Wednesday, 15 September 2010

Great Bardfield, Essex

St Mary the Virgin makes it into Simon Jenkins' 'England's Thousand Best Churches' largely due to its Rood screen. Bardfield and nearby Stebbing possess the only two complete stone screens in the county and both are fine examples.

The church stands on raised ground, somewhat isolated from the heart of the village, on the south east edge of Great Bardfield and is recognisable from any other church in the area by its copper roof which was relaid in 1950. The site was first used for a church in 1174 but the earliest part of the present building is the tower which dates from the 14th century. The exterior is dominated by an enormous diamond shaped clock on the north wall of the tower which has inspired the description "the clock with a church on it".

The tracery design of the Rood screen is truly elegant particularly the central arch and it is thought that the corbel faces on either side represent Edward III and his Queen. The structure would originally have been painted and from certain angles light is reflected from fragments of glass or stones set in the screen. A previous Incumbent believes that originally there were more of these but that many were lost when the screen was damaged during the Reformation. According to the church guide book the screen is one of three in the world (although Jenkins disputes this listing examples in Totnes and Westwell), being built in the 14th century, this particular one together with the nave was erected by Edmund Mortimer 3rd Earl of March in memory of his wife Philippa granddaughter of
Edward III and Queen Philippa. The Crucifix and the statues of Our Lady and St John were added by G F Bodley in 1896.

ST MARY THE VIRGIN. Early C14 W tower without buttresses. Small lancet windows and a small, pretty, recessed lead spire of the C18. The rest is all later C14, with the surprising feature of large straightheaded three-light windows with curiously High Gothic tracery, i.e. no specifically Dec or Perp motifs, but a development from the classic moment of Geometrical tracery. Such windows fill the walls of the N and S aisles and also appear in the chancel (many are renewed). The S porch has in addition very pretty side openings on the E side. They look earlier than the larger windows, and it is quite possible that the porch as well as the S aisle and chancel masonry are earlier than the straightheaded windows. The openings in the porch consist of one two-light Dec window flanked by small quatrefoil windows (cf. Stebbing). Four-bay arcades inside with late C14 piers of four polygonal shafts connected by deep hollows with four slim circular shafts in the diagonals. Moulded arches; head-label-stops. Flat-pitched roofs on stone corbels in nave and aisles. Also late C14 is the most prominent and famous feature of the church, the stone SCREEN between nave and chancel. It is tripartite and, with its openings and tracery, fills the chancel arch completely. The idea came to Great Bardfield from Stebbing, but how it came to Stebbing we do not know. That Bardfield is later than Stebbing is obvious. Both, it is true, share the luxuriance of design, the rich cusping and crocketing and the delight in ogee arches. But at Bardfield the two main dividing shafts or mullions run straight up into the arch, an unmistakable sign of the Perp style. Also the arch responds are decidedly first half of the century at Stebbing, second half of the century at Bardfield. The figures of the rood above the main central ogee arch are a reconstruction of 1892 and due to Bodley.  S DOOR. Late C14, with much tracery. -  ORGAN CASE. Said to be by Pugin. - Two HELMS. Early C17. - STAINED GLASS. Many late C14 fragments in the N aisle windows, including complete figures. - MONUMENT. Low Purbeck tomb-chest with frieze of small quatrefoils. On it brass to the wife of William Bendlowes d. 1584. The tombchest is no doubt older. It also served as a Sedilia.

GREAT BARDFIELD. It has been a little town with a market, and is lovely still with old cottages and shops, a tower windmill known as Gibraltar, and a fine church, with the hall on the hill above the Pant valley. The hall is mainly from Cromwell's time, but has a Tudor wing. Two 17th century buildings in the grounds are a splendid barn and a timbered dovecot, the dovecot having a pole with a revolving frame and ladder to give access to any one of the 14 tiers of clay nests.

Place House, at the top of High Street, is another old house, with an overhanging storey and a bracket carved to tell us it was built in 1564. In a window are the arms of the Bendlowes family, and an inscription saying that William Bendlowes was a lawyer in the days of our two Tudor Queens. His altar tomb is in the church, with a brass portrait of his wife, his own having gone; and above is the remarkable chancel roof the Bendlowes family gave in 1618. Its two heavy tie-beams are richly ornamented, and the grotesque carv­ings of the corbels include a curious centaur. The chancel has two stone grotesques which have been 600 years at the corners of the gable outside. The lowest part of the tower was built a few years before Magna Carta, and its small lead spire was added about the time of Queen Anne. The rest of the church is a very good example of 14th century building, with handsome windows outside, a wonder­ful old door to let us in, an impressive array of columns in the nave, and a rare treasure at the entrance to the chancel.

The old door is a double one, and has been swinging on its hinges since the church was built. Grey with age, it shows in strong relief the trefoil panels and traceried borders cut into its solid oak. Thril­ling it is to think of village people passing through it every day while the greater part of English history was being written. But rarer still is the stone screen built into the moulded chancel arch, a vivid example of the way the 14th century craftsmen loved to beautify their churches. The screen has a splendid central arch rising to a finial with a crucifix of stone, the carving on the underside of the chancel arch completing the frame in which the crucifix is set. Smaller arches rise to support statues of John and the Madonna; and in all this rich beauty everything but the statues themselves is the work of the old craftsmen.

A little 14th century glass still left in the windows shows canopied heads and figures of St Stephen in blue and purple, St Laurence with his gridiron, and a Crucifixion. The west window has shields of the Mortimers, the famous Earls of March; and a beautiful modern window shows St Helena with her cross, St Anne teaching Mary to read, and two scenes from the life of St Augustine of Hippo. It is in memory of Rose Helen Kirwan, who gave the church its handsome font and cover.

High up in one of the aisles hang two funeral helmets which belonged in the 17th century to the Lumley family from Great Lodge, a great brick house, with a cupola rising from its long tiled roof.

Flickr set.

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