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English Church Architecture -



LAVENHAM, St. Peter & St. Paul (TL 913 490)     (October 2003)

(Bedrock:  Neogene to Quaternary, Crag Group)


This is one of the most important churches in East Anglia - indeed, in England - but its architectural history is a relatively simple one, with almost the whole building postdating the battle of Bosworth in 1485 in which Richard III was defeated by the future Henry VII.  Henry's captain-general had been the thirteenth Earl of Oxford, John de Vere, and with Richard's defeat, de Vere's prospects clearly looked rosy.  To demonstrate his confidence in the future, therefore, within a matter of weeks of the victory he approached the wealthy burgesses of Lavenham, where he was Lord of the Manor, and suggested they should together build a new church as a thanksgiving to God for the Tudor accession.  Perhaps partly to ingratiate themselves with the new régime, the burgesses agreed, and the existing church was demolished apart from the Decorated chancel with its rood stair turret rising to a tall crocketed spirelet that housed the Sanctus bell, and for its adjoining E. vestry which had been built forty-one years earlier in 1444 at the expense of the clothier, Thomas Spryng II.  It was this same Thomas Spryng who now gave 300 marks (£200) towards the building of the new tower, for which the chosen architect appears to have been the ageing but still much sought-after Simon Clerk (fl. 1445 - d. 1489), perhaps assisted by John Wastell (fl. 1485 - d. 1515), who had probably once been his apprentice.  (See the entries for St. Nicholas's church, Denston and St. Andrew's, Isleham (Cambridgeshire), for a more detailed consideration of the work of these master masons.) When Thomas Spryng II died the following year, his son, Thomas Spryng III, continued to support the programme lavishly, and it was he who appears to have paid for the majority of the rest of the work, not only on the tower, but also on the nave, aisles and S. chapel, which were constructed in two phases, the first from 1486 to c. 1513, by which time the nave and aisles had been completed, and the second from 1520 until a couple of years after his death in 1523.  Spryng's chosen architect for the nave and aisles was evidently John Wastell, who designed Great St. Mary's, Cambridge and St. Mary's, Saffron Walden (Essex), in similar style. The S. chapel may have been the work of Thomas Brond (d. 1542), son of the John Brond (fl. 1492 - 1518) whom John Harvey believed had succeeded Wastell as master mason at Bury St. Edmunds Abbey and who may have been responsible for the clerestory at St. Mary's, Thaxted (Essex).  However, the design of the S. chapel arcade is largely a copy of the N. chapel arcade opposite, constructed some twenty years earlier at the expense of another local clothier, Simon Branch, who probably employed John Melford (fl. 1460 - 1509) as mason, whose work can be seen at Boxford, Glemsford and Long Melford.  The extravagant S. porch was probably paid for by de Vere - who seems to have engaged Wastell to design it - as shown by de Vere's motif of a wild boar carved in the spandrels above both outer and inner doorways.  This was an heraldic pun on de Vere's name, "verres" meaning "boar" in Latin.  Boars also appear elsewhere in the building, while another recurring symbol, not surprisingly, is the shield of Thomas Spryng III.


The description of the building that follows must thus begin with the chancel and E. vestry, after which Clerk's tower will be considered, then Wastell's nave and aisles, then the S. porch, and finally the S. and N. chapels, in that order, notwithstanding that the N. chapel was constructed first.  The chancel is four bays long, which permits the sanctuary to project one bay east of the later chapels.  This has no N. window, but the E. window above the vestry has five cinquefoil-cusped lights with flowing tracery, and the three-light S. window has three large, squashed quatrefoils above the main lights and a central light with two tiers of subarcuations, the lower of which is ogee-pointed to allow two small mouchettes and a quatrefoil to be squeezed in above.  The masonry is composed of flint and pebble rubble.  Internally, the chancel arch is formed of two orders bearing wave mouldings, supported on responds of essentially semi-quatrefoil section, with square spurs between the foils. The date is probably c. 1340.


The E. vestry of 1444 is very elaborately constructed in relation to its utilitarian function.  Faced with flint flushwork with limestone dressings, it has battlements decorated with trefoil-cusped blank arches, and there is also a frieze of these beneath the two small E. windows, which are Y-traceried and cinquefoil-cusped in the manner Dr. John Harvey associated with the style of Reginald Ely (though Harvey incorrectly dated the vestry to 1470-86).


Ely was master mason at King's College Chapel, Cambridge, from the inception of the work until his death in 1471 and he was succeeded after a short interval during which John Worlich was in charge, first by Simon Clerk, from 1477 until his death, and then by John Wastell.   Clerk was probably in his mid to late 60s in 1477 and he had a number of important projects to his credit, including the continuation of the work at Eton College Chapel from 1453 (where he had taken over from John Smyth), and insofar as it is possible to discern his own particular style when left to his own devices, his work seems to show neither the austerity of Ely (or, at least, of Ely's patron, Henry VI) nor the flamboyance of Wastell, but rather a "formal restraint and consistent Perpendicular orthodoxy" (Suffolk Mediaeval Church Arcades by Birkin Haward, Suffolk Institute of Archaeology and History", 1993), clean lines, and a lack of fussy detail.  All this is evident in his tower here (see the photograph above left), as shown, for example, by the parapet with blank tracery but without battlements or pinnacles, by the rich but conventional use of niches on the leading edges of the buttresses, and by the use of knapped flint, which is extensive yet unshowy.  The buttresses are particularly interesting, being composites formed of set-back buttresses applied to massive square clasping ones.  The tower is surrounded by a basal frieze of blank quatrefoils and octfoils containing shields and rosettes, from which it rises in four tall stages to a height of 141 feet (43 metres). The bell-openings are three-light with supermullioned tracery and double-subarcuated central lights, the third stage is lit by two-light windows with cinquefoil-cusped Y-tracery with double-subarcuated lights with little inverted daggers inserted between, and the W. window is four-light with a castellated transom and tracery displaying the subarcuation of the lights in pairs and through reticulation.  The W. doorway has two orders of bowtells with capitals, above which rise rolls, narrow hollows and a casement moulding bearing carved heads and fleurons at intervals, and this is set within a crocketed ogee arch with pinnacles at the sides.  Internally the tower arch is formed of three broad orders supported by a wide semicircular shaft to the inner order, two smaller ones to the next, and another to the third, separated by casements that turn into deep hollows round the arch.  The sum of these parts is one of the most impressive church towers in East Anglia, which contrasts markedly with Wastell's nave and aisles, being at one and the same time both noticeably more subdued, and yet probably taking the palm through sheer scale and nobility.


Nevertheless, the aisled nave probably introduces the visitor (all things considered) to the work of a still greater architect.  Unusually, the precise stone Wastell employed in his work at Lavenham is known, and was Casterton (or Stanford) stone, both outside and in.  This is one of a number of local variants of the Lincolnshire limestone from the Middle Jurassic Series, which was formerly quarried, as its name suggests, at Great Casterton in Rutland. Casterton stone is very similar to Ketton stone, albeit slightly browner and less regular in texture, but it is still a fine material which takes carving very well.



Wastell was the mason who masterfully completed King's College Chapel from 1508-15, but who, indeed, also largely falsified Ely's intentions through his rich ornamentation.  Austerity had no part to play in Wastell's style and, externally here, this is shown above all by the flamboyant openwork battlements to the six-bay nave and aisles (shown above, from the south), with their tripartite-leaf-like motifs set in open four-centred archlets beneath the merlons and, beneath the embrasures, either carved Tudor flowers above the aisles or carved panels featuring shields and stars inside blank octfoils above the clerestory.  The clerestory windows are three-light and supermullioned, and there are two per bay except above the westernmost bay, where the remaining space is taken up by the E. buttresses to the tower.  The aisle windows are four-light with castellated transoms and depressed arches, beneath which the mullions split to form "Y"s that leave just enough space for small daggers above the outer pairs and either larger ones (S. side) or quatrefoils (N. side) in the window apices.  These windows are divided by buttresses with two set-offs, of which those to the south have elaborate carving on their leading edges, based on the tripartite-leaf again.  (See the example shown right.) Inside, the exceptional arcades rise from lozenge-shaped piers with attached semicircular shafts in the ordinal positions, separated by wave mouldings, hollow chamfers and casements, of which the shafts towards the nave continue up between the spandrels and clerestory windows, to present the appearance of supporting the wall posts to the nave roof.  (See the N. arcade, left)  This was Wastell's scheme at Great St, Mary's, Cambridge and Saffron Walden also, although the carved decoration of the arcades in large churches was well established by this time, having previously been used by Reginald Ely at St. Mary's, Burwell (Cambridgeshire) in 1461.  Yet Wastell's design, by introducing a horizontal frieze above the arcades, is both more ornate and less unified than Ely's, for the arcades and clerestory are not drawn together in the way the latter achieves, and instead, we are treated to a magnificent display of patterning, with arcade spandrels filled with daggers and shields in circles, a frieze of fleurons above, then one of shields in blank quatrefoils set diagonally, and finally a line of brattishing below the clerestory windows.  Much of this seems to be both characteristic and defining of Wastell's work, as discussed further under the entry for Isleham.  The nave roof is of couple type, very high and low-pitched, and appears to have been integral to Wastell's overall scheme.


The S. porch (right) is another highly elaborate affair, as befitted a man of de Vere's eminence.  The S. front is entirely covered with carving, including the faces of the angle buttresses, and it is topped by openwork stepped battlements featuring the tripartite-leaf motif prominently. Below these is a row of blank trefoil-cusped ogee-headed arches containing shields, with a gabled niche in the centre with a lierne vault, now containing modern figures of SS. Peter and Paul.  The outer doorway is tall and four-centred and has de Vere's boars carved in the spandrels. The porch side windows are three-light, with intersecting subarcuation of the lights in pairs.  Inside the porch, a fan vault rises from circular shafts at the four corners, the inner doorway has rolls and hollows around it and more boars in the spandrels, and the door itself is carved with linenfold panelling.


Thomas Brond's S. chapel (if Brond's it is) shows some similarities with the nave and aisles but also some differences.  The S. windows are four-light but taller than the aisle windows (as required by the taller chapel) and although there are transoms here too, these are not now castellated.  The buttresses between the windows have simpler blank carving on their outer faces, yet now extend above the battlements to end in small crocketed pinnacles, and the battlements are carved but not open.  The E. window is five-light, transomed and supermullioned, with ogee-headed lights, and has tall blank arcading in flint flushwork at the sides.   Internally, the three-bay arcade to the S. chapel from the chancel consists of arches bearing narrow rolls, carried on compound rhomboidal-shaped piers with attached semicircular shafts to north and south and groups of three bowtells to east and west, with casements between.  This is also the form of the slightly earlier arcade to the N. chapel and characteristic of its author, whom Birkin Haward believed to be John Melford (ibid), though Melford appears to have copied this form in his turn from Reginald Ely, to whom he had once been apprenticed and whose moulds he probably inherited on Ely's death.    However, in general rather less money seems to have been available to spend on the N. chapel than its southern counterpart (which would hardly be surprising) and Melford has not been able to give as good an account of himself as he might otherwise have done.  This is particularly noticeable in the battlements which, though decorated with trefoil-cusped flint flushwork arches, look almost rustic in comparison with the carved battlements to the south.  Similarly the two-centred window lights do not quite measure up to their ogee-centred lights to the south - though this is probably due more to earlier fashion than any particular lack of cash.


The wooden screens in the church are of great importance.  They not only divide the chapels from the aisles and chancel, and the chancel from the nave, but also - most especially - surround tomb chests at the E. ends of the aisles.  Fittingly, the most elaborate is that surrounding the tomb chest of Thomas Spryng III at the E. end of the N. aisle (sic) (illustrated below left), which is dated by his death to c. 1523.  This screen is lavish indeed, with a vaulted canopy above each of its two-light divisions, intricate double-cusped tracery, and openwork buttresses!  It is, in Pevsner's words, "a glorious piece of woodwork, as dark as bronze".  By comparison, the screen around the tomb chest at the E. end of the S. aisle (illustrated below right), which turns out to be that of none other than John de Vere (d. 1513), though also excellent, is rather eclipsed.  Here the divisions are three-light with ogee gables over each pair, and there are castellated buttresses between.  The rood screen is contemporary with the chancel (i.e. Decorated) and retains its original gates.  There is a nice collection of misericords in the chancel, the carvings on which include a pelican, a jester, and a woman playing a hurdy-gurdy.  Surprisingly the church contains no monuments mentioned by Gunnis (Dictionary of British Sculptors - 1660-1851, The Abbey Library, 1951) but there is an important brass to Thomas Spryng II, appropriately in the vestry.