There is ample documentary evidence of the existence of a church of
St. Helen, on or near the present site, in the 12th century, but it has been
generally assumed that this building was entirely removed about the time
of the foundation of the priory. A close study of the plan of the existing
building reveals, however, the significant fact that the existing south doorway,
together with the earlier one which it replaced, is set unusually far east,
being indeed about the middle of the south wall. This easterly position
of the south doorway is in itself presumptive evidence of a lengthening of
the nave westwards, and that the earlier nave terminated a short distance
to the west of the doorway, which would thus assume its normal position.
Now the ordinary proportions of a 12th-century parish nave are roughly
two squares, that is to say, the length is double the width; the position of
the division between the nave and chancel is, for various sufficient reasons, (fn. 1)
very seldom altered, so that by setting out two squares from the existing
screen the approximate position of the early west end should be arrived at.
This setting out marks a point in the Spencer monument (in the south wall),
and the same point is marked externally by the only buttress on the south
wall. The logical conclusion is that this buttress was added by the 13thcentury builders to mask the junction of the earlier work with their extension,
as otherwise the buttress is meaningless.
The reconstruction in the early years of the 13th century appears
to have begun with the nuns' quire, as indicated by the small lancet
window in the north wall, which is of early 13th-century type, and to
have been followed by the parish nave and chancel and the south transept,
lancet windows, of about the second quarter of the century, still remaining
in the south transept and nave. About 1300 the western of the two arches,
between the nuns' quire and the parish chancel, was inserted, and shortly
afterwards the west doorway of the parish nave was built; these appear to
be now the only structural evidences of the extensive rebuilding mentioned
in the will of Thomas of Basing (ante p. 4).
Before 1363 Adam Francis appears to have built (ante p. 6) the
two chapels (of the Holy Ghost and St. Mary) east of the south transept,
together with the arcade opening into them. Early in the 15th century
the eastern arch between the nuns' quire and the parish chancel was inserted.
The nave arcade was built and other alterations carried out about 1470–75.
For certain of the works provision was made in the will of Nicholas Marshall,
ironmonger, 1472, (fn. 2) and others were due to a bequest of 500 marks made by
Sir John Crosby in 1475, and the character of the existing work agrees well
with this attribution. To Crosby also must be assigned the two arches on the
south of the parish chancel (one of which spans his tomb), (fn. 3) the mouldings and
other details being the same as those of the nave arcade. The west doorway
of the nuns' quire and the doorway to the night stairs from the dorter are
both late 15th-century insertions or reconstructions, and to the early years
of the succeeding century belong the north clearstory windows of the nuns'
quire, and the three windows on the south side of the parish nave. The
two large west windows of the church are possibly due to the restoration
of 1632, and the two main east windows appear also to have been reconstructed at the same time; they survived until they were "restored" to
their present form in the last century. Perhaps early in the 17th century
the south window of the transept was inserted, and in 1633 the south doorway
of the nave was built.
The various modern restorations of the church have been already
dealt with and it will be unnecessary to recapitulate them here.
The Nuns' Quire is a simple rectangular building 119½ feet long by
26½ feet wide. The large five-light east window dates entirely from 1888,
when it took the place of a window of five-pointed lights in a pointed head,
shewn on old engravings, and probably of 17th-century date. In the north
wall there are nine windows, of which the four to the east are modern and are
set very high in the wall. The next four windows further west are at a rather
lower level, but set sufficiently high to be above the level of the roof of the
former cloister; they are of early 16th-century date and are each of three
plain pointed lights in a segmental-pointed head; externally they have been
much restored. The westernmost window is an early 13th-century lancet
light, with wide internal splays and much restored. Remains of the external
sills of three similar windows are visible further east. In the lower part of
this wall is a series of squints and doorways, all connected with the now
destroyed monastic buildings which adjoined the church on the north.
Taking these in succession from east to west, the first is an elaborate squint
formerly opening into the eastern part of the sacristy (see Monument 5).
Immediately west of this is the east jamb of a blocked doorway formerly
opening into the west sacristy. It is not now visible externally, the wall
arch containing it being blocked with brickwork. Farther west is a second
squint, probably of late 15th or early 16th-century date, and of two squareheaded openings with traces of the mortices for an iron grille. It is set
externally in a recess with a segmental-pointed head. The early 13th-century
doorway further west is of two continuous chamfered orders with a twocentred head. It is now blocked, but formerly opened into the west part of
the sacristy, and must have served as the eastern processional entrance to the
church. A third squint of uncertain date is rectangular with chamfered
reveals and has traces of the fixing of a former grille. Higher up in the
wall and below the third window from the east is a small square opening
which must have communicated with the building above the sacristy.
Below the fifth window from the east is a staircase in the wall; enclosed
externally in a brick projection, and probably used as the night stairs from
the dorter. The doorway into the church is of late 16th-century date, and
has moulded jambs and a four-centred head; two iron door-pins remain
in the west jamb. Below the westernmost window in the north wall is a
four-centred relieving arch, marking the position of the western processional
entrance from the cloister.
The Nuns Choir: openings in north wall
In the south wall of the nuns' quire are two arched openings into the
parish chancel and four into the nave. The easternmost arch is of early
15th-century date, four-centred and moulded; the east respond has an
attached shaft with a moulded capital carrying the inner member of the
archivolt; the west respond has a similar shaft cut short by a modern corbel
and a second shaft on the north side. The second arch is of early 14th-century
date; it is two-centred, and of two chamfered orders, with a moulded label
on each face; the responds have each an attached shaft with a moulded
capital and base. Above the west haunch of the eastern arch are traces of
the jambs and segmental head of a clerestory window, probably of early
15th-century date. The late 15th-century nave arcade is of four bays with
two-centred and moulded arches; the columns have each four attached
shafts, divided by wave mouldings and having moulded capitals and bases,
raised on tall plinths. The responds have attached half columns. In the
west wall of the nuns' church is a five-light window of 16th or early 17thcentury character; the stonework, however, is modern, but the form of the
window reproduces the earlier work except for the added transom. The late
15th or early 16th-century west doorway has a four-centred arch in a square
head with a moulded label and quatrefoiled spandrels; the arch, spandrels, and
perhaps part of the jambs are original, but the rest is modern restoration.
The Parish Chancel is 42½ feet long by 22½ feet, and is not structurally
divided from the nave. The modern east window is in place of a 16th or
17th-century window of seven lights in a depressed head, removed at the
restoration of 1888. On the south side are two late 15th-century arches opening into the chapels and transept. The eastern is two-centred and the western
four-centred, and both correspond in detail to the arches of the nave arcade.
The Parish Nave is 77 feet by 22½ feet, and has in the south wall at
the east end a blocked lancet window of mid 13th-century date, now largely
concealed by the pulpit. Further west are three early 16th-century windows,
each of three pointed lights in a segmental pointed head, and having moulded
internal reveals. The sill of the middle window is kept high to clear the
south doorway. This doorway was inserted or rebuilt in 1633, and is an
interesting if somewhat coarse example of Renaissance work. The opening
has moulded imposts and a round arch with an architrave moulding and three
key blocks; surrounding it is an "eared" architrave with rusticated pilasters
supporting the ears, and surmounted by a frieze, cornice, and pediment.
The tympanum encloses a carved cherub-head, and the middle part of the
frieze is brought forward as a panel and inscribed in large Roman capitals
LAVS DEO S HELENA. On the key blocks is inscribed REPd 1633.
To the east of this doorway are traces of an earlier doorway, visible externally.
Below the westernmost window in the south wall is a modern doorway
opening into the modern vestries. In the west wall of the nave is a window
of five lights and of 16th or early 17th-century type, but completely restored
on the old lines. Below it is a much-restored 14th-century doorway with a
moulded two-centred arch and label; the jambs have each an attached shaft
with a moulded capital and base.
The South Transept is 26½ feet by 22 feet, and has a late 14th-century
arcade of two bays in the east wall. The two-centred and deeply moulded
arches spring from a column having four attached shafts with moulded
capitals and bases, and divided by hollow chamfers. The responds have
attached half columns. Above the arcade is a modern timber clerestory.
In the south wall is a large Jacobean Gothic window of three cinquefoiled
lights with tracery in a two-centred head. The upper part of the wall is cut
back and has probably been rebuilt; in it is a small restored window, cut
across by the modern boarding of the roof. In the south-east angle is a small
doorway of doubtful date, with a pointed head and opening into a stair
turret communicating with the leads of the roof. In the west wall are two
blocked lancet windows of mid 13th-century date; the northern is open
internally to the face of the jambs, but the southern is entirely blocked.
The Chapel Aisle is 16¾ feet wide and contains the two chapels of the
Holy Ghost and St. Mary. In the east wall are two almost entirely modern
windows, of 14th-century character, and each of three cinquefoiled lights
with tracery in a two-centred head. In the south wall are two equally
restored windows, also of 14th-century character, and each of two cinquefoiled lights, with an octofoil in a two-centred head; they are enclosed
under a 14th-century wall arcade with two-centred, moulded arches, resting
on attached shafts with moulded capitals and bases, standing on a stone base
and all much restored.
The Roofs throughout the building are of timber. Those over the
nuns' church and the main parish church are of flat pitch with the purlins
resting immediately on the tie-beams. In form, and no doubt partly in
structure, they are of late 15th-century date, but have been frequently repaired
during the numerous restorations. The tie-beams are moulded and have
curved brackets or braces under the ends. The timber bell-turret, standing
over the middle of the west front, is of late 17th or early 18th-century date.
It is square, and has a segmental-headed, louvred opening in each face, a
cornice and an ogee-shaped roof, covered with lead, and supporting a small
lantern with a round-headed opening in each face; this is also finished with
a cornice and ogee-shaped roof supporting a ball and vane.
The Ritual Arrangements of the nuns' quire, previous to the dissolution of the priory, must be briefly considered. The position of the various
squints and doorways in the north wall is sufficient evidence that the nuns'
stalls must have been placed to the west of the doorway from the night
stairs. The existing stalls (now removed to the parish quire) occupy a
length of 21 feet on the north side, and to this must be added an allowance for
the returned stalls at the west end, and possibly for others which have been
destroyed. This leaves at the west end a space of some 25 to 30 feet in length
forming the retro-quire or ante-chapel. These main divisions are referred
to in the will of Nicholas Marshall, already quoted, (fn. 4) as the "quere" and
"rere-quere." The pre-Reformation altars and images in the church included
the chapels of the Holy Ghost and St. Mary founded by Adam Frauncys, (fn. 5)
the chapel of St. Katherine and St. Margaret, (fn. 6) the image of St. Helen (fn. 7)
on the north of the nuns' quire, the light on the "beam" and the "lights
de la Pité," (fn. 8) and the Trinity. (fn. 9)