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English Church Architecture -



SWAFFHAM PRIOR, St. Mary  (TL 569 638)     (January 2018 [sic])

(Bedrock:  Upper Cretaceous, Lower Chalk)


Swaffham Prior is a rare example of a village with two churches sharing a single churchyard.  Until 1667 these served separate parishes, but ever since, they have vied for position as first one and then the other passed through a period of disrepair.  Today, much of the work at both churches is the result of restoration and it is important not to draw hasty conclusions about their original appearances.


St. Mary’s consists of a chancel with a N. vestry, a four-bay aisled nave, and a tower with a W. porch.  The most interesting part of the building is the tower (illustrated left, from the west, and at the foot of the page, from the southeast), which has a square lower stage, an octagonal second stage, and two short sixteen-sided stages on top, for both the square and octagonal sections are twelfth century Norman work, proving there was an octagonal tower in Cambridgeshire before Ely Cathedral's lantern was built c. 1322-8 (Pevsner), notwithstanding that the latter is generally credited with inspiring every octagonal tower in the county.   The square stage of the present tower is lit by crude round-headed windows to the north and the south, and a frieze around the top is decorated with billet. The octagonal stage has bell-openings in the cardinal sides, composed of round-headed lights bearing rolls supported on shafts with incised capitals.  The sixteen-sided stages are respectively thirteenth century and modern, of which the first is lit by small lancet lights with double-chamfered surrounds, set in alternate sides.  Inside the building, the slightly flattened tower arch is an exceptional ten or more feet thick and unmoulded towards the nave except for projecting abaci with chamfered under-edges at the springing (as seen in the photograph, right), while the W. side, rather curiously, is surrounded by a roll, suggesting the lower stage of the tower once served some significant function, with which the blank pointed arches in the N. and S. walls may possibly have been connected.  A blocked, round-arched window that once looked through to the nave above the tower arch, may have been provided to allow the ringer of the Sanctus bell to follow the progress of the service.  It does not seem to have been intended as the means of access to the ringing chamber (i.e. via a ladder from the nave) since the stair turret in the northwest angle of the tower appears to be part of the original construction.  Today, the tower is open internally throughout its height, in consequence of a lightning strike in 1779 (church guide to St. Julitta & St. Cyriac’s by Lawrence Butler).  (See the photograph below left.)


Almost all other mediaeval work at St. Mary’s is Perpendicular in style.  The porch is exceptionally worn and has had to be reconstructed in wood above the broken outer doorway;  the porch windows have lost their tracery and their eroded jambs are an object lesson on the severe limitations of clunch for use in exterior work.  The four-bay nave arcades are supported on compound piers with semicircular shafts with castellated capitals towards the openings.  The capitals support a wave moulding around the inner order of the arches, and the outer order carries a sunk wave that continues uninterrupted down the piers.  (The photograph of the nave interior, below right, was taken from the west.)














Nearly everything else at St. Mary’s dates from c. 1903, when the church was restored after standing semi-derelict for a century.  The unconvincing aisle windows have ungainly, straightened double-cusped reticulation units in the heads, and the nave clerestory windows are badly aligned with the aisle arcades.  The chancel windows to north and south have cinquefoil-cusped Y-tracery which is stylistically at odds with the pseudo-Perpendicular three-light E. window with strong mullions, but more interesting, albeit also an enigma, are the wide, blocked, round-headed arches on either side of the chancel, which are visible only internally.  The chancel has no sedilia or piscina, but a rectangular recess in the S. wall of the sanctuary, which may have been intended to act as an Easter sepulchre, has Early English-style colonnettes at the sides, terminating in little stiff leaf capitals. Wooden furnishings in the church all appear to be modern, but the rood screen is interesting as it is provided with a usable loft, which communicates with the mediaeval rood stair, rising from the S. aisle to the east of the S. arcade.