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English Church Architecture.


BIBURY, St. Mary  (SP 118 065),


(Bedrock:  Middle Jurassic, Great Oolite Group.)


A puzzling church, a detailed decription and partial interpretation of which are provided here.    Let the reader improve upon it if he or she can!




This is an exceptionally difficult church to disentangle architecturally although its antiquity is not in doubt for its origins as a Saxon minster are witnessed by various disconnected pieces of evidence, including the remains of a pilaster strip set in the chancel S. wall (below left), a re-set Saxon grave slab decorated with interlinking rings, embedded in the N. wall (below centre), a solitary double-splayed circular window (i.e. splayed inside and out) in the S. wall of the nave, probably once forming part of the clerestory but now partially obscured by the W. wall of the later S. aisle (below right), and, inside the building, the jambs of the chancel arch (illustrated further below on the left), which retain their early eleventh century carved capitals (of which the left one is shown further below right) beneath the complications created in later centuries when the arch was raised and given its present pointed form.  These remnants, although fragmentary, are nevertheless sufficient to show the Saxon nave and chancel were virtually the same width as the nave and chancel today, whatever their exact length may or may not have been. 


Almost everything else now to be seen here at St. Mary's, Bibury, apart from the tower bell-stage, the nave clerestory and some other inserted late Gothic windows, was added during the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, but the complexities introduced during that time are multifarious and made more difficult to interpret by their chronological proximity.  This is especially true of the maddeningly confusing N. arcade, insofar as it justifies the term at all, for it is formed, from east to west, of an elaborately designed individual arch followed by a wall piece, a 'proper' two-bay arcade whose arches nevertheless bear different mouldings, a second wall piece, a second individual arch, a third wall piece, and a third individual arch, blocked during some later age but presumably once leading into the contemporary northwest tower.  Perhaps David Verey and Alan Brooks got the measure of all this (in the 'Gloucestershire Cotswolds' volume of The Buildings of England, New Haven & London, Yale University Press, 2000, p. 168) when they asked, 'May this [arcade] not indicate pre-existent Saxon porticus?  How can this irregularity be explained otherwise?  Not by gradual growth as stylistically there is very little difference from east to west, although there is a variety of forms.'


So indeed there is, and surely only the most insouciant of ages would have been content for the church to develop in this way!  The easternmost arch to the N. aisle, perhaps of very early thirteenth century date, is formed of an unmoulded inner order, an outer order bearing a keeled roll, and responds comprising two orders of keeled shafts with delicately carved capitals.  (The west respond of this arch is shown below left.)  The two-bay section of the arcade which follows to the west has a large round central pier with a scalloped capital looking scarcely later than c. 1150, responds formed of two orders of keeled shafts with carved capitals reminiscent of waterleaf, generally associated with Norman-Transitional work of c. 1180-1210, and slightly pointed arches above, unmoulded on the inner order but bearing horizontal and vertical chevron around the outer order of the eastern arch and a keeled roll around the outer order of the western arch (as seen below right, in the photograph taken from the southeast), for which piece of downright contrariness there seems to be no conceivable explanation.   Finally, although the two separate western arches both display stopped chamfers on the inner order of the jambs, the more easterly has horizontal chevron around the outer order of the arch itself, and the western arch, only a flat chamfer.  The tower arch leading into the N. aisle is triple-flat-chamfered, with the inner order rising from corbels.   The three-bay S. aisle runs alongside the eastern half of the nave only, but the S. arcade too, displays a number of (admittedly lesser) differences between its piers and responds:  its basic design consists of double-flat-chamfered arches supported on circular piers and semicircular responds with octagonal and semi-octagonal abaci, but the non-standard carved capitals vary markedly, and in the case of the western pier, appear also to have had some of their carving sawn off.  The porch, which is probably contemporary with the S. aisle,  adjoins the westernmost bay to the south (i.e. not to the west):  the pointed outer doorway formed of two flat-chamfered orders beneath a hood-mould decorated with dogtooth, contrasts with the round-arched inner doorway carrying a roll and a flat chamfer.   Presumably the latter is twelfth century work like the re-set N. doorway, with chevron moulding around the arch and billet on the hood-mould.  The outer order of the jambs is decorated with nook-shafts with carved capitals  but the trefoil-cusped arch cut into the tympanum is a later modification.  (See the photograph of the east jamb, lower down the page.)  Other external features of twelfth and thirteenth century date around the nave and aisles include the remains of three stepped lancets in the nave W. wall, which were probably blocked when the pitch of the roof was lowered, and several lancets in the nave S. wall, to the west of the aisle and porch.


The relatively long chancel is lit by three lancets, each to the north and south, and a (restored?) E. window formed of three lancet lights set inside a blank arch, with shafts at the sides and a roll moulding above, both externally and internally.  The westernmost lancet on each side is extended down to function as a lowside window and the eastern S. lancet has a dropped sill within, tp form a sedile.  As for the post-thirteenth century insertions and additions to the church, these include the present three-light, N. aisle windows (three to the north and one to the east) with intersecting cusped tracery commensurate with c. 1300-15, and the large, five-light Perpendicular W. window to the nave, with a transom at the springing level and a supertransom across the central light above.  The nave and tower are embattled above two-light, square-headed cleestory windows and bell-openings of varying dimensions, suggesting they are contemporary.  How the tower ended in earlier times is now impossible to tell.


Finally, the church is not rich in significant furnishings but foremost among those that are worthy of  note is the large, square, late thirteenth century font (shown below), with tracery patterns on the faces of a bowl and more carved mouldings around the octagonal corner shafts, including cable moulding near the top.  The most notable piece of wooden furniture is probably the settle standing against the chancel N. wall, which was considered by David Verey and/or Nikolaus Pevsner to have been adapted from a sixteenth century bedstead!  Carved with linenfold panelling on the lower section of the back, it bears the  inscriptions above, 'Lord have mercy on us and save us' and 'Lord hear our prayer and grant us mercy', together with the initials 'W. M.'.