St Mary's Church datestone 4

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St Mary's Church datestone 1

This article by Peter Bisson and Christopher Aubin was first published in the 1990 Annual Bulletin of La Société Jersiaise

The subject of the datestone at Saint Mary's church must be rapidly approaching, if it has not already reached, the point at which readers of the Bulletin will throw up their hands in dismay at seeing yet another piece devoted to it. Nevertheless, following the publication in the 1989 Bulletin of Doctor Arnold Taylor's paper, 'The Saint Mary datestone: a reappraisal', in which he explains his reasons for abandoning the 'new' interpretation of the stone's inscription as 1542 (MV CC.XLII) in favour of the 'old' interpretation of it as 1342 (MCCCXLII), we feel, as the authors of the paper in the 1985 Bulletin in which 1542 was first shown to be the true date, that Doctor Taylor's 'reappraisal' cannot be allowed to pass without comment.

Pre-1600 inscriptions

Doctor Taylor's article is a very informative and useful study of pre-1600 dated inscriptions in north-western Europe - a subject of which, obviously, his knowledge far exceeds ours and on which he is entitled to be heard with respect. We, in turn, feel able to speak with some confidence about the architecture and dating of Jersey's parish churches after having made a detailed comparative study of them in 1983-4, and here the evidence for placing the south chapel at Saint Mary in the 16th century, rather than the 14th, appears to us to be conclusive. Nor can we see that the interpretation of the date on the stone as 1542 presents the difficulties of which Doctor Taylor makes so much.

Though George Balleine wrote in 1950 that "no one can date our ancient churches", our study showed that their architecture falls into three clearly defined phases, which can be dated with varying degrees of precision by valid historical and documentary evidence.

First phase

The first phase comprises the plain, simple Norman work that forms the primary structure (though variously modified by later alterations) of all 12 churches as now existing. Some of it dates from the 12th century or, in a few cases perhaps, the 11th, but this style of building with its rough, uncoursed rubble walling and slit-like lancet windows - few of which have survived, though enough traces remain to show their original form - was still current after 1200, and there are grounds for believing that our least altered example of it, the chapel at Rosel Manor, may be as late as 1250, by which time the style would have been extremely old-fashioned and primitive by continental or English standards.

Second phase

Buildings of the second phase are distinguished by a different type of masonry, lipped weathering to the buttresses (a detail never found in our Norman work) and larger windows. These, however, are still modest and very plain, the simple chamfered or splayed granite frames having neither hood-moulds nor, originally, mullions, though some have had Victorian mullions and tracery inserted in the old frame.

Corner buttresses are still paired at right angles, as in the Norman period, the diagonal buttress being a refinement as yet unknown here. The most obviously characteristic feature of this phase, which we see in the arcading of the chapels added to several churches at this time, is the 'Grosnez arch' - a plain, sturdy pointed arch of hammer-cut voussoirs, springing from low square or octagonal piers without imposts.

How far back into the 13th century this phase of building extends is uncertain, but the churches of Saint Peter Port and Saint Sampson in Guernsey were repaired and partly rebuilt in this style after destructive French raids that took place around 1300, and Grosnez Castle itself is usually assumed to have been built shortly before the outbreak of the Hundred Years War.

A chapel added to a Jersey church in 1342 would, therefore, in all probability have been built in some version of this style.

Third phase

Lastly we have the third phase, in which mullioned and traceried windows, dressed-stone arches and doorways, and other carved and moulded details appear in the island for the first time, executed in Chausey granite. The style of the work is purely French, showing no trace of the 'Perpendicular' fashion that dominated English Gothic architecture after the middle of the 14th century. It is more fully discussed in our article in the 1985 Bulletin.

Much evidence exists for the dating of this third phase. At Grouville the will of Raulin Amy, dated 1515, refers to the 'new' north chapel and tells us that the matching alterations to the south one, which we see today, were planned but not yet executed; a reference in the Alexandre family papers shows the north aisle at Saint Brelade under construction in 1537; the Hamptonne chapel at Saint Lawrence is dated between 1531 and 1539, and the adjoining north aisle was built with the proceeds of a sale of church property that took place in 1546; other evidence of varying degrees of force points to a date in the 16th century, or at the end of the 15th, for work at Saint Saviour, Saint Clement, Saint John, Saint Ouen and Saint Peter.

When we further take into account the frequency with which the work of the same craftsmen can be identified in different churches, it becomes clear that this entire phase of building dates from the 60 or 70 years preceding the Reformation, perhaps reflecting a new 'glad confident morning' of peace and prosperity following the establishment of the Privilege of Neutrality in 1480, (see our note in the 1986 Bulletin superseding the theory tentatively put forward in our 1985 paper that the sequence might have begun during the French occupation of 1461-68).

The long hiatus between this and the second phase is not really surprising: it is unlikely that the accommodation of the churches would have needed increasing for several generations after the Black Death, and Jersey during the Hundred Years War can scarcely have enjoyed the conditions of settled prosperity conducive to the enlargement and beautification of church buildings purely as an act of piety.

The south chapel at Saint Mary, as we demonstrated in our 1985 paper, belongs unmistakably to the 16th-century phase; if, like several other buildings of the period, it has a look of 14th-century English work, that is because provincial late Gothic architecture remained closer in France than in England to the style that was common to both lands before the Black Death.

The hood-moulds to the windows, and the buttresses with plinths and string-courses instead of a simple offset, are features found nowhere else in Jersey before c1480-1500; the west wall, before the chapel was extended westwards in 1840 to form the present south nave, had a small round window in the gable, a feature highly characteristic of the chapels added to our churches at this late period; the ashlar facing of grey granite (which in 1985 we assumed to be Chausey, though the greyest of Jersey granites come from the Saint Mary area) resembles that of the south aisle at Saint Peter, a building almost certainly dated after 1500 by the flattened three-centred arch and square label mould of its west doorway.

The internal details, notwithstanding Joan Stevens' reluctance to assign them to a date as late as 1542, correlate even more strikingly, in both design and workmanship, with 16th-century features elsewhere. The arcade between the chapel and the north chancel, before it was rebuilt as a single arch in 1851, was exactly like the nave arcades at Saint Brelade, Saint Ouen and Saint John, for all of which there is independent evidence of a 16th-century date; the piscina appears to be by the same hand as the west doorway of the 1537 aisle at Saint Brelade, which has the same cable moulding and distinctive trifoliate chamfer stops; and the accolade lintel of the aumbry and the depressed ogee head of the stoup are typical 16th-century details which can be closely matched in the window lintels of some of our oldest farmhouses.

The stone

As to the epigraphy of the stone itself, Doctor Taylor says: "If we now turn to the much debated first of the three Saint Mary Cs, it will be noted that the vertical closing stroke is plainly present in the third C also, and, further, that there is a much weathered trace of it in the second C".

That is plainly true, and we have never questioned it. A far more significant detail, which Doctor Taylor omits to mention, is the way in which the horizontal stroke at the top of his supposed first C projects markedly beyond the downstrokes, with a slight upward tilt at each end. The left-hand downstroke curving round into the base like a C, but with a straight vertical downstroke on the right and a long horizontal closing stroke across the top, make this the normal mediaeval capital V that we see as a decorated initial to phrases such as Veni creator and Venite exultemus in illuminated service books: the Hours of Philip the Good, Duke of Burgundy, dated 1454-5 show some particularly clear examples almost identical in form and proportions to the V on the Saint Mary stone.

The inscription on the stone does not show the thick and thin strokes that in manuscript assist the eye in distinguishing between the basic form of the letter and its decorative details, and so the misreading of this character as a C was understandable before a comparative architectural study made all plain; but its interpretation as a C cannot be sustained now.

Finally, we must take issue with Doctor Taylor when he says, in the last paragraph of his article, that " while MVc is a legitimate form for 1500, MVcc is wholly unknown". On the limestone tablet built into the north-east corner buttress of the Hamptonne chapel at Saint Lawrence, the letters "M Vcc x x xi" in black-letter script can clearly be made out before the rest of the inscription is lost through defacement of the stone. And very recently, since we began to prepare this paper, we have received a most interesting communication from Mr M Mallalieu in which he gives details of six reported instances of the MVcc or MVCC form on crosses and Calvaries in the Finistere region of Brittany, taken from Y-P Castel, Atlas des Croix et Calvaires du Finistere.

These require verification, as Mr Mallalieu emphasizes in his letter, but, even allowing a margin for possible error, they cannot all be wrongly transcribed in the Atlas; and so it is evident that the form of the 1542 inscription at Saint Mary is not without precedent either in Jersey or in France.


Doctor Taylor writes:

I am indebted to the editor for allowing me an opportunity to comment on Mr Bisson's and Mr Aubin's reaffirmation of 'The Case for 1542' prior to publication. Opinion will continue to be divided as to whether the second digit on the datestone is a 'V' or a 'C': after all, I have, myself held both views at different times. If it is to be rightly interpreted as a 'V', then it is unusual, to say the least, for it to be followed by two full-sized 'C's rather than, as in the Lazise (1376), Grandson (1508) and Melan (1530) examples, by the more common single suprascript letter giving 'Vc'. If, however, the date on the stone is indeed MVCCXLII (1542), then I think this must provide confirmation that a reroofing of the chapel was carried out in that year, and that this is the explanation of the reused stones seen along the gable edges. I remain convinced that, as a structure, the south-east chapel of Saint Mary's Church belongs to the 14th, not the 16th century. This was also the view of the late Doctor J N L Myres, who had an unrivalled knowledge of all the Jersey chutches.

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