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English Church Architecture.


BURY ST. EDMUNDS, St. Mary  (TL 856 640),


(Bedrock:  Upper Cretaceous, Upper Chalk.)


A major church mostly designed by William Layer (fl. 1419-44),

 one of the early fifteenth century's foremost English masons.




This is an excellent building, architecturally more important for its mediaeval work than the adjacent cathedral and enclosing one of the largest internal spaces of all the churches in England.  It is also a church that can be close-dated in nearly all its parts and where at least the architect of the nave and aisles appears to be known, as well, perhaps, as the architect responsible for the chapels and sanctuary.  A church was originally built on this site at least as early as the eleventh century, only to be demolished c. 1110 and rebuilt in the time of Abbot Anselm (1121 - 48).  The chancel was rebuilt a second time in the Decorated period and the tower, remodelled c. 1400, as shown by local wills, when, as now, it lay outside the line of the N. aisle to the north but in line with it to the west.   Still largely intact, it rises in three short stages supported by angle buttresses, to three-light bell-openings with straightened octfoils in the heads, and battlements above.  The only other surviving feature of the building that existed then, is the chancel arch, composed of two flat-chamfered orders springing from semi-octagonal responds, for the church was otherwise rebuilt again between c. 1424-33, as witnessed this time by a whole series of bequests.


This was a major and comprehensive project that was probably directed by William Layer (fl. 1419-44), a master mason who may have lived for a time in Rougham, six miles to the  east, where the nave clerestory and original design for the tower may also be by him (and perhaps also, due to its similarity, the tower at Great Barton), and who is known to have worked on the rebuilding of the W. tower of Bury St. Edmunds abbey.  According to Birkin Haward (Suffolk Mediaeval Church Arcades, Hitcham, Suffolk Institute of Archaeology and History, 1993, pp.  149, 192-193 & 330-331), William Layer came from one of the three Layer villages of Essex (i.e. Layer Breton, Layer-de-la-Haye or Layer Marney) and, as well as in Rougham, owned property in Bury St. Edmunds, Fornham All Saints and Westley, suggesting he was highly regarded and correspondingly well rewarded. Unfortunately, since so little of his work either survives or is yet recognized, it is not possible to draw up a list of features that can be regarded as characteristic of his style, but his all-embattled aisled nave here is a most impressive structure that appears to have influenced the later work, in turn, of Reginald Ely and John Melford, most notably perhaps, through the rhomboidal shape of its arcade piers, with attached, narrow bowtells to north and south, separated by casements from groups of three bowtells with capitals towards the openings.  (See the N. arcade, illustrated right.)  This is a section, as Birkin Haward pointed out, designed to combine the necessary width across the thickness of the wall, with 'the least visual bulk and the greatest clear span between piers' (ibid, p. 136) and as Haward also showed, the section Layer employed is similar but not identical to, the form that Ely and Melford would later adopt.  As for Layer's three-light, four-centred windows, these are almost identical to windows in the chancel at St. Mary's, Adderbury, in Oxfordshire, which was constructed between 1408-18 and attributed by John Harvey (The Perpendicular Style, London,  Batsford, 1978, p. 122) to the master mason Richard Winchcombe (fl. 1398 - 1440), which might suggest a wide cross-fertilization of ideas in the early fifteenth century and that William Layer had come across this design elsewhere, perhaps during the three or four years in which, in those days, 'it was customary for masons to travel around...  after the completion of their apprenticeships before qualifying as a master' (Suffolk Mediaeval Church Arcades, p. 146).  This connection with Richard Winchcombe must be qualified, however, by the fact that the window tracery in Adderbury chancel is known to have been taken out and renewed in 1831-4, and it is not known how faithfully this was done, but Winchcombe's six-light windows in the Oxford Divinity School, which can be dated to 1424-39, are also very similar, considering they are also twice the width.  In any event, be this as it may, the aisle windows here at St. Mary's, Bury St. Edmunds, are excellently proportioned, and consist of two, two-light windows per bay in the clerestory, with split "Y"s and ogee lights, and three-light windows in the N. and S. walls of the aisles, with strong mullions, castellated transoms, subarcuated outer lights with little quatrefoils in their heads, and two tiers of reticulation units above the central lights, separated by latticed supertransoms. (See the glossary for an explanation of these terms.)  The W. windows are four-light and the massive nave W. window is five-light, with the centre light wider than the others and with three tiers of reticulation units.  The W. doorway has a square-headed niche on either side, and at the opposite end of the nave, at the northeast and southeast angles, rood stair turrets project above the roof to terminate in little crocketed spires.  


Re-entering the church to examine Layer's nave and aisles more fully, the arcades are striking both for their height and length, for they are formed of an exceptional ten bays, which extend the nave and aisles one bay west of the tower, while the aisles are also wider than before the reconstruction, with the result that the tower now protrudes into the second and third bays of the N. aisle from the north.  The single shafts attached to the arcade piers to north and south, continue up between the spandrels of the arches to meet the wall posts of the nave and aisle roofs, while further shafts rise from the arch apices to separate the two clerestory windows in each bay.  This is a noble, restrained and unified design, that may well have been the prototype - either directly or indirectly - for Reginald Ely's nave at Burwell in Cambridgeshire, and John Wastell's great naves at Great St. Mary's Cambridge, Lavenham in this county, and Saffron Walden in Essex, among other places.  It is also a design much enhanced by the single-hammerbeam nave roof (illustrated left), tentatively dated to 1444/5 by the figure on the westernmost hammerbeam on either side, thought to represent King Henry VI,  and by the penultimate figure, believed to portray his queen, Margaret of Anjou, while the fact that she is holding her crown rather than wearing it, is considered to be intended to show that she was betrothed to Henry when the roof was constructed, but not yet married to him.  (Clive Paine, St. Mary's Bury St. Edmunds, Bury St. Edmunds, Honey Hill Publishing, 2000, p.4.)  The remaining hammerbeams have attached angel figures, all of which, miraculously, appear essentially original, and there are more angels set transversely in two tiers on the cornice, carved figures on the wall posts (mostly depicting the apostles), and dragons, birds and fish carved in the spandrels of the arched braces.  Pevsner considered this roof to be 'rightly famous' (Nikolaus Pevsner & James Bettley, The Buildings of England: Suffolk West, New Haven & London, Yale University Press, 2015, p. 138) and D.P. Mortlock (The Popular Guide to Suffolk Churches, Cambridge, The Lutterworth Press, 1988, p. 95), 'one of the finest fifteenth century roofs in England', which is probably right, and it seems highly likely that it was designed by a carpenter with whom William Layer had worked at the abbey and/ or that the work was done under Layer's supervision.  


The N. porch (illustrated right) must be described next as it was built with money left for it in 1440 by John Notyngham. It communicates with the eighth bay of the N. aisle from the west, this very easterly position having been determined partly by the position of the northwest tower and partly by that of the church in relation to the abbey precinct.  It has three elaborate niches in the gable, a doorway with an order of shafts and shields in encircled quatrefoils in the spandrels, and two-light side windows featuring pairs of mouchettes and inverted daggers inside Y-tracery, leading the church guide and D.P. Mortlock (but not Pevsner) to assume they have been re-used from Decorated times.  That, however, is almost certainly a misinterpretation, based on an unwillingness to accept that such windows could ever be constructed after c. 1350.  The porch has a crocketed gable and clasping polygonal buttresses that terminate in pinnacles in the form of carved beasts, of which two more sit above the battlements at the back.  It is possible that William Layer was the architect of this also, but because he died in 1444,  Simon Clerk (fl. 1445 - d. 1489)  has also been suggested as a possibility, in spite of the fact that this excellent but rather florid work does not fit easily with what is known of Clerk's apparent love of clean lines and lack of fussiness elsewhere. (Cf., for example, the W. tower at St. Peter & St. Paul's, Lavenham and see also the further discussion of this important master mason under the entry for St. Nicholas's church, Denston.)  Simon Clerk is, however, the likely architect of the chapels and sanctuary (although John Forster, a pupil of Layer's, fl 1433-94, has also been proposed), the latter being a one-bay extension of the chancel to the east.  These parts of the church were built with money left by Jankyn Smyth, who died in 1481.  The chapel and sanctuary windows to north and south (see the N. chapel windows, right), which are three-light like the aisle windows, are nevertheless narrower, with two-centre lights and two tiers of reticulation units above, with plain supertransoms between the tiers and little sexfoils in the eyelets.  The chapel E. windows in the style of the nave aisles, appear to be the original aisle E. windows, re-set.  The chancel (sanctuary) E. window has four very wide lights and supermullioned tracery.  Internally, the four-bay chapel arcades copy the nave arcades, albeit with suitably reduced dimensions, showing Clerk's concern to preserve the unity of Layer's original scheme.  There is an arch across the chancel where it joins the later sanctuary.  The chancel roof is of wagon form, with fine carvings on the bosses which include the chained swan of the House of Lancaster and a fox preaching to chickens. It was restored in 1880 and again in 1968.


Roofs apart, the church contains little woodwork of real importance but there are many monuments of note, including three mentioned by Rupert Gunnis (Dictionary of British Sculptors: 1660-1851, London, The Abbey Library, 1951, pp. 125, 294-295 & 371), the first to to Lieutenant-Colonel Collier (d. 1814) by Robert de Carle of Bury St. Edmunds (fl. 1788 - 1848), the second to Thomas Bedingfield (d. 1764) by Thomas Paty of Bristol (1713-89), and the third to James Oakes (d. 1829) by William Steggles (1767-1859).  More important than these, however, are the tomb-chests on either side of the chancel beneath the easternmost arcade arches, that on the N. side featuring effigies of Sir William Carewe (d. 1501) and his wife, Margaret (d. 1525), and that on the S. side with effigies of Sir Robert Drury (d. 1536) and his wife, Anne.  A brass in the S. chapel depicts Jankyn Smyth and his wife.


Finally a note should be added about the restorations the church has undergone, not least because the details are so well recorded.  The first was in 1844 by Lewis Cottingham (1787-1847), who restored Rochester and Hereford Cathedrals and was generally well regarded both in his lifetime and afterwards.  His work here included repairs to the nave roof and clerestory and the complete external renewal of the W. front, at a total cost of 2,372.4s.0d.  Then came the restoration of 1867 by Sir Arthur Blomfield (1829-99), who refitted the building at a cost of 2,056.1s.6d and is thus responsible for the innocuous but indifferent nave benches, characteristics which are evident in much of his work.  Finally, so far as the major work of the nineteenth century was concerned, came the restoration of 1880, when the tracery in all the windows on the south side of the church were renewed and the chancel roof was restored as we have seen.  The cost is unrecorded.  Twentieth century work was chiefly concerned with alterations to the woodwork, unavoidable masonry repairs for structural reasons, and to cleaning, but the N. porch was restored twice, in 1924 and 1993.