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English Church Architecture -

Suffolk.

 

LONG MELFORD, Holy Trinity (TL 865 467)     (April 2004)

(Bedrock:  Upper Cretaceous, Upper Chalk)

 

This is one of the largest and most stately of English Perpendicular churches (see the photographs, left, taken  from the southeast, and below, taken from the east) although the proud but controversial W. tower was built to a design by George Frederick Bodley (1827-1907) and finished only in 1903.  The ground plan of the rest of the church is complicated.  The nave and chancel are ten bays long and structurally undivided other than by a rood stair turret between bays seven and eight to the north, and internally, by a step up, while the aisles are nine bays long, of which the last two on each side are divided off by wooden parclose screens to create chancel chapels.  This leaves the sanctuary extending by one additional bay eastwards beyond the aisles, where it is adjoined to the south and east by low mediaeval vestries, and to the north, by the Clopton chantry chapel, while further east again and aligned asymmetrically to the south so as to adjoin the vestries but not the Clopton chapel, is a most unusual Lady chapel.  These parts of the building, together with the S. porch, are considered in turn, below.  The whole church is constructed chiefly of flint with limestone dressings, and there are admirable displays of flushwork all along the S. front and on all sides of the Lady chapel and tower. This principally takes the form of rows of blank arches, the longest of which runs as a frieze beneath the windows, while a second frieze below this, carved in limestone, features shields in blank quatrefoils.  The effect of all this decoration is as fine as may be seen anywhere in East Anglia and thus in England, and it is one of the strengths of the building that Bodley's work is in no way inferior to the mediaeval.

 

Externally, flushwork apart, the aisled nave and chancel create their impression by length (in excess of 150 feet or 46 metres) and by the magnificence of the fenestration, which makes this building another of East Anglia's "Perpendicular glasshouse".  The seven nave aisles bays are lit by tall, three-light, four-centred transomed windows with supermullioned drop tracery, there being two in each of bays 1 and 3 - 6 to the south (bay 2 communicates with the porch) and bays 1 - 5 to the north. These are probably the work of Simon Clerk (fl. 1445-89), who was master mason here for a time, albeit, perhaps, briefly.  (See the discussion of Simon Clerk under the entry for St. Nicholas's church, Denston.)  However, the unity is broken alongside bays 8 & 9 because here the windows are untransomed, the lights are wider, and a unit of cruciform lobing set diagonally, has been introduced above the supermullions in the arch apices, turning the tracery into a hybrid affair that Pevsner considered to be a "curious impurity which detract[s] from the pleasure one experiences in approaching ... from the south."  That seems an excessively sensitive opinion but certainly the proportions of these eastern windows are not as fine as those of the rest.  Yet they also appear to be slightly later, for an inscription beneath them recording the names of cloth merchants who contributed to the building costs, includes the date 1484, whereas another inscription on the N. side of the clerestory is dated 1481. Pevsner considered, in the light of these, that the building of the aisled nave and chancel might have begun c. 1460, although, as he also pointed out, some earlier work can be seen since the western bays of the arcades are supported on re-used, fourteenth century piers, composed of four major shafts separated by minor ones. Nevertheless, the slenderer piers further east date from the fifteenth century, as do all  the arches above (with their complex profiles formed of wave mouldings and hollows), the shafts rising between them and, most tellingly, the decoration of the arch spandrels, formed of blank arches which extend the design of the clerestory windows downwards in a manner reminiscent of Reginald Ely's nave at Burwell in Cambridgeshire, where the work is dated c. 1461.  (See the S. arcade, illustrated left.)  This surely provides the clue as to who was responsible for all this, namely John Melford (fl. 1460 - 1509), Ely's one-time apprentice, and it also explains the tracery of the S. chapel S. windows, in which the cruciform lobing motif is very similar to one which Ely had used with greater assurance at Burwell among other places.

 

 

 

The S. porch is tall but single-storeyed and has two, two-light windows each side, with straightened reticulation units in the heads containing sexfoils, suggesting it could be another fourteenth century survival. The outer doorway has a niche on either side and there are three more above, now with canopies, all carved in clunch and very worn.  The inner doorway is fifteenth century work and has two casement mouldings around it, the inner of which contains fleurons set at intervals.  This could conceivably have been influenced by the similar but more elaborate S. doorway in the otherwise modest little church at Alpheton, 2 miles (4 km.) to the north.

 

The Clopton chantry chapel, which fills the angle between the E. end of the N. aisle and the sanctuary but which, by a peculiar arrangement (described below), does not adjoin the former to its full height, may be dated approximately by the monument it contains to John Clopton.  Clopton, who died in 1497, appears to have been the principal benefactor of the church during its late fifteenth century rebuilding and his tomb chest of grey Purbeck marble is set in the western end of the chapel S. wall, beneath a depressed, open, ogee-pointed arch, which gives a wide view through to the chancel and main altar.  East of this tomb chest, a piscina and two-bay sedilia are set in the same wall beneath blank arches, while above comes first a frieze of shields in square, blank tracery panels in Purbeck marble, and then a row of blank arches with crocketed canopies and buttresses in pale limestone.  The chapel E. wall is pierced by a seven-light, four-centred window, surprisingly exhibiting squashed, straightened reticulated tracery as well as a castellated transom.  The W. wall is curiously separated from the N. aisle E. wall above a height of some 7 feet (2 metres) by a bressummer, over which an eight-light wooden window looks across a narrow roof valley at the E. window of the aisle.

 

The Lady Chapel is probably Melford's work again, to judge from the form of the ambulatory arches.  It forms almost a separate unit and to gain entry the visitor today must leave the main body of the church and walk round the outside to an external S. door.  It is important to do this for in some ways this is the most rewarding part of the building (although Pevsner did not think so), in spite of the fact that it is lit only by untraceried windows and covered in a rather simple fashion by three independently-gabled roofs aligned east/west.  It is, however, particularly rich in flushwork decoration, especially to the east, while at eaves level its genesis is announced  by a long inscription running all the way round and reading, "Pray for ye sowle of John Hyll, and for ye sowle of John Clopton Esqwyer, and pray for ye sowle of Rychard Loveday, boteleyr wyth John Clopton, of whose godys this Chappell ys imbaytylled by his excewtors.  Pray for the soulis of William Clopto', Esqwyrer, Margery and Marg'y his wifis and for all ther parentis and childri', and for ye sowle of Alice Clopton, and for John Clopton and for all his childri' and for all ye soulis that the said John is bonde to p'y for, which ded yis Chapel new repare anno domo mcccclxxxxvi [1496].  Christ' sit testis hec me no'exhibuisse ut merear laudes, sed ut spiritus memoretur."   

 

  

 

The interior comes as a considerable surprise for it forms a three-bay central space surrounded by a rectangular ambulatory.  This retains its excellent, original lean-to roofs (which have small, finely carved angels decorating the bases of the wall posts), and it is interesting to see how these join in the corner bays by means of diagonally-set braces (illustrated above right).  The central space is divided from the ambulatory by means of three-bay arcades to north and south (see the N. arcade above left, viewed from the ambulatory), and wall pieces to east and west, the last pierced by a wide central archway and by a two-light unglazed and untraceried window on each side.  The arcades are formed of arches bearing roll mouldings and an outer casement, springing from lozenge-shaped piers with attached semicircular shafts to north and south, and groups of three bowtells to east and west, the former separated from the latter by a downward extension of the arch casements.  This is almost exactly the form of John Melford's arcades at Boxford (N. chapel), Cavendish (nave aisles) and Glemsford (N. & S. chapels).  It is also another design which Melford seems to have copied from Ely - and doubtless entirely legitimately since, as Ely's foremost erstwhile apprentice, he had probably inherited Ely's moulds when Ely died in 1471.  Towards the central space the semicircular shafts rise between the bays to support canopied niches, and between these, sitting on the arch apices, there are tiers of blank arches.  The four-centred W. archway (shown above centre) is decorated on the W. side by an order of bowtells, a casement moulding containing carved fleurons, and small traceried spandrels.  It is framed by a label, above which there is a frieze of shields in blank tracery.

 

Finally, a description must be given of Bodley's imposing W. tower - a fitting monument to its architect in more ways than one.  Bodley was the first pupil of Sir Gilbert Scott, to whom he subsequently became indirectly related by marriage, but his later work was mostly better than Scott's, not because he was necessarily a better artist, but because his practice was smaller and kept more firmly under his personal control.  This tower was built to commemorate Queen Victoria's diamond jubilee and replaced a more modestly proportioned but perfectly serviceable and soundly-constructed brick tower of 1725.  Rising in four solid stages to flushwork battlements and tall crocketed pinnacles, Bodley's replacement is certainly a more apposite addition to the church, in terms both of  scale and ambition:  the third stage is prominently pierced to the west and south by a square window containing eight radiating foils;  the bell-openings are formed of two, two-light transomed openings in each wall, separated by a shallow buttress and blocked below the transoms;  and there is quietly handled flintwork everywhere, of one form or another, together with a basal frieze of blank arches and fleurons set in circles.  Yet while the effect of such restrained decoration is witness to Bodley's continuing powers of design in the middle of his eighth decade, so too, the fact of his undertaking the project at all, as late as 1903, is testament to the still unreformed insensitivity to all things post-Reformation in ecclesiastical work that he had carried with him since his youth, and in that respect the judgement of history will have to be given against him.