Church architecture in Hertfordshire and elsewhere, art, books, and whatever crosses my path

Tuesday 9 March 2021

Albury church, Herts: unusual late Decorated window tracery

Albury, near Bishop's Stortford (not to be confused with Aldbury, near Tring on the other side of the county), stretches itself along a ridge above the River Ash; there's a beautiful view to the east across the valley from the churchyard. 

The 13th century origins of the church are seen in the chancel's lancet windows; notably, alongside the three full-size ones is a 'low side window'. The purpose of such windows is disputed, but in all likelihood they were simply intended to provide ventilation in the incense-choked chancel, being originally provided with an openable grille.*

The nave and aisles date from the mid 14th century, while the tower and south porch were built about a century later. There's a holy water stoup by the south door.

The three south aisle windows have what Bettley/Pevsner calls 'very unusual, rather ugly, heavily flowing tracery'. (The westernmost two have been entirely renewed, but the easternmost one is largely original.) It's true that this is not the graceful design that is so typical of the Decorated style, but I'd be very reluctant to call it 'ugly'. The top and bottom have mirror-image triangular quatrefoils, while left and right are mouchettes; in the middle there's a concave rectangle. All this is contained within a segmental two-centred arch with a radius so big that the sides are virtually straight. Bettley/Pevsner is right to call it 'unusual', but I think it's at least a partial success. It reminds me of a soaring bird, with swept-back wings. (The Royal Commission on Historical Monuments suggests c.1360 as a date.)

The east and west windows of the north aisle have clearly been renewed, but they too have somewhat unusual tracery. That they are faithful reproductions of the original 14th century design is confirmed by the existence of another identical, unrestored window preserved inside the church. (The four-centred north windows look early 16th century.)

The quatrefoil piers, typical of their date, have (not very characterful) label stops on the north, but on the south they're just little cubes of stone. For some unknown reason the masons never got around to carving them; maybe the money ran out.

At the east end of the south aisle there's a window that once communicated with the outside but is now enclosed by the vestry and organ chamber. We've already seen thoroughly restored versions of this design outside, in the north aisle, but this appears to be entirely original. Atop the three main lights sit two trefoiled inverted teardrops, with two daggers above and outside them. The shape at the apex is hard to classify. Essentially it's a sexafoil; the lobes at the bottom, top left and top right are standard, while the other three are elaborated by being subdivided into three smaller parts. The central parts at the bottom left and bottom right are sharply pointed rather than curved. As in the south windows, it's fascinating to see the masons experimenting.

In the north aisle there's a much damaged tomb-chest, probably commemorating Sir Walter Lee (d.1395) and his wife Margaret. He was a soldier and an MP for Hertfordshire for most of the period 1377-90, and again for Essex in the earlier 1390s. In 1375 he had been arrested, but released on bail, on a charge of disturbing the peace, but this doesn't seem to have affected his career. In 1377 he was leading an inquiry into the over-fishing of Essex rivers (a humble enough appointment, but it's interesting that environmental concerns exercised our predecessors more than seven hundred years ago). In 1381 he was a knight of the body to Richard II, and as such closely involved in attempts to suppress, or at least control, the Great Revolt (the 'Peasants' Revolt') of 1381. In fact it seems that he succeeded only in inflaming the situation.**

The restored 15th century screen has many circular holes cut into it. These are usually explained as being elevation squints, intended to allow the faithful kneeling at the screen to witness the Elevation of the Host during mass. (There's a photo of someone doing just that here.) I'm not absolutely convinced: the holes are very small and you really would have to squint to see much, plus why arrange them in groups of three or four - they're so close together that only one hole in one group could possibly be used at a time.

The not very exciting glass in the east window is by Gerald Moira (1867-1959), from 1909. It's his only window in the county. The west window is by Christopher Webb, but it's in his blandly pious style and of little interest.

What a magnificent iron-bound chest this is, with four clasps for padlocks plus a keyhole. Date unknown, but presumably medieval. No one was going to get into that in a hurry.

Fortunately, the same is not true of the church, which in my experience is generally open.

* If you look up 'low side window' in Stephen Friar's A Companion to the English Parish Church you will find that the entry says simply 'See chancel ventilator'. Some sources claim that they also functioned as a means of allowing those working outside the church to hear a sacring bell rung at key moments in the service. The idea that they were 'leper windows', intended to allow those suffering from leprosy to see into the chancel, was popular in the 19th century but has been widely debunked (which doesn't mean that you won't find it in some church guide books). This theory assumes that there were enough lepers around for it to be necessary for special arrangements needed to be made for them in parish churches, and that they preferred to look through windows at about waist- or even knee-height, rather than eye-height.


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