Great Sampford, Essex
The beautiful church of St Michael the Archangel at Great Sampford is not the first church to stand on the rising ground at the centre of the village overlooking the cornfields along the valley of the river Pant. It is possibly sited on an ancient place of cult or religious significance. The proximity of the Stow farm may be of some importance, for the word ‘Stow’ in Old English can mean a ‘holy place’ or ‘place of assembly’. A pre-Conquest church, presumably of timber and thatch construction, followed perhaps, by a simple stone-built church, was replaced by the 13c on the same site by a major church building of which one of the transepts remains as the vestry of the present church which was built between 1320 and 1350. The original dedication of the church, if different, is not known as the first documentary reference to St Michael occurs as late as 1540 in a Sampford will. Dedications were sometimes changed and the use of the proper style, St. Michael the Archangel, is in fact quite rare. However, dedications to St. Michael or St. Michael and All Angels are numerous and were popular as the Archangel is an important figure in Christian tradition and art, symbolising the victory of God over evil, as an intercessor for the sick and as a leader of the Church militant. Churches dedicated to him, as at Great Sampford, are often found on hill—top sites or on high ground .a possible allusion to St. Michael’s pre-eminence in the Angelic Host of Christian belief. His Feast Day is 29th September.
Knowledge of the origins of the Christian Church in Essex relies largely on the fragile but growing evidence of archaeology and landscape interpretation. An ill-defined and mobile pattern of contemporaneous pagan and early Christian practices in the Roman era comes into historical focus with the missionary endeavours of the Roman and Celtic Churches when such names as Augustine, Mellitus and Cedd are prominent in Essex history. Within that tradition there are various, as yet unproven, theories about the establishment of a church at Great Sampford.
On entering the church the first impression that the visitor receives is of its elegant dignity; the next, the incongruence of its scale in such a tiny rural community. An interesting aspect of this enigma is the search for a convincing explanation of its status, from the mid-13c until 1907, as a deanery church serving twenty-one surrounding parishes in the Freshwell Hundred and in part of Uttlesford. It may have been a consequence of an early ‘minster’ (i.e.: missionary) role or as the result of a parochial compromise in an area with more important communities such as (Saffron) Walden. We do not know. However, it is a fact that the missionary work of the early minsters often extended to and beyond the boundaries of the administrative hundreds and became the sites of the hundredal centres themselves. There may well be historic linkages, not yet understood, between the Freshwell and Uttlesford Hundreds and the Sampford Deanery that relate to the early status of the church at Great Sampford.
The earliest historical fact about St. Michael’s is the grant by William Rufus, son and successor of William the Conqueror, of the church at Sampford along with the subordinate chapel at Hempstead with their lands and tithes to Battle Abbey in 1094. According to Philip Morant, the most famous of Essex historians, this was a formal confirmation of the Conqueror’s original royal grant. This act of confirmation was a necessary and regular practice in regard to the efficacy of grants and early charters which were frequently forged. The church at Hempstead was within the jurisdiction of the vicar of Great Sampford until as late as 1979. Great Sampford remained in the hands of Battle Abbey until the Dissolution of the Monasteries in 1539 when it was transferred to the Dean and Chapter of Canterbury. In 1836 it passed to the newly-established Church Commissioners. In 1982 Great Sampford was combined with the parish of Little Sampford.
For perhaps a thousand years, even more, the Church at Sampford pursued its mission and, like others of medieval foundation, did not escape the consequences of religious, political and parochial events or circumstances. An astonishing flowering of spiritual faith and social commitment led to the building and re-building of these lovely churches. This phase was followed by the painful disruption of the Reformation, the Commonwealth and the Restoration, all of which led to anxious change and despoliation. In the course of these events much of the magnificence of the church at Great Sampford and its furnishings was lost or abandoned. All his was compounded by periods of neglect and the chronic problems of maintaining a great building in a small village bereft of wealthy resident patrons.
The loss, confiscation or sale of the rood, images, church plate and "such other goods as could be spared" was mirrored by decay of the fabric as is evident from the Parochial Inventories and Visitations of the l6c and l7c. The l7c saw the introduction of new arrangements for the railing of the Lord’s Table and seating for the congregation, a school was held in the south transept and the village musicians performed in a gallery under the tower. The inevitable ‘restorations’ by the Victorians led to the removal of furnishings, the installation of new pews, patterned floor tiling and the stripping of the stucco from the exterior walls of the church to expose the original flint and rubble surfaces. In more recent times the spiral staircase in the tower was removed and the roof structure of the south aisle replaced. We are, fortunately, left with a church of beauty and distinction.
It is hoped that the following brief notes on the architectural features and minor objects and details of interest in the church will help visitors to enjoy their visit.
The significance of St. Michael the Archangel in the village scene is apparent from the scale of the building, its strong profiles and conspicuous English Gothic idiom of the Decorated period. Internally, the major architectural theme is that of a restrained, uncomplicated elegance that is enhanced by the ample light admitted by plain glass windows. A dominant feature is the fine range of trefoiled, cinquefoiled and sexfoiled lights of the nave, chancel and aisle windows all dating from the period c. 1320-50. The cusped tracery of the windows is complemented by the symmetrical refinement of the arcading which is only lightly embellished by mouldings and carved capitals, typical of the period, and among the best in the county. Although not devoid of interesting detail, there is nothing to detract from the simple elegance and spatial qualities with which the fenestration and graceful arcading endow this fine building.
In 1769 Peter Muilman referred to the church at Great Sampford which "stands pleasantly on a small eminence by the roadside". Pleasantly indeed, the church is handsomely set in the Essex cornfields and seen to advantage from the high ground on the opposite side of the river. Close to, the sturdy profiles and somewhat severe external textures, relieved by some decorative areas of knapped flint flushwork, offer little hint of the quality of its Gothic interior. The main structure is built with random-faced flint and rubble set in lime mortar with limestone and clunch dressings. The roof is tiled and slated. The prominent west tower was built in the mid-l4c and, like the south aisle, has an embattled parapet. The south porch is of the same period. Unhappily, the window tracery of the 13c transept has been lost and is now disfigured by brickwork of two phases which seem to date from the late-18c to early-19c. Conspicuous in the churchyard are the fine lime trees planted in about 1835. The only monument of significance is the obelisk near the east wall of the churchyard which commemorates members of the Watson Family of Sampford. Colonel Jonas Watson was a distinguished soldier who was killed in action at the siege of Cartagena in 1741. But spare a moment to look at the adjacent grave stone of William Ruffle who died in 1881, a village worthy who served Great Sampford as shopkeeper, constable, clerk and in other public offices for over half a century.
External details of note are a rare series of consecration crosses of varying designs around the church, an early scratch dial, now displaced and seen on a doorstep in the north wall, a benchmark and the slot for the surveyor’s bench on the south-west buttress of the tower and miscellaneous graffiti mainly in the porch. Other details of interest include the rainwater heads, the vigorous carvings on the label of the south transept and niches in the south transept and the north and west walls. The clock on the church tower was installed in l9ll to mark the coronation of King George V.
On entering, visitors will appreciate the impressive dimensions and architectural refinement of this handsome village church. Standing in the centre of the nave the dominant curvilinear idiom of the Gothic styling will be apparent. The nave is flanked by north and south arcaded aisles with plain two-centred arches datable to the l4c. The piers of the north arcade are quatrefoil in plan with slender engaged shafting; those of the south arcade are octagonal in plan. All of the piers have moulded bases and capitals.
The 14c west tower is constructed in four stages. Internally it is open to the nave under a two-centred moulded arch. There is access to the belfry but, sadly, the brick-built circular Tudor staircase was removed about fifty years ago. The carved head of a woman recovered from this staircase, although it presumably originated from elsewhere in the church, can be seen in the vestry. But the finest aspects of this church are to be seen in the early chancel which is remarkable for its size and the splendour of its architectural expression. It dates from the first decades of the l4c. This fine chancel is framed by an exceptionally large east window of five cinquefoiled lights, the curvilinear bar tracery and verticality of which enhance the powerful impact of this aspect of the building. Most interesting, and presumably deriving from the deanery status of the church, there is a series on the north and south walls of twenty-one stalls recessed under a canopied arcade with mouldings and cusping. At the east end of the south arcade there are the piscina and sedilia. The chancel arch, of the same period and sprung from the capitals of clustered shafts, shows residual traces, near the base on either side of the step, of a former stone screen which is possibly significant in view of the rare stone screens in the nearby churches of Stebbing and Great Bardfield. Note also the small blocked low window by the north side of the arch. The panels behind the altar on which the Creed, Lords Prayer and Commandments are painted were made in 1837 for the church at Danbury and brought to Great Sampford in 1894.
The vestry, formerly a chapel, is of great interest as a surviving major element of the previous church of the late – 13c (however when I visited this was locked). In the east wall there are good coupled windows of two trefoiled lights with two quatrefoil and sexfoil circular openings, interesting examples of pierced plate-tracery. The large brick-filled window in the south wall is of the mid-13c with good mouldings and the surviving arch and shafting in the splays. Below this window, fragments of medieval glass were found buried in the ground outside. The contemporary archway in the west wall has some intriguing carved capitals richly adorned with robust oak-leaf foliage and vibrant figures including an owl, snail, pig and a human face in a good state of preservation. One is assumed to be a representation of a ‘Green Man’ a symbolic figure of English folklore. The north wall has four quatrefoil openings. There is, under the south window, a triple gabled recess with crockets and linear moulding, pinnacles and a neat acanthus motif which was probably once a fine tomb of an important local family, perhaps a member of the de Kemesek family. It is said to have served as a fireplace in the time when the vestry housed the village school! The battened and studded oak door leading into the chancel is 16c.
The open church roof structures are well worth close study. The best is in the vestry which is roofed with twelve pairs of collared scissor-braced trusses supporting the steep-pitched rafters on moulded wall plates. The chancel roof is also of trussed-rafter construction of seven cants, as is that of the nave roof which also has three tie-beams which may have been installed at a later date, perhaps when, as we know from church records, the roof was repaired in the 16c. The lean-to roof of the north aisle is attractively braced with graceful curved members sprung from a good moulded wall-plate. Unfortunately, the original roof of the south aisle has been replaced by a modern structure, but three of the amusing stone corbels which supported it remain. The trussed-rafter roof of the south porch with seven cants should be noted as it rests on extremely fine early moulded plates. Visitors should not miss the intriguing carved medieval wooden head which is fastened onto the wall above the chancel arch at the north-west corner facing the nave. This appears to have been repositioned, perhaps from a figure that was once part of church statuary. On the south side in the clerestory will be seen an attractive 15c Perpendicular style rectilinear and cinquefoiled window of three ogee lights which was devised to throw light onto the former rood.
Originally the church would have been resplendent with a comprehensive range of wall paintings for visual instruction depicting scenes of biblical or religious significance. A few fragments survive, having been discovered during restoration work in 1979, above the arches on the walls of the north arcade. Although faint and incomplete the two remaining paintings are of interest. One represents the seven deadly sins in the form of a diagrammatic tree which is comparatively rare. The other may be of St. Christopher, a saintly figure normally positioned, as possibly here, opposite the church entrance as a reassuring gesture to the worshippers. There are traces, too, possibly of another period, that suggest a dragon was depicted which would imply an association with St. Michael to whom the church is dedicated or, possibly, St. Margaret. Traces of colour in the wall plaster of the vestry may eventually yield further paintings.
Worthy of note are some special features beginning with the door at the church entrance. This is thought to be contemporary with the building of the church in the early l4c and, although damaged at the base, is still a fine example and retains the original wrought iron strap-work and studding. According to expert opinion it is the most elaborate of all saltire-braced doors in Essex. The boards of which it is constructed are pegged together. The font in the south aisle has a plain moulded octagonal bowl of the 15c. Its stem is earlier and has complex decoration which combines ogee-headed panels with intricate tracery on a chamfered 14c plinth. The Victorian pews were recently detached and the nave flooring paved. The beautiful series of kneelers worked with flower motifs were recently embroidered by local people. The lovely embroidered runner on the step of the sanctuary was made in 1990 and is an exact copy of the Victorian runner it replaced.
It is valid to observe that St. Michael’s benefits aesthetically from the absence of monumental clutter which, although sometimes historically useful, can be detrimental to the architectural purity of the building as a whole. The only remaining monuments of antiquity in the church are the tomb slabs (Calthorp and Burrows) of the 17c and 18c in the chance]. They commemorate a family whose name persists at a local farm and another of textile merchants who lived opposite the church. There is another (Gretton) in the south aisle. The pulpit, the provenance of which is unknown, is Victorian. There are also a few notable pieces of furniture. These include a 17c desk with a writing slope and cupboard which once served the school in the church. There is also a standing cupboard or hutch of the late 16c and a 16c church chest, iron-banded with strap hinges and an interior ‘till’ which may have been built-in as a response to a Parochial Visitation of 1686 which ordered it to be provided and lockable. The modern portable altar at the east end of the north aisle was given to the church by an anonymous donor in 1991. The small bronze of the Madonna and Child is of German provenance.
The five church bells which were once rung for church services as well as for special village occasions like harvest and gleaning can no longer be pealed. This is because of structural weaknesses in the belfry though they are still hung on the original stocks. Nowadays one is chimed for church services, as a Sanctus bell and used to ring the hours for the clock. The first, third and fourth bells were cast by William Land in 1624; the second (which bears the Royal Arms and a medallion with a bust of Charles II) by Henry Yaxley in 1684; the fifth by John Hodson in 1664. The church plate includes an interesting early Elizabethan silver cup of 1562 with a paten cover of c1567 and another paten dated 1630. None of these is inscribed although they carry makers’ marks. An electro-plated flagon of 1854 was purchased by the vicar for five guineas in 1856. The organ, installed in 1976, is said to have come from a nonconformist chapel and to have been built in c1830 by G.M. Holdich. The eagle lectern in the south aisle was placed in the church in 1909 as a tribute to the incumbency of the Rev. Robert Eustace, vicar from 1850 to 1905.
Almost every ancient church has a range, most of which cannot be satisfactorily explained, of markings and graffiti, ostensibly symbolic figuring, idle scratchings and numerous initials and dates. Great Sampford has a generous quota of such. Of genuine interest is a 3-men’s (or 9-men’s) Morris cut into the second stall on the north side of the chancel inside the altar rail. These are gaming boards of some antiquity, the play having affinities with ludo and allegedly used to relieve the boredom of long sermons or tedious ritual. On the opposite side one of the sedilia has a set of unexplained grooves, possibly another game.
This guide has so far been concerned mostly with events, architecture and objects of beauty or interest. More important are the people, clergy, church officers and villagers who have worked for and worshipped in the church. They all emerge from the obscurity of the past through the church records and the village archives as personalities or in human situations which help us to share their hopes, commitment or despair. The clergy, ever since Thomas de Sampford, dean in 1163, have served the church and ministered to the people throughout the ages and struggled with the traumas of turbulent and anxious times. The churchwardens, like Richard Petytt and John Mylner in the l6c and their successors, have striven to preserve the church from decay and neglect and carried out their onerous and multifarious duties with devotion if not always with alacrity. There have been too the countless parishioners whose recurring family names fill the registers recording the joy of marriage and birth and the sadness of illness and death. They are all part of the story and the reality of the church and its life in the village. They too were familiar with the building we admire. They sat in the pews and looked upon the beauty that is now our heritage. Their responsibility has passed to successive generations, and now to us. We hope that they would have approved of this little booklet and that it will play its part in safeguarding the continuity of that inheritance.
Thanks to Flickr (david.robarts ) for this cool evil building. Original date: 2010-11-04 22:49:30