This is a copy of an article published in 1916 by Harry Gill in the “Transactions of the Thoroton Society” (reproduced with permission).
The story of the architecture of the mother church of the ancient town of Nottingham is no less charming than the story of its antiquity and associations.
From its proud position on the edge of the sandstone cliff it still dominates the older parts of the town, and fills the beholder with reverence and admiration. The skill of the mediaeval craftsmen who conceived and executed this fine example of “the Indian summer of Gothic architecture” calls for more than passing notice; for whether we regard it with a critical eye and make comparison between its component parts — which, although the work of more than one generation of craftsmen are sufficiently similar to be harmonious, while being sufficiently diverse to excite interest — or whether we take a general view of the composition as a whole; we shall surely derive nothing but pleasure and satisfaction.
And especially must this have been so, nearly four centuries ago, when the sacred pile, the acropolis as it then was of the ancient town, was pronounced by an itinerant critic to be “excellente [new] and unyforme yn worke and so maine faire wyndows yn itt yt no artificer can imagine to get more.” (Leland, 1534).
A chronological description of the architecture of the present edifice is now rendered difficult, not only by the paucity of records, but even more so by the frequent renewals of masonry without respect to the old landmarks.
The tracery throughout the whole range of clerestory lights was entirely replaced in 1843, when a new roof was put upon the nave, the south porch and the aisle windows have been patched again and again with new stone, and even in some cases with Roman cement, the large window at the end of the north transept became a plain “Puritan” window for a time by the removal of all the tracery and cusps, and the external wall faces have been cased and recased until no reliable theory can be based on isolated details.
But if indeed the fabric generally retains the semblance of its pristine look, its stones may still be read like the pages of a book.
One feature, happily, still remains unaltered, and this may possibly supply a key to the whole fabric. A huge gargoyle—the only one on the “body” of the church—projects from the parapet of the south clerestory, between the second and third bays from the crossing. The reason for this is not far to seek, for it occurs at a point where there is a break of three inches in the line of the cornice, and a perceptible change in the contour of the moulding. It is therefore obvious that it was inserted to mask the junction between the work of two distinct periods, for eastward of the gargoyle the work is executed in Gedling stone, and westward of it Gedling stone is used below the line of racking, magnesian limestone above it.
This then will be a starting point for our inquiry.
It is clear to the student of architecture that the earlier work is all to be found on the eastward side of the gargoyle; that a portion of the south aisle including the porch, the eastern bay of the north aisle including the chantry-house doorway, the lower portion of the transept walls including the canopied tomb on the south side, and the two stairway turrets, are contemporaneous, while their details—the panelling in the gables and buttresses and the predominance of foliated ogival arches—are eloquent of the closing years of the 14th century.
A foolish theory has been promulgated that the south porch was brought here from the Priory of Lenton on the dissolution of the monastery in 1538. This idea probably arose from the fact that among the delicately carved ornaments in the hollow of the cornice, there are two demi-angels clothed in albs, each holding a shield, in the manner in which the arms of the Priory were wont to be displayed; but whether they ever held the blazon or not it is now impossible to determine, (quarterly or and azure over all a cross calvary sable fimbriated of the first). This device occurs again on the western portal [rebuilt in 1843] and is also found on many other churches that were under the patronage of the Convent, [Beeston for instance]. In addition to the angels with shields, the carvings comprise “four-leaf” flowers, rosettes, lion’s faces, and grotesque masks of late Decorated type. The lion’s faces especially are vigorously carved. This was a favourite subject, often used as a “powdering” during the reign of Richard II. It was also used for the attribute of St. Mark, or St. Jerome, or for the Zodiacal sign governing the month of July.
The reason for the anomalous position of the south porch will be referred to later. Thoroton and other writers have described the ancient glass in the south aisle as containing the arms of Samon, Archbishops Arundel and Nevill, and King Richard II. This glass has all been destroyed, presumably when the new tracery was made in 1761; it is mentioned here as a further proof that the earlier portion of the existing work was executed during the reign of Richard II.; for if the canopied tomb in the south transept is the memorial of John Samon the elder, a former Mayor of Nottingham in 1361 and onwards, who died c.1395, or of his son, whom Thoroton styles John Samon “the Benefactor of St. Mary’s,” who died in 1416 (and there is no incongruity in suggesting that the tomb might have been set up during the lifetime of either of them), then it follows that all the earlier work, which corresponds with the tomb in material, in details, and in the mode of working, is part of one and the same scheme.
A paragraph in the Borough Records, under date October 1393 [Vol. 1. p. 252] seems to imply, that the west front of this scheme for a church only four bays in length, was completed, or at any rate nearing completion, in “the 16th year of the reign of King Richard the Second,” when John Painter of Nottingham claimed a sum of two shillings of silver “pro pictura unius bell’ crucifixi super corneram Ecclesiae Beatse Marise villae Notyngham.”
This sentence has unfortunately been translated “for the painting of a bell of the cross, &c., &c.,” which does not convey any intelligible meaning, whereas a better translation would have been “for the painting of a handsome rood (or crucifix) over the corner [stone] of the church of Blessed Mary, &c.” This is intelligible, as an external crucifix is known to have been set up, near to the entrance of other mediaeval churches. For instance, there is a life-size sculptured crucifix on the external western wall of the south transept of Romsey Abbey, near to the nun’s door. This is early Norman work, and was probably taken from the interior of the nave.
The scheme thus “newly begun with solemn, wondrous and manifold sumptuous work,” was not allowed to stop on account of the death of a benefactor. The Indulgence of 1401, quoted in extenso by the Rev. A. Du Boulay Hill in the previous paper, probably caused money to flow in to such an extent, as to warrant the enlargement of the original scheme to a church of six bays in length, instead of four. The Wills1 of prominent citizens who died early in the 15th century shew that considerable sums of money were left for this purpose.
While the old west front was yet standing, the aisles were extended westward by two bays, and a new west front was erected. The earlier south porch would consequently be the means of entrance during the period of enlargement, and it was ultimately allowed to remain as we see it to-day, incorporated in the new works, despite its unusual position in regard to the extended nave. A glance at the diagram plan will make the position clear.
Blackner in his History tells us that the whole of this west front was destroyed and replaced by a new front of classical design in 1726; this in turn was removed in 1843, when an attempt was made to reproduce, the original design; and this is why the present western portal, the central feature in a 15th century design, is noticeable for its 14th century detail.
It is not safe to attach too much importance to old engravings, but it is not without interest to notice, in passing, that in the present west front as reconstructed (1843-8), the central window of twelve lights, i.e., of three divisions of four lights each, is flanked by two windows in the west end of each aisle, as was the case in the classical front of 1726 which it replaced; whereas Thoroton’s view of the 15th century west front shews but one. Keeping in mind the predominance of even numbers throughout the design, I think the view unreliable on this point.
Extracts from the Borough Records [quoted in the previous paper] shew that building operations were in progress between 1386—when a Commission of Inquiry, which had assembled on the morning of October ist, had to adjourn at noon to the conventual church of the Grey Friars in Broad Marsh, “for the better expedition of business”—and 1517, by which time the Rood, the last item of the furnishing, was completed. The alleged theft of a bell-clapper by the sub-clerk, referred to under date 1395, seems to imply that at that time the steeple had been taken down as a preliminary to reconstruction and enlargement. Whether this was a central tower, or whether it was only a small western tower, as some authorities maintain, it would be equally necessary to remove it before the work of extension could proceed.
I think the foundations prove that it was a central tower, and seeing that a larger tower was in contemplation, a better disposition at the west end would have been to have finished the aisles with well-buttressed, twin towers; as the subsequent failure of the pier arcades to resist the thrust of the arches, which carry the huge weight of the present central tower, was mainly due to lack of abutment at this point.
That the present fabric was erected piecemeal—the old work being taken down as the new work proceeded—is manifest from the wording of the Indulgence, from the irregularities in the setting out of the plan, and from the successive changes in the design. For instance, the buttresses on the north side are not exactly opposite to the buttresses on the south side, and neither group is actually in line with the piers; as surely would have been the case, had all the work been set out at one and the same time.
Again, the two westernmost windows of the north aisle correspond with the windows of the south aisle, in so far as their width and the outer mouldings and arches are concerned, but they differ altogether in their tracery; for the latter have only three lights, while the former and also all subsequent windows have four lights; i.e., two pairs of lights with a heavy central mullion between each pair.
Another change is noticeable in the four windows of the north aisle eastward of the last named; for while these have the same pattern of four-light tracery, the bold roll of the hood-moulding—which in the earlier windows on the south side is continued down the jambs of each window to the base-course, and in the two westernmost windows of the north aisle, down the central mullion only—is here stopped at springing level with grotesque carvings, after the manner of the later work in the interior of the church; and further, the roll on the central mullion of the earlier windows has here given place to a double chamfer; and additional members are also introduced into the section of the tracery bars. A similar treatment is carried out in the transepts. It will thus be seen, that three succeeding types of window treatment were employed:
(1) South Aisle. Three-light windows with intersecting tracery, feathered and cusped. [I am aware that these tracery heads, and especially the transoms, may be an innovation introduced when the south aisle was refaced with Donington stone in 1761]. A peculiarity in the featherings of the upper lights—which is even more pronounced in the windows of the south aisle of St. Peter’s church, evidently supplied from the same yard and put in only a few years later—stamps them as local “18th century Gothic.” The fact of three lights being employed, when all the rest of the tracery in the 15th century church is based upon a four-light division, leads me to think that the triple scheme probably follows the lines of the original tracery, which would be of “intersecting” type.
(2) North Aisle. Four-light windows with heavy mullions in the centre but no transoms. The tracery is a development of three-light “intersecting” tracery to suit a window of four lights in two main divisions. The arches which spring from the central mullions follow the same sweep as the enclosing arches, leaving a pointed and cusped multifoil in the centre. Vertical bars rise from the apex of each sub-arch in the side lights, and thus form an elongated cusped opening in the centre of each division.
A similar treatment is adopted for the windows in the side walls of the transepts, with the addition of a transom.
The end windows of the transepts are made up in three sections, having four similar lights in each section, the whole divided by transoms into four equal heights.
(3) Clerestory. Four-light windows set in pairs, after the manner of the north aisle, but here the “Perpendicular” character of the tracery is more pronounced, and the acutely pointed enclosing arches are almost straight-sided.
Again, there are three types of buttresses. Those on the south side of the aisle and the easternmost buttress on the north side are richly panelled on the face, but here again, the value of the work as an indication of date is destroyed; for the south wall was recased with Derbyshire stone in 1817.
The buttresses on the south side are wider and deeper than those on the north side, which are practically an enlarged copy of the slender buttresses on the south porch; while the buttresses to the transepts are a combination of both, being similar in section to those of the north aisle, and even more elaborately panelled than those of the south aisle; and further, all the weatherings and drips were altered in section, as the work advanced. (See sketch).
Externally and internally, a heavy horizontal moulding runs beneath the window cills all round the church, but not at the same level, nor is it of the same section throughout. Externally, the cills on the north side are higher than the cills on the south side, and there is consequently a jump of nearly 2ft. in the level of the external moulding. Nevertheless, the internal moulding is made to run level all round the body of the church. Where the difference between the external and internal level occurs, it is ingeniously screened by masonry panels, seen only from the interior in the lower panes of the windows on the north and west sides. Nowhere (except in the recent addition) does this moulding pass round the buttresses, but is “cut in” between them.
The bold roll moulding, which surrounds the windows within, is brought down as a shaft from the cill-moulding to the bench table or plinth, where it is finished with a moulded base; thus forming a series of panels beneath the windows. Exception to this rule is made only in the transepts, where the roll-moulding is stopped at cill level for the accommodation of the chantry altars which once stood against the eastern wall. No trace of sedilia, piscinas, or aumbries is left to indicate the position of the altars. A mutilated carving of a winged seraph is still in situ in the south transept. This design may have surmounted a reredos; and a fragment of sculptured alabaster of 14th century work, found face downwards beneath the chancel floor in 1845 and now built into the south wall of the morning chapel, is also believed to be a portion of a reredos.
The bench table to the aisle walls is partly paved with fragments of incised grave-covers from the floor of the 14th century church. There appears to be only one such stone on the south side, while on the north side, and especially in the eastward four bays, they are numerous. This tends to confirm the suggestion that this portion of the north wall was not rebuilt until after the western extension was completed, when the floor-stones would be removed, before the demolition of the old west front took place.
Two doorways, at the east end of the aisles, one on either side, which gave access to the turret stairs, and the doorways, leading on to the rood-loft above, are still visible although now blocked up with masonry. The north turret has been recently used as a chimney. The south turret is entered from the outside through a post-Reformation doorway, which has been cut through the masonry of the old wall. The 14th century pyramidal stone roofs have been taken off, and re-set at a higher level to suit later additions.
When the outer shell of nave and transepts was finished, the new pier-arcades would be put in hand: first the tower piers and the north arcade; then two eastern bays on the south side; when the work appears to have been arrested for a time, but perhaps only while the old work was being cleared away. Upon resumption, I think the start was made at the west end; for not only do these four arches differ from all others by having a sunk panel with trefoil head in the spandril, but a radical change was made in the contour of the moulding of the external cornice beneath the parapet; and so marked was this change, that when the point of junction was reached it was found necessary to cloak the difference in some way, and thus the pseudo-gargoyle before referred to was introduced.
It is only by bringing these details together, as it were, that a true estimation can be obtained; for although the differences are significant to the student of architecture, they are liable to be overlooked by a casual observer.
Thus the nave and transepts were brought to completion with an impressiveness which strikes the beholder. The sense of spaciousness and uniformity obtained is a tribute to the skill and devotion of the 15th century builders, in adapting all their work to the architectural idea, with which the scheme was commenced; while a richness of effect is produced by panelling the buttresses and the parapets of nave and transepts, in harmony with the south porch and the Founder’s tomb. Another somewhat unusual feature, which adds to the pleasing appearance both without and within, is a number of carved bosses which enrich the apices of the arch mouldings. These originated in the porch, and were continued throughout the church; but now they are only intermittent — probably on account of the frequent “reparacions.” Externally, they appear only on the side windows of the north transept; internally, in both transepts, nave, and aisles.
The chancel, built of Gedling stone, would next be taken in hand by the Prior and Convent of Lenton. If we may rely upon the rebuilt tower-piers being a faithful reproduction of the original work, it was obviously the intention to carry out the fenestration adopted in nave and transepts, in the chancel also; but the slender angle shafts on the chancel side, which should have received the hood-moulding of the first window in the chancel, are now disconnected and purposeless.
Whether the original idea was carried out and the present arrangement is the result of later alterations and reparations, or whether the work undertaken by the patrons was done in a grudging spirit and in the cheapest way, we may never be able to determine. I am inclined to think that the chancel walls were built as they now stand, with four windows on the south side, and three windows and a wide blank space on the north side. As the blank is wider than one window, it caused the spacing to be unequal and the windows not exactly opposite to each other.
There is no clerestory, and the wide windows are very much enlarged editions of the window’s in the north aisle, divided by transoms into three heights, while the great east window is made up with nine lights—two fours and a central light—and four transoms. While there is similarity in the tracery, mouldings, and buttresses, the design of the whole looks poor and spiritless in contrast with the nave and transepts; so much so, that some writers have been led to say that the chancel was not built until well on in the Elizabethan era, when Gothic architecture was decadent. But this could not have been the case, as the tower, which if we may judge by its architecture, was completed during the early years of the reign of Henry VII. (1485-1509) could not have been carried up to its full height, until the chancel walls were built so as to form abutment for its arches. The walls of the tower are 4ft. in average thickness, the square of it is 30ft. within walls, and the height from floor to battlements is 115ft. Even with the chancel walls as a stay in one direction, the effect of the thrust of such an enormous weight on the tower-arches is apparent by the crushed and distorted eastern wall of the transepts, and by the inclination of the piers in the nave-arcades by more than 3in. to westward; and this, despite the fact that a strong “relieving” or “discharging” arch was formed in each face of the tower just above the line of the roofs, with the idea of reducing the thrust and throwing the weight direct on to the four enormous tower-piers, which are no less than 7½ft. in diameter.
We have no means of telling when the weakness first began to be manifest; but if the fan-tracery vaulting above the crossing was ever actually executed in stone, it would be the last work to be undertaken; and the settlement and censequent fall of the vaulting may have occurred so soon as the props and centreing were removed.
It is quite clear, from the projecting springer stones [tas-de-charge] which still remain in situ, that a stone vault was contemplated; but whether this intention was left unrealized, or being realized, met with early disaster, is one of the questions we are not able to solve with satisfaction. The present pseudo-vaulting was executed in stucco, supported on oak timbering, in 1811-12.
The effectiveness of the tower, when viewed from within, is minimized by the fact that it is not a lantern, for the fan-tracery vault comes below the window cills, and thus excludes the admission of any light; but when seen from outside, the outline and proportions are very pleasing. A large louvred light in each face of the lower stage is identical in design with the windows in the north aisle, and the details generally are in accord with the later work in other parts of the church. The upper stage has four lights in each face; the central pairs only being louvred, and the flanking pairs “blind” with masonry. The treatment of the upper stage and the battlement follows very closely on the lines of the upper stage of the central tower at Melton Mowbray, which is known to have been added during the reign of Henry VII.
The lower lights on the east and west faces were shortened, and the string mouldings were uplifted in the centre, so as to form panels for the admission of two dials of a clock made by Thomas Hardy of Nottingham in 1807. A hundred years previously, John Rowe of Epperstone, a well-known maker of church clocks, had made a clock for the church and fixed it in the large window of the south transept; this was taken down and removed to the church at Staunton in the vale of Belvoir.
It may be of interest to note with regard to the present clock dials, that the western one is covered with lead, and the eastern one is made of mahogany.
The completion of the tower was the crowning act in the constructional work of the 15th century, but the beautifying and furnishing of the interior would necessarily occupy attention for some time thereafter. The screen and rood-loft, which stretched across nave and aisles to the westward of the tower-piers, would probably be the last items in the programme. A bequest for the images on the great rood—presumably of St. Mary and St. John—was made in 1512; and a further bequest was made in 1517 for painting the rood.
But alas! the pristine splendour of this great church was doomed to be of but short duration. If local historians may be relied upon, the “great pillage,” which followed the Reformation, was preceded by a terrible storm which caused the upper part of the tower to fall on to the chancel; but whether this disaster did actually occur or not, it is now difficult to determine.
Stowe’s Chronicles contain an exaggerated account of a phenomenal tempest, which wrought much destruction in the vicinity in this first year of Queen Mary (7th July, 1558). Deering and other writers mention the storm, but as the Borough Records, so far as they are accessible to us, are silent on the point, and as the church registers do not go beyond 1556, we have no authorized means of confirmation. One writer further says that the same storm blew down the wooden spire on the central tower at Lincoln; but as this latter disaster was known to occur in 1548 — i.e., ten years earlier—there is reason for thinking that the chroniclers may have fallen into error, and confounded the story of 1558 with an event which happened in 1185; when an earlier church, on the same site as this, was damaged by an earthquake that also “cleft the Minster at Lincoln from top to bottom.” [Roger of Hoveden].
Two statements, however, which quickly followed each other, seem to lend some colour to the later tradition. On the one hand, we have Leland’s assurance of 1534 that the church was then “excellent and uniform in work”; while only a quarter of a century later, shortly after the Act of Uniformity had been passed, we have a Report by the Queen’s Commissioners of the Northern Provinces, under date 22 August 1559, which says: “the Charncell is in gret decaye and the wyndowes unglased.” It should be borne in mind with regard to this latter statement, that the Reformation had brought about great changes, and many chancels were in a grievous state of neglect, in consequence of the dissolution of the monastic bodies who formerly had them in their charge. For instance, the same Report goes on to say of the churches in the adjoining parishes:—
“Notingham Sayncte Peters. The Chauncell ys in sore decaye.
Sayncte Nycolas. The personage and chauncell is far out of reparations.”
Stretton accepted the fall of the tower as an historical fact, but he is somewhat ambiguous; for in his Notes (p. 133) he incidentally mentions the painting of St. Christopher on the north wall, “supposed to be done after the repair of the chancel, which had been beaten down, together with the groined ceiling of the steeple, by the fall of the tower at some former period.”
It is interesting to note, by the way, that very faint traces of this painting of St. Christopher lingered on until within the memory of persons still living. It occupied the space on the north wall of the chancel above the door leading into the vestry. It was partly hidden by the King’s Arms put up in the reign of Charles the First, and subsequently completely hidden and destroyed by the organ-case and swell-box, when the organ was set up in the chancel in 1872.
The mediaeval custom was to place a picture of St. Christopher on the north wall of the nave opposite to the south door, but the only suitable wall space in this church free from windows or panelling was on the north wall of the chancel. This space, which is wider than would be accounted for by the omission of one window, was left for the accommodation of the vestry beyond; but whether the painting was pre-Reformation, or post-Reformation in origin, has not been definitely determined.
The whole question of the chancel is rendered difficult by the fact that, through one cause or another, the walls have been in part rebuilt or refaced, again and again, until all the ancient landmarks are gone, the memorials of the dead are destroyed or dispersed, and the ancient piscina and sedilia are demolished or hidden from view.
So far as the work which fell to the parishioners in rebuilding the nave and transepts is concerned, it is a fair assumption that the canopy of the tomb in the south transept is a silent witness to the commencement, as the canopy of the tomb in the north transept is to its completion.
It is clear, that the former canopy is in the style of architecture which prevailed during the reign of Richard II. (I377-I399), and that it was built as an integral part of the transept wall; while it is equally clear, from the changes in the contour of the mouldings, and the advent of the “Yorkist rose” in the tracery behind the niches, now tenantless, that the later canopy is in the style which prevailed during the reign of Edward IV. (1461-1483), and that it was not set up until after the transept wall was built, since the projecting mouldings had to be cut away to receive it.
Ever since Edward of York proclaimed himself King at Nottingham, the banner of the White Rose had waved above the castle walls, and both he, and his brother and successor, Richard III., who, in spite of his villainy was ever a patron and lover of art and architecture, had a great liking for the town. It is but natural, therefore, that the cognizance of the Yorkists should be found in a church of which they were presumably very fond.
If we accept the oft quoted statement of an unknown visitor in 1643, who noted “two faire monuments of white marble, one whereof was Salmon’s and the other Thurland’s,” we thus get an approximation to the time occupied in the erection of the “body” of the church; for John Samon the elder, who was four times Mayor of Nottingham, died c. 1395, and Thomas Thurland, a benefactor of the Gild of Holy Trinity, who was nine times Mayor and four times M.P. for Nottingham, died 1473-4.
When speakiug of these transeptal tombs, it should be kept steadfastly in mind, that it is only the canopied recesses that are referred to; for while the effigy, which now lies on the floor beneath the canopy in the south transept, may be, and very probably is, an integral part of the Samon tomb, though in a degraded position, it is quite clear, that neither the Purbeck marble slab, nor the alabaster frontal beneath the canopy in the north transept has any connection with the Thurland tomb. My impression is, that the slab is the “mensa” of the altar-tomb of the founder of the chantry of St. Lawrence, William de Amiens [Amyas], formerly known as William-de-Mekisburgh [Mexborough], a wealthy merchant of the Staple, who flourished in the 14th century, and who acquired extensive property in Nottingham and Gedling. I think it was he who rebuilt Gedling church steeple out of his quarry there.
He died between 1348 and 1369, leaving instructions for his chaplains to provide “at their own cost, for ever, two candles of wax of the weight of six pounds of wax, to burn every Sunday and feast-day, in the church aforesaid, upon my tomb for so long as the mass at the high altar shall be in celebration.” [Borough Records, 27th April, 1339-1
The slab now contains matrices only, but if we may judge by the crocketted ogee canopies which enshrine the effigies of the founder and his wife, the woolsack cushions beneath their heads, and the shape of the shields, the missing brass would prove to be one of a large number of similar memorials laid down in England, to commemorate individual members of the merchant class which was then claiming great attention. If the bearings on the shields could be recovered, they would reveal the arms of the founder and his wife; or what is more probable, a dual representation of his merchant-mark. A space for an “inscription in brass begging all who survive to pray for the soul of himself and his wife “is now placed partly in the wall at the back of the tomb, where the inscription never could have been read by anyone; and this fact, together with the instruction about the candles, leads me to think that the tomb stood exposed on three sides, in the south transept, and without any canopy.
The alabaster frontal has been chipped and knocked about, and “bodged” together, in a shocking manner, in order to make it fit into the recess. This is the more to be regretted, seeing that it is a beautiful example of local alabaster work, of which all Nottingham folk might well be proud. It is impossible now to tell where this came from; but in all probability, it originally stood against the west wall of the north transept, with two sides and one end exposed to view.
The sculptured figures of the Holy Trinity, the Annunciation, the Crucifixion, the Angel Gabriel, St. John the Baptist, and an unnamed Martyr, are exquisite. In accordance with prevailing custom, the shields in the quatrefoils would be emblazoned, but the faint traces of painting which they still bear are indistinguishable. As the armorial bearings and all other marks of identification have been effaced, it is only possible to arrive at an approximate date, by comparison with other tombs in the vicinity, whereof the date is actually known. I am thereby led to think, that the alabaster work in question was executed either during the reign of Richard II., or early in the reign of Henry IV. [Compare tomb of Sir Robt. Goushill, who died 1403, at Hoveringham]. In the Borough Records and other documents, the names of a succession of “alablastermen” of Nottingham are found, who carried out important work throughout the years 1368-1529. It would surely be to one of these that the work of St. Mary’s is due; and considering the delicacy of the sculpture and the refinement of the details, I am inclined to attribute it to the celebrated Peter Maceon [Peter the Mason], who made “a table of alabaster for the high altar within the free chapel of St. George at Windsor.” (c. 1370). This has now been utterly destroyed.
In spite of constant renewals, and the frequent refacing of the masonry, original mason-marks are still visible on the piers; and while these tell us very little about the architecture, it is not without interest to notice that in this church, which owes so much to the liberality of the merchants of the town, the mason-marks are similar in character to the principal merchant-marks of the time.
By the middle of the 19th century, the condition of this church was deplorable; the chancel was divided from the nave by a brick wall, and being thus unused and neglected, had become a harbour for dust and vermin. The nave had been reduced again to four bays in length, by the introduction of a stone screen surmounted by the organ.
In 1842, it was noticed that one of the stones in the south-west pier of the tower-arches had become scored on the surface with fine vertical lines. This proved to be due to crushing weight on the stone; but, although the cracks became perceptibly wider, no notice was taken of it until one Sunday morning, when, during Divine Service, the congregation was startled by a piece of mortar dropping from one of the joints in the tower-arch.
An architect was duly summoned and a careful inspection was made, whereon he ordered the peremptory closing of the church. The tower was at once propped up with timber while excavations were made in order to inspect the foundations. Two causes of weakness were discovered, one below ground and one above, (i) A large portion of the masonry of the south-west pier, some ioft. below the ground, had been cut away to make room for an interment. (2) The fractured stone in the pier above, resulted from the removal of the beam which formerly supported a gallery over the transept. This beam had been ruthlessly drawn out by cutting away all the stonework around it. The cavity thus formed had not been filled in solid, but simply “made good” on the face. Otherwise, the piers and the foundation work below the place of interment were good and sound. The foundation consists of solid close-jointed masonry—the work of an earlier period, which had been carried down to the living rock. It is in this masonry, that several capitals belonging to a still earlier church are embedded. Rough sketches of these, as illustrated in the previous paper, were made at the time by Sir Charles Robinson, but as they were made under great disadvantages, the capitals being fixed upside down, and only visible by the light of a lantern in a deep, dark hole, too much reliance should not be placed upon them.
It was further discovered, that a movement of the south transept wall had previously been arrested, by the introduction, below ground, of a huge mass of brickwork at the south-east angle of the building. This was probably done when the rustic stiles were done away with, and the churchyard was enclosed by the present brick wall and wrought-iron palisade (1807); as the bricks used in the foundation correspond with those used in the wall.
The particulars of this restoration were given to me at first hand, by one who daily witnessed the proceedings throughout the years 1842-8; during which time the foundations were thoroughly examined and strengthened where necessary, a new roof was put upon the nave, and the damaged or decayed stonework throughout was renewed.
But for this timely attention, the tower would have collapsed and involved the whole church in its ruin. While we may be tempted to regret that some of the reparations were not carried out with more regard to the spirit of the past, we must still feel very grateful that such a disaster to the town was averted.
This then is an outline of the story which may be read from the stones of this venerable pile.
Born on a wave of devotion and piety which succeeded the terrible visitation known as the Black Death, steadily rising year by year in spite of trouble abroad and at home—the stirring deeds of Agincourt—the triumph and martyrdom of the Maid of Orleans—the final loss of France—and the carnage and upheaval wrought by the Wars of the Roses—brought to consummation, so far as the external appearance is concerned, ere yet the last of the Plantagenet Kings had set out on the fateful journey from Nottingham to Bosworth Field, St. Mary’s dominated the life of the town for nearly a century with a display of wealth and beauty, such as can scarcely be imagined to-day. Then came the Reformation, followed by a period of indifference and neglect, when the pride and glory of the old church was brought low, and its prestige was overshadowed for a time; but the clouds have lifted again and it still stands, not so glorious as of yore perhaps, but quite as much an object of affection and admiration to all loyal citizens. Long may it so continue.
Of the men who built this glorious church, nothing is definitely known. One writer fancied he saw in it so much resemblence to the nave of Winchester, that he boldly proclaimed the famous Bishop, William of Wykeham (1347-1405) to be the designer of St. Mary’s also. This claim however will not bear close examination. But when we compare the general design and the details of St. Mary’s with the contemporary work at York Minster, we shall find it far more likely that the builders hailed from that city—and Nottingham was at that time in the Diocese of York.
At York, the nave of eight bays (finished c. 1345); the Lady Chapel and Presbytery (c. 1361) containing the great east window—the second largest church-window in the world, occupying nearly the whole of the wall space; the choir arcade of six bays (c. 1380); the central tower (1400-1423); and the western towers (1432-1474) will supply a precedent for all the structural work at Nottingham; while the tomb of Bishop Greenfield at York (1306-1315) is the prototype of the Samon tomb at Nottingham.
The relationship between the work at York and Nottingham is further strengthened, by the fact that the painted windows of the latter contained the arms of prelates, who ruled at York while the work was in progress. The saltire of Archbishop Alexander Neville (1374-1388) a member of one of the most powerful houses in the north and a special favourite with Richard II.; Quarterly gules, a lion rampant or, and chequy or and. azure, all within a bordure engrailed argent for Archbishop Thomas Fitzalan de Arundell (1388-1396); the Royal Arms of Richard II. impaling the arms of his first wife Ann of Bohemia (1382-1394), have been put on record; and we may be sure that many others, including the bend and label of three points of the beloved Archbishop Richard Scroope, appointed by his friend and patron, Richard II. (1398), and beheaded by his successor Henry IV. (1405), while the works were in progress, would also be displayed.
An interesting study is thus presented of a large town church, which reflects in a modest way the glories of a cathedral. And the interest of comparison may be carried still further; for when the members of this Society visited West Bridgford last summer, I drew attention to (1) the prevalence of even numbers employed in the re-building; (2) indications that the work had been executed by village craftsmen who were striving to imitate something they had seen elsewhere. At that time, I was at a loss to suggest the source of inspiration; but after careful comparison, I have since come to the conclusion, that the “solemn, wondrous and manifold sumptuous work,” which crowned the summit of St. Mary’s hill, within view of the lowly villagers across the Trent, was the object of their emulation.