact, much closer affinities exist between the present church and Great St. Mary’s, Cambridge and SS. Peter & Paul’s, Lavenham (in Suffolk) - and for good reason, for they share the same master mason, namely the eminent John Wastell (fl. c.1485 - d.1515), whose work would eventually include the central tower at Canterbury Cathedral, complete by 1496, the retrochoir at Peterborough Cathedral, built some time after that, and the final phase of construction at King’s College Chapel, begun in 1508.   However, it is more correct to say that here at Saffron Walden, John Wastell was just one of the masons in charge, for a surviving contract for the building of the church, dated 1485, is with him and Simon Clerk (fl. c.1445 - d.1489) jointly (English Mediaeval Architects: a Biographical Dictionary by John Harvey, Alan Sutton, 1987).  Clerk was then a man in his seventies and the established architect of the second phase of work at both Eton and King’s College Chapels (where he followed John Smyth and Reginald Ely respectively) among other important buildings, while Wastell, who had begun his career as Clerk's apprentice, appears to have been in his mid-twenties at the time, with his ultimately still greater achievements all lying ahead of him.  Perhaps Clerk’s rôle in 1485, therefore, was to act as overseer and guarantor for the competency of an apparently up-and-coming but as yet, unproven young man.  Alternatively, the boot may have been on the other foot and Clerk, who was to die only four years later, though the man that was wanted for this commission, may have been considered rather old and ailing, making prudent the involvement of the younger Wastell to ensure the project would be seen through to a conclusion if Clerk were unable to do so.  If that was the case, then it was a wise decision, for work was actually to go on here until 1525, ten years after Wastell’s death, a decade during which the late Birkin Haward believed that Henry Semark (fl. 1482 - 1534), who worked with Wastell at King's, was probably in charge. 


St. Mary’s, Saffron Walden consists of an aisled nave, a chancel with N. and S. chapels, and a W. tower, to which the nineteenth century has added a spire, making the height of the building greater than its length (194ʹ compared to 184ʹ).  There is also a crypt below the S. aisle, N. and S. porches of which the latter is two-storeyed, and two rood stair turrets that project above the nave and end in crocketed stone roofs, which as Pevsner pointed out, are similar to the polygonal turrets at King’s College Chapel. The window tracery is supermullioned everywhere, but differs between the chapels and the aisles to the nave.  (The S. aisle and S. chapel windows are shown left, viewed from the west.) Both the nave and chancel have clerestories formed of two three-light windows per bay, set above the arcade spandrels except in the easternmost bay of the chancel where the sanctuary projects beyond the chapels. The westernmost bay of the nave, however, has  only one clerestory window each side because the westernmost arches are truncated by the tower, although the tower was constructed in the same building phase. This is of turreted design with secondary angle buttresses.  The embattled tower top and crocketed spire (illustrated right), including the pinnacles and flying buttresses thrown across, are the elegant addition of Thomas Rickman (1776-1841), who it was first coined the terms “Early English”, “Decorated” and “Perpendicular” in his Attempt to Discriminate the Styles of English Architecture, published in 1817, which was by far the most successful attempt at that date (in spite of all the criticisms later made of it) to come to an understanding of the development of Gothic architecture in England.  Rickman did not begin to study churches until he was in his thirties, after short careers in medicine and business.  He went on to examine some three thousand churches, however, and in 1817 he set up as an architect in Liverpool, although he was never taken very seriously by High Churchmen simply because he was a Quaker.  For his work here at Saffron Walden, he used Monks Park stone, which is equivalent to Bath oolite from the Upper Jurassic Series.


The nave arcades are constructed in seven bays (the N. arcade is shown left, and the S. arcade is shown in the thumbnail below right, viewed from the N. aisle) yet there are eight windows in the long aisle walls, a disaccord which is not immediately striking as the aisles are so wide.  The arcade arches are of complex profile and supported on compound piers with semicircular shafts at the cardinal positions.  The shafts towards the nave and aisles continue up between the clerestory windows, to present the appearance of supporting the wall posts of the roof.  This was also Wastell's scheme at Lavenham and Great St. Mary's, Cambridge, although it was a well established arrangement by this time, having previously been used by Reginald Ely among others, at St. Mary's, Burwell (Cambridgeshire), for example, in 1461.  Wastell's design, however, by introducing a horizontal frieze above the arcades, decorated with fleurons, is both more ornate and less unified (see the photograph at the top of the page), for the arcades and clerestory are not drawn together in the way that Ely achieves, and although, in this case, Wastell retains the blank arches, like those at Burwell, below the clerestory windows, these are consequently not carried down into the arcade spandrels below, which contain instead an opulent display of mouchettes and double-cusped quatrefoils in circles.  It may be coincidental, but this is very much an intermediate design between Ely’s work at Burwell and Wastell’s own work at Lavenham.


The arcades from the chancel to the chapels, and the arches from the chapels to the aisles, survive from the early fourteenth century church.  The arches bear two hollow chamfers and the piers are quatrefoil.  There is also some early work in the N. aisle where, beneath the three easternmost windows, twelve blank arches have been re-set, some with canopies and others with various carvings including shields bearing the Instruments of the Passion. The crypt (not examined on this visit) is thirteenth century in date and divided into four bays.


The church roofs are everywhere of the early sixteenth century except, it appears, in the chancel, which Cecil Hewett considered to be a late fifteenth century piece (Church Carpentry, Phillimore, 1982).  What he did not appear to know was that this roof reputedly came from St. Gregory’s, Sudbury (Suffolk), although that seems remarkable if true, and, given the immense difficulties of heavy cartage in those days, of doubtful saving in cost or labour.  (The photograph right, shows the nave roof with the chancel roof behind, through the chancel arch.)


The church was restored by William Butterfield (1814-1900) in 1876 but there is nothing here really to indicate the fact (although Pevsner believed the E. window to be his). That is as it should be, for Butterfield’s characteristic work, though that of a master, would be out of place in this Perpendicular glasshouse.  The church is, however, remarkably lacking in notable furniture, and nor does it contain a single significant monument.