English Church Architecture -
STRATFORD ST. MARY, St. Mary (TM 052 346) (June 2003)
(Bedrock: Eocene, London Clay)
The church butts up against the B1029, which is a pity as the only way to see the N. front properly is to stand in the middle of the road and hope not to be run down by traffic. There is flushwork decoration everywhere here. Admittedly it is not as finely wrought as in the S. porches at Ardleigh and Great Bromley, a few miles to the south in Essex, but here knapped flint is the principal material throughout - in the W. tower, aisled nave, chancel, chapels and N. porch. No church could use it more extensively.
St. Mary's is essentially a late fifteenth/ early sixteenth century building, that was heavily restored in 1878 by Henry Woodyer (1816-96). (The date appears in flushwork in the tower S. wall, high up next to the bell-openings.) Woodyer was briefly pupil to William Butterfield (in 1844), his senior by just two years, and for thirteen years after that, he worked from an office in Butterfield's house. Yet in spite of enjoying what appears to have been a perfectly amicable professional relationship, the two men were not temperamentally close, for Woodyer was flamboyant and capricious while Butterfield was abstemious, disciplined and single-minded, and so it is probably not surprising that although Woodyer could almost equal Butterfield in his very best work (notably at Highnam, Gloucestershire), he generally lacked Butterfield's focus and his work had a tendency to become a rather hybrid affair, characterised, at its worst, by the piling of one feature on another until the result was ostentatious and illogical. In part this appears to have been because he seemed unable to trust in simple line to make his mark on his buildings. This is most noticeable in window traceries. His windows are all exceptionally elaborate in this church, yet none succeed: see, for example, those in the S. aisle (illustrated left, in the view of the church from the southeast) or the chancel E. wall, or the hideously overdone N. porch windows, and compare them with the elegant proportions of the clerestory, constructed c. 1500 and paid for by Thomas Mors, a local clothier, who died in that year and left money for its construction in his will. The nave is four bays long and there are two of Mors's transomed clerestory windows per bay on each side, positioned above the spandrels of the aisle arcades within and separated outside by blank lights in flushwork and beneath battlements with more. This is an admirable design but equally good are the N. aisle and chapel, with a flushwork basal frieze bearing an inscription and windows that retain their original supermullioned tracery. (See the photograph right, showing the W. end of the N. aisle, and the photograph at the foot of the page, showing the basal frieze along the N. chapel E. wall.) The majority of the masonry here, at the E. end of the church, and in Woodyer's reconstructed tower, is faced with squared knapped flints with limestone dressings, for in this respect at least, Woodyer has been sensitive enough to introduce no discordant note: whatever he did or did not learn from Butterfield, he could hardly have failed to develop a feeling for the use of materials.
Inside the building, other matters come to the fore. The graceful four-bay nave arcades, which were probably complete by c. 1480, are 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 casements, producing a section which is so similar to that employed at St. Nicholas's, Denston and St. Ethelbert's, Hessett, that the mason seems certain to have been the same (Suffolk Mediaeval Church Arcades by Birkin Haward, Suffolk Institute of Archaeology and History, 1993). (See the N. aisle arcade, left.) He is likely to have been Simon 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. (See the entry for Denston church for a more detailed consideration of Clerk's work.) However, the arches that now spring from these piers appear to have been reduced in height from their original form to their present four-centred one, shortly afterwards when the clerestory was added, and because they are now ogee-pointed in the idiosyncratic manner seen at neighbouring Dedham, on the other side of the River Stour, in Essex, and only a few miles further away, at St. James & St. Paul's church, Colchester, then it seems that the mason responsible for this was probably Robert Antell (fl. 1492 - ?1538) (see the brief discussion of this mason in the entry for Dedham), who as at Dedham, so also here, drew the ogee points and the semi-octagonal shafts on the side of the piers facing the nave, up to frame the clerestory windows and to terminate in corbels beneath the wall posts of the roof. The two-bay chapel arcades probably show the form of the nave arcades before the clerestory was added, for they are similar up to the springing but two-centred above. It seems that the S. chapel and arcade were constructed with the nave arcades but that the N. chapel and arcade (right) were added some fifty years afterwards (i.e. c. 1530) in identical style, at the expense of Thomas Mors's son.
The chancel arch has a complex profile and is carried on three orders of coloured marble shafts with black stone bands imitating shaft-rings. This is by Woodyer and is actually very attractive. (See the E. respond, illustrated in the thumbnail below left.) Alas, not so the font, which stands on eight marble shafts and is decorated on the faces of the bowl, alternately with a carved scene of the apostles gathered round the central figure of Christ, and by an inlaid pattern in coloured marbles. The details are fair and either design with, perhaps, just the simplest of variations, would have done better on its own. Served up together, they merely illustrate Woodyer's shortcomings.