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.
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.
|A gap-toothed grimacing ?woman with a dopey-looking dog who seems to be trying to look fierce|
|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 bearded king|
|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|
** 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.