Wednesday, 15 September 2010

Braintree, Essex

St Michael for me sums up all that is wrong with the Church and, probably, society today. It was not just locked it was chained and padlocked like Earls Colne. Like Earl's Colne, albeit on a larger scale, St Michael sits in the middle of the town on a triangle of busy roads with plenty of road and pedestrian traffic passing by - the site is busier than Thaxted, Saffron Walden and Bishop's Stortford put together (all of which are open) but it's locked down as securely as Fort Knox.

I freely admit that I found it ugly, although if you replaced the spire with something more elegant something could be made of it - actually without the spire (having just crudely photo shopped it) the body of the building is rather elegant. I suspect the shingled spire was a late addition to a Norman template.

To return to the point - why bother maintaining a building which you then lock up against visitors? Particularly when it is a house of God - are the people of Braintree and the environs so deprived that they can't be trusted in their church except at stipulated times?

I have to admit that a locked church annoys me but a church in chains infuriates me - how can anyone knock on a chained door and expect admittance?


Anyway Arthur opines (bear in mind that Courtaulds is now long gone):
BRAINTREE. Its prosperity was founded on wool in the days of the Flemish weavers; today it hangs by a silken thread in Courtauld's giant factories. It was actually in Bocking that Courtaulds began a hundred years ago, but Braintree and Bocking are like neighbours growing into brothers, the Busy Bees of Essex. Their industries have sent out two names that are honourably famous beyond the borders of our land, for side by side with Courtaulds, makers of beautiful silks, are Crittalls, makers of beautiful windows.

The old world and the new keep company together, for in the narrow streets of Braintree are at least fifty buildings over three centuries old or more. It is delightful to walk among them, and delightful also to see the new development of this thriving town. The modern town hall in the market square, on which the town arms appear in rich colours, cost fifty thousand pounds and has a central bell tower and a dome with a bronze figure of Truth above it, the town's motto being "Hold to the Truth." Inside the town hall are panelled chambers with wall-paintings by Maurice Grieffenhagen, an admirable series of local history subjects. Here also is a museum of Bygones, including a rare scold's bridle.

The Courtaulds have, of course, always been great benefactors of this town and its neighbour; among other things they have given are an Institute with a magnificent library, a fine hospital, and a delightful group of homes for nurses. The houses stand in a sunny space with a great fountain near them, the architectural scheme having been designed by Mr Vincent Harris, and the fountain having in its centre a figure of Youth by John Hodge.

Two Roman roads meet in the town, one coming from Colchester and one from Chelmsford, and Roman bricks helped to build the church on an ancient embankment. The nave and the chancel have Norman foundations but are mostly 13th century, like the tower to which a shingled spire was added in the 14th. On the walls outside are two surprising things, a washbasin and an inscription to a Tsar's physician. The basin was put here for the pilgrims crossing England in the 16th century; the Tsar's physician was Samuel Collins, a son of the rectory 300 years ago. In a faded gilt frame inside is another curiosity, a parchment roll of 1684 on which are written the names of 300 Braintree folk who died of the plague.

Miracle plays provided the money for widening the south aisle in the 15th century. At the same time the medieval vestry, with its curious head outside, was given its roof, and the little oak door was strengthened with ironwork. Woodcarvers of the 16th century fashioned the magnificent beams above the organ, with Michael and the Dragon on a boss, and the roof of the long chapel opposite, which has three older heraldic bosses over the doorway to a spiral stair. It led to the vanished roodloft and gives us a peep into the south aisle through a tiny window. This chapel was for years used as a school, and we noticed that the children had left their pencil scribblings on the arcade pillar. A beautiful modern screen fills one bay of the arcade, and on the wall is a modern brass portrait of Samuel Dale who doctored Braintree folk 200 years ago. He was noted as a botanist and was the friend of the better known naturalist John Ray. A modest tablet records that Bernard Scale, who died in 1852, was vicar for 57 years.

To Braintree belongs the story of the ironmonger's son Francis Crittall, who gave the world the admirable idea of steel windows. He was working in his father's shop when there came to him the vision which was to prove his key to fortune. His mother injured herself in struggling to raise a heavy wooden window frame, and Francis thought a lighter metal window frame would be much better. He started experimenting in a shed, and at 27 he had two lathes, a forge, shaping and screw-cutting machines, an emery wheel, a gas engine, and three workmen. The making of Crittall windows had begun, and the adventure was a great success. Business grew until Mr Crittall was rich enough to visit India, where he found a great new market for window frames which did not expand in tropical heat and could not be destroyed by white ants. He developed his works on model lines, and built a village for his people, with social halls and shops, and his own house among them.

He wrote a book on Fifty Years of Work and Play in which he told the beautiful story of how he fell in love with 17-year-old Ellen Carter and remained in love with her until their golden wedding day, and after that. All through their working lives they were to­gether, and then Mrs Crittall passed away, and her husband went for a lonely cruise and came back to be laid in her grave. He was one of the backbones of the nation, the men who build up fine businesses and carry them on ungrudgingly whatever happens, sharing their prosperity with their people and seeking nothing mean.

It was a vicar of Braintree, one of the mystery men of the 16th century, who gave us our first English comedy. He was Nicholas Udall, headmaster of Eton in 1534 and vicar of Braintree in 1537. His comedy was called Ralph Roister Doister, and was in 5 acts divided into 27 scenes, with 12 characters. Udall's headmastership at Eton was cut short by his own misconduct*, for which he was im­prisoned. His second chance came with Braintree, for here his writings brought him the patronage of Catherine Parr, the lucky widow of Henry the Eighth. He was also befriended by Edward the Sixth, who made him a Prebend of Windsor, and finally he was employed by Mary Tudor to write dialogues for court festivities. It is said that as Princess Mary the queen had shared with Udall the labour of translating Erasmus. The last post held by Udall was the headmastership of Westminster School, which he lost when the school was amalgamated with the monastery. He survived the loss only by a month, and was laid to rest in St Margaret's Church.

*Udall's career had a downturn when he was imprisoned for stealing some school candlesticks. On 12th March 1541 a London Goldsmith named William Elmer was examined by the Privy Council "for the buying of certain images of silver and other plate which were stolen from the college of Eton". Subsequently two late scholars of Eton, John Hoord and Thomas Cheney, were charged with the theft. Cheney implicated Headmaster Udall and his servant Gregory. When Udall was sent for "as suspect to be counsail", he also confessed to having sexually and physically abused a number of his pupils, among them Thomas Cheney. A son of the Chesham Boys branch of the Cheney family, he was a relative of the wife of Sir Thomas Wriothesley. Wriothesley, perhaps Udall's patron, sat on the Privy Council and heard his case. He was convicted under the 1533 Buggery Act for committing sodomy. Although the felony of buggery carried a sentence of capital punishment (by hanging), his sentence was reduced to just under a year in Marshalsea prison.

A former pupil, the writer and poet Thomas Tusser, wrote in later years of Udall flogging him for no good reason. Despite all of this he was befriended by Catherine Parr, the Queen at the time, who was most impressed by his translation of 'Apothagmata' by Erasmus (1542). He also edited a version of St.Luke's Gospel at Parr's request.

Flickr set.


  1. Sure, the church was locked. We, the people of St Michaels would love to leave it open but it only takes .0003% of the local population to wreak havoc to the outside, never mind the inside!

    1. This, surely, is more a reflection on the congrgation's paranoia rather than the populace of Braintree. All ecclesiastical insurers recommend advocate an open church policy.