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English Church Architecture.


CAVENDISH, St. Mary (TL 805 466),


(Bedrock:  Upper Cretaceous, Upper Chalk.)


One of a number of important, 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 altogether an excellent building, situated beside an attractive green, from which  it is partly obscured by a particularly large tree.  All-embattled to the west of the chancel, it consists of a W. tower with a projecting southeast stair turret, an aisled nave with a S. porch, and a chancel with a N. vestry and organ chamber.  The tower and porch appear to date from c. 1300, but otherwise in almost all its details, this is one of the 'Perpendicular glasshouses' for which East Anglia is famous.  Pevsner made a critical error, writing in 1961 in The Buildings of England, since corrected in the new edition by James Bettley (in the 'Suffolk West' volume, New Haven & London, Yale University Press, 2015, p. 177),  in dating the S. aisle windows (one of which is illustrated below right) to Decorated times, mistaking the diagonal cruciform lobing in the tracery for the groups of four daggers set vertically (his 'four-petalled flower') to be seen, for example, at nearby Stansfield.  There the work is  Decorated, but here the affinities are with Burwell in Cambridgeshire, about eighteen miles to the northwest, where the master mason was Reginald Ely (c. 1415-71), court architect to Henry VI, whose other projects included Queen's College, Cambridge and the first phase of operations at King's College Chapel.  Work at Burwell was completed in 1464 but here at Cavendish it is known to have begun around 1471, the year in which Ely died, and continued to at least 1484, leaving Birkin Haward to suggest (Suffolk Medieval Church Arcades, Hitcham, Suffolk Institute of Archaeology and History, 1993, p. 196) that the man responsible was not Ely himself but his former apprentice, John Melford, who subsequently became highly regarded in his own right, even though his designs seem always to have been largely derived from his master's.  These include especially, beside the diagonal cruciform lobing motif in the window tracery, the rhomboidal-shaped arcade piers with single attached semicircular shafts to north and south separated by casement mouldings from groups of three narrow bowtells towards the openings, which Ely, in his turn, may have copied from William Layer's aisled nave at St. Mary's, Bury St. Edmunds, which was constructed as early as c. 1424-33.  This is a section designed - as Birkin Haward pointed out - to combine the necessary width across the thickness of the wall, with 'the least visual bulk and the greatest clear span between piers' (Suffolk Medieval Church Arcades, p. 136), a matter of particular concern here, where the bays are only ten feet (3 m.) wide.


As already mentioned, the  building  history of this church  begins with the tower, however, which is diagonally buttressed and rises in four stages with a stair turret at the southeast angle, reaching higher than the tower itself. The first and third stages are lit to the north, south and west, by lancets, and the second stage, by two-light windows with cusped Y-tracery. The tower arch to the nave bears two flat chamfers with the inner springing from semicircular responds, but this arch appears to have been restored if not wholly renewed.


The porch has two windows either side, with renewed cusped Y-tracery.  Inside, these are set in large blank arches with stone seats below and semi-quatrefoil shafts beside and between.  This is light and pleasant, but what exactly is the date?  Pevsner said 'early  fourteenth century' and James Bettley agrees, adding the comment that this is 'an unusually early date for such a porch'.  But how might that tie in with aisles dating from the 1470s?  The porch outer doorway has two orders of side-shafts and carries a sunk quadrant moulding and two narrow hollows around the arch, which could be early Perpendicular work, yet that would still predate the aisle, and the porch seems too much of a piece to allow the possibility that its features have been re-used.  This seems to leave just one viable possibility, namely that Melford's S. aisle was built on the foundations of an earlier aisle of the same width.  The ugly E. and W. windows to the aisle, with squashed mouchettes and quatrefoils beneath four-centred arches, defy confident dating, but could probably be Decorated work re-set.


Moving on to undisputable Perpendicular times, we next come to the chancel, for this is dated to 1381 by the will of Sir John Cavendish, who died in that year.  Its most important surviving features are the two excellent three-light S. windows (one of which is illustrated left) with double-cusped lights separated by strong mullions with attached bowtells, subarcuation of the outer lights, and two tiers of narrow reticulation units separated by supertransoms above the central lights, which form a rectilinear grille.  (See the glossary for an explanation of these terms.) The ogee shape of the main lights here was cited by John Harvey as an example of the recrudescence of this form in eastern England after a period of dormancy following the Black Death of 1349 (The Perpendicular Style, London,  Batsford, 1978, pp.. 165 & 168). 


These windows are separated by an externally renewed priest's doorway with a flattened round arch, encircled quatrefoils in the spandrels, and shallow niches at the sides, all set inside a casement moulding.   The restored chancel E.  window (shown right) has seven lights with subarcuation of the outer lights in groups of three, secondary subarcuation of the odd numbered lights above inverted daggers, and supertransoms above lights 2-6, which are stepped up towards a central light which itself has two tiers of supertransoms. However, this design, elaborate as it is, also appears less than fully competent due to the discordant way in which mouchettes have had to be squashed into the awkward spaces generated above lights 3 & 5 in particular, and thus it seems unlikely - if it is true to the original form - to be by the same mason who designed the S. windows, while to the north, there is now only a nineteenth century lean-to vestry and an organ chamber and so no way of knowing what mediaeval work might once have existed here.  The N. aisle windows though, have plain supermullioned tracery (with stepped lights and four-centred arches), which may or may not be contemporary with Melford's S. aisle windows and arcades.  Yet the transomed clerestory windows are surely his and, in Birkin Haward's view, were given their somewhat over-wide, three-light form, with flushwork between, because the narrow width of the arcade arches below did not permit the use of two windows per bay.   

These arcades are nonetheless skilfully proportioned, and their lack of width actually accentuates their height.  (See the N. arcade, left, viewed from the east.) The semicircular shafts attached to the  piers on the side facing the nave, continue up through the spandrels and between the clerestory windows, to give the appearance of supporting the wall posts of the very low-pitched, cambered nave roof.  This looks largely original and was probably constructed under Melford's general supervision as part of his overall design scheme.  The chancel arch carries a  complex series  of mouldings above semicircular responds and the two-bay arcade from the chancel to the organ chamber is Victorian as might be expected.


Finally, the church contains surprisingly little by way of furnishings that require a mention.  There is a niche to the left of the chancel E. window and an ogee-headed trefoil-cusped piscina recessed in the chancel S. wall, with little buttresses on each side terminating in crocketed pinnacles. The priest's doorway further to the west has a cluster of three bowtells decorating each jamb, and to the east of the organ chamber arcade opposite, there is another mediaeval doorway, now leading to the vestry, with two bowtells each side, separated by a casement.  The N. aisle contains an elaborate, gilded wooden panel, depicting Christ on the cross, watched, unbiblically, by St. Mary, St. Peter (sic), angels, soldiers and others, with carvings around the sides depicting the stations of the cross beneath intricately carved canopies.


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