Tuesday, 26 October 2010

Little Maplestead, Essex

I rarely look up churches before a visit but plan a village by village route based on time and distance which can be varied if time permits. Little Maplestead was a planned visit but nonetheless I can honestly say that I, quite literally, nearly wet myself when I first saw St John the Baptist.

One of my other interests are the Knights Templars, about whom I've read extensively, so I immediately realised that I was looking at an original round church and that these are rare - but I had no idea how rare, as David Stanford in his excellent book, Essex Churches makes clear:

"The famous Temple Church in London is one of only five medieval round churches in England. The youngest of the five, and the only one in Essex, is St John the Baptist, Little Maplestead."

The church guide book is highly informative: 

Round Churches in England

BOTH the Hospitallers and the Templars built round churches, the plan being based on the round church of the Holy Sepulchre at Jerusalem, but they also built the more conventional rectangular ones.

In England, four round churches now remain in use, of which only two were connected with the Military Orders. The Temple Church in London (known as the ‘new’ Temple) belonged to the Templars and the church at Little Maplestead belonged to the Hospitallers. The other two, both dedicated to the Holy Sepulchre, at Cambridge and Northampton respectively, were parish churches from their inception and have nothing to do with either Order. Their plan, however, must have been influenced by the church at Jerusalem.

In addition to the above, the existence of a number of other round churches is known. There is a two-storied round-nave chapel in the bailey of Ludlow Castle dating from about 1120, which is the earliest of the round churches of which there are any remains standing. The apsidal choir has been destroyed. The foundations of the great circular nave of the Hospita1lers’ first church at Clerkenwell have been traced and the apsidal crypt below its chancel, much enlarged in the latter part of the 12th century, remains under the present church. The round church of Temple Bruer has been excavated and the foundations of a small round Templars’ church have been discovered on the western heights at Dover in Kent. We know from documentary evidence that there was a round church belonging to the same Order at Aslackby in Lincolnshire, but there are no visible remains.

Foundations of the circular arcade of the Old Temple established at Holborn and built around 1155 were discovered in 1875. It was the predecessor of the New Temple founded in 1184, which was burnt out during an air raid in the Second World War. Parts of another round church have been discovered beneath the tower and the nave of West Thurrock church in Essex, but of its origin nothing is known; it had no connection with either Military Order.

The History of the Hospital at Little Maplestead

NOT A great deal is known about the Hospital of St John at Little Maplestead, notwithstanding the fact that nearly 600 charters referring to its property are transcribed into the Great Cartulary of the Hospital of St John of Jerusalem in England compiled in the 15th century, the reason being that the establishment was looked upon as part and parcel of the Order in England and not as a separate institution.

The manor of Little Maplestead is mentioned in Domesday Book, 1086, as is a neighbouring manor called Napsted and although there are few records to point us to the original site of Napsted clues indicate it was probably situated in what is now the parish of Little Maplestead. There must have been a church in existence then, as the priest is referred to, but no trace of it nor its successor remains except the ancient font, nor are we sure where it stood.

The village and church of Little Maplestead were given to the Knights Hospitallers in 1185 by Juliana Fitz-Audelin, by a formal grant, made with her husband William, dated 17 March 1186. It must have been at this time that the Hospital was founded and, soon afterwards, the Knights set about building a church for their own use but subject to the House at Clerkenwell. This church could have been of circular plan, or it might still have been a simple apsidal Norman building with a rectangular nave. At the same time suitable domestic buildings would have been erected for the use of the new community, including a chapter—house, refectory, dormitories and various subsidiary structures, probably grouped around a courtyard. It is unlikely that there was a cloister as in Houses of the other monastic orders. But not a trace of the Knights’ first church nor the domestic buildings remains and even their site is uncertain.

The possessions of the House were extensive and lands were owned in both Maplesteads, Halstead, Gestingthorpe (where there was a domestic chapel served by one of the chaplains), Hedingham, Colchester, Steeple Bumpstead and elsewhere, but many of the grants were of very small pieces of land. In the Great Cartulary, the Essex gifts are listed under twelve localities, and the Maplestead group alone occupies nearly 200 pages. Some of the entries are dated as far back as 1148, showing that the Order was acquiring lands in Essex before Little Maplestead Hospital was founded.

In 1338 a report on the possessions of the Hospital in England was made by Prior Philip de Thame to the Grand Master and from it some glimpse of the community at Little Maplestead. The reason for the adoption of the circular plan as late as the 14th century is still a matter of speculation, for it had gone out of fashion by the end of the l2th century. To account for its late use, the late Sir W. St John Hope surmised that the walls of the chance] and circular aisle might actually date from the late 12th century, being retained when the church was rebuilt around 1335, and that the hexagonal arcade within the round was an addition of the latter period. This theory is now regarded as untenable for there is no sign of work earlier than the 14th century. It is possible that the present plan may have been influenced by an earlier round church on the site, but no foundations which would have confirmed this theory were discovered during the restorations of the 1850s, when the walls were under-pinned.

As the church was built primarily for use by the Knights, it was not, strictly speaking, parochial. Its original ritual arrangements were those adapted to the special requirements of the Order and differed considerably from those in a parish church, for the chancel formed the private chapel of the Knights - to which the public was not normally admitted.

A solid screen, or pulpitum, stood at the west end of the chancel, effectively shutting it off from the round. It had a central doorway flanked by small traceried openings. The space which remained between the top of the screen and the roof was completely boarded in, with the royal Arms on the western face of the infilling. Access to the loft over the screen was by a narrow staircase in the thickness of the aisle wall, entered by a door near the junction with the north wall of the chancel. This was removed in 1851 but some trace of it may be seen in the external walling of the aisle.

Across the chord of the apse, at the east end of the chancel, was another screen which rose to the roof, against which the altar was placed. The apse was thereby completely cut off to form a vestry which was approached by a door to the south of the altar and lit by a narrow single—light opening on the east.

These arrangements, which survived the Reformation, have now totally disappeared, but we know what they were from old engravings like that on page 11 which shows the chancel screen in position.

The space between the two screens formed the Knights’ quire where they performed the various services prescribed by the Order. It was no doubt fitted up with stalls, ‘returned’ against the western screen. The circular nave was therefore merely an adjunct to the Preceptory church and what its uses were at the time the Hospital was in being is not certain. It probably contained an altar,  perhaps placed under the eastern arch of the hexagon, for visitors and servants, and may thus have been the parish church. If this supposition is correct, it would account for the preservation of the church for parochial use after the Reformation, when all else was pulled down, by the grantees of the Preceptory’s estates.

ST JOHN THE BAPTIST. Those who believe in texture and the handiwork of the medieval mason will not be pleased by Little Maplestead. Most of what they see is by Carpenter who restored the church in 1850. But those who are looking for design and composition can still enjoy the noble rotunda which takes the place of the nave. Little Maplestead was the church of a Commandery of the Knights Hospitallers and as such was built (as the Templars had done before) on the pattern of the church of the Holy Sepulchre at Jerusalem, that is as a circular building. There are only five circular churches left in England, the early C13 church of the Temple in London being the most famous. The others are at Ludlow Castle, Northampton, and Cambridge, all three Norman. Little Maplestead was built as late as c. 1345. The piers of the rotunda are quatrefoil with sharply V-shaped shafts in the diagonals. The arches have two quadrant mouldings. The windows are of two lights and also of a typical early C14 form. But the rich corbels of the arches along the walls are entirely Carpenter’s. So is probably the W doorway with its rich fleuron decoration. The timber porch is a replacement of a previous porch. The chancel is contemporary with the rotunda and has an apse. - FONT. Square with chamfered angles. Very raw decoration - a saltire cross, two arches, a composition of two volutes - it may well be C11.

LITTLE MAPLESTEAD. Here, in a village with gabled cottages 500 years old, stands something to be seen in only three other places in England. This little corner of Essex shares a distinction with London and Cambridge and Northampton, for it has one of our four medieval round churches (the London one, alas, in ruin as this book appears during the Battle for Britain). This is the smallest of the group and the youngest, but as beautiful as any of the others.

It was built by the Knights Hospitallers 600 years ago, and has a handsome western doorway ornamented with two rows of square leaves, and with heads of a bishop and a queen. The nave is round, and the aisle goes round it, the entire width of nave and aisle being 30 feet. A most intriguing little place it is, with six very graceful snow-white columns enclosing the nave, and six arches bridging the aisle as we walk round it. There is a 14th century chancel with an apse.

In this remarkable building the Hospitallers worshipped for 200 years, until their preceptory here was dissolved under Henry the Eighth. The font may be nearly 300 years older than the church, and has had its square bowl cut into an eight-sided one. Its ornament includes arches and spirals and a cross. There is a brass tablet to John Harward, who died in 1912 after serving as vicar for 55 years. He was laid in his own churchyard at the great age of 93.

Flickr set.

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