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English Church Architecture -



CAVENDISH, St. Mary (TL 805 466)     (October 2001)

(Bedrock:  Upper Cretaceous, Upper Chalk)


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.  (See the photograph, left, taken from the southeast.)  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 crucial error, writing in 1961, 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 that the man responsible was not Ely himself but his former apprentice, John Melford of Sudbury (fl. 1460 - 1509)  (Suffolk Mediaeval Church Arcades, pub. Suffolk Institute of Archaeology and History, 1993), 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, not only the diagonal cruciform lobing motif in window tracery, already mentioned,  but also 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" (ibid.), a matter of particular concern here, where the bays are only ten feet (3 m.) wide.


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 that reaches higher than the tower itself.  Each wall is lit by a lancet in the first and third stages and a two-light window with cusped Y-tracery in the second.  Inside the church, the tower arch carries two flat chamfers, the inner of which springs from semicircular responds, but this appears to have been substantially restored if not renewed.


The porch has two windows on 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  the  windows, if they copy the originals, certainly fit with that, but how might that tie in with aisles dating from the 1470s?  The porch outer doorway displays two orders of shafts and an arch above bearing a sunk quadrant and two narrow hollows, 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 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.  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, pub.  Batsford, 1978). 


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 threes, secondary subarcuation of the odd numbered lights above inverted daggers, and supertransoms above lights 2-6, which are stepped up towards a central light separated by strong mullions, which itself has two supertransoms. However, this design, elaborate as it is, also appears somewhat 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 quite 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 expected.


Finally, the church contains surprisingly little by way of furnishings that require a mention here. 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 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.