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English Church Architecture.


STRATFORD ST. MARY, St. Mary (TM 052 346),


(Bedrock:  Eocene, London Clay.)


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.





The church butts up against the B1029, which creates a difficulty 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 the speeding traffic. There is flushwork decoration everywhere,  admittedly not as finely wrought as in the S. porches at Ardleigh and Great Bromley, a few miles to the south (in Essex), but at Stratford St. Mary, knapped flint is the principal facing material on all parts - over the W. tower, aisled nave, chancel, chapels and N. porch.  No church could possibly use it more extensively.


St. Mary's is essentially a late fifteenth/ early sixteenth century building, over-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 a mere 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  (most notably at Highnam, Gloucestershire), he lacked Butterfield's focusand his work often became a distinctly 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.  This is most noticeable in window traceries.  His windows are all exceptionally elaborate here at St. Mary's, yet none succeed:  see, for example, those in the S. aisle  (illustrated above 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 mediaeval clerestory, constructed c. 1500 and paid for by Thomas Mors, a local clothier, who died in that year and left money for its construction.  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 the N. aisle and chapel are equally good, with a flushwork basal frieze bearing an inscription and windows that retain their original 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.


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 the 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  (Birkin Haward, Suffolk Mediaeval Church Arcades, Hitcham, Suffolk Institute of Archaeology and History, 1993, p. 354).  (See the N. aisle arcade, left.)  He was almost certainly Simon Clerk, by turns, 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 style.)  However, the arches that now spring from these piers appear to have been reduced in height and given their present four-centred form shortly afterwards when the clerestory was added, and because they are now ogee-pointed in the idiosyncratic manner seen at neighbouring Dedham, and only a few miles further away, at St. James &  St. Paul's church, Colchester (both in Essex), then it seems that the mason responsible was probably Robert Antell, who, as at Dedham, so also here, drew the ogee  points  and the semi-octagonal shafts on the sides of the piers facing the nave, up to frame the clerestory windows, 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 (illustrated right) were added some fifty years afterwards (i.e. c.1530) in the same 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 quite attractive.  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 show Woodyer's inability to judge when enough was enough.




[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, Hessett, Lavenham and Long Melford in Suffolk.]