St Mary's Church datestone 1

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St Mary's Church datestone 1

This article by Peter Bisson and Christopher Aubin was first published in the 1985 Annual Bulletin of La Société Jersiaise

Dated stones have been a characteristic feature of Jersey buildings since the 16th century. They are found on houses from 1580 onwards; Mont Orgueil Castle has several with dates around 1550, and two pre-Reformation examples survive at the parish churches of St Lawrence and St Mary. At St Lawrence the magnificent chapel on the north side of the chancel, added to the church by Louis Hamptonne in the reign of Henry VIII, has a limestone tablet built into the buttress at its north-east corner, with a date carved in black-letter script on a riband encircling the Hamptonne coat of arms.

St Lawrence

The stone has been partially defaced and the inscription is incomplete. Balleine in The Bailiwick of Jersey quotes the date as 1524, while the drawing on page 176 of Payne's Armorial interprets it as 1520, followed by part of another word: "a[ nno] m vCc xx n ... " Both these readings are incorrect and in fact the date is somewhere between 1531 and 1539, the letters "m vCc x x xi ... " being clearly discernible on the undamaged portion of the riband.

Apart from putting the record straight this correction is of no great consequence, but the date stone at St Mary's church has called for more drastic reinterpretation in the light of improved knowledge of our mediaeval architecture.

St Mary stone

This stone is set at the apex of the east gable of the part of the church that is now used liturgically as the chancel, but is strictly the south chapel: that is to say, the left-hand gable as you stand outside the church facing the east end. The lettering incised on the stone, in crudely fashioned capitals of debased Lombardic type, appears at first sight to make up the date 1342, thus -


The existence of the stone was first noted at the end of the 19th century by the Reverend G E Lee, Rector of St Peter Port in Guernsey, in his day a much respected authority on the church architecture of the Channel Islands. In the summer of 1897, when St Mary's church was visited in the course of a joint excursion by La Société Jersiaise and a party of members of the Royal Archaeological Institute of Great Britain and Ireland the English architect J T Micklethwaite mounted a ladder to inspect the stone at close quarters "and fully confirmed Mr Lee's discovery"; however, both Lee and Micklethwaite were apparently deceived by the cross-bar of the X at the beginning of the second line and misread this character as an ampersand, interpreting the date as MCCC & LII, ie 1352. It is now generally agreed that the lower half of the inscription is in fact XLII (42), but the reading of the top line has never been questioned, and until very recently this chapel has been regarded as a fine specimen of mid-14th century architecture, with a remarkably early date stone to prove it.

Study of churches

During 1983 and 1984 the writers of this article assisted Mr J A McCormack with the Jersey field work for his new book on the parish churches and mediaeval chapels of the Channel Islands. This is believed to be the first time that a detailed comparative architectural study of all the Jersey parish churches has been attempted, and it has proved an illuminating exercise.

At first, the date of 1342 for the south chapel at St Mary seemed to be one of the few fixed points on which to base a sequence of dating for our pre-reformation church buildings. There was no apparent cause to doubt either the authenticity or the interpretation of the date stone, and for work of corresponding style in an English church a date in the first half of the 14th century would be quite reasonable. However, it is not safe to rely on the phases of English architectural development as evidence for the dating of mediaeval buildings in the Channel Islands, which were wholly French in type, with a pronounced stylistic time-lag owing to the isolation of the island communities.

As our study progressed it became increasingly plain that 1342 cannot be accepted as the date of this chapel in view of the fact that, as will be shown, all its features can be closely matched with work at the other Jersey churches which is reliably dated on independent evidence to the late 15th and 16th centuries.


The chapel is a regular four-bay structure faced externally with blue-grey Chausey granite laid in ashlar blocks, except for the part of the south wall below the level of the window sills, which is in red Jersey granite of a hard, fine-grained type. The buttresses, of Chausey stone down to ground level, have a moulded string-course half way up and another just below the top weathering; the slope of this weathering is not flat but has a double concave moulding gouged out of it to give a horizontally fluted effect.

The buttress at the south-east angle of the chapel is set diagonally, and early 19th century drawings of the church show that a similar diagonal buttress existed at the south¬west corner before the chapel was extended westwards by two bays in about 1840 to create a south aisle, now used as the nave. All the windows have hood-moulds with finials, except that in the west bay adjoining the 1840 extension, which has lost its finial, if it ever had one. The coarse geometrical tracery is Victorian and we cannot tell if the south windows were divided originally into two narrow lights and the east window into three as they are to-day, but it seems not unlikely that the fragment of pre-Reformation tracery now serving as a finial to the Victorian east window of the north chancel came from one of the windows of this chapel. The window in the third bay from the east on the south side has been partly converted from a doorway, of which more will be said later.

None of these features is commensurate with a date in the 14nth century, when the church architecture of the Channel Islands was simple and primitive by standards obtaining in England or France. Chausey granite, with its high mica content, is softer and more easily worked than that from any of the Jersey quarries (though it weathers badly for the same reason) and was employed extensively in our churches in the late Middle Ages for windows and doorways, arcades, dressings and all kinds of carved and moulded detail; here and there we find a simple lancet window in this stone which may date from the first half of the 14th century (eg the east window of the north chapel at St Peter), but it was certainly not in use for ashlar masonry as early as 1342: nor at that date did we have buttresses with string-courses or windows with hood-moulds.

14th-century buttresses in Jersey are of simple offset type, the sloped weatherings generally having a slight lip at the edge, as at St Ouen's and St Peter's north chapels and the south chapel at Grouville (the latter possibly not built until after 1400); diagonal buttresses are unknown at this period, the corners of buildings invariably retaining the early arrangement of a pair of buttresses set at right angles, sometimes of the 'clasping' type with the corner of the wall showing between them.

The earliest diagonal corner buttresses in the island appear to be the gabled ones of the south chapel at St Martin, that at the south-west corner partly engulfed by the wall of the later south aisle; like so much else at St Martin this chapel presents a puzzling combination of features and is difficult to date, but it is unlikely to have been built until some time after the hiatus that followed the Black Death of 1349.

Such windows as can be identified as belonging to 14th-century work are also very simple in form with plain splayed or chamfered frames, and it would have been exceptional at this date for a chapel to feature the regular arrangement of openings in each bay of its lateral wall that we find at St Mary.

Hood-moulds or dripstones, characteristic of English Gothic windows and doorways since the end of the 12th century, do not appear in Jersey until the mid-15th, when our churches began to be transformed by a fresh wave of building activity in a far more sophisticated and up-to-date French style, distinguished by finely carved mouldings and dressed arcading in Chausey granite. The latter was an important innovation as 14th-century arcading generally consisted of arches of hammer-cut voussoirs springing from low piers without imposts, similar in construction to the arch of the gateway at Grosnez Castle, and often, though not always, originally meant to be plastered over. The new work, with its tall, wide-spreading arches of cool grey stone, must have seemed wonderfully impressive to the Jersey parishioners.

15th century developments

The 15th-century phase of building is represented to a greater or lesser extent in most of the churches and marks the high summer of their architectural development, producing, among much else, the towers and crossings at St Helier and St Saviour, the remodelling of the crossing and chancel at St Clement, the stately south aisle at St Peter, and the magnificent three- and four-light windows with moulded jambs and flowing tracery that can be seen at their finest in the east ends of St Saviour and Grouville.

John McCormack dates some of this work as early as 1440, but we doubt if the style arrived in Jersey until the second half of the century. It has been suggested that the Chausey stone was supplied ready carved by resident craftsmen working at the quarries, rather than being imported in the rough and worked on site; however, if so, one would expect to find the same workmanship in mouldings and carved details in the Guernsey churches as in the Jersey ones, and this does not appear to be the case. There is comparatively little work of this period in Guernsey and it is quite different in style and detail to ours, though representing broadly the same architectural fashion.

The Jersey work is remarkably uniform in design and execution and the number of individual skilled masons involved was probably very small: the crossings at St Helier, St Saviour and St Clement, as well as at least four major east windows, not to mention various lesser features, were almost certainly carved by one and the same man. From 1461 to 1468 Jersey (but not Guernsey) was temporarily under French rule, and though the occupation clearly had its oppressive side, there are indications, not yet fully studied, that it also had important positive aspects which have left their mark on island institutions down to the present day.

French occupation

We feel there is a strong possibility that the large-scale programme of additions and improvements to the Jersey churches at about this time, not paralleled in Guernsey, executed in a style of markedly superior quality to earlier mediaeval architecture in the island, and showing no sign of gradual transition from it, may be the work of French craftsmen brought over to Jersey during the occupation years.

If this explanation is correct, the local practice established by the French masons must have continued after the island was recaptured on behalf of the English Crown by Richard Harliston in 1468. In both form and workmanship the south aisle at St Peter belongs to the 15th-century building phase, but it is clearly a late example and its west doorway has a depressed three-centred arch surmounted by a square label mould, which cannot be earlier than c1475-80 and which in isolation one would be inclined to date after 1500.

The buttresses on the south side of this aisle are the earliest in Jersey to feature a string-course instead of an offset, and the finely dressed ashlar facing of the south wall resembles that of the chapel at St Mary in being of local stone up to about the level of the window sills, changing to grey Chausey granite above.

16th century

The spate of extensions and alterations to churches went on throughout the first half of the 16th century: the north aisle at St Lawrence was barely completed, if not still in building, when the accession of Edward VI in 1547 ushered in the English Reformation. However, the character of the work changes after 1500.

Though much of the basic repertoire of mouldings and details is carried over from the preceding phase, the buildings themselves - apart from the Hamptonne chapel at St Lawrence, which is in a class of its own - appear modest and provincial by comparison, lacking the earlier assurance of design and perhaps reflecting the gradual debasement of the imported French style in the hands of a new generation of local masons.

Arches and arcades, though still finely dressed, are now generally smaller and lower, giving a less grand and more intimate effect internally; windows are seldom of more than two lights, and their design becomes more varied. As late as 1546 those in the north wall of the aisle at St Lawrence are closely similar to the double-light windows of the 1460s at the Town Church, but elsewhere we find windows with round heads and elaborately crocketed hood-moulds (St Ouen) or with pointed heads and no hood-mould at all (St Brelade and St John).

The big east window of the chancel at St Brelade is evidently an insertion of this period, though its mullions and tracery are Victorian; the design of the frame, with a large clumsy finial perched awkwardly on the ogee of a semicircular hood-mould, compares poorly with the superb east windows of the 15th century. This window and the two crocketed west doorways of the nave aisles at St Ouen show a strong family likeness to the large and ornate front doorway of c1500-20 at Longueville Manor, with its enormous cabbage-like crockets, and may well be the work of the same hand.

At an early stage in our study of the churches it became evident that the arcading coeval with the south chapel at St Mary was closely related to that of the nave aisles at St Brelade, St Ouen and St John which we now know to belong to the 16th-century building phase. The north aisle at St Brelade is dated by a document of 1537 among the Alexandre family papers, which tells us that it was under construction at that time: the parish had run short of funds to complete the work and was selling some rente in order to raise cash.

The exterior walling of this aisle is rough and crude, but internally it is divided from the nave by a fine Chausey granite arcade of four bays whose cylindrical columns with moulded capitals and bases, and arch section consisting of two hollow chamfers with a right-angled 'quirk' between them, are similar to those of the late 15th-century arcades, though the smaller proportions are typical of the 16th century.

St Ouen has a matching pair of nave aisles of this period, ashlar faced and with string-course buttresses like the south aisle at St Peter, though far more clumsily executed; the arcades are almost identical in form to that at St Brelade, and where the aisles adjoin the older chapels to the east of them the original west walls of the chapels are pierced by a pair of arches (apparently not of one build with the arcades) somewhat resembling the 15th-century crossing arches at St Clement.

The nave arcade at St John is of the same pattern as those at St Ouen and St Brelade, except that here the moulded bases and capitals are confined to the responds at each end, the free-standing pillars (one of which was removed in Victorian times) being left plain, presumably as an economy measure; in this case a date in the second quarter of the 16th century for the addition of the north aisle is strongly supported by structural evidence, as the north wall of the aisle is built against the north-west angle buttress of the north chapel, which is part of a remodelling of that chapel almost certainly no earlier than the end of the 15th century.

South chapel

At St Mary the south chapel now communicates with the chancel by a single wide arch, but there were originally two arches here, the central pillar being removed in 1851. Some at least of the original voussoirs were reused when the new arch was made, and it is evident that before alteration the two-bay arcade was of the same type as the 16th-century examples described above; it is quite likely that they were all carved by the same mason.

As at St John the capitals and bases were not moulded throughout, but here it was the free-standing column that was moulded and the responds that were left plain; the ejected pillar, now standing by the roadside not far away at Meadow Court with the head of a pre-Reformation wayside cross on top, has mouldings exactly like those at St Brelade and St Ouen. These mouldings were reproduced in the early Victorian nave arcade, which was built before the pillar was removed from the church.

The arch linking the chapel with the crossing is also instructive. Because the crossing is short in its east-west dimension there was no room to insert an arch in its south side corresponding to those of the chancel arcade, as was done for instance on the north side of the crossing at St John; instead there is a plain narrow arch of dressed stone, with merely a hollow chamfer at the edge and a moulded plinth round the base of the pier on each side. Apart from the different form of its chamfer stops this arch closely resembles the crossing arches at St Clement and the two arches across the nave aisles at St Ouen. There can be no question of either it or the arcade being work of the 14th century, when, as previously stated, interior arches were still of the rough-cut 'Grosnez' type.

A further link with 16th-century work elsewhere is provided by the south windows, whose hood-moulds and finials are very close to those of a double-light window of this period in the south wall of the chancel at St Brelade. At St Mary the window frames have a plain unmoulded chamfer, but the window at St Brelade has jamb mouldings related to those of the 16th-century east window mentioned above, and is evidently of about the same date. The buttresses at St Mary, with their double string course and moulded weathering, cannot be exactly matched elsewhere but may have been partly inspired by those at the east end of the chancel at St Clement, which date from the last quarter of the 15th century.

The window in the third bay from the east, opposite the tower, today appears just the same as the others and offers no hint of the unusual and interesting configuration shown in illustrations of the church before about 1860. Formerly there was a round-headed doorway here, and above it was a triangular window with a hood-mould, matching the pointed heads of the windows in the other three bays. According to the guide-book to the church prepared by Joan Stevens and Jean Arthur this was originally a niche for a statue, converted into a window in the 18th century and later altered to an ordinary two-light window when the doorway was abolished in the course of the particularly barbaric mid-Victorian 'improvements' inflicted on this church.

A triangular hood-moulded window or niche over a doorway is a feature not known anywhere else in Jersey and its loss here is a great misfortune. There can be little doubt that the arrangement was original: though the signs of alteration in the jambs of the existing window are not obvious, its hood-mould appears to be contemporary with those of the other windows and must therefore be that of the original triangular niche, while the presence of a holy water stoup in the wall inside shows that there was an entrance to the chapel in this bay before the Reformation.


The form of the stoup, with its depressed ogee head, corresponds to that of the magnificent piscina at the east end of the south wall, where the actual recess is of the same shape though surmounted by a blind trefoil head framed by a cable moulding. The spandrels of the arch thus formed are filled with elaborate cable-moulded crocketing (which is lightly carved and does not show up clearly in photographs) and the chamfer stops at the base of the jambs are in the form of little trifoliate crosses.

This piscina is quite certainly of the 16th century and is presumably by the same hand as the round-arched west doorway of the 1537 north aisle at St Brelade, which also features a cable moulding and exactly similar trifoliate chamfer stops; another piscina of different workmanship, but in the same style with a blind trefoil head above the flattened ogival top of the recess, can be seen in the Hamptonne chapel at St Lawrence, which as explained at the beginning of this article dates from between 1531 and 1539.

Other significant interior details at St Mary are the square chamfered recess - either an aumbry or an Easter sepulchre - in the north-east corner, with its accolade moulding of a standard type found on 16th-century domestic window lintels, and the pair of moulded image brackets projecting from the wall on either side of the east window.

Image brackets were a common feature of churches throughout the Middle Ages, but the carving of these indicates a late 15th or 16th-century date.

A final point regarding the architecture of the chapel which may be mentioned for the sake of completeness is that Young's drawing of the church from the west in about 1815, before the addition of the new south aisle, shows the west wall of the chapel blank except for a small circular window in the gable. These little round lights were universally common in early mediaeval architecture, being used in conjunction with a pair of narrow lancet windows and a central buttress to create a standard gable-end design that was still widely employed for both east and west ends of churches in Jersey in the 12th and early 13th centuries, long after it had ceased to be fashionable on the Continent.

The later 13th and 14th centuries abandoned the twin lancets and roundel at the east end in favour of a single pointed window, though we cannot tell what the west ends were like as none of our chapels of this period preserves its west wall intact, except the late 14th or early 15th-century south chapel at Grouville, where the wall is completely blank with no openings of any kind. However, a round window high in the west wall was a regular feature of the late 15th/16th-century style: the south aisles at St Helier and St Peter, the north aisles at St John and possibly St Brelade, and both aisles at St Ouen, as well as the chapel here at St Mary, all have, or preserve evidence of having once had, a circular window in their west gables.

Why the stone?

Individually some of the features described above might be explained as secondary alterations; collectively they afford conclusive proof that this chapel is a work not of the 14th but the 16th century. Why then does it prominently display a stone apparently bearing the date 1342? Was an earlier stone reused in the new structure, perhaps commemorating a genuine building of 1342 that was demolished to make way for the present one? 14th-century date stones, though rare, are not unknown: the great round dovecote at Garway in Herefordshire has a dated inscription of 1326, and from photographs of this, supplied by Dr Arnold Taylor, it can be seen that the letters M CCC in the date are very like those on the stone at St Mary. On the other hand, from the photograph of the St Mary's stone Dr Taylor was able to form the opinion that "all the indications ... are that it remains in the position for which it was prepared and in which it was laid:'

There can be only one answer to this conundrum, and it bears out the axiom that the impossible probable should be preferred to the improbable possible. The date on the stone is not 1342 at all.

To make this part of the argument clear we must pause at this point to consider the way dates were written in Jersey in the Middle Ages. Arabic numerals did not come into use here until the mid-16th century; before that, dates and other numbers were written in a varying mixture of words, Roman numerals used in the classical way, and contractions in which Roman numerals were used in a kind of shorthand. The use of these contractions was not confined to the Channel Islands: iiijXX for eighty (quatre vingts or four score) is familiar elsewhere, and French manuscripts often express other numbers as multiples of 20, eg vjXX for 120 and vijXX for 140. A similar device was used for hundreds. A fifteenth-century example of this in an English context appears in a reference in the Paston Letters to a French attack on the Channel Islands in 1454:

"The Frenshmen hafe be afore the Isles of Gersey and Gerneysey ... and vC [500] be taken and sleyn of hem by men of the seyd trew jsles" (William Worcester to John Paston I, 8 June 1454).

Dates in mediaeval Jersey documents written in French made extensive use of this style. A Jersey scribe writing a document in 1342 would have dated it in (or in some variation of) one of two ways, either l'an mil ccc xlii or l'an mil iiic xlii. Both methods continued in use in the 15th century, but only the latter form was employed from 1500 onwards. The letter D to denote 500 was not used in Jersey, nor do we find 16th-century dates in the style M.CCCCC ... sometimes seen in England; instead they are invariably written l'an mil vCc ... and those of the early 17th century in the same way, l'an mil vjcc. ..

The dated stone on the Hamptonne chapel at St Lawrence, discussed at the beginning of this article, uses the Vcc form in an inscription which is evidently in Latin, with the simple letter M in place of the French mil usually found in documents. This method of dating is apparently not well known to English mediaevalists, though examples exist in funerary inscriptions on the Continent. De Caumont cites one of 1511 in Normandy with the date written mil vCc & onze, and Dr Taylor has personally verified the reading (1508) on the leger stone of Prior Guillaume Bourgeois in the priory church of Grandson in Switzerland.

Date of 1542 from St Mary's Church
Date of 1326 from inscription on dovecote at Garway, Herefordshire

Close examination of the lettering on the stone at St Mary shows that the first of the supposed three Cs is different from the other two, having a flat top which makes a definite corner with the left-hand downstroke, instead of curving smoothly round like the others; from this corner a short stroke projects upwards and to the left at about the same angle as the upper left-hand serifs of the LII on the line below. It is this upward diagonal - not shown in the drawing of the stone in church guidebook - that provides the vital clue. This letter is not a C with a vertical stroke linking its horns, like the two that follow it: it is a V with a horizontal stroke across the top. What we have here is the date 1542, rendered as M.V.CC.XLII by a mason for whom, perhaps, suprascript was too great a subtlety.

Dr Taylor has particularly drawn our attention to the very clear and obviously intentional punctuation mark between the V and the first C; there appears to be a similar point after the M, and another at the end of the first line. It is interesting to note that apart from the strong horizontal stroke closing the top of the letter, the V here is much the same as that in the date M CCC XXVI on the dovecote at Garway. Note that in the original Garway inscription the two halves of the date come at the end of one line and the beginning of the next, and are not directly superimposed as shown here. The small round mark below the V is an indentation in the stone.

This comparison with an English inscription of two hundred years earlier underlines the fact that the debased Lombardic lettering of the inscription at St Mary is extraordinarily old-fashioned for its date. Dr Taylor informs us that Lombardic script was quite obsolete in England by 1500, and although the date on the Bourgeois tombstone of 1508 at Grandson has a Lombardic M, the rest of the long inscription round the edge of the stone is entirely in black-letter.

The use of a form of Lombardic at St Mary may be simply a case of local stylistic backwardness, but it is interesting that its date coincides with the revival of Romanesque forms which is so curious a feature of Tudor architecture in the Channel Islands. We have already noted that windows in the first half of the 16th century sometimes have round rather than pointed heads.

The chancel arcade at St Saviour, probably dating from after 1500, consists of two very large semicircular arches of which those of the 1546 nave arcade at St Lawrence are a thicker and smaller version with simplified mouldings, while round arches were also used internally in the rebuilding at the end of the fifteenth century of the Guernsey church of St Pierre du Bois. Round-arched doorways of dressed stone, first appearing in Jersey as an ingredient of the French style of the 1460s, were to become the hallmark of our vernacular domestic architecture in the 16th and 17th centuries.

Professor G I Meirion-Jones states that the similar round-arched doorways of Brittany are a Renaissance feature not found before 1548, but this is certainly not the case in Jersey.

Then we have the cable moulding which appears on the piscina at St Mary and the north-west doorway at St Brelade. This form of decoration is familiar in England as a detail of Norman buildings of the 12th century, but wherever we find it in the Channel Islands it is associated with Tudor work. Other examples of its use in Jersey are a window at Le Vieux Menage and the corbels of a fireplace at Les Pigneaux, both in St Saviour, and a 16th-century benitier of unknown provenance at The Elms in St Mary; as late as 1586 it appears on the tombstone of Nicolas de Treguz in St Lawrence's churchyard. In Guernsey, where it is occasionally found on the projecting sills of 16th-century windows, there is an even later dated example on an interesting carved stone of 1596 at Les Vallettes depicting the pelican in her piety.

In a Jersey context, the architecture of the south chapel at St Mary accords perfectly with a date of 1542. With its ashlar facing, its elaborately moulded buttresses and its rich interior detail, it is a fine and interesting example of what could be accomplished on the eve of the Reformation by a small country parish with no resident seigneurial family to suggest an obvious source of building funds. Within less than a decade of its completion the piscina, stoup and image brackets on which was expended such devout workmanship were to become obsolete with the passing of the old faith; the piscina and stoup were plastered over, the projecting lip of the piscina bowl being hacked off flush with the wall face. To-day these features are valued once more as examples of pre-Reformation craftsmanship, and their survival provides important evidence to help us in determining the true date of this handsome chapel.

  • Since the above was written, a short article by Professor Meirion-Jones on Jersey round-arched doorways has appeared in the Jersey Society in London Bulletin in which he departs from the theory of a Renaissance origin for the round-arched doorway in view of its presence in late mediaeval manoirs in north-western France. He now sees the round arch as a persistent Romanesque form which subsisted tenuously alongside the pointed Gothic arch throughout the Middle Ages and came back fully into fashion in the 16th century.

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