Saturday, 17 July 2010

Finchingfield, Essex

St John the Baptist in Finchingfield makes it, as previously mentioned, into Simon Jenkins' Thousand Best Churches having "the finest screens in Essex" but he seems as taken with the village as he is with the church. I'm not so sure that he's right so I'm going to go and have another look - now.

Right, I re-visited yesterday afternoon and am still convinced that, although it's a pleasant enough church, St John does not merit being in the top one thousand when taken as a church alone rather than with the village. It has some great corbels and the Berners tomb is not without interest but I would still submit either Felsted or Debden ahead of St John.

ST JOHN. Norman W tower, originally unbuttressed, though the one C19 diagonal buttress no doubt adds punch and the C18 cupola grace. Doorway of three orders of columns with scalloped capitals and decorated zigzag arches. Defaced heads at the top of the inner jamb like crockets. The tympanum has been removed. The tower arch towards the nave is low and completely plain. To its l and r., inside the tower blank arcading continued along half the N and S sides of the tower. What was its purpose? Was it connected with former altars? The next period can only be discovered inside, the C13, to which the chancel arch, the N chancel arcade of two bays and the S nave arcade of five bays belong (octagonal piers, double-chamfered-arches). A little later, early C14, the more handsome N arcade with four major and four minor shafts, all with fillets, and complex arch mouldings. The W bay alone is different. It has a characteristically Perp pier, similar to that of the S chancel chapel. The window tracery is mostly of the same date, say the last third of the C14, and of interesting shapes. The cross of figures of eight especially which one meets so often in Essex C14 tracery is prominent. The chancel has, an unusual and successful feature, a clerestory. Its windows are straightheaded of intersected pointed and cusped arches. Straight-headed also the side openings of the (C19) S Porch. The nave clerestory is C15. It is like all the rest of pebble rubble, the typical material of this part of Essex. Flat-pitched chancel and nave roofs on stone corbels. - FONT. Octagonal with quatrefoils and shields. - SCREENS. The S aisle screen is the earlier, of the same date as the aisle; see the Dec details inside the Early Perp panels. The rood screen is one of the most elaborate in Essex, with tall divisions with big crocketed ogee heads and much fine panel tracery between it and the straight top. - S DOOR. C14 with much tracery, also Christ crucified, a Pelican, a Dove etc. - MONUMENTS. John Berners and wife d. 1523, tombchest with Purbeck marble top and brass effigies. The tombchest decorated with the inescapable quatrefoils. - William Kempe d. 1628 and wife, erected 1652. Tablet with inscription on an oval plate and handsome scrolls and flower bunches. - Thomas Marriott d. 1766. Large monument with bust in front of a medallion. Signed by W. Tyler. - Anne Marriott, by R. Westmacott, 1811. With large Greek female figure and urn.

Having said that I am prepared to accept that my opinion may be wrong as Mee waxes almost as lyrical as Jenkins:

FINCHINGFIELD. Part of its charm is set out round a big green dipping to the River Pant, which widens to add to the beauty of the scene. It is one of the rare villages not soon forgotten, a place where hardly a house or a cottage lacks charm, where the farms have seen four centuries come and go, and where the church is a feast in itself. Two roads wind over the hill from the green, one past an old windmill and the other past the Guildhall, a timber and plaster building with old casement windows and chimneys, and a fine kingpost truss in its roof. Among the other old houses are two from Elizabethan England: Parsonage Farm with five original doors and grotesque beasts carved on the eaves, and Cornish Hall, with a weather-boarded dovecot. But the pride of the neighbourhood is Spain's Hall in grounds of 100 acres, a lake formed from two mill-ponds, and a brick dovecot now cleared of its nests. A lovely old hall it is, with gables and splendid mullion windows, a porch rising the full height of the house to a gable of its own, and an original oriel window, all the work of our incomparable Tudor builders in brick. Even the rain-water pipes put up by the Kempes in the 17th century add their touch of beauty, having elaborate straps ornamented with leopards and cherubs and other things. Within the house is much old panelling lining the walls, and there are richly carved overmantels from the 17th century.

Yet Spain's Hall seems young when we remember the beginnings of the church boldly set on the hill, for it began in Norman England. Its striking western tower is crowned by a wooden lantern of the 18th century, but the masonry below has been standing 800 years with a splendid Norman doorway. The doorway is an arch of four orders, adorned with chevrons and zigzags and other rich patterns, and with corbel heads which we may imagine to be asking each other what has become of the vanished tympanum. The south porch has stone panels and beams and a handsome doorway, all from the 14th century; but a far rarer sight is the original double door still in use after 600 years. It is enriched with six traceried panels and quaint carvings of the Crucifixion, a pelican, a dove, and other figures cut from the solid oak.

The interior of the church is impressive, and we can well imagine its growth through the centuries. Here is a Norman tower arch from the oldest building of all. Here on the south of the nave are arches pierced in the 13th century, when the long narrow chancel and its entrance arch were built. Here on the north are beautiful 14th century arches, the same age as both the aisles and both the chapels. Above us are a 15th century clerestory, a 16th century nave roof, and a 17th century chancel roof with the names of Robert Kempe and John Glascock who set it up. So long does it take for a church to grow. Among the carved heads we noticed one with very long hair, several saints, a king, and a queen. The font has shields on its 14th century bowl, and angels just below. There is a very fine chancel screen carved in the 15th century with tracery and cusps and grotesques; and the side screen is even older, enriched on the cornice with carvings which include men playing pipes. Most handsome of the monuments is the 400-year-old altar tomb of John Berners in the south chapel. Heraldic shields are on the sides, and standing under canopies between the panels are beadsmen hooded and robed. John is shown in brass with his wife, both of them on the marble top of the tomb. He wears a tabard over his armour, and she has a heraldic mantle.

Passing to the chancel we see an 18th century altar tomb and a tablet with a bust, both to members of the Harriot family; and in the north chapel is a plain altar tomb to one of the Kempes 400 years ago. William Kempe, who lived at Spain's Hall in Charles Stuart's time, has a tablet rich with heraldry and festoons, and it is recorded that he was so much master of himself, that what others could scarce do by force and penalties he did "by a voluntary constancy"; he held his peace seven years*.

A modern inscription tells us that Daniel Shed was baptised here in Stuart days, that he was one of the founders of New England in 1640, and that in his memory his descendants restored the church.

A fascinating relic on a window ledge in one of the aisles is a diagram of the old game of Nine Men's Morris. Did the village boys of Shakespeare's time shelter here, we wonder, playing this old game when the rain was falling in the churchyard?

* Kempe incorrectly accused his wife of infidelity and subsequently took, and kept, a vow of silence for seven years.

John and Elizabeth Berners

 William Kempe

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