St Nicholas, Castle Hedingham, Essex

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Feature Sets (4)


Castle Hedingham is a village in the Braintree district of NE Essex, 7 miles SW of Sudbury and 9 miles SE of Haverhill. It is best known for the Norman castle on the N side of the village, subject of another entry, but the church, in the village centre, holds much that is of interest for those involved in 12thc architecture and sculpture. It consists of a long chancel with a N vestry and a N chapel, now converted into an organ room, a nave with 6-bay aisles, a S porch and a W tower. The church is substantially of the late-12thc, except for the brick W tower, dated on a plaque to 1616, but showing signs that it was built 100 years earlier. Also of the 15thc is the S porch, the nave clerestory and the battlements on the nave and aisle walls. The church was restored by Woodyer in 1870-72, and many features that appear to be Romanesque are his. Hence the features recorded here are three doorways, those of the chancel windows that appear to have original elements, the chancel arch, the tower arch responds, the nave arcades, two carved stones reset on the exterior and one inside, and what appears to be a pillar piscina that has been interpreted as at least two other objects (see comments). In the churchyard is a war memorial that incorporates early-12thc carvings, and this is the subject of its own entry.


Castle Hedingham and the nearby village of Sible Hedingham are not distinguished in the Domesday Survey, but as both were held by Aubrey de Vere in demesne in 1086 this is not important to us. The manor was held by Wulfwine in 1066, and was assessed at over 3 hides in all. In addition the record lists 33 villeins, 29 bordars, 10 slaves, 13 freemen and 15 burgesses of Sudbury who were assessed with the manor. This adds up to 100 households - a considerable settlement.

A nunnery at Castle Hedingham was founded by Aubrey de Vere, 1st earl of Oxford, and his wife Lucy, some time in the 12thc. In 1191 their son Aubrey confirmed the gift, and added the church of Castle Hedingham and a wood in Gosfield. The manor remained in de Vere hands until the early 18thc.


Exterior Features


N nave doorway

Single order, round headed. The jambs have slender engaged nook-shafts on attic bases with pronounced roll neckings. They carry tall volute capitals with ball volutes, and curious imposts, tapered with two deep horizontal hollows. The arch has a keeled angle roll with a face hollow and a thin face roll outside it.

Height of opening 2.70m
Width of opening 1.25m

S chancel doorway

Round headed, 2 orders

Height of opening 2.43m
Width of opening 0.91m
1st order

Keeled angle rolls treated as fictive shafts in the jambs, with worn spurred attic bases. The fictive capitals are very tall volutes with roll neckings. The W capital has a spade-shaped leaf on the angle below the main volute, while the E is treated as a flat-leaf capital. Imposts are hollow chamfered with an angle roll at the bottom of the face. The arch has a row of lozenges on the angle with concentric lozenges and acentral boss in each lozenge. The row of lozenges is surrounded by a frame with pointed ends in the form of a quirled roll.

2nd order

Engaged keeled nook-shafts on spurred attic bases. The W capital has two rows of simpl;ified acanthus with notches between the leaves of the lower row, and heavy roll volutes on the upper leaves. The E capital is similar in form to the 1st order W capital. Plain roll neckings and imposts as the first order. The arch has centripetal point-to-point chevron over a roll, with a lily in each trangular field on face and soffit. There is a chamfered label; with a row of billet on the chamfer.

S nave doorway

Round headed, 3 orders with a head at the apex. A wooden frame has been inserted to carry the door, and this partly conceals the 1st order, which can only be seen from inside the church.

Height of opening 2.89m
Width of opening 1.51m
1st order

Keeled angle shafts on attic bases, carryting tall fictive volute capitals with ball volutes, roll neckings and imposts as the outer orders. The form of the arch moulding is hidden by the door frame.

2nd order

Engaged nook-shafts on worn attic bases, carrying crosket capitals with plain roll neckings. Imposts are of the double-hollow type found on the N nave doorway, and the arch has an angle roll between quadrant hollows on face and soffit.

3rd order

The bases are entirely and the jambs partly obscured by the masonry of the later porch, but what can be seen is similar to the 2nd order. The arches too repeat the 2nd order design. There is a half-roll label, and at its apex a worn human head with helmet-like hair and no surviving features.


1. Chancel E wheel window

Single order, circular. The outer rim has a quirked hollow chamfere inside a double roll label with a deep hollow between the rolls. The hub has a rond central oculus surrounded by radiating arcading; both oculus and arcade arches with inner angle rolls. There are 8 spokes, evenly spaced, with cylindrical attached shafts having low attic bases and a variety of capitals, all with roll neckings, square abaci and no impost blocks. The capitals are here numbered clockwise beginning with the vertical shaft at the top (12 o'clock position). Curiously, shafts 1, 2 and 8 have the capitals towards the rim and the bases on the hub, while the remainder are the other way around. Only capitals 1, 2, 5 and 7 are 12thc; the rest are 19thc replacements, as indicated in the descriptions below.

Capital 1

Flat-leaf crocket capital with a spade-shaped leaf on the front face. 12thc with replaced necking.

Capital 2

Crocket capital with thin lanceolate leves between the angle leaves. 12thc with original necking.

Capital 3

19thc crocket capital with a collar of flat leaves below the crockets.

Capital 4

19thc capital with grotesque beast head with volutes as ears.

Capital 5

12thc capital with a frontal human face witha oval eyes, straight nose and closed mouth, flanked by worn stiff-leaf.. Original necking.

Capital 6

19thc Grotesque human head capital with curving stems forming hair.

Capital 7

Badly worn 12thc capital of crocket form. The necking is broken and the abacus lost and replaced with an inserted repair to the arch springer.

Capital 8

19thc copy of capital 2.

2. Chancel E wall lower S window

Single order, pointed with keeled engaged nook-shafts on attic bases carrying stiff-leaf (S) or crocket (N) capitals. The imposts are hollow chamfered with an angle roll along the lower edge of the face.  The arch has an angle roll between face and soffit hollows, and the label has an angle roll inside a hollow chamfer.

3. Chancel E wall lower central window

As the lower S window, but both capitals are crockets, and the label has eroded stops in the form of heads, possibly human, the N head with major losses. It is also slightly taller, emphasizing its central position.

4. Chancel E wall lower N window

As the lower S window  but the S capital is a crocket with 2 rows of leaves and the N a worn flat leaf type, again with 2 rows of leaves.

5. Chancel S wall window 2

As E wall lower S window (4), but both capitals are tall; the W with ball volutes and the E a waterleaf form.

6. Chancel S wall window 3

As E wall lower S window (4), but both capitals are tall with worn volutes. 

7. Chancel N wall window 2

As E wall lower S window (4), but both capitals are tall and possibly 19thc: the E with crockets and a row of flat leaves below with rows on beading on the spines, and the W with fleshy crockets.

8. Chancel N wall window 3

As E wall lower S window (4), but both capitals are tall; the E with overlapping volutes, possibly a 19th copy, and the W with simple volutes.

Exterior Decoration

Corbel tables, corbels

Chancel S wall, corbel above central buttress

A beast head corbel with bulbous oval eyes, a short nose, wrinkled snout, open mouth and small cat-like ears.


Chevron voussoir in N chancel wall

Reset in the N wall of the chancel at the E end, W of the clasping corner buttress, 3.20m above the ground and immediately above the sill-level of the windows is a centrifugal face chevron voussoir with three rolls of chevron. Measurement of the stone was not possible.

Interior Features


Chancel arch/Apse arches

Chancel arch

Pointed, 2 orders to E and W. Description is rendered somewhat problematic by the chancel screen of c.1500 which, beautiful as it is, obscures the 1st order jambs and parts of their capitals. The Essex SMR reports that the arch was 'possibly widenened and rebuilt' in the 14thc, incorporating original and new material.

1st order (shared)

Engaged half-columns, partly concealed by the chancel screen, on spurred bases. The main faces of the capitals are concealed by the screen, but the angles and both side faces are visible. The N capital has a row of flat leaves rising from the necking, and above it, heavy crockets are visible on the angles to E and W. The S has fat crockets on the angles and palmettes below. Imposts have two deep hollows below a face with a lower angle roll, similar to those of the navel doorways. The arch has a fat keeled soffit roll flanked by a row of hyphenated chevron frontal to the soffit on either side.

2nd order E face

Engaged nook-shafts on spurred attic bases. The capitals are flat leaf with pronounced volutes on the main angle leaves only. Imposts are as the 1st order. The arch has a keeled angle roll flanked by rows of back-to-back chevron, frontal to face and soffit

2nd order W face

 Responds as the W face. The N capital is a crocket with a row of flat leaves below the main volutes; and the S is similarly crocketed but with stiff leaf in the lower register. Imposts are as the 1st order. The arch is similar to the E face. There is what must be called a label outside the arch, with 3 rows of frontal chevron; a thin roll between two fatter ones.

Tower/Transept arches

W tower arch

The arch itself is 16thc and pointed, but the capitals on half-column responds with low attic bases that support it belong to the same c.1200 campaign as the nave arcades. Imposts are like those of the nave arcades, having a deep hollow above a roll, and an angle roll at the bottom of the upright face. .

N capital

Large crockets on the angles, and on the face between them two flat leaves. The E scallops are backed by leaves with scalloped edges.

S capital

Crocket-like volutes at the angles with, on the main face between them, 3 units of a spade-shaped leaf flanked by curved, fluted upright leaves with spiral tips on the faces. This motif also appears once on each side face and is used on the W respond capitals of both nave arcades.



N nave arcade

The nave arcades are of 6 bays and round headed, except for the E bay on either side, which is pointed and 13thc. The c.1200 part of the arcade is carried on alternate cylindrical and octagonal piers (pier 1 on each arcade is cylindrical), bases are water-holding, and imposts have a deep hollow above a roll, and an angle roll at the bottom of the upright face. Arches are of 2 orders: the 1st with a fat soffit roll; the 2nd on the nave side with a chamfer on the angle bearing a fine roll, and a hollow-chamfered with a groove in the face and simplified foliage label stops. On the aisle side the 2nd order now has a hollow chamfer with simple stops, but there is evidence that it was originally similar to the nave side (see below). 

Pier 1

The pier is cylindrical with half a 12thc capital on the W side (the E side is moulded). The capital has angle volutes, spade-shaped leaves in the middle of each face, and on the W face further volutes tipped with lilies between the angles and the centre. Plain roll necking.

Pier 2

Octagonal pier with a crocket capital having a large crocket on each angle and three more on each face. Plain necking.

Pier 3

Cylindrical pier with wind-blown stiff-leaf capitals, having a large volute on each angle and three more on each face. Plain roll necking.

Pier 4

The capital is similar to pier 3, but on an octagonal pier.

Pier 5

The Pier is cylindrical, and the capital has volutes on the angles, connected by a collar of three fluted upright leaves on each face. Plain roll necking.

W respond

A semi-octagonal attached respong carrying a capital with angle crockets, and spade shaped-leaves flanked by curved, fluted upright leaves with spiral tips on the faces. Plain necking.

S nave arcade

Basically as the N arcade (see above). The arcades differ in details of the capitals.

Pier 1

The pier is cylindrical with half a 12thc capital on the W side (the E side is moulded). The design is an untidier version of N arcade pier 1.

Pier 2

As N arcade pier 2.

Pier 3

As N arcade pier 2.

Pier 4

As N arcade pier 4.

Pier 5

Similar to N arcade pier 4.

W respond

As N arcade W respond.

Interior Decoration


Relief of praying figure

Set into the S wall of the S nave at towards the E end is a rectangular relief of a half-length frontal figure with hands together as in prayer. The head is hairless and egg-shaped, with small ovel eyes with drilled pupils, a straight nose lost at the tip, a closed mouth turned down at the ends and marked naso-labial grooves. The neck is thick and columnar and the figure is in a round-arched niche.

Height of block 0.28m
Width of block 0.305m


Piscinae/Pillar Piscinae

Pillar piscina or stoup

Set in the S nave aisle wall immediately E of the S doorway. It consists of a 12thc capital, hollowed for use as a piscina or stoup, on a later square shaft with chamfered angles and base, carrying a chamfered necking. The font shield of the bowl has an inverted cat-mask at the bottom, with leaves issuing from it: one in the centre with a beaded spine and trilobed folded tip, and two to each side, which are simple spatulate leaves with raied edges and horizontal frooves as decoration on the centre. The side faces; only half-width, are decorated with spiral stems with leaf terminals. The two triangular bell sections are carved with fanned fluting. The interior is hollowed out to form a rectangular basin with no drain hole, but mortar repairs to the interior S section and bottom that might conceal one.

Height of bowl with necking 0.26m
Height of bowl without necking 0.22m
Max. width of bowl (E-W) 0.45m
Max. width of bowl (N-S) 0.43m
Width of bowl interior 0.33m x 0.33m


The list description calls this church 'one of the most outstanding in Essex', and it is hard to disagree. The earliest feature here is probably the pillar piscina or stoup: described as 12thc or earlier in the list description, and simply as Norman in Pevsner (1954) and Bettley (2007). It could date from the 1st quarter of the 12thc. Most authors call it a stoup, on the grounds that it is positioned where one would expect one, but its structure is that of a pillar piscina. It has also been said (see Bird, below) that its was the terminal of the churchyard cross, now remodelled as a War Memorial and given its own site entry on this website, but this seems unlikely in the extreme. The small relief on the S aisle wall has been described as an 'obscure demi-figure, perhaps of a woman praying'.and speculatively dated to the 12thc by Bettley and Pevsner, but the present author can see no female characteristics.  The doorways, arcades and chancel arch are uniform in style, and belong to the very end of the 12thc, or the start of the 13thc, certainly after 1180.  The random corbel head and reset chevron voussoir belong with the earlier phase.


  • C. Bird, History of the War Memorial at St Nicholas’ Church. See http://www.castlehedingham.org/history/war-memorial.

  • J. Bettley and N. Pevsner, The Buildings of England. Essex, New Haven and London 2007, 195-97.

  • J. Cooper, The Church Dedications and Saints’ Cults of Medieval Essex, Lancaster 2011, 139.

  • Essex Sites and Monuments Record 6785

  • Historic England Listed Building 114530.

  • N. Pevsner, The Buildings of England. Essex, Harmondsworth 1954, 99-101.

  • Victoria County History: Essex II (1907), 122-23 (on the nunnery)

  • T. Wright, The History and Topography of the County of Essex, I, 1836, 508-24.

Interior to E
Chancel E wall
Exterior from SE


Site Location
Castle Hedingham
National Grid Reference
TL 785 356 
now: Essex
pre-1974 traditional (England and Wales): Essex
now: Chelmsford
medieval: London
now: St Nicholas
medieval: St Nicholas (mid-13thc)
Type of building/monument
Parish church  
Report authors
Ron Baxter 
Visit Date
12 November 2015, 3 December 2015