Romanesque Sculpture in the Chalk Belt 1

England’s varied geology is an important contributor to the distinctive local character of our buildings: the golden oolitic limestones of the Gloucestershire and Oxfordshire Cotswolds stand in dramatic contrast to the rich red sandstone of Herefordshire, across the Severn.  In the east there is a similar contrast between the north Northamptonshire built landscape of Kings Cliffe, Wansford and Collyweston with their yellow limestones and the flint buildings of the chalk belt that runs to the south and east.  For historians of architecture and sculpture the importance of local geology cannot be overstressed, for the local stone affects the appearance of buildings and their sculpture in a very direct way.  

The geology of southern England from Stanford’s Geological Atlas of Great Britain

The chalk belt is coloured pale green (and numbered 6) on the map above. Chalk outcrops in a broad belt running down the Lincolnshire coast from Flamborough head, covering most East Anglia and turning westwards, bounded by the chalk escarpment of the Chiltern Hills to the north, and continuing as far as Dorset. A southern branch includes the North and South Downs. Thus large areas of eastern England and the Home Counties have little in the way of local building stone beyond what can be quarried from the chalk beds.  Chalk is a soft, white, porous sedimentary rock, chemically calcium carbonate, laid down in the Cretaceous period and formed of compressed calcite shells. Chalk beds tend to be thick, and chalk itself is very porous and can act as a reservoir, holding large quantities of water which are gradually released during dry spells. Historically it has been used in agriculture for raising the pH of acid soils, and industrially to produce the quicklime used in cement and steelmaking.

Cherry Hinton East Pit. An extensive chalk quarry, possibly the one acquired by King’s College, Cambridge before 1452 for the building of the chapel.

As a building material chalk is easy to cut and carve, and as it dries out it hardens to some extent, but only the more compressed beds have enough durability to be generally useful, and even they are only practicable for use in protected situations.  When chalk can be used as a building stone in this way, it normally goes by the name of clunch or Totternhoe stone (even when it is not quarried in Totternhoe). It outcrops throughout the east of England; notably at Totternhoe, near Dunstable (Bedfordshire), but also at sites around Cambridge including Cherry Hinton, Orwell, Eversden, Haslingfield and Barrington. These Cambridge quarries were important as the source of the ‘white stone’ used in the construction of many medieval college buildings.

The medieval churches of the chalk belt are externally mostly of flint; almost the opposite of clunch as a building material. Flint nodules are hard, crystalline lumps of quartz found within the chalk strata, either dispersed or more commonly deposited in layers. Flints may wash out of the chalk strata as the matrix erodes and be deposited as pebbles or cobbles in the beds of rivers and streams. Flint is one of the most durable of building stones, but masonry in flint is technically very different from working in ashlar or even rubble.

The E chancel wall of Holy Trinity, Barsham (Suffolk) has an overall trellis decoration that covers both the window tracery and the flushwork of the wall surface

From the thirteenth century onwards, however, flint knapping grew in popularity. The nodules were split to expose a smooth, lustrous interior, of black initially, allowing the production of tracery and other designs, known as flushwork, when combined with clunch or imported ashlar, as at Barsham in Suffolk. Such external features as doorways, windows and buttresses which relied on accurate angles and smooth planes were generally built of imported and thus expensive stone.  It has been convincingly argued that the round towers typical of East Anglia were common in that area because of the difficulty of building corners in flint masonry.

Mixed walling including flint, puddingstone and Roman brick at Fryerning (Essex)

Although the chalk beds provide most of the indigenous building material in this part of England, other materials must be considered. In fact there was a tendency, seen in many parish churches, to use whatever was available, and this could include Carstone, cobbles, puddingstone and Roman or medieval brick. At Fryerning (Essex) the external nave walls are of flint and puddingstone rubble with Roman brick quoins, and clunch is used for the south doorway, (protected by a porch) and the elaborately carved font. Carstone (also called Carrstone or gingerbread stone) is a red cretaceous sandstone often found in the chalk belt where it beds in strata below the chalk. Puddingstone is a heterogeneous rock that had its origins in the chalk, when flint pebbles washed out of the chalk strata were deposited in rivers beds, covered by clay deposits and compressed to form a conglomerate bound together by silica. Roman brick was reused from sites in Essex, Suffolk and Hertfordshire, notably around St Albans. The craft of brickmaking was lost after the departure of the Romans, and given the shortage of durable building materials in this area it is unsurprising to find that it was in the chalk belt that it reappeared towards the end of the twelfth century; most famously at Coggeshall Priory (c.1200), but much earlier at Polstead (c.1160) and elsewhere.

The medieval brick and clunch north nave arcade at St Mary’s, Polstead (Suffolk).

Clunch Sculpture

Clunch is ideal for fine carving that is not exposed to weathering. Within the chalk belt it is a popular choice for arcade and chancel arch capitals, and for furnishings like tombs, fonts and piscinas. Well-preserved clunch sculpture is also found surprisingly often on the capitals and archivolts of external doorways, indicating that they have always been protected by porches. The remainder of this article is concerned with two clunch workshops; one in Buckinghamshire and the other on the Suffolk coast.

The Aylesbury font group

The most celebrated of the chalk belt workshops must be the Aylesbury font group, distributed along the Vale of Aylesbury on the north side of the chalk escarpment that is the Chiltern Hills. 

Map showing the distribution of Aylesbury Group fonts. Ron Baxter using Open Street Map

The group is large enough on its own to provide valuable insights into medieval sculptural workshops and the transmission of forms and motifs. As many as 23 fonts have been associated with the group, but the core in terms of material, form and style is made up of just 7 fonts (Aylesbury, Buckland, Chenies, Great Kimble, Little Missenden, Houghton Regis and Weston Turville}, and 2 font bases (Wing and Great Missenden). All of these churches are in Buckinghamshire except for Houghton Regis, in neighbouring Bedfordshire.

The font at St Mary, Weston Turville

The fonts of the core group are all carved from the local clunch, Totternhoe, and all the core fonts are within 20 miles of the quarry. They have cup-shaped fluted bowls with deep rims decorated with a band of foliage. The bowls stand on bases in the form of inverted cushion or double scallop capitals with fat, cable-moulded neckings and shields carved in relief with foliage.  Carving is exceptionally crisp, the designs are carefully drawn, and the style is that of c.1170-90. Surrounding this main group are other fonts of a similar design that deviate from it in various ways; always, to the eyes of the present author, to their disadvantage.

The limestone font at St Nicholas, Chearsley

The fonts at Chearsley, Haddenham, Ludgershall and Monks Risborough are carved from a shelly limestone, rather than clunch, and Haddenham and Ludgershall have scalloped bowls rather than fluted ones. While the two last appear to have very little connection with the core group, Chearsley and Monks Risborough are typical in their fluted bowls and precise carving, although the more simplified designs suggest local copies by a competent workshop accustomed to limestone rather than clunch carving.

The clunch font at Bledlow
The limestone font at Monks Risborough

The Monks Risborough font is almost identical to the clunch font at Bledlow. Several of the fonts peripheral to the group are massively simplified, including Duston, which has no decoration beyond the fluting on the bowl, and Saunderton and Buckland, both with rims decorated with a band of trilobed leaves in place of the lush foliage found on the core fonts. In short, the masterworks of Aylesbury, Weston Turville and the rest of the core group, convincingly argued by Malcolm Thurlby to have been inspired by metalwork from St Albans, were the models for a large group of more-or-less competent copies that survive in the churches of the Vale of Aylesbury.

In the next blog in this series I will look at a group of clunch doorways on the Suffolk coast.

Further Reading

L. F. Salzman, Building in England, down to 1540: a Documentary History, Oxford 1952 (1997 ed)

On the Cambridge quarries, see RCHME, An Inventory of the Historical Monuments in the City of Cambridge, London 1959, p.98-136. Specific contracts are reprinted in R. Willis and J. W. Clark, The Architectural History of the University of Cambridge, 3 vols Cambridge 1886, repr. 1988.

On medieval brick building, see N. J. Moore, ‘Brick’, in J. Blair and N. Ramsay (ed.), English Medieval Industries, London 1991, p.211-36.

The literature on the Aylesbury group of fonts is not as large as might be expected, but the quality is high. The starting point must be M. Thurlby, “Fluted and Chalice-Shaped: The Aylesbury Group of Fonts”, Country Life, CLXXI, 1982, p.228-29, and the same author’s ‘The Place of St Albans in Regional Sculpture and Architecture in the Second Half of the Twelfth Century.’ in M. Henig and P. Lindley (ed.), Alban and St Albans. Roman and Medieval Architecture, Art and Archaeology. (British Archaeological Association Conference Transactions XXIV). Leeds 2001, p.162-75. To these should be added Ken Goodearl’s web resource, The Aylesbury Fonts.

Finally the fonts have all been recorded in individual site reports of the Corpus of Romanesque Sculpture website.

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1 Response to Romanesque Sculpture in the Chalk Belt 1

  1. Pingback: Romanesque Sculpture in the Chalk Belt 2 | Stories in Stone

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