Home > 1 > Dorset: Milton Abbas, Dorchester

Dorset: Milton Abbas, Dorchester

Milton abbey. In some ways Pevsner is right about this: it’s an exercise in a current interest of mine I call Boring Dec, interesting for the neglected perspective it offers on Dec’s less boring variants, and for the aesthetic undercurrents that survive from EE and were soon to trigger the widespread acceptance of Perp. But he’s not completely right: there are enough specific details to show an awareness of other versions of Dec, and to situate it in the slipstream of the oh-so-interesting Thomas of Witney/William Joy ideas factory, with specific linkages to the great rebuilding underway at Exeter – choir drawing to completion as Milton begins; this is particularly interesting because one of the most crucial points about William Joy is the way he is at once part of Boring Dec (witness Ottery) and also something far more complex, individual and interesting.

So the dominant note in the tracery is an updating of the EE stepped lancet: give it some extra cusps and put it under an arch. Indeed the arches are as steep as steep can be. But the cusps have a cut-from-sheet metal quality, and the two-light windows have stretched-out quatrefoils at the top that have no lower boundary and instead flop round the top of the lights beneath.

From the outside there is an intriguing attempt to give this a rhythm: three-light, two-light, flying buttress; but because of the east wall and the crossing this is only sustained for two bays – though it would perhaps read more rationally if we had a nave – and inside the effect is very confusing. Even outside, the two-light and three-light windows are of different heights. One wonders if it reflects something in the previous church: paired bays, or a sexpartite vault. The narrow-wide bay alternation that results is a design feature pure and simple, yet quietly rather odd.

Big plate glass quatrefoils in the flying buttresses, a gross bit of over-engineering given the lowness of the church; ballflower corbel table in the transept probably originally continuous, given that the big quatrefoils of the parapet seem to be a C15 addition (they are on the tower, too; the S transept suggests the parapet was plain). Niches and stuff on the buttresses themselves, slightly differently detailed on N and S aisles. Eastern bays – retroquire, chapels, Lady chapel of some description – lost: one would like to see behind the reredos. Very good figures on the label ends of the aisle windows. On the N side, three doors (and one on the S), their simple, hollow-curve mouldings emphasising the passage from inside to out rather than vice versa. The E-most door has a semicircular head, a reference to old times. Boring Dec is often about two things: referencing the past (Ottery) and decorum (St Albans presbytery), neither of which ae mutually exclusive. And indeed there are other clues: the transept buttresses are very C13 in form. Some kind of two-bay structure, vaulted, stood off the N aisle; one wonders if the cloister probably extended down here given the presence of the doors. A cloister access-narthex? Sacristy? A chapel is more likely.

At the transepts, the detailing changes slightly, and the first explicitly-Exeter motif comes in: the petal motif in the big three-light windows are taken straight from those in the Exeter transepts (also seen at Bristol) which from memory are mid-second decade C14. Three light windows have playful cusping, and one notes how Bording Dec leads the eye to focus on forms with great clarity, to take in both their smoothness and their oddness, and this is part of what Perp likes, too. The enormous S transept window is anything but the regular reticulated Pevsner calls it: the reticulations are stretched out, and the upper one curved round; an interest in a vertical extension of a norm that could be 1320s or 30s: see proto-Perp windows in such otherwise Rich Dec places like Tewkesbury and Dorchester-on-Thames. Big newel.

Then the C15 tower, as simple but also very handsome as can be; and recased or completed N transept, especially the outer bay. Let’s go in.

The geological colour scheme, though presumably the designers never expected anyone to see it, is one of the most characterful aspects of the building today. An orange-stained limestone? is used for all the ribs, most of the window embrasures, and I think increasing amounts of he upper portions; in the transepts, it is everywhere. But vault cells are filled in with white clunch – chalk; a hard white limestone is sued for the arcades and other lower features in the E end, and knapped flint fills entire stretches of lower wall. Orange, white, off-white, shiny black. It works expecillay well in the transept, where, stone aside, the effect of a big window-lined vaulted hall is impressive and intended. A portion of C15 screen-wall here is nice; and lapidary bits, including a very good C13? angel annunciate and bits of C15 moulding thick with colour. Tiles set in an easily-stumbled step in the floor, late C13 in character though presumably decades later.

The vault is all C15, but the pattern, with big diagonal liernes that would fit perfectly with the Exeter/Witney/Joy axis made explicit by the windows; there is at least one Samson and the Lion, a very popular motif, almost a tic, at Exeter, too. Goodish GM over Emost door to the two-bay near-cloister feature: a two-ay chapel here with a memorial function, perpahs to an abbot or patron of post-1309, would make sense; two bays west a king carries two floral sprigs.

That the C15 work goes to a fan vault for the corssing is another suggestion  that an older vault intention was being honoured here. This fan vault is not a true one – it is a pattern of ribs, separate from the infilling, like the famous one at Sherborne, the masons not yet sure the egg-shell engineering will work on this scale: if the few stumps of cloister against the transept wall outside are any guide, they could do true fan vaults on a smaller scale if they wanted too. All assigned to abbot Middleton, after 1481, presumably on the basis of his rebus on the vault: it may in fact be a more drawn out story.

Things are quieter e  of the enormous C14 pulpitum screen, with its attached Purbeck shafts, bell capitals, and big boss; features that would have been standard-up-to-adate a century earlier, if more attenuated in their proportions.

Here, the vault is a simple X-vault – another backwards-looking feature, and the carefully placed balane of decorousness and self-effacement is further underlined by the lack of a middle story. Arches everywhere have attached, but not bundled, columns, bell capitals, big smooth mouldings. But the rhythm we noticed outside is handled inside so that the two-light bays have no arcade at all, are simply blank wall, a very odd thing.

Details: enormous corbels make way for the (lost, or at least very unremarkable in their current form) stalls. A C15 bit of micro-architecture has been added to the top of the pulpitum facing E and is thick with painted (trustworthy?) heraldy and polychromy. The intensity of colour here, on the surviving parts of the reredos, and above the big image niche in the S choir aisle (near a door from the S?) might suggest the rest of the church was not richly coloured. Two awful/charming vernacular images of A-S Royal founders, models of chivalry with their big model church and hawk on her arm. Sedilia/piscina: the dividing wall to the aisle cut through to take it at the fitting out stage. Not great quality, but the detailing again shows the keeping-up-with-Exeter, and thus now more W Joy than T Wit, tenor of the transepts: the concave-curve of the gables, almost triangles, is visually emphasized by the lack of a retaining arch beneath. Inside the toy vaults are completely smooth surfaces, an idea which at Tewkesbury has been linked to the germination of the fan vault; some kind of rib or panel pattern can be imagined painted on. No bosses but big individual ball flowers at the head of the dividing internal arches. Very good C15 wood pyx canopy, updating that at Wells by 300 yrs. Even better C15/C16 Great Screen – another – its upper parts apparently effectively plaster C18, its lower portion in good nick with more colour.

Outside the landscape extends to the abbots hall, if that what it is, for is its location not closer to where the refectory should be; now part of the school. And St Catherine’s chapel, directly inline with the E end, a C12 two bay mini-church, chancel heightened at some point, simple but good (late) segmental-headed doors and a very rare and interesting inscription advertising an indulgence to wayfraers who stop here. This is a hilltop chapel outside the precint but somehow conceived as part of it, perhaps balancing the liturgical and the lay-cultic aspects a la the comparable example at Abbotsbury. But its locked. 

Dochester One of three formerly, and with a date at which the current structure was underway: 1420. Perp so close to other places it could be a photocopy; so interesting more because of the date than anything inherently interesting. Wagon roofs, nice simple geometric bosses: are they original? I notice one of the Virgin and Child by the tower arch on the S side, exactly as at Westbury. Two great late late C14 knights loll in windows reset. Windows set back Perpishly; I always assume this is to make space for altars or guild paraphenilia a late med thing. Columns have polygonal bases but more 13/C14 in spirit round bell caps. Great C12 S door: they say it was perhaps reset with a point when the church was redone, but the inventive 3d zigazag, the little florets that sink into chamfers instead of caps and columns, all suggest we are at the very least after 1160s, and possible a decade or more later: so the point could be original. Crowded, dark, town church, handsome outside: big Dorset/Somerset gargoyles spring like chivalric bearers from attached pins, handsome tower with equally local long belfry windows, attached pins including one in the middle rising of more chest-bearing beasties.

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  1. August 21, 2014 at 11:10 am

    Really great to find a detailed account and ideas about a building that outside of the usual Pevsner/VCH places only really has a Country Life article about it! Only really been thinking of it to put its free-standing sedilia (yeah, I know) in context and if they planned them from the start or if, like Exeter, they were put in a little later.

    • August 21, 2014 at 11:46 am

      You make me wish I maintained this blog more! Simply pressure of time. Really rewarding to find someone reading it. Surely great-church sedilia (for which read any sedilia in an unaisled location) are going to be freestanding and would thus go in as fittings rather than architecture, ie after the main build is complete? Obviously it’s rarely documented (… if we didn’t have those Fabric Rolls…) and done as quickly as possible so the altar can be rendered functional. But I guess you must have reason to question this? Also interested in your thoughts on post-Reformation survival: remarkable how often a fitting which is all about the specialness of the priesthood survives unaltered.

  2. August 21, 2014 at 12:23 pm

    The only problem is (to turn your comments into sedilia-chat) that if you think about it, great-church sedilia are relatively uncommon. Basically I think that the ‘classic’ sedilia is just an English way of livening up big plain “single-niche” sedilia you get in unaisled C12 presbyteries like Kirkstall, and is a cheap alternative to full perimeter dado-arcading like at Bristol Lady Chapel. It becomes the done thing in middle-rank and parish churches in the C13, but it’s not until they start getting gables on them and stuff in the late C13 that they’re a desirable object for the top rank. Then you have the first aisled sedilia in Westminster Abbey (wood – a trial run?) and then as the return to the Stapeldon reredos in Exeter. In the C14 they keep retrofitting them: Chester, Selby, Ripon and in wood in Beverley and C15 wooden in St Davids and Hexham. Crediton, Maidstone (major) and Eastbourne and Chewton Mendip (minor) are really the last few we have that are sedilia set in arcades and they all seem to be retrofits.

    So that leaves Ottery St Mary and possibly Milton where freestanding sedilia are inserted as standard. Since Ottery is so extraordinary anyway as a miniature Exeter I think it makes Milton extraordinary ordinaries…

  3. August 21, 2014 at 12:34 pm

    Fantastic stuff, thank you so much. You are right about the rarity of great church sedilia, though I must admit I’d simply assumed that was evidence for many having been taken down. But what you say is persuasive, and a classic case of what happens when someone really thinks about a subject that everyone takes for granted. Hooray! I guess you’ve noticed that the Bristol ELC wall-arcade shifts rhythm as if becoming a sedilia on the N side of the altar. Now wondering what happens in the Ely Lady chapel, where the wall arcade throughout seems so remarkably to want to double up as a set of seats ringing the whole building. Must go now, but will have a think about all this and post further thoughts if any occur.

  4. August 21, 2014 at 12:37 pm

    Incidentally sheer pressure of time makes me just, if not more, likely at the moment to post churches stuff on Facebook as on my blog/s. Do feel free to send a Friend request if so inclined: in theory at least I have the page to keep in touch with like-minded folk, though the usual boring family-and-friends stuff inevitably goes on there, too. Hope too to have a good look through your blog, the cut of the jib of which I like muchly.

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