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

Tuesday 30 August 2022

Sawbridgeworth church, Herts


Sawbridgeworth is on the Essex border - indeed, a portion of the town is actually in Essex. The county boundary mostly follows the River Stort which runs a couple of hundred yards/metres to the east of the church (though just to the north the boundary sneaks east and lassos a little patch of what should logically be Essex for Herts). It has fewer than 9000 inhabitants, yet Sawbridgeworth feels like a proper town with a strong identity of its own; for example, down pargeted Church Street there's a shop dedicated to selling paint and painting supplies. How many other towns this size can boast such a thing? Eat your heart out, B&Q.

At the end of Church Street, past the paint shop, we find the large tree-crowded churchyard, and in it the slightly squat church which spreads itself comfortably, the attractively lozenged Hertfordshire spike on the lowish tower being the only vertical emphasis. The first impression is that the building is a typical Herts Perp'n'flint structure. This is true enough as far as the flint goes, except for the 16th century crenellated brick stair turret (which reaches only less than two thirds of the way up the tower) and, of course, stone dressings. All the windows visible from the west (and the upper stage of the tower, and the clerestory) are indeed 15th century Perpendicular, but this is, as it is so often, deceptive. 

That there was a church here before the 15th century is seen, for example, in the 13th century lancet window on the south side of the second stage of the tower. (There must have been an earlier church as the Domesday Book (1086) lists two priests living here, but no trace of it survives.) But much of the church dates from c.1300 and a little later, in the Decorated period, as exemplified by the east window of the north aisle above, which has a quatrefoil within a circle at the top, resting between two what we might call curved, stretched lozenges, a simple but most effective design. 

Stepping through the original traceried door, we see the quatrefoil piers which are typical of the period.* However, it's probably not the architecture that we go to Sawbridgeworth for. It's the monuments. The Statutory Listing quotes Katherine Esdaile (1881-1950), arguably the first person to make a scholarly study of the previously dismissed and even despised subject of post-medieval funerary sculpture, as saying that Sawbridgeworth is 'a museum of English sculpture by great artists.' (Despite this, and despite further stating that the church has 'an outstanding collection of memorials of the very highest quality', it goes on to list exactly none of them.) Here's a selection, roughly in chronological order.

Unfortunately, I can't show you a photograph of the oldest notable monument in the church, the brass to John (d.1435) and Katherine Leventhorpe (d.1437) as it's currently buried under carpets, assorted tables and even a temporary altar. The best I can do is to offer a snap of the small reproduction in the church (there is a photo in the church guidebook). Bettley/Pevsner call the brass 'magnificent'; it is life size. John was Esquire to Henry IV and V, and thrice MP for Hertfordshire. (More information about him, and some of his descendants, can be found here.) Many of the church's other brasses have been placed on the walls, and maybe the same should happen to this one.

John and Katherine's son, also John, died in 1484, having outlived his wife Joan (d.1448) by thirty-six years. As was fairly common at the time they are depicted in their burial shrouds (though the artist hasn't gone so far as to show them gruesomely decayed); hers is secured at the head in a top-knot. Both hold their hearts which once had prayers on them, since angrily defaced by an anti-popery iconoclast.

This tomb chest in the chancel, dating from c.1520, possibly commemorates Thomas Jocelin and his two wives, but all the identifying brasses which were once part of it are long gone. It's typical of its period, being basically Gothic but with some variations. The vault has pendants which have traceried daggers, but these daggers are uncusped and arranged at angles as if they are rotating clockwise, and the 'roof' has curved starfish-like quatrefoils. The engaged columns at either end are cross-gartered like Malvolio's legs. These details hint at the oncoming Renaissance (which of course was already in full swing elsewhere in Europe).

From Wikipedia

As a notice in the church points out, the monument is remarkably similar to that of Geoffrey Chaucer in Westminster Abbey, which was installed in 1556 (although he died in 1400), and must have been made in the same workshop. It's stylistically conservative for 1556, and Pevsner suggests that it was made earlier for somebody else and reused for Chaucer. In other words, Nicholas Brigham (who installed it in the Abbey) was a bit of a cheapskate.

Also in the chancel is the tomb-chest of John Joscelyn (d.1525) and his wife (who seems to have been called Phillip), but it's so badly defaced and decayed that it's impossible to look at with any pleasure.

Another Joan Leventhorp [sic; the absence of an 'e' at the end reminds us that spelling, even of surnames, didn't begin to be standardised until the 18th century] (d.1527) is commemorated in this brass, which would originally have been enhanced by coloured enamels. Her mantel is decorated with four crescent shapes; would these have been metal sewn into the material?

Edward (d.1551) and Elizabeth (d.1592) Leventhorp are commemorated in these brasses, which were not made until c.1600 when they were commissioned by their grandson John. My photos are of poor quality, for which I apologise.

Mary Leventhorp, the daughter-in-law of Edward and Elizabeth, died in 1566, but her brass also wasn't made at the time and had to wait for her son John to commission it c.1600. I don't know enough about the history of costume to say if her clothes are those of the time of her death or the turn of the century. But the artist (who is most unlikely to have ever seen her) gives her an impressive cleavage even though he can't handle its perspective.

Sir Walter Mildmay (d.1606/7)**, his wife Mary and their son. (Perhaps he was the only surviving child, as most couples had numerous children.) It's entirely typical but a good example of its type: see the stylised foliage on the pilasters and spandrels.

Yet another John (d.1625) and Joan (d.1627) Leventhorp are commemorated in this large standing monument. John was created the first Baron Leventhorp in 1622, but sadly lived to enjoy it for only three years, dying aged about 65. In his will he instructed that 'some small monument be erected to my unworthy self and loving wife and children with portraitures', and I think we can agree that his executors more than fulfilled his wish. He and his wife lie uncomfortably on their sides, he in his armour and she in her widow's weeds. Below them, in contrast to the Mildmay tomb, there are six sons and eight daughters; one of the former is depicted much smaller than the others which probably means he died in infancy, but if the other thirteen survived into adulthood that's quite an achievement. It's all very sumptuous and Bettley/Pevsner attribute it to Maximilian Colt (d. after 1641), who was born in Flanders but spent most of his working life in England, being appointed the King's Master Carver in 1608. One of his masterpieces is in Hatfield, Herts, the monument to Robert Cecil (d.1612).

My favourite monument is this one to William Hewet (d.1637) and his wife Elizabeth (d.1646). William was born in 1572, the youngest of four sons, yet he still inherited £2000 (in the region of £400,000 today) and estates in several parts of the country. He was a highly successful and wealthy merchant, but was briefly imprisoned in the Marshalsea in February 1617 for 'his contempt in not appearing before the lords when sent for'. Unfortunately the story behind this appears to have been lost. Perhaps the shock of this event was behind his leaving £200 in his will for the release of prisoners with 'small debts'. 

He wears armour (though he didn't have a military career of any sort). They both stare out sightlessly (even the greatest sculptors struggle to make marble eyes lifelike). He and Elizabeth clasp right hands tenderly while he reaches awkwardly for his sword with his left. Their monumental marital fidelity has lasted four centuries so far, and won't be ending any time soon.

Stylistically the monument is most unusual, with its oval frame (I like the way the elbows elbow their way out of the picture and into the viewer's space - compare Westmacott's Bridgewater monument in Little Gaddesden, made 200 years later) and concave pediment. Bettley/Pevsner say of this latter feature that it's a la chinoise; Chinoiserie (art influenced by China) didn't reach Europe until the mid 17th century, so this monument is a trendsetter. (Are there any earlier concave pediments in England?) It's been attributed to William Wright of Charing Cross; I can find almost no information about him except that Margaret Whinney*** calls him 'this undistinguished sculptor', an unkind and untrue remark if this work is indeed by him.

Underneath the tower (it was originally in the chancel) is found the monument to William and Elizabeth Hewet's son, Thomas (whose surname is here spelt Hewytt), (1605-62). He consolidated his father's wealth and was able to buy the manor of Sawbridgeworth in 1635 for £16,500 (about two and a half million today). He lived through the upheaval of the Civil War, but seems to have managed to stay on the good side of both factions and live an unexciting life; he held local offices under Parliament but at the Restoration King Charles made him a baronet.

His monument is always crowded by various bits of church paraphernalia, so it's hard to see and photograph. It's the earliest tomb in the church that can be securely attributed to a particular sculptor as it's signed by Abraham Storey (d. c.1696); it must be an early work of his as he was admitted to the livery of the Mason's Company in the year Hewytt died; (he went on to be the Master of the Company in 1680). It is in some ways a clumsy piece of work; the two putti who hold up the fictive drapery are strangely primitive, and the arrangement of the central inscriptions, with one short, plain tablet sandwiched between two larger, more elaborate ones is inelegant. But the swags of fruit on either side, topped by little angels, are appealing, and all in all I've grown fond of it and its idiosyncrasies over the years.

Thomas's eldest son, George Hewyt (as his surname is spelt here) (1652-89), is commemorated in this monument, by some distance the most swaggering of the lot. He was created a viscount on 6 April 1689, but enjoyed his title for less than eight months as he died on 1 December that same year. The Latin inscription (translated into English in a notice in the church) says that he had 'scarce put aside his rattle when he donned a helmet as Captain-Lieutenant of the Queen's Guards for the remaining years of the reign of Charles II', so unlike his grandfather William the armour he wears isn't fancy dress (but he almost certainly never saw action). 

The baroque contrapposto figure is superb. He is supremely casual, yet projects confidence and power. His head is angled to the viewer's right, his torso to the left, and his legs to the right, creating a dynamic zigzag. The luxuriant curls of his long wig spill down over his shoulders, and at his neck an unmartial and dandyish lace cravat seems at odds with his armour. He is flanked by impressive/horrifying (delete according to taste) displays of military hardware. Beneath him two pudgy putti hold the inscription; the one on the right dries his tears with the cloth that preserves his modesty, while the one on the left is more casual and is perhaps about to speak.

Bettley/Pevsner say that the monument is 'convincingly attributed to William Stanton' (1639-1705), one of the finest (and most underrated) sculptors of his day. He is also probably the sculptor of the wonderful Saunders monument in Flamstead, and very possibly of the Markham monument in Ardeley too; if he frequently failed to sign his work, as seems to be the case, then this presumably explains why he isn't as well known as he should be.

Facing the Viscount's monument across the chancel is this one to Henry Lumly (c.1658-1722), another military man though he, unlike Hewyt, saw action; he particularly distinguished himself in the Battle of Landen in Flanders (1693) during the Nine Years' War (otherwise known as the War of the Grand Alliance), a major conflict between France and an alliance of several European countries triggered mainly by Louis XIV's territorial ambitions (fighting spread to North America and India). Lumly (or Lumley, to use a more modern form of his name) covered the English army's retreat and prevented the capture of William III. He was an MP on and off from 1701 (as a Tory, though most of his family were Whigs), though as he continued to be on active service he often failed to make any impact on Parliament. In 1707-8 he was commander in charge of the remaining forces in Flanders, and partially foiled a dastardly plot by William Cadogan, the quartermaster general, and the Hon. James Brydges (though his behaviour was far from honourable), the paymaster of the forces overseas, to cream off the payments to the army for their own pockets. For this Lumly was awarded the lifetime governorship of Jersey.****

The monument has been attributed to Edward Stanton (1681-1734), the son of William Stanton, and Christopher Horsnaile (probably the younger sculptor of that name (d.1760) who was apprenticed to his father, Christopher, together with Edward Stanton). 

Behind the pulpit is a monument to Robert, Viscount Jocelyn, who died in 1756 (b. c.1688) though it wasn't made until after 1778. He was trained as a lawyer and rose to be Lord Chancellor of Ireland.***** The bust is full of character; he looks very serious, almost stern, but not without compassion. Beneath is a fine neo-classical tondo of Justice mourning, her scales almost forgotten in her grief. The monument is by John Bacon (1740-99), one of the most highly regarded and prolific sculptors of his day. There are several other works by him in the county, including another tondo in Watton-at-Stone.

Jeremiah Milles (d.1797) and his wife Rose (d.1835) are commemorated in this monument by John Ternouth (1795-1849); Rupert Gunnis's Dictionary of British Sculptors 1660-1851 says of his work that it is 'uninteresting, hackneyed, obvious and uninspired'; ouch. In this work a woman in Grecian dress mourns before a sarcophagus. That Ternouth was the subject of somewhat similar comments during his lifetime can be seen when, towards the end of his life, he was erroneously reported to be dead. He wrote to the Athenaeum magazine to correct this, and the editor printed this rather tart correction: 'Mr Ternouth has written to say he is not dead and we give him the benefit of his assertion.' 

The final monument, to Francis Ede (d.1849) by Samuel Manning the Younger (1816-65), is similar except the woman mourns by a broken Corinthian column, the capital resting on the ground. By this time English funerary sculpture had run its course, and after this date it's fairly rare to find figurative carved tombs in churches. 

One last inscription which I include not for aesthetic but purely historical reasons. This brass commemorates Corporal Joseph Vick, one of the survivors of the Charge of the Light Brigade (1854) in the Crimean War, during which about half the six hundred who set out to attack a Russian stronghold were killed, wounded or taken prisoner. He died in 1888, aged 76.

The monuments are the church's highlight, but there's more to see. Among them are the 15th century chancel screen and the 1632 pulpit. Unfortunately the little stained glass is not of much note, but there is a whole gallery of carved corbels and label stops. Most of these must be 14th and 15th centuries, though some of the nave label stops are probably Victorian. They're not as well-carved as some of those at 
St Ippolyts, or as vigorously primitive as those at Aston or Benington, or as varied as those at Great Hormead or Weston, or as revealing of late medieval life as those at Bishop's Stortford, but they're very pleasing nevertheless. I end with a selection.

A gap-toothed grimacing ?woman with a dopey-looking dog who seems to be trying to look fierce

A queen

A long-haired bearded king

A ?man with two ?piglets; an ?arm intrudes from the left

A fox running off with a duck/goose

A bearded man (?king) holding an object with a flat circular bottom

A bishop

A bearded king

A handsome lady wearing a collar or ruff and an enigmatic smile

A sensitively carved head, perhaps of a youth

The winged lion of St Mark

The eagle of St John

The winged bull of St Luke

This label stop looks modern and may be Victorian

A knight in armour

A bishop, possibly modern

Another possibly modern bishop

A bearded man, possibly modern

A bird, or possibly the eagle of St John

A woman with plaited hair and ?crown

A ?woman/?youth with shoulder-length hair and pouty lips

A damaged label stop of a grimacing man with a risible haircut

A man and a ?woman trying to control a cow; he seems to be leading it by its nose

I've visited Sawbridgeworth church numerous times, and it's always been open. Thanks largely to its fine collection of monuments, but with a nod to the corbels too, it's one of my ten best Herts churches.

* Compare Baldock and Benington, though both these are slightly more complex as they have thin shafts in the angles.

** When two years are given like this it means that someone died after December 31st but before March 25th, which used to be New Year's Day. So in this case Mildmay died in what was then considered to be 1606 but we'd call 1607. See here and here.

*** In Sculpture in Britain 1530-1830.

**** Brydges and Cadogan both got away scot-free; maybe it would have been unthinkable for men of their standing to be exposed as corrupt. The former was gradually promoted up the aristocratic league tables until he became the Duke of Chandos in 1719; similarly in 1718 George I made the latter the 1st Earl Cadogan of Oakley, county Buckingham, Viscount Caversham of Caversham, county Oxford, and Earl Cadogan. Though to be fair he was a successful military commander who fought at Blenheim (1704), Ramillies (1706) and Malplaquet (1709), while Brydges seems to have been nothing but a politician with his hand in the till.

***** His most notorious case, when he was Attorney-General and in which he acted as prosecutor, was that of the murder trial of Lord Santry in 1738. Santry, a notorious rake (and with 21st century hindsight seems to have been severely mentally unstable), was drinking in a tavern near Dublin and ran Laughlin Murphy, the tavern porter, through with his sword in an unprovoked attack, thus killing him. In the trial he was found guilty and sentenced to death. His friends campaigned for a reprieve, and eventually, in 1740, George II granted him a full pardon. Once again the message is: if you're a toff, you get off.