English Church Architecture -
MENDLESHAM, St. Mary (TM 105 658) (October 2008)
(Bedrock: Neogene to Quaternary, Crag Group)
This is a substantial and significant church, which is predominantly Early English inside but which, externally, is Perpendicular in its most important parts. It consists, in summary, of a chancel three bays in length, an aisled nave of six bays with N. and S. porches, and a W. tower, the W. door of which opens directly on to the village street, but a more careful examination of the building reveals that the aisled nave is actually composed of five bays plus one, since the easternmost bay is separated from the other five by a short wall piece, suggesting, as Pevsner pointed out, that there were originally small transepts here that were soon afterwards incorporated into aisles. This means that the porches communicate with the central bays of the arcades sensu stricto (i.e. the third bay from the west), which is relatively uncommon.
The details of these arcades then are that the five-bay sections consist of circular piers carrying arches of two orders, bearing one flat and one hollow chamfer. (See the N. arcade, illustrated left.) The fifth bay is supported on corbels to the east, of which the northern one is semicircular and fluted while its southern counterpart is rectangular and decorated with dogtooth. The sixth (easternmost) arch on each side, which follows after the wall piece, is similar to the chancel arch and bears two narrow chamfers, the inner of which springs from narrow semicircular shafts and the outer of which continues uninterupted down the jambs. Suggesting dates of any precision for this work can only be speculative, but perhaps the eastern (transeptal?) arches derive from the mid-thirteenth century and the five-bay arcades, the last quarter. The latter are presumably contemporary with the N. and S. nave doorways, inside their respective porches. The N. doorway has a central order of circular shafts to the jambs, supporting a flat chamfer, and an inner and outer order of much narrower nook-shafts, the outer of which is keeled.
Nevertheless, after all this description, it will actually be the W. tower and porches in Perpendicular style that will create the greatest impression on the visitor to this building. The tower (shown right, from the southeast) is very tall and rises in four stages supported by diagonal buttresses to stepped battlements and pinnacles at the corners and mid-points of the walls. There is a basal frieze that once displayed flushwork but from which the flint infill is now largely missing, but the battlements have either survived in good condition or else been restored and present two tiers of decoration featuring quatrefoils in squares around the lower tier and cusped arches on the upper tier. The tower bell-stage has two, two-light openings in each wall, with ogee-pointed cinquefoil-cusped lights, supermullioned tracery, split “Y”s, and quatrefoils in the heads beneath segmental-pointed arches; the W. doorway is relatively simple and displays a series of little mouldings resembling bowtells, which are continuous all the way round, and the W. window is three-light, with supermullioned tracery, strong mullions and split “Y”s. The tall tower arch to the nave carries a casement moulding all the way round the outer order and a narrower hollow chamfer and flat chamfer inside that.
The two-storeyed N. porch (left) is diagonally-buttressed and surmounted by pinnacles at the corners, carved in the form of lions and green men. The two, two-light N. windows to the upper storey have been renewed, but the three-light windows to the east and west below, are original and have stepped lights topped by castellated supertransoms and supermullioned tracery beneath segmental-pointed arches. There are niches to the left and right of the outer doorway and a larger canopied one above, between the two N. windows, and the porch is decorated with flushwork on the battlements, the leading edges of the buttresses, and across the whole of the N. front. The outer doorway has a complex profile that includes among its mouldings a flat chamfer decorated with carved roses, springing from semi-quatrefoil responds. A stair to the left of the N. door inside the church, leads to the porch upper storey, where there is the “most complete armoury of any English parish church” (Pevsner). For understandable reasons, this is usually kept locked and it was not examined on this visit.
The S. porch (shown right, behind a pile of rubbish from the churchyard) is simpler than the N. porch but it is still a proud piece of work. It is single-storeyed and lit by two-light windows at the sides, with supermullioned tracery, split “Y”s and a quatrefoil at the apex. It has a flushwork decoration around a basal frieze and in the merlons of the battlements and, to the south, three haphazardly-arranged tiers of arches below the springing, a frieze of flushwork quatrefoils above a doorway with a stone shield at the apex, and two pairs of crowned “M”s for St. Mary above that, with a niche between that reaches up into the battlements. The doorway has a complex profile, shields in the spandrels, and carved roses on the label.
The N. aisle windows have a variant of reticulated tracery to the north, in which the reticulation units are cusped in their lower parts only. This work is unlikely to be much earlier than c. 1330 but it defies the ascription of a confident end date. The clerestory windows - positioned above the arcade spandrels - are similar, except in respect of their more flattened arches. The N. aisle E. window has supermullioned tracery within which space is found for two mouchettes and a quatrefoil, suggesting the date is still the fourteenth century here. It is now squashed in beside a brick semicircular stair turret that was added later to provide access to an erstwhile rood loft. The chancel windows have supermullioned tracery and are largely restored, but the E. window has an order of original thirteenth century shafts inside, and the S. aisle has a three-light reticulated E. window and Y-traceried windows to the south, of which the easternmost is cusped.
Re-entering the church and turning to the furnishings, the outstanding piece of work is manifestly the elaborate font cover (shown left) by John Turner , which is dated 1630. It rises in two slightly diminishing octagonal stages with canopies gabled on all sides, the lower of which is supported on Tuscan columns while the upper tier has obelisks rising from the corners and another in the centre. Turner was reputedly also responsible for the pulpit, but this is a far more conventional piece of work displaying the usual three tiers of panelling, with the expected round arches on the second. The altar rails are believed to date from 1660. The roofs are largely renewed except in the S. aisle and S. porch, which now serves as a chapel. The former, though of simple lean-to construction, is unusual in having a central purlin supported by king-posts rising from tie beams spanning the aisle between the wall plate on one side, and the arcade spandrels on the other.
Finally, the church contains one monument mentioned by Gunnis (Dictionary of British Architects: 1660 - 1851, Abbey Library, 1951), which commemorates Richard Corbauld Chilton (d. 1816), a former vicar of this parish. It is the work of Charles Regnart (1759 - 1844) “an extremely competent monumental mason, whose work is to be found all over England. His masterpiece is the altar-tomb at Farthinghoe, Northanptonshire, to George Rush, 1806.”