Holy Trinity, Meldreth: dating architectural features
In the absence of any documentary evidence relating to the building of the church in Meldreth, the dating of the phases of construction is dependent on architectural features. In a predominantly rubble building, the most useful diagnostic features are capital types, the profiles of arch mouldings and the forms of windows, all of which have typical forms in each century during the medieval period.
The earliest original capital forms are the so-called scallop capitals on the entrance arch into the tower and on the exterior of the tower. These were simple and inexpensive. More elaborate are the stylised leaf capitals, known as ‘water-leaf’ on the second stage of the tower, with their characteristic upturned scroll at the end of the leaf, though this window is entirely 19thc. The more elaborate foliate capitals of the north door of the nave, which, though 19thc follow capital designs of the late 12thc, and there would have similar-style capitals on the original south door before it was replaced with the present 15th-century porch. All of these forms are characteristic of the period 1160-1200. By the time that the nave arcade was constructed in the 15th century it was more common to have moulded capitals that follow the (here octagonal) shape of the piers.
More useful as an indication of date in Meldreth church is the form of the windows of which there is a good representative selection covering the whole medieval period.
The single lancets in the chancel are typical of the 12th century in parish churches, where windows were generally small in order to minimise openings in the structure and to avoid the expense of glass. The windows are on the outer face of the wall with wide splays internally to maximise the amount of light into the interior.
The next stage was for the lancets to become larger and to be elaborated with mouldings around the head of the window, with flanking free-standing shafts with capitals, as can be seen on the first two stages of the tower. The upper stage of the tower shows the next development, which was to place two lancets side by side beneath one arch with a pattern in the stonework at the head of the window. Here, there are four cusps to create a quatrefoil. The window arch is linked to half arches either side to create the effect of arcading. Also in the late 13th century, a larger window was inserted into west wall of the tower. This has been completely reconstructed in a later restoration but it illustrates well the way in which the bars of stone (tracery) within the window become much thinner and allow greater freedom in the design of the pattern.
This process of elaboration is beautifully represented by the three fine windows set into the north wall of the nave, and the window inserted into the northwest corner of the chancel, in the 14th century. The free-flowing forms, the use of reverse-curve (ogee) arches and the variety of patterns is typical of the 1340s and 1350s. The individual patterns can be paralleled closely with the contemporary work on Bishop Hotham’s choir at Ely, suggesting that cathedral masons may have worked at Meldreth. Note, too, the sharpness of the mouldings around the windows compared with the more rounded forms of the earlier tower arch.
By the time that we reach the 15th-century south aisle, the patterns have become rectilinear with marked vertical emphasis achieved by extending the mullions (the vertical bars of stone) through to the head of the arch. This feature of design (the so-called Perpendicular style) became fashionable from the mid-14th century onwards. Also typical of the late medieval period are the shallow, ‘depressed’ arches in place of the more steeply pointed forms of the 13th and earlier 14th centuries.
It should also be remembered that the elaborate tracery patterns would have been integrated with the design of the stained glass that originally filled these windows, prior to its destruction by Dowsing in 1643. How that worked can be seen in the Mortlock window in the south aisle, with a figure beneath an elaborate canopy in each light, surmounted by a choir of angels and the Agnus Dei in the head of the window.
The latest window to be inserted is the one at the northeast end of the nave. This is a rectangular window, characteristic of the Tudor period, also showing a revival of interest in ogee arches at the head of each lancet. Internally, this window has asymmetrical splays, showing that it was intended to illuminate the area at the east end of the nave. This suggests that the window was inserted after the destruction of the screen and the replacement of the medieval stone altar with a wooden table in the nave. If this suggestion is correct, this window must be from the later 16th century, as it was recorded in 1561 that the medieval altar had not yet been destroyed.