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Notes on Essex Churches - Ingatestone to Loughton

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Circles and Round

The earliest arches used in British churches were of the Romanesque style - that is, rounded, or semi-circular, following the shape of classical Roman arches. Later, the pointed Gothic arch allowed architects to span wide distances and distribute weight in a way that had been impossible with Romanesque arches, and to use complex systems of vaulting and arcading. But the simplicity of the rounded arch favoured by Saxon and Norman builders has its own charm. This section of Essex churches contains some excellent examples of the stonemasons' craft practised a millennium ago.

Lindsell Church - St Mary is a lovely little church which is an unusual mish-mash of architectural styles. The chancel arch is a slightly flattened round arch on the simplest of imposts, built in the second half of the 12th century. Inside is a much smaller round arch in the wall covering the access door to the anchorite cell. The arch is made up of roughly tooled heavy wedge-shaped blocks or 'voussoirs'. This hatch opens up into a wider cavity in the thick pebble and rubble north wall wherein the anchorite would be sealed to live their days out as an act of devotion. The anchorite could receive communion, and witness the church services, and would be respected as a source of spiritual wisdom by visitors. The practice was common between 1225 and 1400. Another Essex church with an anchorite cell is St Martin of Tours in Ongar.

There are a number of Norman churches in this section and one of their surviving features are round door arches. At Little Tey - St James the Less, the fairly crude door arch with carved tympanum, uses a central keystone with 8 irregularly sized voussoirs either side. The arch over the south door of the Holy Trinity church at Littlebury has no central keystone - the more elaborate wedge shaped stones, with roll moldings are mounted on four columns - 2 each side of the door. All Saints, Little Totham has a Norman south doorway which is a testament to the very best skills of the Norman stonemason (c.1160). The nave of Little Easton church contains heads of semi-circular windows of dressed stone which reveal their early 12th century origins. The church's more recent addition of the South or Maynard Chapel, built in the 15th century, now displays windows with round arches. These were probably not the original shape from Tudor times and were likely remodelled in a more Romanesque style to incorporate the very fine painted glass by Baptista Sutton (1621), which was moved to the church from Easton Lodge after a fire in 1847.

Langford - St Giles - Apse
Apse of St Giles, Langford

Langford, near the Museum of Power, is an interesting example of a rounded apse - uniquely - at the west end of the church. This sort of Romanesque architecture was widespread in Europe, particularly in Germany of the Carolingian and Ottonian periods. By the 9th century, it was common practice to build churches with rounded apses at both ends, but the eastern apse of St Giles was removed in medieval times in order to extend the chancel with a rectangular eastern wall.

The apsidal church was a favourite of the Victorians. A wide range of religious, civic and domestic buildings were built and furnished in the Gothic Revival style, which flourished from 1830 to 1900, its chief protagonist being A.W.N. Pugin. However in the mid and late 19th century there was also the Romanesque revival, where inspiration was drawn not only from the original Romanesque architecture found in Europe from 1000-1200AD, but also from the Christian architecture at Jerusalem, Constantinople and Rome. Just as neo-Gothic architecture conjured up fantasies of knights, faery queens and castles, neo-Romanesque styles sought to reflect the 'purity' of the original sacred sites at the very beginning of Christianity. There were many manifestations of neo-Romanesque architecture, and often it manifested as an eclectic mix of both Gothic and Romanesque Revivals. However the main characteristic of the original Romanesque style was a long chancel ending with apse, with round-arched doorways and windows.

This style is reflected in the restoration of the St Mary's church in Little Laver. The church had a central wooden belfry and spire in early Victorian times, but this was demolished and the church largely rebuilt in 1872. As well as a porch and vestry, an apse was added at the east end of the chancel in which are three windows with a slender arcade of marble columns to each window.

St James the Less, Little Tey has a 12th century apse which is an extension of both nave and chancel in one continuous structure with no dividing chancel arch. The whole building has a single gable roof which overshoots the semi-circular eastern end making it look rather top-heavy. Inside the apse there are the faded remains of a Passion series painted c 1280, which are documented in our photographs within this 'I-L' folder. Even the round-arched Norman windows have figures of saints and martyrs painted within the thick-walled arches - the decoration of churches in medieval times was commonplace until the iconoclasts arrived.

Little Braxted Church - Roof Timbers
Little Braxted - Apse Timbers

Little Braxted church, also has an eastern apse, part of the original Norman design. Some date the church at around 1120 but C.A. Hewett in "English Historic Carpentry" shows that the method of construction of the timbers of the apse roof suggest a later date during the 13th century - at least for the roof. The church is also extensively decorated inside, not by medieval artists, but by its Victorian rector Ernest Geldart in 1886. Virtually every surface has been covered with a variety of pictures, texts and symbolic designs in his inimitable High Church style. Geldart was a member of the Free and Open Church Association which campaigned for 'The throwing open of Churches for the free and equal use of all classes.. and the opening of churches daily for private prayer'. According to James Bettley (Friends of Essex Churches), Geldart wrote in 1890:

It is a good many years since I was at this church, but I shall not forget it. The old sexton evidently thought that people ought to be outside the Church and not inside, except when Service was going on. After the morning on Ash Wednesday I stayed behind awhile to pray; and the Curate told me afterwards that the sexton complained that 'there was a decently-dressed person had been saying his prayers, so he couldn't lock up the Church' … And this is Christianity: what a bitter sarcasm and what a sermon unpreached on closed churches.

More than a century later we have encountered similar attitudes from some churchwardens, indeed it is relatively rare to find a church open to pilgrims or those in need of sanctuary as the majority of Essex churches are locked.

Fortunately, the ancient church Holy Innocents, Lamarsh was one of the churches we found open when we visited. It is a significant church being one of the only six churches with round towers that have survived in Essex, and in common with St Marys in Great Leighs, and SS Mary & Nicholas in Broomfield, is one of the three with Norman round towers. Built around 1140, the imposing tower would have made a good rallying point for the three parishes of Lamarsh, Alphamstone and Twinstead, in order to repel potential Danish raiders disembarking from the nearby Stour. The church was on land given to the Beauchamps family, along with neighbouring parishes, by King Stephen. The round tower provided a strong defensive structure with narrow slit windows that could be used by archers. A powerful family might not be able to afford a castle, but a church tower made from rendered flint rubble was a project which could be completed in a short timespan with less outlay.

Lastly, the Round Church at Little Maplestead completes the theme of circles in churches. St John the Baptist is one of four round churches that survive in England. Some of these 'round' churches were built by the Military Order of Knights of the Temple; others were parochial copies, using a shape inspired by the Church of the Holy Sepulchre at Jerusalem. A former round church on the site of St Clements, West Thurrock was of the latter type, while Little Maplestead was a foundation of the Knights Hospitallers c 1185. However much of the present building was built around 1335, a date long after circular naves and apsidal chancels had gone out of fashion.