Monday, 7 February 2011

Burwell, Cambridgeshire

St Mary the Virgin was my first church of the day and utterly blew me away, in my opinion it is even better than Holy Trinity at Bottisham but this view is not shared by Simon Jenkins who gives a two star rating.

The first thing you notice is the octagonal tower and curious open spire (a late addition surely?)followed by the green glowing chancel - it looks as if it is underwater. After perusing the exterior  with interesting grotesques and wodewoses on the north porch, I toured the interior which is a riot of carving, memorials and fantastic woodwork. For once the Cambridgeshire iconoclasts have actually done the church a favour - by knocking out the stained glass (as much as I deplore such destruction) we are left with an extraordinarily light and airy space.

Carved oak cornices abound in an array of carved leopards, hares, hounds, eagles, griffins, unicorns, and tigers with mirrors, yales, a urine bottle between a monkey and a mermaid and a mermaid and a fox (apparently this mocks doctors/alchemists who placed great faith in urine as a diagnostic and treatment tool), crowns and angels, wodewoses, castles and lots of others. The nave roof has some fine bosses of heads and, I think, pelicans and hawks. Sadly my photographs do not do justice to the full glory of the carving. The chancel arch deserves a mention with its rose window and elaborate carvings.

What makes St Mary all the more remarkable is that when I visited it the entire south wall of the nave was covered with scaffolding for clerestory restoration work and almost everything was coated with a layer of stone dust yet still its beauty and quality yelled out.

ST MARY. The most perfect example in the county of the Perp ideal of the glasshouse. Nave of five bays with very tall, slim piers, aisles of five tall transomed side windows and four-light end windows, clerestory of two bays, four-light W window, five-light chancel E window. No mystery, but a feeling of great spaciousness. In detail, the piers have broad concave diagonals without capitals, and in the main directions thin shafts and thin triple shafts. The space below the clerestory windows is panelled with blank tracery. The shafts for the roof principals come right out of the outer arch mouldings without any structural articulation or indeed any separate brackets. The roof is of low pitch with arched braces. The wall-plate is decorated with pairs of affronted beasts. The tower arch and chancel arch are of the same design as the arcade piers. Above the chancel arch of the somewhat lower chancel is a splendid display of blank tracery and above this a wheel window with eight mouchettes instead of spokes. It is all of the C15, and probably its second half. Building seems to have gone on rapidly, thanks no doubt to ample funds. The date 1464 appears in an inscription on the E wall above the chancel arch: ‘Orate pro animabus Johis. Benet Johane et Alicie uxoris parentisque suorum qui fieri fccerunt hunc parietem ac carpentariam navis ecclesie.’ The chancel is equally ambitious. It was paid for by the then Abbot of Ramsey and can be dated c. 1515-30. Niches with elaborate canopies between the windows, and, especially sumptuous, l. and r. of the E window. All these canopies differ in design. They rest on (renewed) figures of angels. The chancel roof has arched braces alternately starting lower and higher. The higher ones stand immediately on angel figures of stone in the apexes of the windows, the lower ones on wooden figures. The window angels hold musical instruments and one the arms of the Abbot of Ramsey. The aisle roofs have angel corbels as well. Even the S porch roof has angel corbels. The N porch is even more ambitious. It has a fan-vault. The inner doorway has a square frame with tracery spandrels. Externally the church is all embattled, and all of flint rubble. Slim buttresses between the windows. One tracery pattern for the whole of the aisles and another for the whole of the chancel. Pinnacles on the chancel. Finally the W tower. This is partly very much older than the church. It has on its N side between the Perp angle buttresses clearly the corner of a Norman tower with shallow shafted buttresses. In addition there is a shallow middle buttress on the N side and in it a blocked small Norman window. Higherup to the l., also on the N side, is a blocked Norman twin bell-opening. All this was preserved or re-used, when the C15 work went up. What characterizes this is the change from a square lower part with angle buttresses to an octagonal upper part with diagonal buttresses, battlements, and pinnacles. Recessed behind these is a pretty, late open lantern with spirelet. Ely has had much influence on Cambridgeshire towers. - CHANCEL STALLS. Remains of the Flamboyant tracery of the stall backs. - MONUMENTS. John Laurence de Wardboys, Abbot of Ramsey, 1508 to 1539, d. 1542, brass, 4 ft 6in. figure, under a partly preserved canopy. This is a palimpsest brass with, on the reverse, parts of the fgures of a canon and (reverse of canopy) a deacon; c. 1325. - Thomas Gerard d. 1613 and wife. Big, with two kneeling  figures. Nothing special.

St Mary the Virgin

St Mary the Virgin (4)

Carving (10)

Chancel arch

BURWELL. Here we must believe is sanctuary not for wild life only but for ancient memories, for the men of Burwell Fen and Wicken Fen are much as they were when Hereward the Wake held out against the Norman Duke, or when Geoifrey de Mandeville attacked King Stephen’s fort here and died a rebel’s death. His corpse was excommunicated by the pope and was carried to the Temple in London, where it was kept unburied for years until the pope was satisfied that his sons had made reparation for his sins. He had been unfaithful to two sovereigns, and was killed by an arrow from Burwell Castle, which stood within the earthworks and the overgrown moat still seen here.

Out of the great flats over which the wind sweeps to the windmills rises the lofty tower of Burwell’s magnificent church, a landmark seen for miles. Some of its stones are probably Saxon but others are certainly Norman, and its pinnacles are 14th century, the small spire above them being worn to a skeleton of its ancient self. The 15th century church is one of the finest of its time in the county, with grand porches, one of which has five graceful niches over the entrance, a fan-vaulted roof, and St George fighting the dragon on the gable, another saint supporting him.

The nave is stately and spacious, with a flood of light from the great windows of the aisles and the clerestory. The walls above the nave arcades are richly panelled in intricate design, and pilasters rise between the arches to support a noble roof. Where a rose window lights a panelled wall above the chancel arch is an inscription of 1464 telling us to whom we owe this splendour. It asks us to pray for the souls of John Benet, of Johanna and Alice his wives, and of his parents, who had the carpentry done in this church. The roof they gave is alive with angels and animals, a dog chasing a hare, a goat, a swan, many other birds, and the winged creatures of the Evangelists; among the flowery bosses are a king and a queen, a dragon and a pelican.

But it is in the chancel that they achieved their grandest effect, for here the walls are wedded to the roof in a charming composition, the oak men holding up the beams being supported in their turn by stone angels over the windows and by the finials of canopied niches between the windows. There are niches on each side of the east window, canopied mosaics of the Annunciation, and the Visitation, and the Marriage in Cana; and there are also paintings of the Twelve Disciples. Old tracery enriches the backs of the stalls, and new heads
decorate the arm-rests. St Christopher stands out in a medieval wall-painting, and there is a 15th century font. Thomas Gerard and his wife kneel on the monument he put up in 1608, both painted figures, and Sir Lee Cotton lies in armour on his canopied tomb (sadly this is in the locked vestry so I missed it). A most interesting brass is in the chancel floor showing Laurence de Warboys, the last Abbot of Ramsey. Made in his lifetime the portrait was found to be out of date when he died in 1542, for it represented him as an abbot and his abbey had then been suppressed. Something had to be done about it, and the brass was cut in two and one half turned over and engraved afresh, so that we see the abbot transformed into a simple cleric. The brass is interesting not only for the marks of this transformation, but because under the canopy on the other side is a fragment of a much earlier portrait showing the only known example of a deacon in vestments engraved on brass.

There is an inaccessible crypt below the chancel, and just outside the chancel lies Mary Sharpe, who is said to have inspired the song My Pretty Jane, written by the Burwell poet, Edward Fitzball. He wrote the libretto for many of Balfe’s operas, and for melodramas played at the Adelphi. A tragic stone in this churchyard tells a ghastly tale, for it marks the grave of 78 people who were burned to death in a barn here during the performance of a travelling show.

Flickr set.

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