The Building Fabric

The Building Fabric




 The architecture and building fabric of St Michael’s is considered to be important in the grand scheme of things and therefore English Heritage has given it a Listed Building classification of Grade II*

The development of places of worship directly reflects the development of civilisations. From the temples of Mesopotamia and Byzantium, through the Greek and Roman dynasties to the Mediaeval, early English and Victorian periods right through to the 20th and 21st centuries. St Michael’s is no exception as it reflects the religious characteristics of the day especially that of the Elizabethan Settlement.

In England the earliest “churches” were probably re-used buildings abandoned by the departed Romans. Even when the first purpose-built stone churches were built in England they would often make use of stone plundered from Roman buildings. These Roman buildings adopted a Basilica shape, that is to say essentially rectangular. They were at first centred on a tower for defensive reasons and some were later extended to form what we now know as a Byzantine Cross or a Roman Cross formats whilst others stayed rectangular. Many had an apse added to the east end to house the altar. This formed the basis for the rectangular plan that is common today.

Churches, or chapels (only later called “parish churches”), were generally private foundations, established by thegns, bishops, lay societies, or even an association of parishioners. The first parish churches were not built by the church, but by local lords who essentially owned and operated them. This patronage often influenced the style and sumptuousness, or indeed otherwise, of the building.

The extent to which the church parish and the local lord’s authority overlapped is apparent when it is considered that before the Norman invasion one of the accepted ways of becoming a thegn (in Anglo-Saxon England] a member of an aristocratic class, ranking below an ealdorman (a high ranking officer), whose status was hereditary and who held land from the king or from another nobleman in return for certain services was to build a church, especially one with a tower. The thegn could install a priest of his own choosing, change the priest at will, even dismantle the church if he saw fit!.

The tower was a defensive measure against the threat of Danish invaders and occasionally served double duty as the priest’s residence. The church’s role went far beyond religion; it was the centre of village community life. School was held in the church porch or in a room over it. Manor courts were often held in the nave, and tenants came there to pay their rent, or scot. A free meal was often given to those who had paid their scot whence they became free of the tax, hence our term, “scot free”. This was the case with St Michael’s and is still a reflection of its role today.

Prior to the religious troubles of the early to mid-17 C, the country was predominately Roman Catholic (2/3 population). The style of worship was different and therefore their church planning was different. The chancel of the church was the domain of the priest, and the nave “belonged” to the parishioners. Each was responsible for the upkeep of their domain. There was often a height difference with steps separating the two areas (an elevated position becoming nearer to God; this helps explain the curious architecture of some early parish churches, particularly in Norfolk and Suffolk, where the chancel is built of carefully squared stone, and the nave of much cheaper flint. This may explain the difference between the Nave and the Chancel of St Michael’s if it was based on the earlier local church. The basic architectural characteristics of the Saxon parish churches are a rectangular east end, side entrance (usually on the south side), and a west tower.

The distinction between chancel and nave led to the development of rood screens to mark the division between the domain of the priest and that of his parishioners. These screens, usually of wood, but sometimes of stone, became extremely elaborate often adorned with crucifixes over the centre. Many were destroyed under the Reformation and the later Puritan influence.

St Michael’s takes the classic rectangular plan form, which is believed to reflect the original church. However, being licenced after the Elizabethan Settlement and, in accordance with the Act of Supremacy, it is on one level and to prevent any further restoration of “popery“, had no roods, stone altar, dooms (statues enactment or legal judgement) statues and other ornaments included.

The buildings were often made of indigenous materials, which in East Anglia was timber. Timber did not have any longevity, which is why there are so few examples of timber churches in the country, The nearest one to Woodham Walter, and probably the oldest wooden religious structure in the world, is the Saxon Church of Greensted-Juxta-Ongar. The alternative to timber was stone or brick or, as was the case with St Michaels, the reuse of a quantity of existing and reclaimed materials.

The Gothic style of architecture moved into the Renaissance style and the first major Renaissance style building in England was Hampton Court closely followed by Layer Marney Tower. Cardinal Wolsey built Hampton Court between 1514 and 1528 and the Lord Marney built Layer Marney from 1520. The architecture had shifted from the pointed, ornate Gothic style to the plainer Renaissance style, which was symmetrical. The symmetry was displayed in both the architecture and the gardens and what better way to demonstrate this than by the use of that very modular building unit, the brick.

The popularity of brick as a building material can be traced to the revival of brick making in eastern England in the late 13th and early 14th centuries. This was a direct result of lack of local stone, an increasing shortage of good timber, and the influence of Northern Europe where brickwork was used extensively. By the Tudor period the brick makers and bricklayers had emerged as separate craftsmen well able to rival the masons. From unsophisticated early work, brick building entered its heyday, rivalling stone in its popularity as a structural material. It is not until the middle of the 19C that in this village whole houses were built of entirely brick. The Bricks, used in the construction of ST Michael’s are soft reds reflecting the fact that they were dug from local clay and made either on site or near to it by itinerant workers. Not only were standard bricks produced by hand in moulds but also many in extravagant and elaborate shapes, epitomised by those that formed the spiral twisted chimney stacks for which the period is renown and of which Layer Marney Tower has many. 

In the case of St Michael’s the bond of the red bricks, ie the method of creating structural stability, is neither the traditional English bond nor true Flemish bond but resembles the same bond used for the brick barn at Ingatestone Hall by Sir William Petre – Flemish Stretcher bond. Flemish Stretcher bond separates courses of alternately laid stretchers and headers, with a number of courses of stretchers alone. Brickwork in this bond may have between one and four courses of stretchers to one course after the Flemish manner. The courses of stretchers are often, but not always, staggered in a raking pattern. Interestingly this suggests that the Earl also employed the same bricklayer. This results in a brick built structure with some use of stone around the windows and the columns between the nave and the north aisle and potentially reclaimed from the original church site.

Within the walls are stone mullioned windows. Some were believed to have come from the old church and some, those to the north aisle, were installed during the Victorian refurbishment. Given that the architectural style had shifted from the pointed, ornate Gothic arch to the plainer Renaissance style, which was symmetrical,  the building presents with flat-headed windows, which is unusual in such a building as a church. Normally the windows would have been arched with a stone surround as those in the east and west walls but the originals were brick and only replaced with stone during the 1879 refurbishment. Accordingly the wall and roof above the window heads is supported on a lintol. In one of these windows  in the Hawkin’s north aisle there is some Mediaeval glass renovated under the patronage of the Worshipful Company of Glaziers of London.

In East Anglia stone is very much a luxury item and was accordingly used sparingly. It was therefore generically incorporated into the main windows and doors and prior to the Settlement as an altar, font and pulpit. There does not appear to be a record of a stone altar in St Michael’s and the pulpit was a Victorian replacement during the 1878 refurbishment but the font is considered to be 14C and was removed from the original church to its present position. The cover and pulley system is thought to be Victorian. The stone arcade between the nave and the north aisle is said to have come from the original church and has been dated as 15C. There is some graffiti on the first column that is at present indeterminate to which a date of circa 1450-1500 has been ascribed. The north and south doorway surrounds are also in stone with a semi-circular head to the south and a four-centred arch to the north. There is a significant amount of graffiti to the south door that used to be the entrance and porch to the church until it was removed in 1795 and this graffiti can now be seen at close quarters as it is enclosed by the 21C utilities extension.

Although East Anglia had significant swathes of forest, large bulks of timber were difficult to come by and in consequence very expensive. It is therefore not surprising that the timber and roof tiles that formed the roof of the old church were re-cycled into the new and it is therefore suspected that the old and new church plans were of a similar shape and size.

The roof construction is typical of the period. There are twelve trusses over the Chancel, fourteen over the Nave and eighteen over the North Aisle. The trusses consist of a rafter each with a collar beam, two soulaces and two ashlar pieces bearing on to a wall plate. The wall plate is massive, being the width of the wall and is linked with moulded oak tie beams spanning from above the columns in the Nave over the arcade to the south wall. One moulded oak tie beam spans the North Aisle from the central arch of the arcade to the north wall. Between the two tie beams across the Nave there has been a significant addition to the truss. Whether this was deemed necessary at the time or not will remain unknown but is could be part of the old church structure.

At the west end there is a massive beam supported on splayed oak brackets on quadrant shaped stone corbels. Between this beam and the roof trusses is studwork of oak with vertical and diagonal bracing. This is typical of a compound truss and was used to provide the basis for a stud wall whilst providing addition structural support for additional floor loads and joists. The Baptistery ceiling is the exposed pine floor of the Belfry over. Two vertical oak posts standing on oak plates have two brackets that support a large oak beam over. This beam supports the span of the floor joists which is E-W, the smaller span and therefore more economical on timber sizing. This, together with the roof structure supports the Belfry and spire over.

The roof is peg-tiled with a shingle clad bellcote terminating in a spire with timber louvres to the Bell Tower. Flashings and valley gutters are in lead or brick. An interesting feature of the building, visually dominant on its approach from the road are the crow-stepped gables otherwise known as stepped gables or corbel steps. They are common in Flemish architecture and in16C and17C Scottish buildings. Convenient access to the roof ridge motivated the crow-step design, along with the availability of bricks (rectangular building blocks) to accomplish this form of construction. It meant that the bricks would not have to be cut on the rake and the necessity for the retention of an angled coping was negated. The access would have been more convenient for roofers, where cranes and hoists were non-existent and tall ladders were not common. With crow steps, the roof covering does not reach the end of the building, thus giving a special problem with keeping the roof watertight.

The 21C southern extension is similar in form to a long lost porch in this position and is an entirely different form of construction in order to comply with the current Building Regulations. It has an English green oak timber frame with highly insulated oak cladding sitting on a brick plinth with a chamfered top all with a clay tiled roof over. The external access door is of solid oak construction. The existing door set in the south wall was visible from the outside but had been rendered over within the church. When it was exposed and removed it was found to be of double skin construction with softwood vertical boarding on the outside and horizontal boarding on the inside. It was hung on iron pintle hinges and the existing ironwork door furniture remained. It is very unusual to find an external softwood door circa late 18C surviving. Although rotten and suffering from weather and beetle attack, it is thought that the longevity in this case arose from the fact that it was originally within a lobby and therefore protected from the elements. Regrettably the door was not salvageable but the ironwork was refurbished and replaced on the new door as a permanent record.






Copyright © 2022 The Church of St Michael the Archangel, Woodham Walter.