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All Saints Great Braxted

All Saints Great Braxted

Featured Church: All Saints Great Braxted

All Saints Great Braxted

All Saints Great Braxted has been celebrating the completion of major repairs to its shingled spire and belfry, funded by grants from the Friends of Essex Churches Trust and the Heritage Lottery Fund, as well as local fundraising. The parish have also been celebrating the 900th anniversary of the church itself; although there is no documentary evidence for a date of 1115, it is certainly plausible as far as the date of the present building is concerned. Braxted is mentioned in Domesday Book and it is very likely that there was an earlier church on the site, probably built of timber.

All Saints is singled out by the Essex Field Club as being ‘one of the best churches in Essex for the variety of natural stones in its external fabric’. Its walls do indeed seem to contain practically every type of building material that would have been available to the medieval craftsmen who built it: glacial cobbles, puddingstone, flint, tufa, reused Roman bricks, tiles and opus signinum, and above all septaria. This is the result of Essex having no good supply of building stone, and having to make the best of the materials available, all held together with generous quantities of lime mortar. The walls were originally covered with a thin layer of plaster, to protect the fragile surface from the weather.

Roman bricks and other building materialsThe church as first built in about 1115 consisted of a nave, the same size as it is now, and a chancel with an apsidal east end (comparable to Little Braxted). There was a small round arch in the wall separating the nave from the chancel, and the few windows were narrow and high up in the walls. The roof was covered with oak shingles.

About a hundred years later the chancel was more than doubled in length, with a rectangular east end, and tall lancet windows were inserted, including a row of three in the east wall. At the same time the west tower was built. The masonry walls only reach to the height of the nave, and it was presumably meant to go higher; above that was a timber belfry and spire.

There is an interesting comparison that can be made between the quoins (corners) of the 12th-century nave and the 13th-century chancel and tower. The older quoins are built using Roman bricks and tiles, a very common feature of Essex churches; the material was readily available, and provided the strength needed for corners that could not be provided by the rubble of which the rest of the walls were built. The later quoins are also of brick, but these are larger and of a regular shape, and were newly made. Brick-making was rediscovered in the England in the second half of the 12th century, some of the earliest known examples being at Coggeshall Abbey and Holy Trinity, Bradwell, nearby. Also as part of the 13-century changes the roof shingles were replaced with tiles; some of these (larger than modern ones) can still be seen on the north side of the nave.

The 14th century saw the insertion of larger windows in the nave, and the south doorway. The south porch, with its well-carved crown-post roof, was added in the 15th century; the nave roof, which also has a crown-post roof, probably dates from the same time.

Many changes would have taken place to the interior of the church at the Reformation, although we can only speculate what these might have been: the removal of a rood screen separating the chancel from the nave; the whitewashing of wall paintings; the taking down of statues of saints; and the smashing of stained glass. But no significant changes to the actual structure took place until 1761–2, when the Du Cane Pew was added to the north side of the nave. Peter Du Cane had bought Braxted Lodge (as it then was) in 1751, and as well as practically rebuilding the house he no doubt wished to make his mark on the church as well, and provide somewhere comfortable for his family to sit. The cost was £245.0.9, including £18.14.0 for the faculty; the faculty pew, as it is technically known, belonged to the owners of Braxted Park until 1956. It had a fireplace, and was furnished with eight chairs; it was separated from the nave by a screen. Below it was the family’s burial vault, and many of their memorials are on the walls, as well as those of later owners of Braxted Park, the Boultons and Clarks. The fine north window, with stained glass by William Warrington, was installed in 1844; it shows nine scenes from the life of Christ, from the Nativity to the Resurrection. Much of the Gothic detailing of the interior of the pew may date from this time also. But the Revd Alfred Suckling described the church in 1845 as being ‘completely disfigured by modernisms… the closing of the large east window, and the erection of a huge and ugly red brick appendage on the north side of the nave, proclaim how totally taste must have vanished from both clerical and lay proprietors in Braxted.’ He is referring to the impressive classical reredos that was erected against the east wall of the chancel, perhaps at the same time as the construction of the pew, completely covering the east windows. To make up for the loss of light, large round-headed windows were inserted in the north and south walls of the chancel.

Another addition to the church was the small red brick vestry on the north side of the nave in the 19th century, although its date is not recorded. It too had a fireplace. The church also had an underfloor heating system, with a heating chamber on the north side of the chancel and large gratings in the floor. The vestry was extended in 2004–6 by David Whymark, to provide lavatories and a small kitchen.

Chancel interior By 1882 the church was being described as ‘tumble-down’ and in need of restoration. The work was entrusted to the Revd Ernest Geldart, rector of Little Braxted, who had trained as an architect before becoming a priest; he owed his position at Little Braxted to Sir Charles du Cane, who was patron of the living. A faculty was granted in April 1883 and the church reopened on 3 February 1884; the contractor was William Gozzett of Woodham Walter. (The faculty, with accompanying plans, is in the Essex Record Office, D/CF 22/1.) Geldart had to revise his plans in the course of the work as more medieval windows were uncovered, in particular the lancets in the east wall of the chancel; as a result it was decided to take out the Georgian reredos, parts of which found their way into Geldart’s rectory at Little Braxted (now Braxted Place). The Norman chancel arch was replaced by a bigger, slightly pointed one, and all the nave seating was replaced, followed by new seating in the chancel and Du Cane Pew in 1893; the pulpit and desks date from 1890. (The new pulpit was originally on the south side of the nave, where the old triple-decker pulpit had been; it was probably moved to the north side when the organ, a fine example of the work of W. Hill & Son, was installed in 1909.) But perhaps the most noticeable part of Geldart’s restoration was the rebuilding of the upper part of the tower, broadly following the pattern of what was there already but continuing the masonry of the west wall upwards and inserting a large new west window. The three existing bells were taken down and recast as two, by Moore, Holmes & Mackenzie of Redenham, Norfolk.

Detail of St George (east window)Geldart made two other contributions to the church, both in the chancel. First came the glass installed in the three east lancets as a memorial to Sir Charles Du Cane, who died in 1889. It was made by Percy Bacon & Brothers and depicts Christ as the Light of the World with St Michael and St George (Sir Charles, a former governor of Tasmania, had been a Knight Commander of the Order of St Michael and St George). Geldart was called back to design the altar and reredos, dedicated in 1919 as a Peace Memorial (although the faculty was granted in 1917). They were made of oak by Samuel Marshall of Coggeshall, with figures on the reredos carved by Nathaniel Hitch of Vauxhall. At the same time the 17th-century oak panelling in the chancel was presented by William Boulton, who bought Braxted Park in that year; it may well have come from the house.

The recent work to the church is quickly blending in, and there will soon be little visible evidence of it, but it will help to keep the building standing for another 900 years.

With thanks to David Andrews, for information about the construction of the original building, and James Bettley, for details of Ernest Geldart’s restoration. The history of the church and village are well documented in W. A. Gimson’s book Great Braxted 1086–1957 (1958).

Unfortunately All Saints is not normally open. For more information (including location map), see