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English Church Architecture -



STANSTED MOUNTFITCHET, St. Mary (TL 521 241)      (July 2005)

(Bedrock:  Palaeocene, Thanet Sand Formation)


This fairly large building, now in the care of The Churches Conservation Trust, is situated by itself, some three quarters of a mile southeast of the small but growing town, and has long been replaced for ecclesiastical purposes by the still larger and relatively imposing brick-built church of 1889, dedicated to St. John, designed by W. D. Caröe (1857-1938).  St. Mary’s church too, has much that is Victorian about it - in this case, the  result of work done by F. T. Dollman (1812-1900), who was probably an artist of rather less ability - but it does also retain some important mediaeval work, and the W. tower dates essentially from the late seventeenth century, even if it has since been rather ill-treated.


It is the tower (shown left, from the northwest) that is likely to strike the visitor first, however - either that or the rather oppressive way in which Dollman has faced the whole of the long nave, independently-gabled N. aisle, chancel and N. chapel, with knapped flint, in an unrewarded monument to labour and expense.  Equally unattractive are the bell-openings and W. window he has inserted in the tower, which have the effect of making one doubt, at first, the English-bonded brickwork as evidence of its early date, at least until one notices the inscription on the S. wall (illustrated right), which reads, “This steeple was rebuilt and the foundation new laid at the sole charge of Sir Stephen Langham of Quinton in the county of Northampton, whose only daughter was married to Sir Thomas Middleton, Lord of this Manor, patron of this church, as also the church was by him, the said Sir Stephen Langham, at the time tiled, repaired and whited, and the porches rebuilt, all being finished in the year 1692”.  The tower rises in three stages to battlements and is supported by very shallow clasping buttresses;  behind the battlements there is a fat, leaded spike.


However, the most important pre-nineteenth century architecture remaining in the present building is Norman and includes the N. and S. doorways, of which the former (see the photograph, left), re-set beneath a shallow gable in the N. aisle, is slightly the more impressive, being composed of five orders - albeit with shafts with scalloped capitals to the first, third and fifth only - displaying, from the outside in, first billet moulding, and then two orders of chevron and two rows of saltires alternately, around a diapered tympanum supported on a curved lintel.  The S. doorway (inside the porch) is composed of four orders, with shafts beneath the second and fourth only and with chevron around the outer two, saltires round the third, and a shallow roll around the fourth, inside which the tympanum is patterned with triangles.  A third major piece of Norman work, this time inside the building, is the chancel arch (shown right), formed of three orders with chevron moulding above shafts with leaf volute capitals to the central order and a strange row of cabbage-like protuberances around the outer, like prototype ball flower.


We should probably be grateful that this Romanesque work, fragmentary though it is, was found a place in Dollman’s reconstruction of 1888:  it might have had less chance of survival had he worked on the church three or four decades earlier, in the more stylistically doctrinaire atmosphere then prevailing.  As it was, Dollman adopted the favoured Second Pointed style for his original work here but showed little inspiration in so doing and thus his window traceries seem conventional and tired.  Nor do they succeed in allowing much light to enter the building, which is positively dismal inside, even though the N. aisle windows now hold clear glass.  The five-bay N. arcade is also Dollman’s and formed of double-flat-chamfered arches springing from circular piers and, at either end, a corbel shaft.  The roofs are Dollman’s too, that to the nave resting on marble shafts and - in an unnecessarily complicated arrangement - with coving beneath to the south, that rests on a further series of shafts rising from corbels, the purpose of which is to bring the roof forward of the wall in order to align it with the tower.  Dollman also restored the two separate arches that lead from the chancel to the chapel, although these appear to have at least a basis in the thirteenth century, in the case of the western arch, and the late fourteenth, in the case of the eastern, suggesting that the chapel was extended eastwards at that time.  (They bear a keeled roll and a sunk quadrant respectively and the former has leaf volute capitals.)  There is rather more important early work to be seen on the S. side of the chancel, where the first and second windows from the east retain thirteenth century side shafts and are separated by a similarly adorned blank arch.  The E. wall has been reconstructed but still has thirteenth century shafts in shaft-rings in the angles. 


The church contains a number of sizeable monuments although only one is mentioned by Gunnis (Dictionary of British Sculptors: 1660-1851, The Abbey Library, 1951).  Commemorating William Harcourt Torriano, this may be found on the south side of the nave and is by Thomas and Edward Gaffin (father and son) (fl. 1805-1865), who produced “an apparently unceasing flood, of tame, dull and uninteresting monuments and memorial tablets”:  this example of their work, though somewhat lacking in detail, features a reasonably well carved weeping female figure bending over an altar.  Then in the N. chapel N. wall is a mediaeval tomb canopy containing an  effigy of a knight with crossed legs resting on a lion, reputed to depict either Sir Richard de Lancaster (d. 1291) or his son, Sir John (d. 1334).   However, most arrestingly, against the S. wall of the sanctuary is a huge monument to Sir Thomas Middleton (d. 1631), complete with a tomb chest, an effigy of a bearded Sir Thomas wearing a ruff, and a coffered arch above pairs of black marble columns, as well as the usual achievement, a long Latin inscription, and the carved symbols of mortality.   Sir Thomas was Lord Mayor of London for a time and had four wives. Finally, at the east end of the N. aisle is the tomb chest of his daughter, Hester Salisbury, who predeceased him by seventeen years.  This bears the effigy of a woman supposedly wearing a hunting costume (albeit of a very impractical nature), including a tall hat.  She was reputedly killed by a stag.