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English Church Architecture -



DENSTON, St. Nicholas (TL 760 530)     (October 2001)

(Bedrock:  Upper Cretaceous, Upper Chalk)


Notwithstanding the short and rather unimpressive 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, except for the tower, in the late fifteenth century, and was attributed by John Harvey to Simon Clerk  (fl. 1434-89), successor to Reginald Ely at King's College Chapel, whose work may also be seen at Bury St. Edmunds (St. Mary's), Hessett, Lavenham, Long Melford, Stratford St. Mary, and Saffron Walden in Essex, although in most or all of these places, he appears to have worked with other notable masons, sometimes taking charge and at other times, working as an equal partner, making it more difficult to pick out those features that can be regarded as characteristic of his personal style.  Thus at St. Mary's, Bury St. Edmunds, for example, where Clerk appears to have been responsible for the sanctuary and chancel chapels c. 1481, he seems to have been happy to copy the form of William Layer's nave arcades of c. 1440, for his own chapel arcades, as well as to re-set in the E. walls of his chapels, the windows he had previously had to remove from the E. walls of the aisles.  Nevertheless, the N. & S. windows to those chapels, at least, are probably his, and they have a noticeable affinity to the aisle and chapel windows here at Denston (although John Harvey didn't think so), both in their classic two-centred shape and in the disposition of the three transomed lights within, which are separated by strong mullions.  Indeed, what can be deduced of Clerk's architectural style from his limited known corpus (and, unfortunately, much of Clerk's life appears to have been spent working on Bury St. Edmunds Abbey, now almost wholly destroyed), led Birkin Haward 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, pub. Suffolk Institute of Archaeology and History, 1993).  This is certainly demonstrated to perfection in the W. tower of St. Mary's, Lavenham, glorious edifice though that is, and it is also evident here, as may be seen below.      


St. Nicholas's church consists of a fourteenth century W. tower, an aisled nave and chancel built as a single unit, and a relatively modest S. porch.  It is thus the seven uninterrupted bays of the nave and aisles, continuing as the chancel and its chapels (four bays followed by three), that is responsible for the church’s noble appearance (see the view from the south, above) - an appearance which is maintained inside through the absence of transverse arches between the nave and chancel or aisles and chapels.  Even so, the windows also have their part to play, for while the tracery is everywhere of conventional, supermullioned form, the aisle windows to north and south are tall and imposing, with castellated transoms and lights cinquefoil-cusped above and below, the five-light chancel E. window is similar, with outer lights subarcuated in pairs and a supertransom above the central light, and the clerestory windows with drop tracery, set above the apices of the arcade arches, are large and dignified beneath their 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 of the porch, terminate in castellated, flat-topped pinnacles, and there is a fan vault inside. 


The W. tower is a simple structure which probably dates from the third quarter of the fourteenth century and whose grandest conceit is a flint chequerwork basal frieze.  The W. window is still essentially Decorated in style, with tracery formed of mouchettes above two cinquefoil-cusped, ogee lights.  Internally, the rather clumsy tower arch bears a single sunk quadrant moulding above semicircular responds, but the grace of the interior is assured by the unobstructed aisled nave and chancel, as already described, and by the soaring arcades 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 that continue round the arches.  (See the N. arcade, illustrated left.)  This is a design that can also be seen at Hessett and Stratford St. Mary and it seems probable it was characteristic of Clerk's work.  The use of lozenge-shaped piers, however, can be traced back in Suffolk to William Layer's nave at St. Mary's, Bury St. Edmunds, and - as Birkin Haward pointed out - combines the necessary width across the thickness of the wall, with "the least visual bulk and the greatest clear span between piers" (ibid.)    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 clerestory springing level of supporting the wall posts of the roof.


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


This includes the eight pairs of nave benches with carved animals and birds in two tiers (on the tops and arm rests), and a matching set of choir benches in the chancel, with only one such carving per side. The creatures have been taken 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 can be distinguished fairly readily.  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.  Then in the S. aisle, there are three box pews that are clearly of another age (Georgian), while the narrow octagonal pulpit is ascribed by the church guide to the seventeenth century, though Pevsner considered it Elizabethan.  Nor is there any better agreement about the communion rail with its spiral balusters, which the guide describes as seventeenth century work and Pevsner as eighteenth.  Both are well made pieces though, as are the tall, undamaged parclose screens with ornamental cresting between the chancel and its chapels.  Thus the chancel provides an especially impressive display of woodwork, which dominates this end of the building.



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.