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English Church Architecture.


DENSTON, St. Nicholas (TL 769 530),


(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.




Notwithstanding the short and rather unimpressive, fourteenth century tower, this is otherwise a splendid building in the tradition of the great East Anglian 'Perpendicular glasshouses' - consistent in design and with big, well-proportioned windows, unencumbered by stained glass.  It was erected in the late fifteenth century, and has been attributed by John Harvey to Simon Clerk (English Mediaeval Architects; a  Biographical Dictionary down to 1550, Gloucester, Alan Sutton, 1987, p. 57), whose work may also be seen, among other places, at Lavenham in this county and at Saffron Walden in Essex, although often he appears to have worked alongside other notable masons, sometimes taking charge and at others, working as an equal partner, and this, coupled with the fact that much of his life was spent working on Bury St. Edmunds Abbey, now almost wholly destroyed, makes it difficult to form a clear impression of his style, although Birkin Haward felt it safe to refer to 'the formal restraint and consistent Perpendicular orthodoxy which dominates his listed works, particularly in his rhythms and fenestration choices'  (Suffolk Mediaeval Church Arcades, Hitcham, Suffolk Institute of Archaeology and History, 1993, p. 150), which are traits certainly in evidence here.      


St. Nicholas's church comprises a W. tower, a seven-bay aisled nave and chancel built as a single unit (four bays followed by three), and a relatively modest S. porch.  It is the impression created by the uninterrupted S. front  that is responsible for the church’s nobility (as illustrated above).  The windows play their part, for while the tracery is everywhere of conventional, supermullioned form, the aisle windows are tall and imposing, with castellated transoms slightly less than halfway up and cinquefoil-cusping of the lights above and below, the five-light chancel E. window has outer lights subarcuated in pairs and a supertransom above the central light, and the large clerestory windows have drop tracery beneath flattened, segmental-pointed heads.  The porch outer doorway has traceried spandrels containing blank quatrefoils, a castellated string course above, and a crocketed niche in the gable;  the diagonal buttresses at the corners terminate in castellated, flat-topped pinnacles, and there is a fan vault within. 


Inside the building, the unity of design is maintained through the absence of transverse arches between the nave and chancel or aisles and chapels.  The soaring arcades continue down the full length of the nave and chancel, and  are carried on lozenge-shaped piers with attached semicircular shafts towards the openings and semi-octagonal shafts with hollowed sides to north and south, separated by wide casement mouldings continuous around the arches.  (See the N. arcade, left.)  This is a design see at Hessett and Stratford St. Mary, which appears to have been characteristic of Clerk's work.  The use of lozenge-shaped piers can be traced back in Suffolk to William Layer's nave at St. Mary's, Bury St. Edmunds, however, which combine the necessary width across the thickness of the wall, with 'the least visual bulk and the greatest clear span between piers' (Birkin Haward, Suffolk Mediaeval Church Arcades, p.136).  The semi-octagonal shafts towards the nave continue up to cross string courses of similar section beneath the clerestory, to give the appearance at the springing level of the clerestory, of supporting the roof.


The roof (of which a detail is shown right) is an excellent piece of carpentry of couple form, decorated with carved animals (hares, dogs, lions, deer, etc.) on the cornices, more of which can be found on the lean-to aisle roofs. The purlins, rafters and braces of all these are original, although the new boarding is visible above.  However, there is a lot of other rewarding carpentry in the church, much of it mediaeval. 


This includes the eight pairs of nave benches with carved animals and birds in two tiers (to form  so-called 'poppyheads' and on the 'arm rests', though no-one could rest their arms on these), and a matching set of choir benches in the chancel, with just one such carving per side. The creatures derive from the mediaeval bestiary and comprise a range of semi-mythical beasts, the significance of most of which is lost to the visitor today.  (See the examples below.)  A few have been renewed, however, and are reasonably easy to distinguish.  The rood screen has been sawn off above the dado but attached to its E. face are four return misericords, of which three are decorated with bird and plant carvings.  High above, and crossing between the arcades, is a beam that appears always to have had an independent existence and which probably once supported the rood.  The pulpit and communion rail with spiral balusters are Stuart and the three box pews in the S. aisle, Georgian.


Finally, brief mention must be made of the interesting octagonal Perpendicular font, seven sides of which display the holy sacraments of mass, penance, confirmation, extreme unction, ordination, holy matrimony and baptism. There are a number of similar fonts in Norfolk and Suffolk, and they seem to form another of the various fifteenth century church building traditions peculiar to East Anglia.  Here the heads of the figures have predictably been broken off, but the elaborate nature of the carving can still be seen. The eighth face of the bowl depicts the crucifixion.


[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 Cavendish, Hessett, Lavenham, Long Melford and Stratford St. Mary in Suffolk.]