Thursday, 22 July 2010

Balsham, Cambridgeshire

OMFG - how this survived Dowsing is beyond me and but thank God it did - the chancel choir stalls are, frankly, amazing.

The church itself is stolid in appearance with vast buttresses supporting the Tower which were originally put in place in 1580's and re-built in 1986 - at the same time the tower was internally concrete lined and a reinforced steel ring placed in the parapet to support the Tower. To be honest this is not an attractive exterior.

The churchyard is attractive and there are some good corbels and an interesting grotesque masquerading as a gargoyle and an exhortation over the door that 'Ye shall keep My Sabbaths and reverence My sanctuary, I AM THE LORD'.

Over the door are some Benefactions and in the south west aisle - note to self, point out that I always move round a church SWNES i.e. I  enter through the South porch, move West to the tower, shift to the North Aisle, hit the East chancel, do the Nave, go back to the south east aisle and exit - normally having done the exterior first - a couple of monuments.

You reach the tower and font and are confronted by a spire cover, made in the 30's by Richard Burrell, a Rector/Carpenter who also knocked up the St Nicholas Chapel from Elizabethan timber taken from the old Rectory.

Beside the chapel, under the carpet to the right in the picture, is the first brass in the church - the Knight in armour. The identity of the Knight is unknown. The Armour is Yorkist in style and points to the latter 1470s. Balsham was an ecclesiastical manor and there was no influential local family to which he might be related, although the Allingtons of nearby Horseheath may be a possibility. William Allington d.1485 was killed at the Battle of Bosworth, his burial place is unknown; his forbears and descendants are buried at Horseheath but this is only conjecture.

The rood screen dates from the 1380s with a carved canopy from the 1440s, it was restored in the 70s in what was then thought to be the traditional style although it was probably originally much brighter.

In the chancel are the jewels of the church - two brasses to the Johns Sleford and Blodwell and the almost intact C14th choir stalls. 

In 1644 the church was visited by William Dowsing, who broke pictures and crosses, and echoed the order of 1550 to level the chancel but for some reason the fine choir stall carvings were left virtually intact: "Balsham, March 21. (3s. 4d.) We brake divers superstitious pictures, one crucifix, and gave order to take down a cross on the church, and to take down another on the steple, and to level the steps of the chancell within a month". 

HOLY TRINITY. The W tower belongs to the mid C13. It has flat angle buttresses, clumsily strengthened in 1598 by one diagonal buttress between and two more big buttresses up the middle of the W and N sides. For their sake the W portal had to be destroyed and the W window composition of lancets disturbed. The bell-openings represent a curious stage of transition between plate and bar tracery. They consist of two lancets and a circle above them - i.e. plate tracery - but in the circle a quatrefoil of bar tracery. Top with gargoyles and battlements. Tower arch on three-shaft responds with an arch triple-chamfered and in addition enriched by one roll moulding and a hood-mould on stiff-leaf stops. The next part in date after the tower is the chancel, obviously Dec, with a five-light reticulated E window (renewed correctly at the time of the restoration) and similar windows on the sides. In addition - a curious device - a clerestory, also Dec. The nave also has a clerestory, but this is faced with yellow brick. Yet in the drawing of William Cole that clerestory is there. And inside, it carries original corbels for the roof. So it must replace an original clerestory. The aisle details are Perp, the windows of three lights in four-centred arches and with panel tracery. Perp also the arcade: piers with big semi-polygonal shafts and in the diagonals a group of four thin shafts and a hollow between. The arches with two wave-mouldings and a hood-mould on head-stops. The chancel arch is of the same design. If one tried to date the various parts of the church, the tower might just fall within the years when Hugh de Balsham was Bishop of Ely (1257-86). The chancel looks c. 1330 and the aisle windows C15. That is puzzling, considering that the inscription on the brass of John Sleford in the chancel (see below) praises him for having built the church (ecclesiam struxit). He died in 1401. Can the nave be his?

ROOD SCREEN. Tall, of three two-light divisions on each side of the entrance; four-centred arches with thin panel tracery above. The specially interesting feature about this screen is that it ended at first in a straight cornice - see the E side - but that soon after a rood-loft was added with a ribbed coving which is also wholly preserved. - CHANCEL STALLS. A surprising number for a parish church. Ten on the N, ten on the S and three plus three on the W side. The armrests have two projections above each other, each with human figures or animals. Misericords with human heads, beasts and monsters. The lower stall-fronts traceried; their ends with poppy-heads. - STAINED GLASS. Remains of canopy work in the N aisle window. - E window by A. K. Nicholson and G. E. R. Smith 1933, unpleasant in its anaemic colour and sentimental draughtsmanship, and without feeling for the character of stained glass. - MONUMENTS. Anglo-Saxon coffin-lid with a plain cross on a shaft and interlace ornament l. and r. of the shaft. - Brass to John Sleford, rector of Balsham d. 1401 (see above). The brass with its triple canopy and a large efiigy, the orphreys of the cope decorated with figures of saints, seems incomprehensibly ambitious, until one realizes that Sleford was Canon of Ripon, Archdeacon of Wells, Prebendary of St Stephen’s Chapel in the Palace of Westminster, Chaplain of the Queen, and Keeper of the Wardrobe to Edward III. - Also in the chancel floor brass to John Blockwell d. 1462, also rector of Balsham, under a solid broad canopy whose uprights have tiers of niches with saints; small saints on the orphreys. The canopy short and with a depressed cusped arch. 


Arthur says:
BALSHAM. Within a mile of it is the only unbroken sector of the once mighty earthwork known as Fleam Dyke. For centuries it was used as a packhorse way, and here in 909 was a great slaughter when Danish invaders were attacked by Alfred's son. A century later another attack swept over East Anglia and left alive but one gallant defender of the village in the Saxon tower.

A memory of the Saxon church was found in the churchyard not so very long ago, a Saxon coffin stone cut with plaits and a cross in a circle; but the church we see crowning the highest bit of Cambridge¬shire in a thatched roof village (with a pretty green and a wayside duckpond) was mostly built by John de Sleford, who added the clerestoried nave and the aisles to the 13th century tower and the chancel, built just before his time. He furnished the chancel with 24 magnificent stalls still here, with traceried fronts and backs, lions and faces for poppyheads, and such an array of creatures on the tops and under the seats that they are like an old bestiary in wood. We remember among them a muzzled bear tethered for baiting and a man on stilts leading a dog. From the same century comes the lovely chancel screen remarkable for having still above it the old rood-loft reached by the old rood stairs. It is a rare survival, for there very few rood-lofts left in this country from the days before the formation. There are ancient timbers in the roof of the chancel, an Elizabethan table in a little chapel.

We found Canon Burrell, the faithful rector here, still adding rich carvings to Balsham's rich collection of medieval woodwork grand enough for a cathedral. He has made craftsmen of his village folk; training the men at woodwork classes, and himself carved the altar rails, the almsbox, and the marvellous font cover which represents nine years of his labour. It rises 30 feet high, having a steeple of delicate tracery and pinnacles, rising in tiers from eight canopied niches with figures in them among which we can see his far-off predecessor, John de Sleford, with two other benefactors, Thomas Sutton, the famous founder of Charterhouse, and Hugh de Balsham, the founder of Peterhouse.

We meet John de Sleford again in the magnificent east window, a glory of colour in a grand stone setting. The rays of Christ's glory light a crescent rainbow of angel wings in the centre, and below are four medieval rectors with the founders of Charterhouse and Peterhouse and Ely, and Prior Houghton, who gave up his life during the suppression of the monasteries. Even the old sexton cutting the grass outside this church has a corner in this window, and Charterhouse boys playing cricket have another. The window is by A. K. Nichol¬son. In another chancel window by Christopher Webb is a charming St Nicholas with the three boys in a tub, and next to them stands St Felix, with a long candle as if he were lighting them to bed. There are fragments of old glass in other windows.

There are three brass portraits, one of an unknown 15th century knight, and the two grand ones of rectors, wonderful treasures for a village church which has already so much. Both brasses are over eight feet long. John de Sleford appears in rich vestments, his cope embroidered with canopied saints all neatly named, while on the points of his canopy are seraphim and shields, and a representation of the Trinity above two angels carrying the rector's soul upwards in a sheet. The inscription tells us that this rector, who was Edward the Third's Master of the Wardrobe, was beloved of the king to the slow sad end, and also that he opened wide his purse and wrought with bounteous and free spending hand. No less sumptuous is the brass of John Blodwell, whose inscription begins "Wales gave me birth, Bologna taught me Law, and Rome its practice," but omits what is to us the more interesting fact that he was locum tenens for the Bishop of Ely who, as Archbishop of Rouen, assisted in the trial of Joan of Arc. We see him in vestments and a skull cap, with lions' heads and saints embroidered on his cope, and more saints on the shafts of his canopy.

Kept in a case is the old hourglass and the choir's old musical instruments with some handwritten music of 300 years ago; and still in the tower is a bell 400 years old on which is engraved in Latin the assurance that “The voice of Michael's bell thunders from Heaven.” It is the only bell still in the county made by John Tonne. On the font are several figures of friends of the church, the 13th century Bishop of Ely who founded Peterhouse, and Thomas Sutton again. Nothing is left here of his old home, unless it be the 16th century doors and fireplaces in Nine Chimneys House.

Flickr set.

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