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English Church Architecture.

 

PRITTLEWELL, St. Mary  (TQ 877 868),

SOUTHEND-ON-SEA. 

(Bedrock:  Eocene, London Clay Formation.)

 

The premier church in England's newest city.

This is a large building which dominates its open position on top of the hill leading up from Priory Park towards Southend Victoria station, and it is a pity its urban surroundings are so thoroughly undistinguished.  The church does its best to create a noble impression, however, thanks to its fine W. tower, which is probably the best piece of architecture in Kentish ragstone in Essex.  Kentish ragstone - a limestone from the lower greensand formation of the Lower Cretaceous Series, laid down beneath a warm sea about one hundred and ten million years ago when Britain lay at approximately the latitude of modern-day Spain - is far from an ideal building material, being intractable and course-textured, but in a stoneless county, it was nevertheless welcomed.  It also had the advantage of outcropping in places accessible by boat, most notably around Kentís Medway Basin, enabling it to be transported around the coast or up the Thames to London and Windsor.

 

St. Mary's church, which is topped everywhere by flint chequerwork battlements, consists of a short chancel, a high, broad nave with an equally wide S. aisle (but, curiously, no N. aisle) continuing alongside the chancel to form a chapel, a tall W. tower, and a two-storeyed S. porch.  Most of the details of the building are now Perpendicular, albeit often restored or renewed, but the N. side of the chancel presents important architectural evidence from much earlier times, and other historically significant work can be found inside, in the eastern bays of the arcade.

 

To begin outside the church, the chancel is two and a half bays long, enabling the sanctuary to project half a bay beyond the adjoining S. chapel.   Its chief architectural interest lies to the north however, where a slightly raised area of stonework contiguous with its junction with the nave, surrounds half a round-headed arch turned in re-used Roman brick, which Pevsner considered to be of seventh century date.   (See the photographs above left and above right, which show this half-arch, from outside and inside the church respectively.)  This seems once to have been a doorway, and presumably the masonry around it, is contemporary, in which case it is likely that beyond it to the east, the original Saxon church terminated in an apse, like the seventh century churches of St. Peterís, Bradwell, Essex, and St. Maryís, Lyminge and St. Maryís, Reculver, in Kent, whose plans have been revealed by excavation.  All three of these buildings had doorways in the west end of the chancel N. wall, which led into a small rectangular room known as a diaconicon, which probably served a purpose akin to a vestry and sacristy combined.  Apsidal ends to chancels were often demolished in the twelfth century, and the buildings finished square, and that may have happened here, for the E. wall of the present chancel, the remainder of the N. wall, and parts of the N. and S. walls of the nave - now seen, in the latter case, inside the church, between the nave and aisle - appear to be Norman.  However, it is a distinct possibility that the original church at Prittlewell was contemporary with some of the oldest churches in Britain, constructed under the Heptarchy, when Essex was still, or had only shortly ceased to be, a separate kingdom.

 

 

The other section of external masonry conspicuously different from the rest, is on the N. side of the nave, immediately west of the nave/chancel junction (as illustrated, left).  This consists of a tall, embattled portion, with little slit-like rectangular openings set above each other on the left hand (east) side, whose function was clearly to light the rood stair, and to the right (west), a four-light square-headed window below and two, two-light windows above, giving the appearance of an upper storey, but whose purpose is actually the perfectly straightforward one of throwing light on the rood.  Presumably, this section of wall was constructed when the former rood screen was inserted, probably in the fifteenth or early sixteenth century.

 

The tower rises in four stages, supported by diagonal buttresses with four off-sets and with a stair turret enclosed in the southwest angle, to a bell-stage pierced by three-light openings with cusped intersecting tracery, and capped by chequerwork battlements and large polygonal crocketed pinnacles at the angles.   It is seen to best effect from the west, where the doorway has carved shields in the spandrels and a chequerwork frieze above, the second stage encompasses the renewed W. window with archetypal supermullioned tracery, a niche on either side, and a simple two-light square-headed window above, and the third stage is lit by a two-light window beneath a three-centred arch.  The S. face has a blank first stage, a niche and a two-light, square-headed window in the second stage, and the clock in the third stage. 

 

The remainder of the exterior of the church may be quickly described.  The chancel windows are untraceried and renewed: there is one two-light N. window now set in the projecting section and one three-light N. window further east, the E window is four-light, and there is just room for a two-light S. window to the east of the chapel.  The majority of the nave N. wall is hidden behind a long, low, early twentieth century vestry, which doubtless serves its purpose well enough but does nothing for the appearance of the building.  The S. aisle and chapel have a blocked Perpendicular W. doorway beneath a four-light renewed W. window, and three-light S. windows, all renewed and untraceried apart from the easternmost window in the chapel, which has supermullioned tracery.  The S. porch (seen, right, in the view of the church from the southeast) is lit to east and west in the lower storey by a two-light, square-headed window, and to the south in the upper storey by a one-light window in a rectangular surround.  The outer doorway is formed of two orders, with wave mouldings around the inner order above semicircular shafts.  The inner doorway has been renewed but retains its original fifteenth or sixteenth century wooden door, with carved traceried panels.

 

Inside the church, the S. arcade deserves particular attention.  Formed of six bays between the nave and aisle, and two more between the chancel and chapel, it divides into two parts - its three western bays representing a thirteenth century cutting through of the earlier Norman wall, and the five bays beyond, a Perpendicular extension.  Considering these in turn, the three crudely-formed western arches (seen below left, from the southwest corner of the aisle) bear a single and rather slight flat-chamfered moulding, above octagonal piers which are narrower than the arches themselves.  This can scarcely be much later than c. 1210, yet the wall through which they are cut is quite clearly older, as witnessed by the two little round-headed blocked windows and remains of a third, still seen in the spandrels (and also in the photograph at the foot of the page).  These must once have lit the churchís aisleless Norman nave. Moreover, the presence of this length of wall, in conjunction with the Norman masonry on the north and side of the church, mentioned above, suggests the twelfth century nave was as long and as wide as the present one, which is surprising if true.   The three eastern arches of the nave arcade, together with the two arches between the chancel and chapel, the chancel arch and the arch from the aisle to the chapel, are different altogether, composed of two orders bearing a wave and a hollow, supported on much taller, slenderer octagonal piers beneath.  They appear to be fifteenth century in date, but they raise difficult questions about exactly what was done and why.  Presumably the fifteenth century reconstruction would have involved the demolition of the eastern half of the Norman-Transitional aisle, for it seems unlikely that the original aisle would have comprised only three bays, and at the western end of all places...  Perhaps the intention was to build two entirely separate chapels here - the present one, and another further west, occupying the position now taken by the three eastern bays of the aisle, for which one small piece of corroborating evidence might be the decorative niches in the spandrels of the new arches on the S. side.   

 

 

Finally, it only remains to add that the church is not especially rich in furnishings or monuments though the S. chapel E. window contains some significant sixteenth century German glass.  Rather more striking, however, is the painted decoration of the hammerbeam chancel roof, which is the work of Stephen Dykes Bower (1908-94), the architect of most of the admirable twentieth century work at Bury St. Edmunds Cathedral, and who displayed here his usual fine draughtsmanship and another facet of his skill as a designer