Saturday, 1 March 2014

Blackmore History: written March 1974

St Laurence Church, Blackmore
(from old postcard)
Blackmore History (March 1974)

BLACKMORE:  The Parish (formerly the Priory) Church of Blackmore - St. Laurence - stands south of the village on land where the waters of the River Wid form a large medieval moat, enclosing the site of an old Augustinian Priory. It may seen strange that there should be so many houses of Austin Canons in the county, but they were small – Blackmore had only twelve canons - and they performed a practical function in providing priests to sing mass in the numerous tiny villages scattered about the forest. This Augustinian Priory was dedicated to St. Laurentius, a Third century deacon, who, according to tradition, was martyred in Rome by being roasted to death on a gridiron. Its foundation is attributed to members of the de Sanford family, probably towards the end of the 12th century. Some records are more specific, and claim that the priory church was built circa 1150 be two Norman barons, Alan and Jordan de Sanford, who were Chamberlains to Eleanor, Queen of Henry II. The advowson of the Priory afterwards passed by the marriage of Alice de Sanford, grand-daughter of Sir John, to the de Veres, earls of Oxford.

In 1309, episcopal injunctions were issued to this Priory, as result of a visitation. The prior and canons were enjoined to be regular in their attendance at all the offices, night and day, to cease from strife and contentions, not to wander outside the precincts, to receive no money for the purchase of clothes or necessaries, and not to assign any or the church ornaments of their house to the churches appropriated to them. With regard to the care of the parish church of Blackmore, it was insisted that a fit priest should be at once presented to the bishop for saying mass at the canonical hours and otherwise ministering to the parishioners. This last order was neglected, and on 14th February 1310, the bishop peremptorily ordered compliance within ten days. On 6th April 1310, Nicholas, the Prior, and Walter de Chelmsford, one of the canons, appeared before the bishop in London and entered into a covenant with five of the parishioners of Blackmore, to present a parish vicar, under a penalty of 40/-.

The Priory was dissolved on 10th February 1525 be John Alen, agent of Cardinal Wolsey; its spiritualities being valued at £41.13.4, and its temporalities at £43.11.3 yearly. By inquisitions taken on 8th August and 20th November, it was found that there were at the priory at the time of the suppression a prior and three canons, who were transferred to other places, and that its possessions Included “the manors of Blackmore, Margaretting, Willingale, Bowells end Bromfeld". A detailed list of the debts of the house, amounting in all to £27.19.10, is preserved, and part of the inventory of the goods or the church. In this, Our Lady's aisle is said to be 40 ft. in length and St. Peter's aisle, 52 ft.

Exactly a year after the suppression, the priory was granted by Wolsey to his college at Oxford, and three years later it was transferred to hi a second foundation at Ipswich. By his forfeiture it came into the king's hands, and on 1st January 1532, it was granted to the abbot and convent of Waltham. This was in turn dissolved and it returned to the Crown, and was finally granted John Smyth Esq., one of the king’s auditors.

The seal of the priory (about the middle of the 13th century) was a pointed oval of yellow wax measuring about 2½ by 1½ inches, with the lower part broken, representing St. Laurence, under a canopy. The legend was: SIGILL • VENT . KEMORA.

In the lifetime of John Smyth, the people of Blackmore continued to worship in the Priory Church, but his son determined to pull down the church and use the materials to build Smyth Hall. The parishioners objected, claiming the nave as their own. Their claim was upheld and Sir Thomas Smyth had to close in the east end of the nave, but the chancel an all other buildings of the community had been demolished. It should be noted that a parish church stood on the site before the priory was established.

The church is not that one usually associated with a priory; it is a modest building, seeming more homely by reason of its dormer windows, to which reference is made later. The most noteworthy feature of Blackmore church is its tower, a detailed description of which is also given subsequently. This modest church, with its splendid tower, and the dormer windows, gives both a homely and stimulating effect, and, seen across the fields from all sides of the village, it is both distinctive and charming.

The Bull Inn, Blackmore (1960s)
The church is reached from the centre or the village by a lane, Church Street, which contains several old houses in a good state of repair. It also contains a very fine old inn, the Bull Inn, which was built late in the 15th or early in the 16th century, and was extended towards the south at a later date. The upper storey projects on the west front, and there is a break in roof levels at the junction or the extension with the original block. Inside the building, the roof at the north end has an original king-post truss. The interior of the inn has been modernised and is a most warm, comfortable and welcoming place for drink and good food.[1]

Adjoining the church to the north-west is a large red brick house known as "Jericho", which stands within the area occupied by the old priory, and in the garden of the house are some remains of the ancient buildings (see Exhibit B). Here Henry VIII kept one of his mistresses, and here was born his natural son, Robert Fitzroy. The king was a frequent visitor, and often, if he was enquired for at court, the answer was "He has gone to Jericho" - the phrase has of course lived on.

Blackmore church was originally nearly twice as long as it now is, extending beyond the present east wall. The conventual buildings stood on the south side of the church - see Exhibit B. The present building comprises chancel, nave, north and south aisles, west tower and north porch. It has had several restorations, the most recent in 1878, 1890, 1903 and 1907. It was originally a Norman structure, but underwent extensive alterations in the 13th century, and further change in the 14th and 15th centuries. The west end of the nave, and one bay on either side at the west end still, remain of the original building, and also a fragment on the north and south sides at the east end. The exterior of the south and east walls is not normally accessible, being in the garden of Jericho Priory, previously mentioned.

The general appearance of the church is unusual - one tiled roof covers the whole building. When it was a Norman church, there was undoubtedly a roof over the nave and two lean-to or flat roofs at a lower level over the aisles, but at the end of the 14th century a new roof was put over the whole building, at the same level from east to west, embracing nave and both aisles. There are two dormers of large dimensions on the north and three on the south side. The walls of the church are of flint, with dressings of clunch and brick. It was probably built on the foundations of the previous Norman building and some of the original structure is incorporated in the walls. This is mainly to be seen externally in the east wall. This wall is mainly of rubble, but portions of the original stone can be seen. It is heavily buttressed, with brick buttresses at the angles, and two stepped buttresses of rubble between them. Much of the north-east corner of the wall is built of brick. In the east wall on the outside are the remains of two round-headed arches, approximately opposite to the north and south aisles. In the east wail is a modern three-light Perpendicular window.

West Door, Blackmore
The west door was enclosed by the tower in the 15th century, and there was little use for the south door when the church was made parochial. Old papers record that a more modern door was made at the eastern end of the north aisle, but I can find no visible evidence of it, and it must have been walled in.

The north porch, coeval with the tower, and doorway, are now the only public entry to the church. The external porch has some old timbers, used in reconstruction early in this century, incorporated in the wall-plates and barge board. The doorway has a finely moulded arch and label of the Early English or Henry III period, with modern head-stops end restored moulded jambs.

The west front and one bay of the Norman church is left at the west end, and there is reason to suppose that the bay at the east end, of similar width, is partly of the same age, although the mouldings do not support this deduction. This Norman architecture is of the 12th century, and the west front is a pleasing composition. It was formerly external until the erection of the tower. There is a circular-headed doorway, into the tower, above which, on a line, are two hollow chamfered and round-headed windows, and higher up in a gable a round window, modern internally. The windows expand to a great width on the inside face of the wall, and are carefully finished. The whole front is of squared masonry and is a fine specimen of Norman workmanship. The doorway has three plain orders with a semi-circular head and a chamfered label; the jambs had each two free shafts and one worked on the inner order. The capitals are scalloped and have grooved and chamfered abaci. The free shafts have gone, and the jambs have been repaired in brick.

To the south of the doorway is a rough sinking in the wall, with a ragged cutting above like a fireplace and flue. It apparently dates from before the erection of the tower end I cannot ascertain what its nature was. To appreciate the attractiveness and interest of this Norman architecture it is essential to view it from the floor of the tower, although the door giving access to it from the nave is normally locked.

Unusual south view of
Blackmore Church bell tower
taken early 1970s
St. Laurence Church possesses, according to Dr. Pevsner, "one of the most impressive, if not the most impressive, of all the timber towers in England”.[2] An article in "Country Life" (9th May 1963) states "Perhaps the most impressive of all the timber towers in England is that of St. Laurence's Priory Church at Blackmore". A distinctive and unorthodox method of constructing timbered steeples is found in the south-eastern counties, especially in Essex, There they are commonly attached to a church of a more massive construction (stone, brick or rubble), sometimes opening into it, or built against the western facade, as is the case here at Blackmore. On plan, many timber steeples have a continuous aisle placed upon all four sides, as at Blackmore, Margaretting and Stock. They are all built with massive vertical posts set on great horizontal baulks timber, which form their sills. The vertical posts rise to the full height of the belfry itself, and are buttressed by similarly constructed outbuildings forming aisles to the north and south, as at Blackmore. These outbuildings have loan-to roofs, giving a three-tiered effect. The resemblance to a small, independent aisle church is increased by the presence of intermediate posts between the main verticals (see Exhibit D).

The Blackmore tower rises in three diminishing stages, each stage separated by a pent roof covered with tiles. On plan, the tower is 28 feet by 26½ feet, including the lean-to aisles, the lofty base combining the first two storeys, giving lightness and nobility to the interior. The exterior of each upper stage is framed up with boards fastened upon studs, with narrow strips of oak to cover the joints, these boards being vertical on the first storey and horizontal on the uppermost. The lowest, or ground-level stage, is half-timbered, with massive timber studs, the in-filling being covered with plaster. The studs were until fairly recently covered all over with plaster and were not therefore visible, and the appearance of the tower has been much improved by its removal. In the studs are a great number of what appear to be nail-holes, probably caused by the framework nailed to the studs to a backing for the plaster, and which were ripped out when the plaster was taken away. Also clearly visible externally are the holes drilled out to receive the large wooden dowels, frequently used for fastening the massive members, and often the ends of the dowels themselves can be seen.

The lowest pent roof, covering three sides of the circulating aisle, has deep projecting eaves which are supported upon angle struts having curved brackets.

The foundations of the tower are of rubble, upon which are placed enormous horizontal baulks of timber 19 inches thick, forming the sills to the main uprights of the framing. These are four massive posts, one at each corner, enclosing a square of 15 feet 8 inches across which is also the size of the belfry. Within, the north and south aisles are divided into four bays, the central two with arched heads. Above are two tiers of cross-bracing; the outer bays have angle struts supporting the framework. From east to west, single arches are built up of naturally curved struts, reaching to the level of the first tier of cross bracing at the sides; the moulded edges of the arches are continued to the ground upon pilasters with moulded bases. Above the arches is a single tier of cross-bracing, matching the upper tier of the sides. The top stages are also cress-braced (see Exhibits D and E). The belfry is completed by a shingled collared spire combined with a narrow spirelet, capped with a leaden terminal of trumpet shape, through which passes the rod of the weather-vane. Apart from the shingles on the steeple, all the timbers in the tower are entirely of local oak, for when it was built much of Essex was forest, and oaks abounded, In the west wall of the tower is a 15th century window of four cinquefoiled lights with vertical tracery in a square head, all of wood. In the bell-chamber are four two-light louvres, one in each face. The belfry is about 120 feet high, and a sectional elevation of the timber structure is seen in Exhibit C. The joints incorporated in the timber- work include a form of the mitre, not often met with. Viewed from inside the tower it is a most elaborate and impressive example of the carpenter's art, and it gives an impression of great strength.

The tower houses a carillon of five bells, the largest of which, the tenor, weighs half a ton. The details are:-
No.1 - 29 inches, weight 5 cwt., was cast in 1657. Incised "Miles Graye made me 1657”. It was recast by Mears end Stainbank in 1914.
No.2 - 31 inches, weight 6 cwt., same date and incision.
No.3 - 33 inches, weight 6½ cwt., incised “John Hybberd, Miles Graye made me 1648”
No.4 - 36 inches, weight 8 cwt., incised "Thomas Lester of London made me", and again, below, "John Staples, Ch. Warden, 1752".
No.5 - 41 inches, weight 10 cwt. 38 lbs., incised  "Stephen Smith Esquire. Miles Graye made me 1647”, and on the waist "Great Lawrence recast 1901 Laus Deo”. It was recast by Mears and Stainbank.

"Bell Rope Meadow” was willed to the church centuries ago, that the rent should provide new bell ropes when required.

The Nave, Blackmore Church
The nave (87 feet by 20 feet) of the priory church forms the chancel and nave of the present church. The east wall internally is splayed back to show part of the 14th century octagonal responds of a former transverse arch; they have moulded capitals and are tapered back to a point about 6 feet above the floor. In the north wall are six arches; the easternmost is of early 16th century work, four-centred and of three chamfered orders with semi-octagonal responds, of which the eastern has a moulded capital and base, and the western base is cut away; the arch is cemented, but is probably of brick, and was kept low to admit an upper floor over the east bay of the north aisle. The second, third, fourth and fifth arches are of the 14th century, rebuilt. The moulded two-centred arches have moulded labels with shield stops, some modern, and spring from columns each with four attached shafts with moulded capitals and bases. The responds have attached half-columns. The sixth arch is of mid-12th century date, semi-circular and of one square order; the square pier has at each angle an attached shaft with scalloped or water-leaf capital and moulded impost; the respond of the fifth arch is built against this pier; the west respond is similar to half a square pier; above the east arch of the arcade is a square-headed window opening now blocked on the south side; it must formerly have opened into the upper floor in the north aisle. East of the head of the arch, and cut away for about a third of its width by the east wall, is a blocked 12th century window with moulded splays and semi-circular rear arch; it is at a lower level than the original clerestory. Above the west respond of the first arch are remains of the west jamb or the original clerestory window, and below it, part of the weathering to the original aisle roof. Above the fifth pier, over the Norman arch, is an original clerestory window of a single round light, now opening into the north aisle, but with the weathering to the original aisle roof below it. Unfortunately the central arches of the north aisle arcade at some time had "splayed over" to the north for about 13 inches, and they were therefore rebuilt in 1893. The greatest care was taken, each stone being marked, and it was eventually rebuilt in the original order, and the arcade effectively strengthened.

The south arcade is of six bays, the easternmost arch is uniform with the corresponding arch on the north. Above the arch to the east is part of a blocked window corresponding to that on the north side, but with a short length of string-course running west from it. Centrally above the arch is a wide square-headed opening, with a wooden frame and head. The second to the fifth bays of the arcade have two-centred arches of three chamfered orders and octagonal piers are semi-octagonal responds with moulded capitals and bases. The work is rough of mid-16th century Tudor type, and the piers and probably the arches are of brick. The sixth bay is original 12th century and is uniform with the corresponding bay on the north side, except that all the attached shafts have scalloped capitals with impost mouldings repaired in cement. over the sixth (Norman) arch is an original clerestory window, corresponding to that on the north sides, overlooking the modern vestry which has been shut off for privacy at the west end of the south aisle.[3]

The north aisle (7½ feet wide) has in its vast wall part of an arch, probably of the 13th century, dying into the modern buttress; the rest of the arch has been destroyed and the filling is more modern. The north wall east of the porch is of much later work than the remainder west of the porch. The two gabled dormers on the north side of the church are said by some authorities to be 16th century work and by others as probably belonging to the 17th or 18th century. They are of an interesting character and have been carefully incorporated with the older wall of the church. In the north wall are five Perpendicular windows. The easternmost is a single early 16th century light, with a four-centred head restored externally; the second is modern, as is the third, except for the head and tracery of the western light and the internal head of both lights, which are of the 14th century, re-set.

Both second and third are of two cinquefoiled ogee lights with tracery, in squared heads; the fourth window is similar to the third, and is of the 14th century, re-set with some modern stone-work. The fifth window is similar but with a moulded label a much weathered. Between the fourth and fifth windows is the North door, previously described. East of the porch, and projecting on modern buttresses are the two gabled dormers, of wood and plaster, each of three lights with an oval light above. These dormers are carried by a corbel-like arrangement of mouldings over the aisle windows, supported by buttresses of stone and rubble. Whilst the dormers themselves give a somewhat strange and picturesque effect to the church viewed as a whole, the general appearance of the north wall is not very attractive, in my opinion, and the buttresses are out of keeping with the character of to church.

The south aisle (7½ feet wide) has in the east wall a modern window incorporating some old stones, end set in the blocking of a 13th century two-centred archway with a rounded label on the west side; the south wall of In- aisle is splayed back to allow or the width of the archway. The south wall is probably of mid-16th century date except at the east end, where it may be 13th century. Near the east end is the 13th century doorway from the cloister, now blocked up. Externally part of the two-centred moulded arch is visible, and internally the whole arch and the segmental-pointed and shouldered rear-arch with moulded label, can clearly be seen. Above the door head internally is the carved figure of a beast, with the head broken off. Some have suggested that it may be intended to be a boar, which was sometimes used as a crest by the de Vere family, who at one time held the advowson of the church. A more likely possibility, it has been suggested, is that the carving represents a salamander – a mythical creature which it was believed it was impossible to destroy by fire, and which was often carved at the entrances to churches in the porch or over the doorway to protect the building from fire. Further west the three modern windows, each of two lights, square-headed, with stone jambs and cusped tracery. The easternmost one is difficult to see internally, because it is hidden by the organ, which stands in front of it. Between the two western windows is the 18th century south doorway, probably representing-a former doorway from the cloisters.

In the south wall are three dormers, each of three lights with square heads under small gables. They spring from and are incorporated in the roof, and are not carried on corbels and buttresses as are the two dormers on the north side. At the west end of the south wall can be seen a small part of the original wall, with wooden framing. There is one brick buttress on the south wall, to the east of the westernmost window.

The south wall externally has a far more pleasing appearance than the north wall; the dormers are smaller and less obtrusive without the ugly buttresses, and the whole facade has a more mellow and uniform appearance.

The font, of Purbeck marble, is a plain octagon measuring 2 feet 7 inches across and three feet in height. It is of the 14th or 15th century, and is raised upon two Purbeck marble steps, occupying its original position in the centre of the nave, and westward of the principal entrance. Singularly enough, it does net stand square within the building - the alternate angles of the font are placed to the cardinal points of the building. It is quite plain, but there are some indications that it may at one time have had some form of decoration; it is too worn to be sure of this.

The internal roof of the church is of timber, the boarding for the most part running longitudinally from east to west. There are timber ribs with carved bosses at intervals where the ribs intersect with the central ridge-timber. An interesting discovery was made at the end of the last century - - when extensive repairs were made. It was noticed that the shields at the intersections of the rib vaultings were painted with heraldic devices. After removal and cleaning it was found that four hundred years of grime had not entirely destroyed their original colours. An expert in heraldry examined them and was able to date most of the families or persons whose devices they were. John of Gaunt's shield is there and he died in 1399. The shield of Robert de Braybrook, Bishop of London from 1381 - 1400, is also there, and the indications are that the roof was being constructed in the last decade of the 14th century. Sixteen of the shields were identified and among the other as recorded are those of Robert de Vere, Fitzwalter and Ufford. Some of the shields have been repainted and replaced on the roof.

The screen between the nave and chancel is modern, of oak, the vertical panels being surmounted by cusped ogee-arched tracery.[4]

The interior walls of the church are covered with plaster and have no special interest, beyond what has been already recorded.

All the painted window glass is modern, of the 20th century, but of good class. In 1901 memorial windows to Henry John Barratt and Dr. J. R. White were erected in the north wall. The east window was given by an anonymous donor. The window at the west end of the south wall, bearing the inscription "To the greater glory of God, end in memory of the 800th year of the existence of this church" was put in at the same time as the lych gate was built. There had been older painted glass in the church but all that remains is one panel representing the martyrdom of St. Laurence, originally in one of the north wall dormers.

In the south aisle, at the east end, Is an alabaster tomb which bears the recumbent figures of Sir Thomas Smythe and his second wife - Margaret. They lived in the parish at Smythes Hall, an ancient and picturesque building in which was some very fine painted glass windows, supposed to have been taken out of the old priory. Smythes Hall was pulled down in 1844. The date of the tomb is 1594. The heads of the effigies are on a rolled up mat. The tomb-chest, with decorated pillasters, is not original, and the tomb has suffered from neglect and possibly deliberate defacement, but it has been recently restored.

There are some interesting slabs in the floor of the chancel. In the middle, beneath the carpet (and protected by it) is the eldest one. It belongs to the end of the 13th or beginning of the 14th century. There is the matrix of a “cross flory" and round the edge come carved letters, now indecipherable. It is recorded that the inscription once read "To the memory of the just prior, Thomas de Vere". He might have been the prior responsible for planning the enlargement of the church, but why the 'just' prior?

In front of the chancel steps is another slab, with the filled in matrix of a brass figure - a civilian of the mid-15th century in a fur-trimmed gown. The description and the lower half of the figure is missing. The upper part of the brass figure has been removed, to avoid damage by passing feet, and it is intended mount it on a wall at some future date. There are several stone floor-slabs at the east end commemorating various members of the Smyth family. They are all carved with the Smyth achievement of arms - "a shield argent a cross gules between four peacocks close, azure; crest, a peacock's head erased azure, ducally gorged or”. Some of the carvings on the slabs are beautifully done, whilst others are of quite crude workmanship. Another interesting slob, on the north side near the communion rail, commemorates Simon Lynch, Rector of Runwell and Curate of Blackmore about 1660, "who for fearing God and the King was sequestered, prosecuted and persecuted to the day of his death - by Gog and Magog”. I understand that the reference to "Gag and Magog" is a disguised allusion to Cromwell and the Commonwealth, in biblical terminology.

There is a further curiosity in Blackmore church – a cresset stone believed to be the only one in Essex. It is a curiously shaped stone, grey in colour, with five cup-like depressions in it. These were filled with oil or tallow and a lighted wick floated in each, giving a somewhat meagre and smokey light. Such stones were usually placed in a passage, or near a doorway, and this one may have lighted the canons on the way to chapel. It is now kept in a box with a glass lid, in the tower, and access to the latter is necessary to see it.[5]

The church registers date back to 1602; they should date back to 1538, and it seems therefore that one is missing.

The list of Priors, which is not complete, dates from 1204, when King John was reigning. The list we have reads:-
Richard – occurs 1204
William – occurs 1234, 1240, 1244
John – occurs 1248, 1253, 1268
Nicholas – occurs 1310
James – occurs 1351
Walter Bumsted – died 1385
Stephen atte Broke – elected 1385, died 1406
John Dawdre – elected 1406
William – occurs 1437
John Canone – resigned 1445
Thomas Wold – occurs 1453, 1456
Robert – occurs 1458
John Webbe – resigned 1476
Thomas Basset – collated 1476
Thomas Colyns – died 1513
Thomas Goodwyn – collated 1513, the last Prior

The church today is just a small village church, but it has had a long and varied history, and it has many features of particular interest. The tower is quite outstanding, but in order to appreciate it fully it is essential to view it from inside. Anyone approaching Blackmore by the Ingatestone road has a fine view of the church,[6] beyond the grounds of Jericho Priory, and it will be difficult for anyone interested in old buildings to resist the temptation to go up to it and know it better.

Acknowledgments: I am grateful to the following sources, inter alia, for information concerning Blackmore Church: a file of papers concerning the Church kindly lent to me by the Vicar, the Rev. Montague H. Knott, a Short History of the Church compiled be Constance H. Simmons, a Short History compiled in 1945 by the then Vicar, an article in 'Country Life" dated 9th May 1963, the Victoria History of the County of Essex (Vol.2) and “Timber Building in England" by Fred H. Crossley.

List of Exhibits:-
.(A) Ground plan of St. Laurence Church.
(B) Ground plan showing an imaginative reconstruction of the original Priory and Church.
(C) The Bell Tower end sectional elevation.
(D) Ground plan of the Bell Tower
(3) An impression of the timber of the S.W. corner of the Bell Tower.
(F) Photograph of the timber tower from the west.

[Unknown author]
March 1974

[1] Sadly The Bull Inn closed in 2010.
[2] It was tree-ring dated in 2004, and a date of construction of 1400 established.
[3] Since 1990 the site of a kitchen.  The Vestry was moved to the former Lady Chapel in the south west corner of the church in 1987.
[4] The screen was repositioned in 1987.
[5] This now stands in the south east corner of the church by the cloister doorway.
[6] Unfortunately, now screened by evergreen trees.