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English Church Architecture.


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


(Bedrock:  Upper Cretaceous, Upper Chalk.)


One of a number of major, 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.




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, 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 accurate to say that here at Saffron Walden, John Wastell was one of the masons in charge, for a surviving contract for the building of the church, dated 1485, is with him and Simon Clerk jointly (John Harvey, English Mediaeval Architects: a Biographical Dictionary down to 1550, Gloucester, Alan Sutton, 1987, p. 59).  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. (Suffolk Medieval Church Arcades, Hitcham, Suffolk Institute of Archaeology and History, 1993, p. 404). 


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 (Nikolaus Pevsner & James Bettley, The Buildings of England: Essex, New Haven & London, Yale University Press, 2007, p. 656). 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 southwest.)  Both the nave and chancel have clerestories lit by two, three-light windows per bay, set above the spandrels of the arcades, save only that the westernmost bay of the nave has  just one clerestory window each side because the westernmostarches 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 however (illustrated right), including the pinnacles and flying buttresses thrown across, are the elegant addition of Thomas Rickman (1776-1841), who first coined the terms 'Early English', 'Decorated' and 'Perpendicular' in his seminal Attempt to Discriminate the Styles of Architecture in England, Oxford & London, Parker & Co., 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 because he was a Quaker.  For his work here at Saffron Walden, he used Monks Park Stone from Wiltshire, which is equivalent to Bath Oolite from the Upper Jurassic Series.


The nave arcades are constructed in seven bays (of which the N. arcade is shown left) 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 reach the wall posts of the roof.  This was Wastell's scheme at Lavenham and Great St. Mary's, Cambridge, also, 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, London & Chichester, Phillimore, 1982, p. 126).  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. 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.


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