Monday, 22 November 2010

Copford Green, Essex

St Michael and All Angels is not much to look at from the outside but contains an astonishing collection of medieval wall paintings - admittedly the chancel paintings have been brutally restored by the Victorians nevertheless it is truly magnificent.

ST MARY THE VIRGIN. The most remarkable Norman parish church in the county, chiefly because of its wall paintings, but also architecturally. The C12 building consisted of nave, chancel, and apse. Except that a S aisle was added and the S nave wall irregularly broken through, this C12 building survives. The only damage which has been done to it, and it is a very serious damage, is that the vaults of nave and chancel were removed. Norman vaults in parish churches are something exceedingly rare in England, and moreover the vaulting system of Copford was rarer still - not a ribbed cross-vault but a tunnel-vault. But for the Tower chapel in London no English tunnel-vaulted church nave exists, common as they were in France. At Copford the springers of the vault are still clearly visible, and the apse, separated by an arch on the plainest responds, has its complete semi-spherical vault. The upper windows of the nave which also survive, cut into by the later arches on the S side,must have joined the tunnel vault with short cross-tunnel-vaults of their own. The windows are shafted inside and out and quite large in size. Especially the lower W window recognizable inside (now C14) is surprisingly spacious. Above it is a smaller Norman window flanked by two odd blocked (or blank) circles or oculi. Two doorways on the N side; the one into the nave has two orders of columns with primitive capitals and in the arch two roll-mouldings. The apse is articulated by broad flat buttresses. These, and all the Norman detail, are heavily fortified with Roman bricks. The addition of the S isle apparently proceeded gradually.* First an E bay was thrown out, as a kind of transept. This has still Transitional characteristics. The arch is pointed. The responds have angle shafts. The second bay is most interesting in its own way. The responds and the arch are triple-chamfered and entirely of brick, and only the outer order uses Roman bricks. The inner orders have home-made or imported bricks, and yet the date seems to be no later than 1300. So we have here bricks amongst the earliest medieval ones in England (cf. Little Coggeshall). The westernmost arch is of less interest. - DOOR. N doorway, original, but the ironwork of the hinges renewed. - FONT. Of the usual square Purbeck type of c. 1200, with four shallow blank arches on each side. - CHEST. Rectangular, iron—bound, assigned to the C14. - PAINTINGS. These are by far the most important medieval wall-paintings in Essex. They date from the same time as the church, say c. 1140-50, and are connected in their style with Bury St Edmunds and St Albans. Originally no doubt the whole church, inclusive of the vault, was painted. What now remains (restored in 1872 and again by Professor: Tristram) is this : Apse with Christ in circular Glory supported by angels with standing Angels in the spandrels and Apostles (almost entirely C19) below between the windows. Ornamental designs in the windows, zigzag bands, Greek key or crenellated bands, diapers of bands, etc. - all shaded. In the soffit of the chancel arch the Signs of the Zodiac. Against the N wall of the nave from E to W remains of a miracle, then The Healing of Jairus’s Daughter, then the life-size mailed figure of a Virtue. On the S wall near the E end figures of two angels. On the W wall arches with architectural motifs above and a seated figure on a throne and two more Virtues. Figures also on the springers of the former vault. 

* The bay off the chancel into the vestry is not old.

St Michael and All Angels

Wall painting (27)

Wall painting (12) detail

Wall painting (8) detail

Arthur is particularly verbose but deservedly so:

COPFORD. It had an ancient ford at the river in the days when the Romans were in Colchester, five miles away, and today it has an ancient treasury without its equal in Essex (or perhaps in any village church), an array of wall-paintings which have been here 800 years. They are remarkable in size, in colour, in arrangement, and in the revelation ofthe costume of the 12th century; it is not too much to say that they remind us of the paintings in Italian Byzantine churches. We have seen few things more enchanting than this painted apse, one of the rarest legacies bequeathed to us by the Normans.

Here are priests and people and soldiers and saints and architecture and natural history of the time. There are Bible figures grouped with elaborate decoration, and dominating all else on the vault of the apse is a gorgeously arrayed figure of Our Lord on a throne encircled by a rainbow supported by angels. There are angels on thrones in the spandrels, and below are apostles under canopies. In the splays of the central window are the archangels Michael and Gabriel, and in the arch and on its face are the signs of the Zodiac and angels trumpeting. It is one of the most remarkable apses we have seen, a veritable masterpiece of antiquity.

There are more paintings on the walls of the nave and chancel, not so clear to see but recognisable as Samson struggling with the lion, soldiers in mail, Christ and the Centurion, and the Flight into Egypt. Most of these paintings are finely preserved, thanks to the whitewash which covered them for centuries.

The church stands remotely by the great house in the park, the house replacing that in which Bishops of London lived for generations. It has fine cedars about it. The apse whose walls are so wonderful inside is interesting outside for the flat Norman buttresses and windows with detached shafts. The buttresses and windows continue along one wall, and one buttress has been pierced high up for a door into the roof; the buttress has hundreds of Roman tiles, one of them the biggest we remember. The nave, chancel, and apse of the church are all the early work of the Normans, and the interior is remarkable for showing us the cut-off ends of the vaulted roof into which the buttress doorway gave entrance. The men who refashioned the church in the 14th century cut the vaulting away, replacing it with the splendid timber rafters we see. A hundred years later came the beams which support the bell-turret. At the end of the 12th century the south wall of the nave was pierced by pointed arches, two of them meeting in elaborate Norman windows of which one of the capitals remain; a third arch made in the 13th century took in the whole of a Norman window, the builders using its Roman tiles again.

This astonishing Norman church, with the apse practically as the Normans left it, has still the great square font they made, and some Norman timber in a door -an extreme rarity, for there is very little Norman timber left. The old chest and the screen are medieval. By the altar of this thrilling place lies that fearful figure Bishop Bonner.

Edmund Bonner was with Cardinal Wolsey through his decline and fall, and was present at the melancholy scene of the arrest. The master’s catastrophe was the servant’s opportunity; he insinuated himself into the confidence of Henry, vehemently vindicating the marriage with Anne Boleyn and writing of "the tyranny of the Bishop of Rome." Henry sent him to Rome to argue the case for the divorce, and the story runs that Bonner’s language was so outrageous that the Pope threatened to have him thrown into a cauldron of boiling lead. Bonner’s apologists challenge this story as an absurdity, but it is admitted that his manner to Francis the First of France was so intolerable that the most courteous of monarchs retorted that but for his love for Henry he would have caused Bonner to receive a hundred strokes. Sailing with the tide, Bonner was now an ardent Lutheran, and as such was appointed Bishop of London. With the accession of Edward the Sixth he wavered between Rome and Reformation, being imprisoned and released and again arrested. The advent of Mary Tudor restored his fortunes. He had no Lutheran scruples now, but inaugurated and carried through the terrible persecution whose horrors and vindictiveness brought him the title of the Mitred Nero.

Three of his victims were Latimer, Ridley, and Cranmer, but in three years 200 more Protestants, learned and simple, illustrious and lowly, men, women, and the young, were burned alive at his behest. Not content to pronounce their doom, he personally participated in their trials and tortures. He reviled them in opprobrious language; Thomas Tomkins, a Shoreditch weaver, he beat about the face; others he belaboured with his crozier. Ridley, when Bonner himself was in prison, had supported his mother and sister, giving them precedence at his table; now that his turn had come Bonner flung Ridley’s relatives starving into the streets. Cranmer he humiliated by stripping him of his vestments and clothing him in rags.

Of all the men who hastened to Highgate to render homage to Elizabeth as she rode into London as queen, Bonner alone was denied the right to kiss her hand. She turned her face from him and drew back with a shudder. It is to his credit that, with the Reformation established, he did not again recant. Refusing to take the oath of supremacy, he spent his last ten years in prison and died there.

Flickr set.

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