Towns are often named after the rivers that run through them - after all, the river was there first. However, although the river that runs through Stortford is indeed the Stort, here it's the other way round - the river was named after the town.* The river was originally called the Stour (there are half a dozen other English watercourses with this name), but in Elizabethan times mapmakers assumed that Stortford must mean 'the place where the Stort is forded', and renamed the river; it seems that everyone has since followed suit. (In fact, 'stort' comes from the Old English 'steort', meaning a narrow strip of land jutting into water.) The 'Bishop's' prefix derives from the town being the property of the Bishop of London in the Middle Ages.**
Fortunately, Jackson Square does have some competition in its attempt to dominate the townscape in the form of the church steeple, visible from many points as it's built on an eminence. Unfortunately, the steeple is a bit feeble. The lower stages are 15th century (like most of the rest of the church), while the upper date from 1812-19. Normally I enjoy Gothick***; it's often charming, and sometimes exhilarating. But the bands of decoration look fussy, the recessed spire is too small, and the brick (which was originally cement-rendered) is unattractive.
Perhaps the highlight of the church is its set of eighteen 15th century misericords in the chancel stalls. There are a few other misericords in Hertfordshire (in Anstey and Stevenage), but this is the closest the county gets to a major collection. Misericords were originally made to enable the clergy at greater churches (such as cathedrals and abbeys) to take some of the weight off their legs as they stood through hours of daily services (medieval priests and monks rarely knelt to pray). Bishop's Stortford was only ever a parish church, and therefore there was no need for misericords; no one knows why the church has a set. It's said that they came from Old St Paul's Cathedral in London at the Reformation, which is plausible enough but is really no more than a rumour.
Misericords are difficult to photograph adequately; they're generally badly lit and awkward to see, requiring much crouching and twisting, and even more awkward to find room to train a camera on. This is my way of saying that my photos are mostly dreadful. As you'll notice, some of my pictures haven't succeeded in including the supporters (the smaller carvings flanking the misericord itself), but that doesn't matter too much in Bishop's Stortford as they're nearly all relatively uninteresting foliage. I shall go back sometime to try again. (There's another set of photos here, from the excellent (but apparently anonymous) website www.misericords.co.uk.)
|?Woman's head and shoulders, with a strange hat like an upturned pie dish|
|Two views of a webfooted wyvern (not strictly a dragon as it has two rather than four legs)|
|Two views of the head of a woman wearing a headdress or veil|
|Two views of a splendidly bearded man, wearing a hat or hood|
|Two views of another man with a fine beard; this one wears a turban and is seen in three-quarter profile|
|Head and shoulders of a clean-shaven man with a hat with a rolled brim; the hat itself droops to his left|
|Demi-figure of an angel holding a shield|
|Demi-figure of an angel holding a scroll. The supporters are angel heads (the only one to have non-foliage supporters). The carving around the bottom of the three figures is probably meant to indicate clouds|
|Two views of a bird with a scroll, possibly the eagle of St John|
|Three views of another mythical beast, most closely resembling a serra. Based on the sailfish or sawfish, a serra was a gigantic fish with huge fins which it used as sails in (usually abandoned) attempts to catch ships. (In Christian iconography the ship represented the Righteous Christians, and the serra lazy folk who fail to live up to their faith. See here.) Bishop Stortford's example has a sawtooth fin running along its back which looks nasty enough but wouldn't be of much use in catching the wind. The lines beneath presumably indicate water. (In English Misericords Marshall Laird suggests the possibility that the leaf supporters have been deliberately carved to look like skates to contribute to the nautical theme, but they're so similar to other supporters that I don't think this theory has any merit.)|
|Two views of a bird, probably a swan, sitting on water and with semi-unfurled wings|
|Two views of the head and shoulders of a man with a partial beard but no moustache, and wearing a turban|
|Two views of the head and shoulders of a man with flowing locks and an enviable moustache|
|Two views of head and shoulders of a clean-shaven man with abundant hair and the suspicion of an enigmatic smile|
|Two views of an owl with outstretched wings and an apparently lopsided beak. Without doubt the cutest of the carvings|
|As well as the misericords the stalls have several other little carvings|
The eat window dates from 1885 and depicts scenes from the life of Christ. It's by W G Taylor (1822-97) of London, who took over Michael O'Connor's firm in about 1880. As in many windows of this period the fussy details don't repay much study, but the overall effect, with its carefully rationed use of brighter colours, is effective.
The east window of the north aisle is by Christopher Webb (1886-1966), and dates from 1929; it shows scenes from the life of the Virgin Mary. I've said some disparaging things about Webb's work in the past, though I've also praised him (see here and here, for example). I quite like this window. One of the failings of Webb's windows is that he often uses backgrounds of clear glass, which seriously reduce the intensity of the colours, but here he uses much bright blue, which combines beautifully with the yellows and reds, plus the exuberant scrolls and vines, to create a celebratory atmosphere.
One easily overlooked detail is at the bottom right, the kneeling figure of Percy Johnson, who died in 1925 and to whom the window is dedicated. (In a medieval or Renaissance window, a figure like this would be that of the donor, that is, the person who'd paid for it, advertising their piety and public-spiritedness.) His face is presented with photographic realism, and indeed was probably applied to the glass using a photographic technique; there was quite a fashion for this method at the time. Johnson is a walrus moustached, very dapper gentleman of the period. I like his shoes.
The church has an unusually elaborate set of corbels and label stops. (A corbel supports something structural, such as a roof beam; a label stop is the decorative termination of a moulding over an arch.) The nave corbels are the most standard and therefore the least interesting; they show the twelve Apostles and two angels. The other corbels, and all the label stops, are much more interesting. Many of them aren't just heads but half-length genre figures, brandishing various tools and objects (some of them easy to identify, some more puzzling). Together they comprise a wonderful gallery of 15th century life. Among them are also some grotesques and monsters. Most of them are carved with more attention to detail than was often allotted to such out of the way statuary; we can only guess why the masons lavished so much attention on them, but are glad that they did so. Their work would make a visit to the church worth while even if there was nothing else worth seeing.
*** 'Gothick' (with a 'k') is a style of architecture that began in the mid 18th century (Strawberry Hill, a house of 1749-76 in Twickenham, London, is often thought of as beginning the trend, though many earlier examples exist) and was gradually supplanted by the Gothic Revival in the first half of the 19th century. Gothick buildings typically feature genuine Gothic motifs but get them subtly (or not so subtly) 'wrong', by using them in ways medieval masons wouldn't have done. For example, they're used in inauthentic proportions or scale or places, or are combined with features from other styles that weren't used in the Middle Ages.
**** Bishop's Stortford's aisle windows have segmental depressed arches (that is, instead of the vertical sides of the window smoothly curving and merging into the arch at the top, there being a sharp break between the vertical and the arch, which is 'depressed' or almost horizontal). I associate segmental arches with the late 15th and into the 16th centuries. Bettley and Pevsner (in The Buildings of England: Hertfordshire) draw attention to some known building dates in this later period. Are Bishop Stortford's really early 15th century, rather than late? And as an aside, what are the earliest securely dated segmental depressed arches?