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English Church Architecture.


HESSETT, St. Ethelbert (TL 937 618),


(Bedrock:  Upper Cretaceous, Upper Chalk.)


One of a number of 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.




Although not large, this is a rich and rewarding little building, in chiefly Perpendicular style.  The unusual dedication commemorates a Saxon king of East Anglia about whom almost nothing is known beyond the fact that he was murdered in 794, seemingly on the orders of King Offa of Mercia.


The church consists of a W. tower, an aisled nave with a S. porch (shown above, from the south), and a chancel with a one-bay extension of the N. aisle as a chapel, which is followed by a two-storeyed N. vestry where a female hermit reputedly once lived.  (Cf., for example, the remains of similar dwellings for chantry priests in the same position at Gipping and Hitcham.)   An inscription running above the vestry and N. chapel records that John Hoo and his wife 'mad y chapel.... heyteynd y westry & batylementyd y hole' (that is, 'made the chapel.... heightened the vestry and battlemented the whole [church]').   Hoo died in 1492, which is interesting, for these battlements are distinctly reminiscent of those at Lavenham (albeit, of course, on a reduced scale) where work on the nave was underway between 1486 and c. 1513 under the direction of the great John Wastell.  The work here, however, is probably a little early to be merely derivative of that, given that the Lavenham battlements are hardly likely to have been in place before the first decade of the sixteenth century, but perhaps it is not impossible that Wastell was actually involved here directly in some capacity, early on in his career, because the aisled nave and, perhaps, the porch are considered to be the work of Simon Clerk (fl. 1445 - d. 1489) to whom Wastell originally apprenticed and with whom he certainly often worked up to the time of Clerk's death in his mid to late '70s.  Clerk, who was by turns in his long and distinguished career, master mason at  Eton College, King's College Chapel and Bury St. Edmunds Abbey, was granted a thirty year lease of Hessett Manor from 1445, though he seems to have lived principally in Bury St. Edmunds, most probably for convenience (John Harvey, English Mediaeval Architects: a Biographical Dictionary down to 1550, Gloucester, Alan Sutton, 1987, p. 55).  The Hessett battlements above the aisles and chapel have open encircled quatrefoils beneath the embrasures and open trefoil-cusped arches in the merlons, but those over the nave differ slightly in that every second merlon is solid to allow a small crocketed pinnacle to rise from it to punctuate the skyline.   The N. chapel window is a copy of the aisle windows, which are everywhere tall, two-centred and three-light, with standard supermullioned tracery and transoms, making them virtually identical to Clerk's aisle windows at St. Nicholas's, Denston.  The E. windows to the vestry consist, upstairs, of a cinquefoil-cusped one-light opening, and downstairs, of a square-headed, three-light window with pairs of small daggers squashed into the spandrels above each ogee-pointed light.  The S. porch also carries John Hoo's battlements above a S. front adorned with two tiers of blank arches either side of the outer doorway, more blank arches on the diagonal buttresses below the first off-sets, and three large and elaborate niches above the doorway, each with a crocketed gabled canopy with a little lierne vault.  The outer doorway itself bears a series of narrow Perpendicular mouldings consisting mostly of rolls and hollows, above three orders of bowtells.  The inner doorway is simpler and seemingly earlier and re-set:  it bears a sunk flat chamfer between two narrow wave mouldings, possibly suggesting a Decorated origin. The chancel is also Decorated, with S. windows with reticulated tracery and an E. window (shown right) with tracery composed of three wheels, each formed of two mouchettes.


To understand the tower (seen left, from the northwest), it is necessary to be aware of its piecemeal development, for here, what appear to be more of John Hoo's battlements, rise above a Perpendicular parapet which is itself an addition to earlier, Decorated work. This remodelling was reputedly carried out at the expense of John Bacon, who outlived John Hoo by twenty-one years, dying in 1513, so either Bacon must have paid for both the parapet and surmounting battlements, creating the tower's rather top-heavy appearance - which would be curious if true - or other factors came into play, such as John Hoo's family's determination to have the last word.  The parapet below the battlements is decorated with carved shields inside blank octfoils and would make a proud crown to the tower of itself.  The tower is also surrounded by a prominent flint chequerwork basal frieze.  The W. window has been renewed.


Inside the church, the nave arcades are four bays long and of almost identical design to that which Clerk used in his naves at Denston and Stratford St. Mary - that is, with lozenge-shaped piers with attached semicircular shafts towards the openings and semi-octagonal shafts to north and south, with wide casements between and all mouldings continued uninterrupted around the arches save for the intervention of little capitals towards the openings (and to the north and south also at Stratford St. Mary).  (See the N. arcade, illustrated below right.)   The chancel arch bears a flat chamfer and a wave moulding, and the tower arch, three flat chamfers, supported, in both cases, on semi-octagonal responds. The arches from the chancel and N. aisle to the chapel, are similar to the nave arcades except that the responds also bear one narrow and one rather wider hollow, outside the other mouldings. On the opposite side of the church, cut into the wall between the chancel arch and S. arcade, there is a large rood stair.   However, the present rood screen (shown at the foot of the page) is of an entirely different character to the one this suggests was intended here, being seemingly slenderer and shorter, and rather like that at neighbouring Drinkstone in style, though perhaps rather more in the matter of paintwork than of carpentry.  Perhaps it is not too fanciful to wonder whether both could be the work of John Nun (fl 1518-36), joiner and carver of Drinkstone - though there appears to be no evidence to prove it is so - whom John Harvey identified as the carpenter brought in with one Roger Bell, to erect the rood loft at Great St. Mary's church in Cambridge (English Mediaeval Architects, p. 219). John Nun held lands in Drinkstone, however, and might conceivably have wanted to beautify his local church.  Both the Drinkstone and Hessett screens consist of five double-cusped, ogee-arched divisions, with supermullioned tracery and original cresting, and both have been well executed and designed.


Other old woodwork at Hessett includes the choir benches, of which the free-standing one against the N. wall is especially notable with its row of carved birds along the back, and the nave and aisle roofs, of which the former is particularly low-pitched.  The font is old and reputed to date from 1451, and yet the inscription on the base mentions Robert Hoo who died in 1510.  It was designed for total immersion - a fact not immediately obvious from its modest dimensions. 


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