Monday, 23 January 2012

Dedham, Essex

Taking advantage of 'Back to School' my next run saw me in Constable country with Dedham being my first port of call. St Mary the Virgin is an imposing building, presumably built on the back of the wool trade, and the exterior is very impressive and rather beautiful whilst the interior left me somewhat disinterested. It's not that it lacks merit but just felt over restored and sterile - having said that it was my first outing since acquiring a wide angle lens and I put that to good use here.

ST MARY THE VIRGIN. One of the most prosperous Perp churches of Essex, the visible proof of the flourishing cloth trade of the town. The weaving industry seems to have started in the C14. The arrival of Flemish weavers under Edward III is known. Prosperity came to an end in the C17. In 1642 a petition was delivered to the King for help for the depressed condition of the town. Prosperity seems to have reached its climax in the course of the C15. The church is its principal witness. The chief donors seem to have been the Webbes and the Gurdons. Building began in 1492 and went on quickly. The N aisle was a special commemorative piece to the two leading families. On the ground floor of the tower appear the initials and merchants’ marks of the Webbes. In 1519 Stephen Denton left £100 ‘for the battlyment of the steeple’. So the tower and the whole church were probably complete by about 1520 - built it appears at one go and without change of plan. It stands large along the main street, but its S side still faces the fields. It has a long nave with clerestory, a long chancel, two tall porches (that on the N two-storeyed) and a W tower about 130 ft high. The length of the church is about 170 ft. The whole building is more in a Suffolk than an Essex style.

The W tower of knapped flint has big polygonal clasping buttresses with much stone dressing, a very large four-light W window, three-light bell-openings, battlements with flushwork decoration and tall crocketed pinnacles. The ground floor of the tower forms a passageway from N to S. It has a depressed pointed vault entirely panelled with tracery, quatrefoils, roses and portcullis, etc. The aisles have three-light windows with depressed pointed heads, the chancel taller two-centred windows - of five lights at the E end, of three on the sides. The wall of the N side is treated as the show-side. The base for example has flushwork panels and the parapet battlements. The N porch uses flushwork for base, buttresses, and battlements. The doorway has lions couchant on the l. and r., tracery in the spandrels, and niches l. and r. of the upper window. The inside is airy and clear, six bays of identical slender piers with a section of thin shafts with capitals and broad shallow diagonal hollows without capitals. The roof of low pitch rests on shafts rising from the capitals as well as the apexes of the arches; for there are twice as many clerestory windows as arcade arches. These arches are four-centred. The chancel is not flanked by chapels.

FONT. Octagonal with the symbols of the Evangelists and angels, the figures thoroughly defaced. - DOOR in N doorway. With tracery panelling and one band of small figures in niches. - STAINED GLASS. In the chancel by Kempe, E window 1902, N and S windows 1907. - PLATE. Handsome set of 1784.

MONUMENTS. The chief monument is to Thomas Webbe, erected by his son John Webbe. It is in the N aisle, built up to reach into the window space - a proud but not an imaginative piece. The decoration is copious but all too much a repetition of quatrefoil friezes, large and small, and with and without shields. The tomb-chest has two of them, in one the Webbe initials. The back of the depressed pointed recess has more, the soffit of the recess yet more. Above the recess a framed stone panel with the indents of Thomas Webbe and his family. Battlements and pinnacles above. - John Roger d. 1636, frontal demi-figure in a niche, the ornament of the gristly kind fashionable in the second third of the C17.

St Mary the Virgin (2)


John Rogers 1636 (1)

DEDHAM. It is just over the border from Constable’s Suffolk, the near neighbour of Flatford Mill, with landscapes familiar to us because Constable painted them. Still a delightful little place in the valley of the Stour, it has many a cottage, shop, farm, and inn bearing witness to the days of its prosperity from the 15th to the 17th century. Then Dedham was an important centre of the wool merchants, and there stands on its outskirts still a wool merchant’s house and factory of two storeys and attics, timbered and plastered, complete with courtyard and gateway. It is known as Southnelds.

The master weaver lived in one of the projecting wings, and the 400-year-old doors and the moulded ceiling beams are still in their place. The house is unique in the county.

Facing the church is the best of the old buildings of the High Street, an inn with stables built for horses which might have taken part in Tudor pageantry; it has a timber-framed stairway in its open courtyard.

Dedham has a church magnificent, built about 1500 by one of its princely merchants, Thomas Webbe, who lies in the north aisle on a richly carved tomb. He built his battlemented tower so that a carriage can pass beneath it, covering an area of 250 square feet and rising 130 feet to the top of its pinnacles, which spring from octagonal buttresses. Its vaulted roof is adorned with traceried panels, flowers, shields, and other devices. In the south porch the builders reset the 14th century doorway and they gave the north porch two storeys and hung in it a door which was one of the most perfect examples of carving in Essex, with saints and angels in canopied niches. Time has been unfaithful to it, but we can still trace the figures of Christ and the Madonna.

We notice that two leaves of this door have been cut across, and thereby hangs a tale. It was done in order that galleries could be erected in the church in the days of King James and King Charles, for in those times even this great church of Dedham would not hold the people who came to hear the Puritan vicar, John Rogers. He was for over 30 years one of the famous preachers of his age, and was described by one who knew him as "the most awakening divine in England." His tomb is in the churchyard, and in the chancel on one of the walls, carved in a niche, is a bust of him in a skull cap, ruff, and gown.

Near the bust of John Rogers is a stone with a fine little bronze figure on the top in memory of a man who made it the delight of his declining years to befriend the poor of Dedham. The old font has been rescued from a hiding-place under the floor, and its figures of angels, evangelists, and cherubs are sadly worn. It has a cover with a pathetic interest because it was made from the timbers of the Royal George; they were part of that bitter tragedy of 1782 when the great warship sank off Portsmouth:

When Kempenfelt went down
With twice four hundred men.

She had gone down complete, heeling on her side, and it was of these timbers we see at Dedham that Cowper wrote:

Her timbers yet are sound,
And she may float again,
Full charged with England’s thunder,
And plough the distant main....

The poet did not know that the timbers were rotten and that the ship went down through the neglect of the Admiralty. The timbers are a tragic witness to a cruel betrayal of our seamen. There are more splendid timbers in the roof, fragments of old glass in the windows, carvings on the font, mason’s marks, and many attractive details which hold our attention in this fine church, monument of an industry which has passed from this old home of merchant princes.


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