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English Church Architecture.


THAXTED, St. John the Baptist (TL 610 310),


(Bedrock:  Palaeocene, Thanet Sand Formation.)


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.




This is the spiritual companion to that other great Perpendicular church in Essex, St. Mary’s, Saffron Walden, although the construction of this building in its present form was rather more protracted with the S. aisle, S. porch and S. transept being built c. 1370, the N. transept, c. 1400, the N. aisle and N. porch, c. 1445, the W. tower, c. 1485, and the chancel, N. and S. chapels, and nave clerestory, rebuilt c. 1510.  Even so, the impression created by the architecture does not really betray this piecemeal development, for only the five-bay nave arcades clearly appear to be a different age from the rest.  In fact, these are Decorated and date from around 1340, which is, therefore, the date of the nave. The arches are formed of two orders, each bearing a narrow quadrant moulding, with hood-moulds above, rising from head label stops. The piers are quatrefoil in section with the addition of narrow semicircular shafts between the foils.


The church is best examined in the usual way - outside, then in;  and since it is the W. tower (shown left, in a view from the southeast) which is the most commanding feature of the building as the visitor approaches up the hill or drives towards Thaxted from the west, that is as good a place to start as any.  It is, indeed, a magnificent structure, slightly shorter than that at Saffron Walden (180 feet compared to 194 feet) but nearer the summit of the hill and with less competition for the skyline.  It rises in four stages, the lowest with a W. doorway with traceried spandrels and a gabled niche to either side, the second with a supermullioned W. window also between niches, this time set in the angles created by the buttresses, the third blank, and the fourth with two, two-light bell-openings in each wall, set in square surrounds beneath labels (rectangular dripstones).  The material for all this is pebble rubble with bands of re-used Roman brick, yet this does not detract from the tower’s grandeur.  The buttresses are set-back for the first three stages, but turn diagonal for the fourth.  At the third stage they are decorated with blank arches and crockets.  The tower is surmounted by a tall, slender, crocketed spire, lit by three tiers of lucarnes with one, two and three lights in descending order, and supported by flying buttresses thrown across from crocketed pinnacles at the tower angles.


Moving east to the nave aisles, the windows everywhere adopt the same form of supermullioned tracery, notwithstanding their different dates.  Buttresses divide the bays, with those on the N. side (which presents the principal façade) ending in crocketed pinnacles.  Both the N. and S. porches are two-storeyed, and while the latter is a little smaller, it still carries a vault above an east/west passageway that runs between open side arches additional to the main entrance from the south.  The N. porch (shown right), however, was attributed by John Harvey to Reginald Ely (English Mediaeval Architects: a Biographical Dictionary down to 1550, Gloucester, Alan Sutton, 1987, p. 98), although it does seem very ornate compared to what is known of his usual style elsewhere. (Ely was court architect to Henry VI, who was surely the most aesthetic of mediaeval English kings.)  The porch is certainly commensurate with Ely's skill and general abilities, however.  The N. front is especially grand and features: (i) two deeply recessed windows to the upper storey, each surrounded by two hollows containing carved heads and flowers at intervals; (ii) blank octfoils beneath, with alternate foils pointed, each containing a shield displaying quarterly, 1 & 4 three lions passant guardant, and 2 & 3, three fleurs-de-lys; and (iii) a canopied niche between, supported on a pillar which itself stands on two carved heads and an angel.  The outer doorway has traceried spandrels, a frieze of carved figures runs immediately below the battlements, and there is a lierne vault within. However, still more striking is the tall octagonal stair turret in the southwest re-entrant, between the porch and N. aisle, which rises higher than either and is topped by battlements with figure pinnacles on the merlons. 


Unfortunately, moving east again, the transept windows are replacements and unspecial, although the N. transept has a frieze of grotesques beneath the battlements on the gable front.  However, the four-bay chancel chapels have well-designed four-light, square-headed windows, with split Ys, intersecting subarcuation of the lights in pairs, and quatrefoils above.  (See the N. chapel below.)  The crocketed pinnacles which terminate the intervening buttresses have carved figures at each corner.  The E. front of the church displays a four-light window in each of the chapels and a five-light window in the chancel, all with elaborate supermullioned tracery.


Inside the building the nave arcades have already been described, and the arch between the crossing and nave is contemporary and similar. There is no decorative carving in the spandrels of these arches as at Saffron Walden, but the later clerestory (shown left, looking northeast) could scarcely be more lavish, for here the four-light windows are deeply recessed and the splays are filled all the way round with a double column of blank arches and blank encircled quatrefoils.  John Harvey believed this to be the work of John Brond (English Mediaeval Architects, pp. 34-35), who may previously have worked elsewhere in the parish, at Horham Hall, across the fields to the southwest.


The arches to the transepts are the same, north and south, in spite of their different dates:  those leading from the nave aisles are formed of two orders separated by two deep hollows, springing from responds with two orders of attached shafts, while those from the crossing to the transepts and from the crossing and transepts to the chancel and its chapels, are formed of a single order only.  The four-bay arcades between the chancel and the chapels, however, have beautiful openwork spandrels, each containing a quatrefoil and two mouchettes beneath the label.  (See the S. chapel arcade, below right.) The piers are essentially lozenge-shaped, with semicircular shafts towards the openings supporting the quadrant mouldings of the arches, and with narrower shafts between the arches continuing up between the uncusped chancel clerestory windows to meet the wall posts of the roof.  This is just sufficiently steeply pitched to be secured with tie beams, unlike the nave roof, which is decorated with shields and grotesques and which was described by Hewett as “camber-beamed [i.e. with beams just sufficiently curved to allow the roof to drain] and magnificent” (Church Carpentry, London and Chichester Phillimore, 1982, p. 132).  The N. chapel roof has retained a little mediaeval paint.  The nave aisle roofs display carved shields and leaf designs etc. on the bosses, and figures on the alternate principal rafters, and were dated by Hewett to c. 1475 to the north and the early sixteenth century to the south.  He also dated the S. transept roof to 1325-50 and the north transept roof, of king-post type, to the late fourteenth or early fifteenth century.


Surprisingly after all this, the church is not especially rich in furnishings, but the pulpit, screens to the N. and S. chapels, and communion rail, are all late seventeenth century work, and the building does also contain one monument mentioned by Rupert Gunnis, although it is not special.  Commemorating Thomas Swallow (d. 1712), it is the work of Edward Stanton (1681-1734), 'one of the most prolific of English statuaries' and son of the greater William (Dictionary of British Sculptors: 1660-1851, London The Abbey Library, 1951, pp. 366-367).


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