English Church Architecture -
LASTINGHAM, St. Mary (SE 728 905) (May 2003)
(Bedrock: Upper Jurassic, Kellaways Rock Member)
This is one of a number of rewarding churches clustered in a small area at the foot of the North York Moors. Others include Christ Church, Appleton-le-Moors, St. Gregory’s, Kirkdale, St. Andrew’s, Middleton, and St. Peter and St. Paul’s, Pickering, all of which are quite different from one another.
To understand this complicated building, it is necessary to go back to Saxon times when St. Cedd, later Bishop to the East Saxons, established a monastery here. Remarkably, Cedd’s original church in Essex, at Bradwell-juxta-Mare, still stands, but here he would have built in wood and only later was a small stone church erected. Before that happened, Cedd had come back to Lastingham to see how the monastery was faring, only (according to Bede writing in 731) to catch the plague and die (in 664). Some of the sculptural fragments to be found at Lastingham today are assumed to derive from the Saxon stone building. The monastery was destroyed by Viking invaders, either in the ninth or tenth century.
Shortly after the Conquest, in 1078, Stephen, Abbot of Whitby, got permission from William I to take monks to Lastingham in order to restore the community there. He first built a crypt over the site where Cedd was reputedly buried, and then began to erect an abbey church above. He had already completed the apse, chancel and lower part of the central tower when, in 1088, the work was broken off, and Stephen and his monks all relocated to York. No definite reason is known for this, but it is likely that, as always in those days this far north, security was proving to be a major problem.
The church seen at Lastingham today is essentially the church that Stephen began, with some later additions. It is situated on an eminence and so the height of the nave, chancel and apse is especially striking. The apse (shown left, from the southeast) has five Norman windows around it, including two where it becomes straight-sided for a short distance. The sills of these windows are some twenty feet (6 m.) above ground level, above a string course with billet moulding, and the windows themselves are large and set in arches of two orders.
The present chancel occupies this apse and what was formerly the eastern half of Stephen’s chancel, while the present nave comprises the western half of that chancel together with the area that was to have been the lower stage of his crossing tower. In 1228, this tower was blocked off on its western side, creating the new church’s W. wall, and aisles were added where chancel aisles and transepts had originally been intended, by the insertion of two double-bay Early English arcades on either side (i.e. thereby forming what is effectively a four-bay arcade on each side, divided at the mid-point by the former E. crossing arch).
In the fourteenth century, the S. aisle was widened and new windows put in the N. aisle, and in the fifteenth century the modest, parochial W. tower was added, beyond Stephen’s intended crossing. However, the piers of the W. crossing arch can still be seen outside as well as in , on each side of this narrow tower, which is less than half the width that the central tower would have been. These Norman piers have had their western parts bevelled off above, to make them look like buttresses (see the southwest pier, illustrated right), but it is obvious what they really are, since each is composed of a massive central shaft with a narrower one each side, all three of which are provided with scalloped capitals. Westward from these piers, the nave of the abbey church was intended to have sprung.
Today, the aisle windows of the building are all renewed in Decorated style, apart from a square-headed, two-light one to the west which shows the new work is indeed based on the old. The small W. tower is embattled and diagonally buttressed, and has a two-light W. window with supermullioned tracery. The S. porch was erected in 1838 to the designs of the artist John Jackson.
Inside the building, the crypt is obviously paramount. Pevsner described it as “unforgettable” and, in fact, it is the only apsidal crypt in Britain to have a chancel, nave and side aisles, these being demarcated by the positions of four stumpy piers with cushion capitals (illustrated near left) and by the groined vaults they support above (illustrated far left). The bases of the piers are thought to be constructed from re-used Saxon masonry.
Ascending into the nave once more and moving from west to east, there is one large bay of groin vaulting west of the E. crossing arch with its two unmoulded orders. There then follows a similar-sized square space, corresponding with the intended abbey chancel, covered by another large bay of vaulting and divided by a low north/south wall halfway along for reasons already explained. Finally a second arch is reached (shown right), formed of a thick roll moulding springing from shafts, which demarcates the start of the apse.
The two double-bay N. & S. arcades, inserted within the Norman arches in the thirteenth century, are composed of double-flat-chamfered arches springing from central piers formed of four wide keel mouldings. The capitals are now rather shapeless and appear to have been heavily scraped. The easternmost bay of the northeast arcade has been blocked to create a N. chapel at the E. end of the aisle. The vaulting in all parts of the building, except the crypt, is the work of John Loughborough Pearson, who restored the church in 1879. He had a difficult commission, because John Jackson had been hard at work before him, and part of Pearson’s task involved trying to undo the damage Jackson had done.
Finally, apart from some relatively minor Anglo-Saxon sculptural fragments, the church furnishings are now mostly of the nineteenth century or later. The pulpit (shown in the thumbnail, left) is by Pearson and constructed wholly in a cool limestone that fits effortlessly and almost unnoticed into its venerable surroundings.