Wednesday, 24 November 2010

Wendens Ambo, Essex

Another St Mary the Virgin and this one is a small gem with a little bit of almost everything - so where to start?

Many features of the building go back as far as the 11th century and it is quite likely that it replaced an earlier Saxon structure although all traces of this have gone. When it was rebuilt, the Norman influence was apparent and the church had the characteristic prominent tower, rectangular nave and small chancel. By the 13th century the church was too small for the increasing population and a south aisle was added, extending westwards to align with the front of the tower. At the same time the chancel was completely rebuilt, becoming longer and wider to meet the requirements of greatly elaborated ritual.  Early in the 14th century a further extension was made, this time by adding a north aisle, but this was considerably shorter than the south one, extending only to the east wall of the tower. The north and south walls of the nave had to be substantially removed to accommodate these aisles, columns being inserted to support the roof.

By having the new aisle windows further away from the original nave, the light must have been poor but it was not until 1500 that this was remedied by the roof of the nave being considerably heightened and clerestory windows inserted in the upper walls. Within a few years two further clerestory windows were inserted close to the east gable of the nave, probably to give additional light to the Great Rood or Crucifix above the screen in the chancel arch.

Slightly earlier, a south porch was built. It is unlikely that this replaced another, for the worn state of the south doorway seems to - indicate that it had been exposed to the weather for many years. After the Reformation no further structural alterations were made until Victorian times, other than the construction of brick buttresses in the 18th century to support the chancel when it was found that the walls were not strong enough to support the roof. In 1857 the north aisle was completely replaced, the new one being extended westwards to balance the building. A doorway was inserted in this new aisle but later this was removed and replaced with a window. In 1895 more work was carried out: the reroofing of the nave and south aisle, clerestory windows replaced and heating installed.

The following year the south aisle was extended eastwards to create space for an organ, necessitating an arched opening in the south wall of the chancel. The south porch was rebuilt. Substantially this is the building we see today.

The church is built of the only material available locally; the hard flints found in the chalk beds which underlie the rich soil of the area. Flint may be used in a number of ways but in Wenden they have been polled, a method whereby they are split across with the dark-coloured inner part exposed to the outside of the building. The use of flint means a large amount of mortar and the strength of the structure depends on the durability of this. One thing which cannot be achieved with flint is a sharp edge which means that stone or some other material has to be used for corners and the surrounds of windows and doors. Here a hard form of chalk known as clunch is used but it does not wear well - something easily seen from the surroundings of the west and south doors.

It is fortunate that flint has been retained in all extension work over the years, so maintaining a harmony throughout the building which has been lost in many other churches, especially those with 19th century ‘improvements”.

One curious feature of the building is the external east wall of the nave which stands above the chancel. Unlike the rest of the church, it is not of flint but of upright wooden beams which are clearly visible from the outside, the spaces between them being filled flush with mortar or similar material. The church is a splendid example of various architectural styles in vogue at the time when alterations were being made. Of the original nave very little remains due to the piercing of the north and south walls to form columns and arches to accommodate the aisles, but it is the style of these features which has enabled building dates to be established.

The western tower is the least changed and most interesting part of the church, not least because of certain Saxon features which were incorporated into the Norman structure. This illustrates that architectural styles do not change suddenly; local craftsmen were using the basic Norman model for their new church but included features which they had known from pre-Conquest times. The doorway is a striking feature, having a round-headed arch of Roman bricks which probably came from the remains of the Roman villa about half a mile to the south-west, the site of which was rediscovered in 1853. A plain piece of stone forms the tympanum over the door.

Above this doorway is a two-light early 16th century window and higher up on the north, west and south sides are single pointed windows, each having above the remains of earlier windows with heads turned in Roman bricks. The one to the south has been completely filled in.

At belfry level, on the same three sides there are two-light windows, those on the north and south being largely original. The south window has two round-headed openings separated by a Norman column with a cushion capital and square base. On the north window this column has been replaced by a rectangular pilaster, probably a later restoration. Although the west window was replaced in the 15th century, the Norman dividing column was retained.

An interesting feature is the series of circular sound holes near the top of the tower just below the castellated parapet, two on the south and west and three on the north[1]. This peculiarity is also found in the Saxon tower of St. Benet’s in Cambridge. A tall slender shingled spire rests on the tower, dating from the 15th century, of a type known as a ‘Hertfordshire Spike’.

The entrance to the church is through the south porch. Only a tie-beam supporting a short kingpost remains of the previous one built in the 15th century. The south doorway, much eroded, was originally of two orders with attached jamb shafts with foliated capitals. On entering the nave, most people are aware how high it is in relation to its length - the result of the roof being raised for the insertion of the clerestory windows. Evidence of the old roof-line can clearly be seen on the east wall of the tower. On the north side are three arches resting on octagonal columns with moulded capitals and bases. Over the arches are hood mouldings terminating in four grotesquely carved heads with intriguing expressions. One has a monkey face whilst another appears to be winking. The earlier arches on the south side are typical early 13th century of two square-edged orders springing from round pillars with plain circular capitals and bases.

An unusual feature is the position of the vestry which has been formed from the western end of the south aisle where it flanks the tower. The partition wall (rather crudely built) is likely to have been done late in the 15th century. The ironwork on the vestry door is of interest. In the west wall of the vestry is a much restored 13th century lancet window. Walking round the church, the first item of interest is the font which dates from the 14th century, although the upper part may not be original as it does not quite match the square base which is attached to one of the columns. The wooden domed cover dates from about 1600 and is raised by a rope passing round a pulley in a wooden bracket projecting from the arch. At onetime the cover would have been locked in some way as its purpose was to prevent holy water from being taken from the font.

The pews are a mixture of old and modern but many of the medieval bench ends have been retained. On the south side of the front pew is a excellent example of carving - a representation of a boar with its foot on a mirror. This illustrates one of the legends from the Book of Beasts, the ‘Tiger and the Mirror’, but as the carver had never seen a tiger, the common boar had to suffice. The story relates that a female tiger, robbed of her cub, pursues the robber but he throws down a mirror to distract her. Seeing her own reflection, she mistakes it for her cub and stoops to suckle it, so enabling the robber to escape. The Christian moral is that the devil casts illusions of pleasure before us to destroy our souls. At one time the robber stood at the other end of the pew but this has long since gone.

Close by, in the south aisle, there is a plain double piscina with two circular sinks. This is a sure sign that there had been an altar nearby at one time as the purpose of the piscina was for the rinsing from sacred vessels and the water in which the clergy washed their hands. Next to the piscina is a large slab which was probably moved from the floor to its present position when the organ chamber was built. It bears the brass of a man in plate armour of c. 1410 believed to commemorate Sir William Lovenay who held land in Great Wenden for over 30 years and was also patron of the living of Little Wenden. A man of high office, he was appointed Keeper of the Great Wardrobe on the accession of Henry IV in 1399. In his will he directed that his body be buried in St. Mary’s Wenden Magna and although his death did not occur until 1436, the date of the brass can be explained as it was quite common to procure these long before death.

The brass shows him with a large sword at one side and a dagger at the other and his hands enclosed in gauntlets. His spurred feet rest on a crouching lion. Above his head are the outlines of three shields and there was an inscription plate below his feet.

Passing through the screen and into the chancel, one notices on the south wall the damaged remains of a 14th century painting illustrating the story of St. Margaret the virgin martyr of Antioch. For centuries this extensive painting of red ochre lay hidden under layers of limewash and it came to light when the wall was pierced to create the organ chamber. It was not until 1934 that a partial restoration was made by carefully removing the top surfaces. Professor Tristram made detailed sketches which now hang in the north aisle. Opposite, on the north wall of the chancel, is a small fragment of a late 16th century black-letter inscription within an ornamental frame.

[1] Normally located in the tower and at first floor level.  A small opening, can be any shape,  often with beautiful ornamentation.  Their purpose is to let in light and to allow the ringers to hear the bells they are ringing.

ST MARY THE VIRGIN. Nice, stepped exterior. The tower not too high (with a Hertfordshire spike), the nave short and not much lower, the chancel again lower. The tower is Norman. It has a W doorway with Roman bricks, remains of small windows high up, and bell-openings with colonnettes. The tower arch towards the nave also is Norman, unmoulded on simple imposts. The battlements of the tower evidently later. E.E. S arcade of circular piers with one-stepped pointed arches. The S doorway (with colonnettes) and the W lancet window belong to the same period. The N arcade is later. It has octagonal piers and double-chamfered arches. The N aisle itself was rebuilt in 1898. The date of the chancel, c. 1300, is indicated by cusped lancet windows. - FONT COVER, C16 domed, with ball finial. - PULPIT. Good C15 piece with blank arches in panels under exaggeratedly high crocketed gables. - SCREEN. With one-light divisions with crocketed ogee arches and panel tracery, broad and not very refined. - BENCHES. Seven in nave, plain, with buttresses at the ends. On one end carved  figure of a tiger holding one paw on a mirror. - PAINTING Remains of an interesting cycle of c. 1330 have come to light in 1934. They are episodes from the life of St Margaret; Instruction of St Margaret, St Margaret approached by Provost Olybrius, Incarceration of St Margaret, The Provost Olybrius. - PLATE. Paten of 1569; Cup of 1589. - BRASS. Knight, the figure 3 ft 6 in. long; c. 1415. 

St Mary the Virgin (6)

Boar (2)


C14th wall painting (7)

WENDENS AMBO. A charming village near Audley End Park, its Norman tower stands by one of the most picturesque farms in Essex, Wenden Hall. Part of the hall is 15th century, and with it are two big barns, one of them splendid with three gables and a thatched roof. The tower doorway is from the earliest Norman days, and was probably set here in the Conqueror’s lifetime; it is arched with Roman tiles and has a plain stone for a tympanum. Just above is a Tudor window, with three Norman ones higher up. The rest of the church is a medley of the centuries, its nave walls being the Norman ones taken higher in the 15th century, its chancel and south arcade 13th, its north arcade 14th, and its vestry 15th with a Tudor door still letting the parson in. There are weird and expressive heads on the arches, and fastened to one of the pillars is a font of about 1400 with a handsome domed cover 200 years younger. A piscina in the aisle is 14th century, and a very fine one with a trefoil head in the chancel is a hundred years older. The chancel has some 14th century wall-paintings illustrating the story of St Margaret, the Martyr of Antioch. The church also treasures a remarkable amount of woodwork by craftsmen of 500 years ago. There is a screen A with elaborate tracery, two fine kingposts among modern timbers in the roof, a door and a staircase leading up the tower, seven benches, and a pew carved at its end with a tiger resting his paw on a mirror. Best of all, perhaps, is a 15th century pulpit with rich tracery in great variety; it has nine sides, and stands on nine square legs. A splendid brass shows a man in the armour worn at Agincourt, perhaps a portrait of one of the Lovedays.

A little link with our greatest sailor is in the churchyard, for here is the gravestone of William Nicholson who had many tales to tell before he died at the great age of 104. He was a middy under Nelson in the Mediterranean, his ship being the Vanguard, on which Lady Hamilton and her husband took refuge when the French captured Naples at the end of the 18th century. 

Flickr set.

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