BURPHAM, St. Mary (TQ 039 090),
(Bedrock: Upper Cretaceous, Upper Chalk.)
A church with a rare, stone-vaulted chancel,
and a confusing late twelfth/early thirteenth century building history. Beware!
This is an important church even though that is not especially evident outside. It is also a building whose history is difficult to unpick with complete confidence, for there is Norman, Norman-Transitional and Early English work here, which grade into one another, besides Victorian restoration work - the responsibility, according to Ian Nairn, of Sir Thomas Graham Jackson (1835 - 1924) in 1869 (The Buildings of England: Sussex, Harmondsworth, Penguin, 1965, pp. 120-122) - that greatly adds to the confusion by mimicking these styles only too successfully. The note that follows attempts to describe the various features of the building in some detail, in approximate age order, but inasmuch as differences in particulars within an overall style may sometimes have been due to different masons working on the church simultaneously, quite apart from any slight differences in date, this is unlikely to be a perfect system. The church consists of a W. tower, nave and chancel, with transepts and a lean-to S. aisle and porch. The aisle windows are small and low, and the nave has no clerestory, so the church interior is dark on even the sunniest of early autumn days.
Ian Nairn suggested that the N. transept was built shortly after the original nave and chancel, in the early twelfth century, that the S. transept was added c. 1160, and that the S. aisle, which has pointed instead of round arches to the nave, was constructed some twenty years later. However, he appears to have overlooked the tiny band of dog-tooth above the N. transept W. window (shown right), which if original, would scarcely permit a date much earlier than c.1190. This could suggest the S. transept was built first and is more elaborate simply because there was then more money to spend. Alternatively, the whole church, minus the tower, might have been erected in a single extended building phase over, say, a thirty year period, c. 1185-1215, suffering the sort of disruptions in the interval that were probably then commonplace, such as the death of one or more master masons. The tower is not part of this puzzle but rather presents a small one of its own, for apart from the renewed W. window with supermullioned tracery above the very worn W. doorway, all its windows and bell-openings consist of plain rectangles only, and it can be little more than a guess whether this is late fourteenth or fifteenth century work. Undivided by string courses and capped by a tiled pyramidal roof, its most prominent feature is the large rectangular stair turret projecting at the northeast angle and rising to a small saddleback roof above the tower battlements. The arch between the tower and nave comprises two flat-chamfered orders, of which the inner dies into the jambs.
However, to return to the principal difficulty in interpreting this building, which lies in unravelling its twelfth and thirteenth century work, the earliest could still derive from the first half of the former century and be revealed in the blocked N. doorway to the nave, the upper half of which now forms a window. The transepts could then have been added in the late twelfth century, in whatever order, and the S. aisle added c. 1200, after which the important remodelling of the chancel may have been carried out, as will be described below. The arch to the N. transept from the nave is composed of a single flat-chamfered order above imposts resting on jambs with stopped chamfers down the angles. The arch to the S. transept must be described, in turn, from the north and the south, as its two sides are different. The N. side is formed of two deeply stepped orders, resting on very pronounced imposts supported on shafts with scalloped capitals, and bearing two rolls under the soffit, a third roll between the orders, and prominent chevron moulding on both the horizontal and vertical planes on the outer order. The S. side (shown left) is still more remarkable, for the chevron has now evolved into a series of large 'V's, almost detached from the wall, that chase each other round the arch, and there is a hood-mould above, with carved beast label stops. As for the arcade between the nave and aisle, this proves not to be an arcade at all but instead, two separate and quite disparate, though not necessarily different-aged, Norman-Transitional arches, separated by some eight feet (2.4 m.) of wall. Both arches are pointed and the simpler western arch consists of a single order with roll mouldings on the angles, springing from jambs with nook shafts at the corners with capitals akin to waterleaf, which is itself a transitional form, associated with the years c.1180-1210. The eastern arch (illustrated right, in a view into the aisle and S. transept from the nave) consists of two orders, of which the inner bears two rolls under the soffit, supported on an order of shafts with scalloped capitals, and the outer has a narrower roll on each side (i.e. north and south) rising from shafts with cushion capitals bearing differing carvings in shallow relief. Perhaps fortunately after all this, the arch from the S. transept to the aisle and the chancel arch from the nave, can be seen, on careful observation, to be part of the restoration work, mercifully saving the visitor from any further attempted detective work of this kind.
This brings this account to the unambiguously thirteenth century part of the building, though the date may not be very much later here either. This does not include the lancets in the aisle and porch, which were part of the restoration, nor probably the S. transept windows, judging by the circular window above the two south lancets, which does not look authentic and probably gives the game away. However, the chancel windows are mediaeval and include a lancet on each side (south and north) and the group of three small and widely-spaced, stepped lancets to the east. (See the photograph of the church at the foot of the page, viewed from the east.) The other chancel windows are early fourteenth century (Decorated) insertions and comprise a lowside window in the S. wall towards the west, formed of a single trefoil-cusped ogee light, and towards the east on each side, a window formed of two adjoining, similar but somewhat broader lights, unenclosed in any encompassing arch. The two, three-light square-headed windows in the nave N. wall, are conspicuously renewed and at odds with all the other work, so probably not by Jackson.
However, the most exceptional feature of the church has still to be described, for the relatively large and high chancel is vaulted in two quadripartite bays (as illustrated left, from the west), with each rib formed of a pair of rolls, and the infill between, formed of blocks of white clunch, producing a surprisingly light effect after the gloom of the nave, assisted here by the larger windows. The vault is supported on a pair of keeled shafts between the bays and on little more than projecting ledges in the chancel corners, but it is a most remarkable conceit and clearly shows this was a most important building at the time of its construction, in the early years of the thirteenth century.
Finally, the church furnishings may be quickly described. The font is Perpendicular and octagonal, with quatrefoils on the faces of the bowl and flowers in the centre of each, a pair of quatrefoils (one above the other) on the cardinal faces of the stem, and trefoil-cusped arches on the ordinal faces between. The only carpentry of note appears to be the communion rail, which has turned balusters and is probably seventeenth century work. The transept and nave roofs have been entirely renewed.