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

Saturday 15 May 2021

Standon church, Herts: a brass to a millionaire fishmonger

Icknield Indagations - one hundred thousand page views!

The architectural highlight of Standon church, which stands on a steep slope, is the chancel arch. It's marvellously extravagant and full of swagger, with its dogtooth ornament and stiffleaf capitals, and made all the more imposing by being approached up eight steps. It dates from the early 13th century; however, the detached pink Devonshire marble columns are replacements dating from the 1864 restoration by George Godwin (1813-88) and his brother Henry (1831-1917) - why this was thought necessary or advisable I don't know.

Another striking feature is the pair of smaller arches flanking the chancel. They're squints (sometimes a bit pompously called hagioscopes), intended to allow a view of the high altar; these ones have arched tops and are bigger than average. 

The chancel, which slopes up slightly towards the altar (which itself sits atop a further five steps), is also essentially 13th century but was practically rebuilt by the Godwins. 

The mid-14th century nave and wide aisles, which have no stained glass at all and are therefore full of light, are spacious and display a wide variety of flowing tracery designs in the windows.* Bettley/Pevsner comments that the arcade piers 'seem later' than this date, and it's true that their angularity makes it look as if they could have been designed a century later. The probable explanation is that, for a reason mysterious to me, some church builders eagerly seized on the new Perpendicular style as soon as it made its first appearances. 

The 15th century saw the addition of two features unique to the county: a west porch, and a detached bell tower. The latter is to the south of the chancel, an unusual location perhaps suggested by the elevation of the land. It has a typical Herts spike. In fact the tower is no longer detached thanks to the Godwins, who built an organ loft between it and the church. 

The Godwins also built the rather lovely south porch, with its pretty Gothic tracery.

The 13th century octagonal font is another unusual feature in that its decoration is entirely horizontal, rather than treating the design as eight separate vertical panels. Two sinuous vines with chunky stylised leaves entwine themselves around, half the leaves crossing over, and failing to acknowledge, the angles, as if the font is circular.

In the north aisle is a tomb-chest with one of the county's biggest and best brasses, depicting John Feld (or Field) (d.1474) and his son, also John (d.1477). They both stand on flowery hillocks, presumably a rebus (visual pun) for 'field'. John senior (on the left) has an unfortunate haircut but is most splendidly dressed in his aldermanic robes, with the train of his cloak flung casually yet artfully over his left shoulder. Originally his brass would have been inlaid with colour, red for his livery and white for its fur lining. This extravagance is in keeping with his wealth; he started his business life as a stockfishmonger (a dealer in dried, unsalted fish) in the Staple of Calais (a staple was a town or port through which certain types of goods were required to be traded so they could be taxed; Calais was an English possession from 1347 to 1558), and evidently made a great success of it. In 1449 he was one of fifteen commissioners appointed to negotiate trading terms with the Duke of Burgundy, and in 1453 loaned £2000 to King Henry VI for the defence of Calais; the equivalent of about £1.25 million today, an astonishing sum. He must have sold an awful lot of cod. His wealth is signified by his purse hanging from his belt.

His son makes a quarter turn towards his father. He's dressed in a full suit of armour over which he wears a tabard decorated with heraldic eagles (once probably coloured too), and carries an enormous two-handed sword (though it's hard to see how it's attached to his armour). He may well have fought for the Yorkist cause in the Wars of the Roses, a possibility somewhat belied by his gorgeous, almost foppish head of long wavy hair which would certainly have been regarded as unsoldierly in more modern times.

Another father and son are commemorated in the chancel. On the south is the monument to Sir Ralph Sadleir (1507-87), impressive and typical of its period (but of the highest quality), with obelisks on top and Victories bearing branches and offering laurel wreaths in the spandrels. Sir Ralph had an unusually eventful career, starting out with the advantage of joining Thomas Cromwell's household at the age of about seven and rising to be Cromwell's secretary. This became a distinct disadvantage with Cromwell's fall from royal favour in 1540; he was arrested and sent to the Tower, but he cleared his name in a few days and was soon back at work. 

Disaster flirted with him again in 1553, on the death of Edward VI. Sadleir supported Lady Jane Grey's ill-fated reign, and when Mary succeeded he was potentially in trouble. He spent a few days under house arrest but was pardoned, and for the rest of her reign lived quietly in Standon. He found favour once more under Elizabeth, though she gave him some jobs he'd rather not have had, including being the jailer of Mary, Queen of Scots. He was allegedly the wealthiest commoner in England.

His life, however, was touched by scandal. In 1535 he married a widow, Ellen (or Helen), who had previously, in 1526, married Matthew Barre. However, after having two children with her he 'lived riotously and consumed his time unthriftily at unlawful games' and eventually disappeared. She had it on what she believed to be good authority that he was dead, and had to find a way of supporting herself and her children. She found a job (some say as a laundress) in Cromwell's household, which is where she met Sadleir. However, in 1545 her first husband reappeared, and Ralph and Ellen's seven children became illegitimate overnight. It took an Act of Parliament to sort out the mess. Their children appear on the tomb, but there's no sign of Ellen; no one knows why.

Ralph and Ellen's son Sir Thomas (1534-1606), whose monument is on the north of the chancel, is on the other hand shown with his wife. At their feet are winged lions, the nearest one of which supports a harp and wears a hat like a squashed bowler designed for carrying things on one's head, like a porter. Below are the kneeling figures of a woman and a man; the former seems to have taken up the silly hat challenge thrown down by the lion and wears a most extraordinary contraption, presumably of stiffened cloth. It begins as a pillbox hat on the back of her head to the top of which is attached a kind of vane, which starts by heading downwards, then curves up and finally sticks out over the top of her head. It seems to be designed so someone behind her can rest their book on it, like a 
perambulatory lectern. I hereby declare her the hands down winner.

Standon church has always been open and welcoming when I've visited.

Updated 3rd September 2022. When I took most of the pictures for this post in spring 2021 some Covid restrictions were still in force and the chancel was inaccessible, so close ups of the Sadleir tombs weren't possible. The tombs were excellently restored in 2021.

* It looks very much as if all the stonework of all the windows has been replaced; whether the designs are original or an invention of the Godwins is an interesting question. I hope it won't be long before Hertford's County Record Office reopens and I can search Buckler's drawings to see if they solve the puzzle.

East window by Clayton and Bell, 1865 (Transfiguration)

Crudely carved but vigorous image bracket in the chancel

One of several mid 14th century label stops in the north aisle

Old chest currently hemmed in by new cardboard boxes

Unusually frank gravestone

North aisle

Victorian tiles and splendid brass lectern in chancel (the latter with not at all fetching castor wheels from an office chair)

View of south arcade looking west through a squint