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St Mary, Great Bardfield

Great Bardfield

Great Bardfield Great Bardfield clock

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A large and splendid church in a large and lovely village. James Bettley in his revision of the Buildings of England volume for Essex observes that Great Bardfield is pretty without being self-consciously picturesque, which is about right. It is perhaps best known these days for the colony of artists that established itself there in the middle decades of the 20th Century, among them Edward Bawden and Eric Ravilious. The Fry Art Gallery in nearby Saffron Walden now showcases their work.

The church sits in an extensive churchyard just to the south of the High Street. The tower and chancel survive from a large Late Norman building, but the nave, aisles and clerestories came with a major rebuilding programme in the late 14th Century. This was a time when Decorated architecture was morphing into Perpendicular, and the window tracery here shows some kind of transition, being at once both and neither, the bold quatrefoils heading tall lights under a squared head.

You step into a large, open interior, the nave focused on a curiosity, a tall stone rood screen organised in three lights, the central one the entrance to the chancel and thus wider. The rood group is modern of course, but otherwise the screen is entirely of the late 14th Century and contemporary with the rebuilding of the nave. Details on the east side of the screen include a lion and a dragon which appear to be crawling down from above as if in some MR James horror story, and a confident looking angel. Pevsner argued convincingly that the screen here must have been inspired by that not far off at Stebbing.

stone screen angel on the stone screen dragon on the stone screen lion on the stone screen

The character of the nave is given to it by its extensive range of late 19th and early 20th Century stained glass, all by major workshops, notably that by Burlison & Grylls and by Clayton & Bell. The liturgical furnishings are similarly enthusiastic, for Great Bardfield was fully in the Anglo-Catholic tradition, and still is to an extent. The church interior underwent a restoration in the late 19th Century at the hands of the great George Bodley, and James Bettley points to the reredos, pulpit and organ case all being by him. He was also responsible for the design of the east window and for the rood group being added to the screen. The later reordering of the east ends of the aisles into chapels in the 1950s was the work of that other great figure in church furnishings, Laurence King.

In such a large church the lack of memorials is striking. There's a tombchest up in the sanctuary for William Bendlowes who died in the 1580s, but that is about it as far as monuments of any significance goes. Under the circumstances, Thomas Stebbing's simple memorial of 1832 in the south aisle stands out more than he might have ever expected. He was, it tells us, a friend to the fatherless, a most active and useful member of society, and after a residence of 45 years in this parish died deeply lamented by his affectionate wife and a large circle of friends and acquaintance.

Simon Knott, December 2021

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looking east chancel south aisle
Great Bardfield Anglo-Catholic glory lady altar
INRI agnus dei Blessed Virgin and Child
St Mary Magdalene (Clayton & Bell) Blessed Virgin (Clayton & Bell) St Mary Salome (Clayton & Bell) St Cedd with Bradwell chapel
feminine angel Mary and John at the foot of the cross feminine angel
Blessed Virgin and Child annunciation Lamb of God
St Anne teaches the Virgin to read Mary and John at the foot of the cross Resurrection St Monica St Helen
not Angles but Angels St Margaret, St Agnes and St Cecilia
veiled banner a friend to the fatherless Madonna delle Grazie Nettuno


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