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Portbury, Somerset

December 30, 2009 3 comments

Portbury is an interesting place. There’s the hillfort above; the great battered knob of hill immediately around the village; the battered ‘priory’; an enormous church stuffed next to the M4; you could almost spit on Gordano services if you wished (and I sometimes do). Some kind of history is here: is this an Anglo-Saxon minster settlement? A C12 planned town, perhaps another work of the Fitzharding-era Berkeleys?

Certainly, the church was big from the off. Its cliff-like proportions are mainly the result of a C15 (or early C16) heightening of all the walls; its barn-like plain interior of an early/mid-C14 makeover – which is why I’m here – but the basic and sizeable footprint is C12. The piers of the chancel arch are massive enough, and slender enough to be after the middle of the century. The big flat buttresses at the east end show the chancel was always as large as it is now – which is big – and no reason not to suppose a nave of the same proportions of the current one. More intriguingly they seem to be replicated at the E end of the N aisle; and if that is right then the C12 church had at least one aisle of comparable scale to the nave. As for dateable architecture, there is the font, and the very good south door, its two orders displaying all manner of inventive 3D-variants on chevron, etc, (surely firmly in the second half of the century) — and those chancel arch piers. They start high above the floor – there is wall beneath – and there seems to be some speculation that the chancel floor was raised. That would be interesting. Dramatically raised altars in parish churches, and the question of what goes beneath them and the history of such initiatives, have become a sub-theme of my interests since my work on Westbury. But I’m sceptical. It all looks very new to me, and indeed the whole e wall of the chancel, with its rich painting, and the equally tarted-up roof show there was quite a concerted and grand medievalising of this part of the church in the C19.

Anyway, one or both of the aisles must have been added in the early C13, that is within decades of completion of the church: a rate of expansion that is not baffling in itself but is remarkable when one sees how often it takes place. It’s a parish-church phenomenon, as impressive as, and even more widespread than, the rebuilding of greater church east ends at this time, and of course also goes hand in hand with the full hegemony of Gothic. Here the evidence are the two sedilia, and this is interesting in itself: just the pattern I’ve posited for Westbury: a grandish one by the high altar, a secondary one, slightly toned back in its detailing, at an important subsidiary altar, at this point in the (new?: which means the south door was kept and moved when it was built, though that is not an unusual thing to do) south aisle.

Two sedilia in a parish church suggests some serious pretensions, though apart from the polished stones on the shafting the quality is not high; a pattern that will be repeated over the centuries to come. The natural assumption is that this is the Lady chapel, but if so it is on the wrong side of the church; and at Westbury (which of course was collegiate) we proved that in spite of a C13 sedilia in just the same place the Lady chapel was elsewhere. So caution again.

And then there’s the triplet window in the enormous squint linking the nave south aisle and the chancel. From the inside it looks rather like a ‘medievalising’ (haha) work of the C14, but if so outside the hood mould and head stops outside are unnervingly well-informed about earlier architectures. Anyway, it demonstrates the altar here – where a Lady chapel would more normally be – was of some importance, too. Which then raises the Westbury problem: who on earth would install a second sedilia in any church in a location that was not that church’s most important subsidiary altar? These things are sent to worry us: Obama only has Afghanistan to make a decision on: nobody knows the trouble I’ve seen.

Which brings us smartly to the C14, where my money is. This isn’t just a ‘church of the Berkeley familia’ ( a la Winterbourne) or a ‘church with Bristol-influenced Dec work’ (a la Backwell): it’s both, or so I’m hoping, and not any old Berkeley: Maurice III Lord Berkeley himself ran this part of the great family landholdings effectively as a subsidiary Lordship until his father died, establishing it as his main seat; he then only had a few years to make his mark as Lord in his own right before being sucked into the anti-Edward II rebellion, arrested by the King and thrown into Wallingford castle where he died. Yet he emerges as one of the most interesting builder-Berkeleys: at least as likely as anyone to have kicked the rebuilding of St Augustine’s, Bristol into touch, and known to have involved himself architecturally elsewhere. And for those crucial decades, Portbury was not just an important Berkeley seat (where *was* their seat here?); it was effectively the deputy capital of the whole caboodle. I don’t have time to go trawling through records at this moment (this is a blog, not a conference paper); but I recall Maurice buried his wife Eve here, and founded a chantry; and then Thomas III his son, an equally intriguing figure (for his piety as for his energy and his (potential) architectural patronage) greatly enhanced its endowment and had his much-mourned (if his chantry foundations are anything to go by) and politically well-connected first wife Margaret Mortimer remembered here, too. I recall too that the Lady chapel was the focus for this… wherever that was. So any Dec work is of the greatest interest to me.

Well, there’s plenty of it. And it’s at once ambitious and plain as a pikestaff. The great capless tower arch, with its wave mouldings, is probably Dec (Perp tower arches can do this kind of thing, too: a problem noted and even more urgent at Westbury). The marching and massive rhythm of the arcades certainly is; not a cap and barely a moulding to be seen, bold in its simplicity, and knowing of it too, when one glances at the fiddly bases to some of the piers (especially those in the bays parallel with the Dec N and C12 S doors; also note here a big C14 head poking out of the apex of one arch). Yet it’s not a rebuild; it makes the church *feel* Dec but in fact it has been on a grand scale since at least the 1160s, and this suggests a trawl back through the Berkeley patrons and foundations of the C12 and C13 may be in order, too. Bring out the Wells-Furby! Anyway, all this seems to be built with congregants in mind: in particular, stone seats are provided around all the aisles and around all the bases of the arcades; an exceptionally layman-focused gesture at this date. St Augustine’s has aisle-edge seating, too.

Of course it is easy to link the simple force of the design with the St Augustine’s/Wells-strainer-arches approach, and there is certainly a commonality; but this kind of thing, a little-celebrated ‘polite’ version of the style I call ‘boring Dec’ is amazingly common, and frustratingly hard to date. It is interesting as a harbinger of Perp thinking; as a different model from show-off Dec; as a rather un-medieval taste for the plain, unadorned Form, and it is not at all unusual to stumble across it. At the grandest level buildings like Milton Abbey and in some senses Ottery St Mary are in this tradition. What role if any the William Joy axis, or influences from other architectures – Mendicant churches, Edwardian castles – has in its creation or spread it is too early to say.

It is also obvious here in the windows, which are also testament to the extent of the Dec makeover of the church. Both aisle-end windows, one aisle west window, and all the windows in the chancel go with it. Only one, interestingly the S window overlooking the high altar, has any kind of tracery elaboration – though this example is pretty good – all the others are a type familiar from Ottery and Milton and elsewhere, which is basically the EE stepped lancet updated for the tracery age: three cusped lights under an arch. Indeed five, in the case of the aisle east walls. It couldn’t really be plainer. And one other relevant madeover-in-the-C14 barnlike church comes immediately to mind: Berkeley, which has just this tracery. Witness too the simple ogee of Berkeley’s south door, compared to that of the little Dec stoup by the south door here at Portbury. The problem with this simplicity is it lacks stylistic ‘smoking guns’. But Berkeley has another thing in common with this building: though it plainly knows of more sophisticated architectures (at Berkeley, how could one not, with that surely-William-Joy castle chapel new or underway? next door; here – well, I’m coming to that) it is not just bare, it is also not particularly well done. At both places the patron is determined to make a pretty grand gesture, but equally clear he’s not throwing a top team of masons at it. It’s even speculatable that this is the same team of masons, working at the same time, which raises the game rather. Whether the aesthetics of the result is a conscious choice or a reflection of a limited budget is harder to be sure about; they were certainly happy to leave good older work – the two sedilia, the south door, the font – in place.

So far, so inconclusive-yet-intriguing. What justifies getting the place unlocked, which took two phone calls and a lingering nice little old man in a flat cap who bemoaned the tiny congregation and the dangers inherent in the proximity of the M4, is the one piece of Dec (surely) work in the place, and that is the addition made to the chancel.

It’s basically a little chapel. Almost a tiny transept, stuck off the side of the east end. Its arch is steep-edged and plain; the caps merely a ledge, as if they were Anglo-Saxon. The walls have been broken through to do this, and they are finished off but left entirely unadorned, but step back slightly with a slight curve as if something was expected to lie in the lower part of the arch – an effigy? a fitting? The window, sadly, is part of the C15 makeover (a nice small elaborate Dec window here would have balanced that on the other side of the chancel very well); less easy to date (and explain) is the enormous squint, which runs from an arch in the NE chapel at preist’s-head-height through to an arch into this chapel. It contains the C14? C13? window mentioned earlier, so small it was surely made for it, thus raising issues of dating and of what stood on the sight of the chapel before.

What dates the chapel-thing itself is its vault. A vault! A tunnel vault. A tunnel vault supported by six massive close-together arches, each identical, setting up a powerful ribbed rythmn that reaches out from this tiny space to bring a shock to the entire chancel. The ribs have bold, simple mouldings, chamfered fading into flatness at each base, and the confirmation that (however rough the execution) someone In the Know is behind this comes with the ridge rib, which is articulated like two ribs or planks of wood meeting each other or bent in the middle, and which runs right past the outer arch to the chancel only to stop as if chopped in two.

This kind of thing is directly related to St Augustine’s in its most brutal/archaic register, and in particular the massive ribs over the two tomb-arches cut between the choir and the Elder Lady Chapel, surely additions made by Thomas III in association with the burial there (and associated lavish soul-remembering) of Margaret Mortimer (and see also the little vaulted passage built into one wall of the Outer North Porch at St Mary Redcliffe). It’s by someone who knows of this work, both in its boldness and in its plainness and in its go-out-of-your-way-to-be-oddness. From here, too, may come the knowing reuse of C12 details, for example in the corbels built into the chancel for the Lenten veil, and perhaps some of the corbels for the nave (?and chancel) roofs; and more crucially, the keeping of the C12 chancel arch piers but rebuilding of the arch above: witness Urchfont. And while the jury is out as to whether we finger Maurice or Thomas for it (or indeed the abbots of St Augustine’s, who held the advowson, raising even more interesting stuff to explore), the balance of probability given the link with those tomb arches has to be Thomas, that is later rather than earlier, 1330s and 40s rather than 1310s (1322-7 is out for reasons of War). So Berkeley church, too?

Any sign of a function? Well, firstly there is no sign of any fittings of the period. A big Berkeley arms (quartered with those of someone else) in the south chancel aisle is surely C17; other parts of the same lost monument are scattered through the church. More interesting, a collection of stained glass fragments have been grouped in the north choir aisle, and they are almost all rich in colour, c1320-50 a la those at St Augustine’s, and the recognisable white-on-red crosses of the Berkeley arms are prominent among them (there’s traces of polychromy, too, big red chevrons up the arch nearest the south door). These could have come from anywhere of course, but they once again raise the question of the significance of one aisle altar over another; pushing the balance the other way, the big, bold but not very well carved corbel heads for the roof in the south aisle are surely C14, when all the others look later. But more than anything else, the combo of recorded chantry foundation, elaborate squinch/priest’s passage and show-off Chapel Thing (there is no piscina now) near the altar, when compared with the other contemporary memorial fittings and changes that I’m investigating, suggest that various functions might be complementary rather than exclusive: remembering Berkeley souls, especially those of Eve and Margaret; Marian piety; settings for Easter sepulchres. It’s increasingly becoming clear how personal tomb and Easter sepulchre could overlap; how at this stage the architectural expression of chantry spaces, memorial spaces and other liturgical functions is very much up for grabs, is indeed a nexus of creative tension: this is all more grist for the mill. The Easter sepulchre function is further suggested by the fact that for some reason the church today remembers our Ribbed Thing as the chapel of St Helen; those step-backs at the entrance to the Thing could well be for this, or a tomb, or both. Enough already: I’m glad I came.

As for the C15, as ever it’s hard not to fall asleep. But the enormous aisle walls and their parapet-of-panels (crenellations above) are interesting – on the S side the big flat-topped windows have a retaining arch set high above, as if someone though the walls might squash them. The porch was added then, and there’s good colour on the nice niche above the south porch door, which has been brutally shaved off in the C16 or C17. It has a parvise, surely a treasury, as plain and secure as Westbury. There are tracery panels from C15 bench ends grouped together to make the modern choir stalls, and some fragments of very plain, light late medieval foliage motifs in the glazing of some of the tracery lights. The tower is plain as a pikestaff if unmissable from J19. it’s west window is quite Deccish, but again this window is often a place for designers to be a bit more, er, Decorous, and the whole tower is plainly an addition to the previous Dec buttressing of the west wall (so the previous tower must have been rather thin). But the roofs are good, and very close to Westbury. I’ve noted in the past that north-of-the-Avon Perp masons rarely cross the water; perhaps competent carpenters where more flexible, or there were fewer of them.

And with that we leave, noting that two trees in the churchyards are surrounded by more seat-like platforms, the eastern of which is octagonal and thus surely supported an external cross; that the yew is 2000 years old (it says, on the sign pinned to the ancient ribbed red bark); that the standing stone outside the primary school came from a field to the N, suggesting a ritual focus has gathered in the Gordano services/springline/hill/floodplain on the S side of the Avon nexus for a giddyingly long time. Intriguing stuff, indeed.