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English Church Architecture -



CODDENHAM, St. Mary (TM 133 542)     (September 2008)

(Bedrock:  Upper Cretaceous, Upper Chalk)


This is a pleasantly situated building, by the road bridge across the brook at the west end of this attractive village, although that there is almost nowhere safe to park for anyone arriving by car.  The church itself includes many features of interest, yet they present themselves in a hotchpotch of styles and periods which it is almost impossible to draw together into a unified account. The oldest of these is a little Norman window in the N. wall of the chancel while the greatest number are probably Decorated, but there is really no way of describing the building except by means of an external circuit, followed by an examination of the interior, with each feature discussed in turn.


The church plan is unusual for except in the lean-to, nineteenth century S. vestry (by the Rev. Ernest Geldhart of Little Braxted, Essex), it is mediaeval in all parts yet consists of a chancel and aisled nave with a northwest tower in the angle between the N. aisle and nave, and a porch to the east of this, which is formed of two parts, the first aligned in the usual way (i.e. at right angles to the aisle), but with the second, more northerly section, deflected some 30˚ eastwards, in the direction of the village. The tour around this building will be conducted anticlockwise, beginning from the west.  (See the photograph left.) 


The northwest tower rises in four stages to stepped battlements decorated with flushwork arches, supported by a diagonal buttress at the northwest angle and by a buttress at right angles between the tower and nave W. wall.  The lancets in the three lower stages of the tower to the west suggest these parts are thirteenth century in date, although the bell-stage with stepped flushwork arches is clearly Perpendicular. The attractive three-light W. window to the nave is Decorated in style and formed of intersecting ogees with a double-cusped elongated octfoil and two large mouchettes in the head, but the Y-traceried W. window in the S. aisle alongside, is thirteenth century work again, and there is a similar S. window immediately around the corner, to the west of the aisle S. doorway, which has a fourteenth century profile.  After this, continuing eastwards, there are two, two-light Decorated S. windows lighting the aisle (shown right), the first with curvilinear tracery beneath a two-centred arch and the second with reticulated tracery beneath a triangular-pointed arch.  However, much finer than these, is the Perpendicular clerestory of the nave, above and behind, formed of seven two-light windows (above the apices of the four-bay S. arcade and three pairs of spandrels in between), with supermullioned tracery and split Ys, and with blank tracery carved in ashlar above and two tiers of flint flushwork between.  This clerestory is the one part of the church that is reasonably firmly dated, for an inscription on the N. side records the names of Margaret and John French, who died in 1500, who are believed to have paid for the work.  However, continuing around the church from the S. aisle E. wall, this is pierced by a three-light window with intersecting ogees that form a circle at the top, containing a quatrefoil, but it is a less assured design than the somewhat similar W. window to the nave, and it is probably neither precisely contemporary nor by the same hand.  The chancel has a two-light Decorated S. window with drop tracery beneath a segmental arch, to the west of the vestry, and an externally-renewed Y-traceried S. window, lighting the sanctuary, to the east.  The chancel E. window combines three lancet lights with cusped intersecting tracery, suggesting a date around 1300.  The N. wall of the chancel is pierced by a still greater multiformity of windows, comprising from east to west: (i) a three-light window (illustrated left) beneath a three-centred arch, with stepped castellated supertransoms, with the central one stepped down; (ii) a two-light window with a variant of reticulated tracery;  (iii) the little Norman window already referred to, very small and high up;  and (iv) a window like the first, but with the central supertransom stepped up and with the whole window bricked up for the lower third of its height, and now partially obscured by a projecting, brick rood stair turret in the angle between the aisle and chancel.  (See the photograph below right.) The N. aisle E. window with three-lights and reticulated tracery has also been encroached upon by this turret.   Lastly,  there are two N. windows in the N. aisle, both two-light, the first with curvilinear tracery and the second with supermullioned tracery with split Ys.  The clerestory on this side of the building comprises five windows, above the apices and intervening spandrels of the three-bay N. arcade (since the tower takes the place here of the westernmost bay of the S. aisle opposite).   The N. porch is faced with knapped flint and has flint flushwork on the leading edges of the buttresses, a renewed canopied niche above the doorway, and three-light side windows with stepped supertransoms, cusped only at the heads of the lights.  The outer doorway carries a casement moulding filled at intervals with carved shields.  Above the hood-mould, worn traceried spandrels are enclosed by a label.


Inside the church, the four-bay S. arcade (left) is composed of arches of two orders, bearing a wide flat chamfer and a narrow roll respectively, supported on octagonal piers.  This is probably the work of the early fourteenth century or the late thirteenth.  The three-bay N. arcade opposite seems likely to be late fourteenth century work, for although it is of broadly similar proportions, the arch inner order now bears a deep hollow, with broaches rising into this from the capitals below, and the outer order carries a wave moulding.  The tower arches are of simple form, being double-flat-chamfered from the nave and triple-flat-chamfered from the aisle, with the chamfers continuing all the way round in both cases.  The date of these could be the mid thirteenth century. 


The chancel arch is formed of two orders, the inner of which is flat-chamfered and dies into the jambs.  The chancel itself is raised up three high steps, and then by another, about halfway along its length.  The easternmost S. window, which proves to be old internally, has a lowered sill which acts as a sedilia.  A piscina cut into the E. jamb, opens through two little arches, north into the chancel and west into the window splay.  Further east, a large wall monument against the sanctuary S. wall - with a cherub beneath and a pediment above, and with an urn on top of that and carved piles of books at the sides to signify his learning - commemorates the Rev. Balthazar Gardemau (d. 1739), who was rector here for fifty years.           


The most rewarding feature of the church interior, however (and possibly of the entire church), is the double hammerbeam nave roof (illustrated below).  This must be part and parcel of the work instigated by Margaret and John French, perhaps with contributions from others.  The roof has moulded purlins at the ⅓ and ⅔ positions, and cambered collar beams, and there are carved figures on the wall posts, which are original, and carved angels on the hammerbeams, which are not.



Finally, therefore, to try to bring this lengthy description to some kind of summation, perhaps the best that can be said is that the chancel is presumably at least partly Norman in its basic fabric (to judge by the N. window), the nave, S. aisle and northwest tower are likely to have an Early English (i.e. thirteenth century) basis, and the N. aisle east of the tower is possibly late fourteenth century work, while the clerestory represents an addition of c. 1490, and the N. porch, perhaps another, later still.  However, it is also possible to argue that this is not much more than a largely fruitless attempt to simplify a history that is inescapably highly complicated.  Seven or eight centuries present a wealth of opportunities for different people to make their mark on a building, and there are bound to be some buildings whose labyrinthine story is no longer fully recoverable from the surviving architectural evidence.