The whole exterior, until the end of the 19th century, was rendered and was believed originally to have been painted. The walls are rubble with substantial amounts of Roman and medieval brick. It has been much restored, although structurally little has changed since two hundred or so years after the present structure was completed.
The semi-circular apse is probably the least altered part of the original building of circa 1130. It is divided by two buttresses into three bays, each with a round-headed window, and displays the most direct influence of Roman architecture from nearby Camulodunum (Colchester). At the west end is the late 14th to early-15th century oak-shingled belfry with its broach spire.
Apart from a small fragment of the early 12th century chapel of the bishops of London, most of the visible parts of the south wall date from the 14th century. It appears as if the side of the Norman church has, with the exception of its apse, been encased in a later extension, all housed under one roof. The absence of a clerestory (a series of windows clear of the roofs of the aisles) supports this belief. The most westerly of the three windows in the north side shares the features of those in the apse. It appears to be of the same date.
The ancient door for the laity near the west end on the north side, and entering the nave, hangs on partly original hinges under which, reputedly, some pieces of parchment were discovered in around 1780. This is consistent with an ancient and gruesome local tradition, that a marauding Dane had been caught plundering the church and paid for his sacrilegious act with his skin (link here for similar stories of the Dane’s Skin for other Essex churches). However, marauding Danes predated the building of our church by 200 years or more. The truth may be that the skin had belonged to a poacher caught harassing the king’s deer. The law at the time of Henry I stated that, “If a man chaseth the deere and mayketh him pannte, if he be free, he shall lose his hand, if bond, his skin.” Forensic examination of the ‘parchment’ early in the 20th century confirmed that the skin was that of a fair-skinned male.
The north-west window was subdivided by the addition of 14th century cusped tracery until it was removed in the 19th century. The eastern buttress of the north wall shows evidence at the top of a former doorway giving access to a room or space above the vault running the whole length of the church, providing accommodation for the priest. Access to this would have been by a wooden external stair.
The asymmetrical Romanesque west façade is simple and plain. It has no west door and the two-light 14th century window is without cusping (projections between adjacent arcs) or any other form of decoration apart from a simple hood moulding. The most intriguing features are in the gable area. This has an elongated round-headed ‘window’ completely encased in Roman brick with an occulus (small circular window) on either side. Although now glazed, it seems the window was originally a door opening onto an external wooden balcony, perhaps serving on feast days as an outside pulpit or for the display of relics. The occuli, now blocked, would originally have been glazed to provide light to the interior.
The ‘chapel’ was originally aisle-less and consisted structurally of two simple spaces, the semi-circular apse for the altar and the rectangular nave for the laity. These two spaces, which were completely stone-vaulted, are separated by the round-headed apsidal arch with its two orders.
The priest’s doorway leads into the short chancel which occupies the first bay of the structural nave and is demarcated by the much restored 15th-century wooden screen.
Between 1832 and 1879, the Rood screen had served as a support for a gallery at the west end (now demolished). Prior to that it had been stored in a barn, seemingly dismantled in the 18th century to make way for one in the classical style known to have been erected in that ‘age of enlightenment’.
The Rood itself (crucifix over the middle of the screen) with its supporting figures was presumably removed and destroyed at the time of the Reformation, probably being replaced by the Royal Arms in indication of the monarch’s status as head of the Church in England. The Royal Arms now displayed at the east end of the south aisle are those of George I. Interestingly, the Act of Parliament signed by Charles II requiring all churches to display Royal Arms has never been repealed.
The original building was spatially very simple and dark, probably with the nave lit only by five windows: one on the north, two (possibly three) on the south and the two-light west window. The top part of one of the original south windows survives above the arches of the second bay of the structural nave. Traces of an original window can be seen above the organ arch in the chancel. The west window was replaced by the present window in the 14th century. The south aisle shows the greater part of the external wall of the bishops’ chapel, complete with its massive buttresses and the substantial remains of one of its Romanesque windows.
In the course of the 12th to 14th centuries many parish churches up and down the country were enlarged as the cult of saints and the need for more altars and space grew with the increasing population. This was achieved at Copford, over a period of more than 150 years (from the late 12th century to the second half of the 14th century), by punching a series of holes – one at a time from east to west – through the Norman south wall. This had the advantage of avoiding the cost of having to rebuild its massive stone vault each time there was a wish to extend the building laterally. However, it is believed they eventually miscalculated, punching one opening too many, so that ultimately the vault had to be demolished to avoid the collapse of the whole building.
The result is a south aisle largely bereft of 13th and 14th century features and somewhat resembling a medieval lean-to, being nothing more than the substantial remains of the wall and buttresses of the Romanesque chapel. However, the creation of this arcade also led to the destruction of the Romanesque windows and, even more importantly, of significant areas of wall painting. The Victorians added one further hole through the south wall of the chancel to access space for an organ and a vestry.
Whilst the vaults have gone, the internal buttresses and vault springers (parts of the arches where the curves begin) survive in the nave. The nave vault was probably demolished at the beginning of the 15th century. Experts disagree as to whether it was a tunnel vault with lateral elements or a fully-fledged groin vault (i.e. with intersecting edges between the arches) with a ‘stilted’ profile. Recent careful measurements by Professor Eric Fernie (former director of The Courtauld Institute) support the latter theory.
Either way, it would have given the nave a much weightier and more substantial crown than the trussed-rafter and partially king-posted timber roof with which the vault was immediately re-placed. This roof is of a type that is very typical in English parish churches and sits very lightly on the heavy architecture beneath. It gives the nave an almost barn-like quality which, when viewed from the east, is heightened by the massive exposed timbers supporting the bell tower. At some time in the past – probably in the 18th century – the timbers were covered with a ceiling which was removed at the end of the 19th century.
Architecturally, the apse is the crowning feature and best-preserved part of our Norman church, remaining exactly as it was built in about 1130. The majestic proportions, the elegant windows (whose internal details mirror their external appearance) and the superb semi-domed vault represent a minor triumph of English Romanesque architecture. It is a rare survival and fully justifies the attention which it is increasingly receiving.
In the south aisle an attractive and crisply carved marble memorial of 1747 reminds us of the virtues of Mrs. Catherine Haynes, ‘wife of Hezekiah Haynes Esq., Lord of this manor’. The Haynes were descendants of John Haynes (1594-1654) who emigrated to America and became the third governor of Massachusetts and the first governor of Connecticut.