Tuesday, 22 February 2011

Castle Hedingham, Essex

St Nicholas is seriously fuck off huge, as befits the parish church of the Earls of Oxford, but was sadly locked until further notice for safety assessments - which sounds a bit alarming. I was one of several visitors to be disappointed however the castle and town/village are well worth a visit in their own right. Mee goes on a bit so I'll leave it at that (to be fair there is not much to go on about the exterior).

Update: Almost exactly a year later  I was passing through Castle Hedingham, on my way to record some more Suffolk churches and, on the off chance, decided to stop. The safety assessment was, presumably, positive as this time I found St Nicholas open and thank goodness it was since this is a fabulous building.

Predominantly Norman the interior is full of interest from the screen, misericords, de Vere tomb and lots more - I highly recommend it.

ST NICHOLAS. The brick W tower is dared 1616, but seems to be substantially of the early C16. It is impressively high, when you stand near it, but suffers from the position of the whole town centre in a dip. The tower is built entirely in the Tudor style, with diagonal buttresses, a higher stair-turret (with a small cupola), stepped battlements and (obelisk) pinnacles. Above the five-light W window is a frieze of shields referring to the 13th Earl of Oxford who died in 1512, e.g. a chain of state, because he was Lord Great Chamberlain. On the aisle walls the battlements are also of brick ; so is the clerestory. A frieze above the clerestory windows has a de Vere emblem too, the molet, a star. Early C16 also the S porch. The windows of the church are mostly Perp, except for the chancel, and the chancel windows are externally all sadly renewed.

In spite of this external appearance and the dominance of the tower, the church, once it is entered, reveals itself as one of the most important and, of its period, the most ambitiously designed in Essex. A complete Late Norman parish church, 125 ft long to the E arch of a Norman tower replaced by the Tudor tower. Nave and aisles of six bays, and a long chancel. The nave arcades rest on alternatingly circular and octagonal piers with splendidly carved leaf capitals, mostly of crocket-like leaves, but in one case also of real crockets on the French Early Gothic pattern. That dates the nave as not earlier than c. 1180. The complex mouldings of the arches indicate so late a date too. The clerestory has rear-arches with a flat wavy band (cf. Felsted). The same motif in the tall tower arch which has semicircular responds. It must have led into a tower of substantial size. The triple-chamfered arch however is Tudor, if not 1616. The S as well as N doorway belong to the Late Norman building. They have columns with volute and waterleaf capitals and round arches. The chancel of Hedingham is even more of a showpiece. First externally. It has an exceptionally impressive design for the E end. This design does not seem to have been decided upon at once. The groundfloor has two shallow buttresses or pilaster-strips ending at the sill level of the windows. There are three small lancet windows shafted outside and inside and above them a large wheel-window with eight columns as spokes. This is a rare motif in Norman England (Barfeston, Peterborough). On the S side is a doorway with one order of colonnettes with  long thin volute-capitals and two-dimensional zigzag-work in the (round) arches. The S and N windows are shafted like those at the E end. Internally a whole order of blank arches on shafts runs round the windows, a large arch for each window and a narrower and also less high one for each interval. Here also all the arches are round and the same flat wavy motif accompanies them which we have found in the tower arch. The chancel arch makes a special display of three-dimensional zigzag and similar motifs and very thin long nook-shafts and besides is the only one in the church which is pointed. Can it be earlier than c. 1190?

The late medieval alterations and additions are minor and have been mentioned - with one exception: the double-hammerbeam-roof of the nave which, as a crowning motif, is worthy of the Norman columns. It is one of only four roofs of such type in Essex.

SCREEN. One of the most ornate in a county poor in worthwhile screens. One-light divisions, each with a heavily cusped and crocketed ogee head and much panel tracery above. - CHANCEL STALLS. On the S side with misericords, e.g. a wolf carrying off a monk(?), a man’s face and two leopards’ heads, a fox with a distaff etc. - CUPBOARD (under the tower). The front is made up of panels of C17 dates. -  DOORS. In the N and two S doorways, contemporary with the church, with long iron battens with long thin scrolls. - SCULPTURE. Small wooden Relief of the Magdalene washing Christ’s feet, probably Flemish, early C16 (E end of S aisle). - Demi-figure of a woman praying; small; probably C12 (S aisle S wall). - Norman ornamental carving with a head and leaves 1. and r., used as a Stoup (S aisle). - MONUMENT. John, fifteenth Earl of Oxford d.1539 and wife. The other de Veres were buried at Earls Colne Priory. The monument is of black marble. Against the foot the kneeling figures of four daughters. On the opposite side four sons, not now visible, as the monument which was originally placed in the middle of the choir now stands against the wall. On the lid the kneeling figures of the Earl and his Lady under some drapery gathered up, and above a large coat of arms. Only minor details are in the new Renaissance taste. The workshop which made this monument is probably the same to which we owe the Vyvyan Monument at Bodmin in Cornwall (1533) and the Audley Monument at Saffron Walden (1544).  


St Nicholas (3)

North arcade

Misericord S5 Fox carrying a priest preceeded by a wolf blowing a trumpet & followed by a Lion's head with protruding tongue  (1)

CASTLE HEDINGHAM. Still in this 20th century it is like a piece of Norman England, clustering round its castle walls, and with Norman doors still swinging to and fro in its astonishing church. The ploughmen turned up a gold ring believed to have been worn by the countess who ruled over the nunnery founded in Norman England by the first Earl of Oxford. Castle Hedingham has an ancient
stateliness which is not to be equalled in Essex, and hardly surpassed in the country.

For 600 years the Norman castle was held by the De Veres, Great Chamberlains of England, and the great keep they knew still rises on the slope of the hill, looking down on a compact little place with houses that have seen two or three centuries go by. This mighty keep, all that is left of the medieval castle, stands high on a mound of two acres which is surrounded on three sides by ramparts and a deep wide ditch. The ramparts extend one way for nearly 200 yards, enclosing the Georgian house and its garden, which are on the site of the outer court. The keep and the house are a charming picture, reflected with trees in a big lake.

We cross a Tudor bridge of four spans to the castle mound, and above us tower the smooth walls of a keep which is only a little smaller than that at Rochester and was probably designed by the same architect. The castle is 58 feet wide and nearly 100 feet high. It has two turrets and four storeys, the lowest with narrow openings in walls 12 feet thick and the top storey with windows under chevron arches in walls 8 feet thick.

An outer staircase of stone leads to the entrance on the second storey, its arch enriched with three rows of chevrons resting on scalloped capitals. The most striking feature in the entrance hall is the Norman fireplace with rich moulding; the smoke passed out through holes in the buttress. In a corner of the room is a circular staircase leading down to the basement and up to the audience chamber on the second floor, a splendid room with a fireplace and an eight window recess with chevron arches. There is a gallery within the wall, entered from the stairway through a richly ornamented arch and with arches opening into the hall, flooding it with light. But the most striking thing in the hall is the richly moulded arch sweeping across its centre to support the floor above. Resting on piers only seven feet high, it rises to twice that height in a noble span of 29 feet and is as perfect as the Norman masons left it. The top storey has lost its original floor, but its arches complete an ordered design which is one of the most perfect remaining from Norman times.

It was in King Stephen’s turbulent reign that this castle was built by Aubrey de Vere, son of the Aubrey who came to England with the Conqueror. It was the stronghold of 17 Earls of Oxford, the best of them being John who fought for Henry the Seventh on Bosworth Field, and to Castle Hedingham came Henry in later years to be entertained with such pomp as exceeded all the bounds laid down by the law to check baronial power, so that the king fined his host £10,000 for his daring!

The Georgian house was built by Robert Ashurst, whose descendants the Majendies now live here. It is here that Miss Musette Majendie organised the Rover Scout Unemployment Camp which was the pioneer of many camps in Essex to train men and set them on their feet again. It is one of the most successful movements devised for giving idle men new hope and a new place in the world, a fit piece of work for this venerable place.

We are thrilled as we realise the wonder of the church which has kept company with the castle through so many generations. It comes from the end of the Norman era, although its red brick tower, fine with its parapet and pinnacles and turrets, is like a thing of yesterday, being 17th century. Above its west windows has been set a piece of ancient carving with the devices of John de Vere, the 13th earl; it runs round the top of the window and in it we see the gold whistle and chain of the Lord High Admiral, a boar grubbing for acorns under an oak, an ox crossing a ford, the Great Chamberlain’s chair of state, and the familiar star on the shield.

As we walk round this ancient place we are captivated by the outside of the chancel. It has beautiful pointed windows with carved capitals on their shafts, a sundial is scratched on a buttress, the three windows on the east have a stringcourse linking their capitals, and in the gable above them is a magnificent wheel window with capitals on its eight radiating shafts.

And yet there is something more impressive than all this fine carving which delays our going indoors; it is something that should hold us spellbound, for there are three Norman doorways with three Norman doors in them. We have come upon no other group like this in all our tour of England, and there are very few Norman doors anywhere. One of the three doors is fixed in its place, the other two swing to and fro as they have swung to let in and out 25 generations worshipping in this church.  The door that swings no more is set in an exquisite doorway with two orders of richly carved zigzag and foliage. The capitals of the four shafts of the doorway are also carved with foliage, and inside is the door, built of three massive battens with a hinge shaped like a big C by Norman smiths. The same smiths fashioned an animal on one of the ornamented straps of the south door, which hangs in an arch of three moulded orders, the capitals of the doorway being carved with the stiff leaves characteristic of the English style just coming in. The north doorway has been partly cut away but its Norman door still hangs in it.

Keeping company with these three Norman doors is a medieval one still hanging in the doorway the 15th century builders made for it, making a unique collection of doors which should bring many pilgrims to Essex.

Even after all this we must be thrilled with the splendour of this interior, for the fine clerestory windows light up the magnificent hammerbeams of the nave, and the clerestory itself is the greatest surprise of all, for it also is Norman. Up to their great height these Norman walls rise, five Norman bays on each side of the nave, and in the wall between two of the clerestory windows is a narrow doorway from which the priests would step on to the rood loft.

The screen that is here today was carved about 1400 and has six bays with fine oak tracery, the arches richly carved, the moulded cornice adorned with bosses. Beyond the screen in the chancel is a range of five handsome stalls carved while the screen was new; on them are the devices of the medieval craftsmen, shields and heads of wolves and leopards, a wolf carrying off what looks like a monk on a stick thrown over his shoulder, a fox with a distaff in its mouth, and so on.

But it is the roof of the nave (200 years younger than the plain roof of the chancel) which is the crowning glory of the woodcarvers who adorned the church. They were 16th century men and their roof has double hammerbeams. They were building this roof for the 13th Earl of Oxford, and proud he must have been of it, for the lower hammerbeams and the cornice are decorated with running foliage, crowned angels with outspread wings looking down from it. There is rich tracery in the spandrels, carved pendants and pinnacles, and scattered about are the star and boar of the Earls of Oxford.

At the east end of the nave the arch is pointed, and at the west it is round ; the chancel arch must have been refashioned when the English builders were succeeding the Normans; the tower arch was reset as the Normans made it when the nave was shortened at the time the tower was built. Even the stoup is Norman here, its square bowl resembling a cushion capital richly carved with foliage and the head of a beast. It was probably carved by the men who shaped the figure of a woman with folded hands built into the wall over an altar.

Impressive in itself, the church has few impressive monuments, the chief one being the altar tomb which has been moved so that we see too little of it. On the side we can see kneel the four daughters of the 15th Earl of Oxford and his wife Elizabeth, who lie in black marble on the top, he in armour, she with a heraldic mantle. Very quaint these figures are, kneeling sideways in relief yet showing full face, with a harpy and a stag holding their shield-of-arms above them.

There is more carving on the panelling of a cupboard in the tower, showing Daniel in the den of lions and Jonah beneath the gourd; it is probably 18th century. There is a panelled chest with three locks,a Jacobean altar table, and a painted memorial tablet from a vanished church on London Wall, brought here to keep green the memory of Dominic Van Heyla and his wife Wilhelmina, immigrants from Flanders in Shakespeare’s day. One very beautiful thing here is framed on the wall, a beautiful embroidery of the Madonna.

In the churchyard the shaft and base of the 12th century cross have been set up in memory of the men of Castle Hedingham who did not come back from the war. It was found in the cellars of the medieval inn, the Falcon.

I do hope it is made safe and opened soon although indications seem to point to a locked church.

Flickr set.

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