(« back to home page)

English Church Architecture.


GARBOLDISHAM, St. John the Baptist  (TM 004 816),


(Bedrock:  Upper Cretaceous, Upper Chalk.)


One of several churches in Mid Suffolk and South Norfolk with related towers

notable for their similar decoration with flint flushwork devices.


Flint flushwork - the combination of knapped flint and pale stone to create a decorative wall facing - is an East Anglian building tradition that was firmly established by the late fourteenth century.  More often than not, the decoration is confined to repeating patterns such as chequerwork or rows of blank arches, but in some places it is more elaborate and might include, for example, the names of the donors or their armorial bearings.  One particular set of exemplars is to be found in a handful of churches in Mid Suffolk and South Norfolk with related towers whose construction may have been directed by the same master mason, which feature flint flushwork devices representing saints and specific dates in the Christian year.  A few of these are brought together on this web-site, for close comparison.  Readers looking for a more detailed examination of this subject should refer to Margaret Talbot's Mediaeval Flushwork of East Anglia and Its Symbolism, Cromer, Poppyland, 2004.   


The most important part of this building is, therefore, the W. tower, partly for the flushwork devices displayed on the frieze around the base and on the leading edges of the diagonal buttresses, and partly for its close similarity to the towers at Badwell Ash, Elmswell and Ixworth in Suffolk, all of which are reasonably nearby, to the south or southeast.  Stylistic evidence alone is sufficient to show the towers are by the same hand but documentary evidence is also available for three of them, showing they were built within a few years of each other.  Thus the prototype appears to be here at Garboldisham where one, John Smyth, left 20 shillings in 1463 'to new tower for stipend of mason in first year of work' (quoted by Bill Wilson in the 'Northwest and South Norfolk' volume of The Buildings of England, New Haven & London, Yale University Press, 2002, p. 348), and this seems to have been followed within a decade by the tower at Ixworth, for the date of which there is a positive glut of evidence, including bequests of 1471 & '72, a panel on the southeast buttress bearing the name of Abbot Schot of Bury St. Edmunds, abbot there from 1470-73 (James Bettley and Nikolaus Pevsner, the 'Suffolk West' volume of The Buildings of England, 2015, p. 334), and a recorded observation of the eighteenth century antiquarian, Tom Martin, who noted the presence of a glazed brick in the S. wall inscribed with the name of William Dense, abbot of Ixworth Priory from 1467 to c. 1484.  Finally, shortly after this was built, it seems that the tower at Elmswell must have been constructed, for in 1476 Margaret Walter left 40 shillings for the 'new tower'  here.   The towers at Garboldisham,  Badwell Ash and Ixworth all have two-light bell-openings while at Elmswell they are three-light, but the kinship between them lies chiefly in their similarly bulky construction, their stepped battlements faced with narrow flushwork arches, and - most especially - in the form and position of the flushwork devices on the buttresses and basal friezes.  Yet compare also the W. window at Garboldisham with those at Badwell Ash and Elmswell:  both are three-light with cinquefoil-cusped intersecting tracery beneath a depressed arch and both are rather too small for the wall in which they are set....  Or look at the profiles of the diagonal buttresses of these towers, for while there are seven set-offs at Elmswell and only six at Garboldisham and Badwell Ash, in each case that is rather too many for the height, making the sections appear rather too short and too shallow.  This, then, is not necessarily great architecture, but it is confident work, apparently by a mason who knew his mind, was happy with his creations, and was ready to reproduce them on request, largely unaltered, from place to place.  The only significant deviation from this standard pattern at Garboldisham seems to have been the original construction of a galilee or W. porch, the outline of which can be seen against the W. wall of the tower.  (See the photograph above left.)


Flushwork devices like those shown above, are examined in detail by Margaret Talbot in Mediaeval Flushwork of East Anglia, who has been able to interpret many with reasonable certainty.  They are discussed at greater length in this web-site under the entry for Elmswell and include at Garboldisham, the pommée cross of St. Michael on the uppermost set-off of the tower's northwest buttress (just visible in the photograph, top left), the Crown of Thorns (seen on the photograph of the buttress above right, at the bottom)  and the Sacred Monogram "IHS" and the crowned "M" for St. Mary in the basal frieze to the north (seen immediately above).  The crowned 'S' between the latter is probably intended to portray the cup and viper of St. John the Evangelist.  Sometimes the 'S' is shown backwards, but the diagnostic features here are probably the open jaws at the top and bottom, and the fact that St. John's motif is commonly placed beside St. Mary's, to symbolize their vigil together beneath the Cross.


The rest of the church may be quickly described.  Formed of an aisled nave with a N. porch, and a chancel with a N. vestry and chapel (now the organ chamber), in most of its details it appears early Decorated in form, suggesting a date scarcely later than 1320.  The aisle windows each have three cinquefoil-cusped lights without ogees, with daggers set within intersecting cusped tracery above.  (See the example, right.)  The N. porch (below left)  has two-light side windows, an inscription round the base and another over the entrance, and an outer doorway with a crocketed canopied niche either side;  the couple roof has a row of carved quatrefoils above the wall plates.   The chancel has been reconstructed, both within and without, but the N. aisle extension as a chapel is essentially mediaeval and retains its original N. window and, inside, the double-flat-chamfered arch from the aisle, which dies into the jambs.


The four-bay arcades to the aisles appear contemporary with the windows, at least insofar as the latter are original.  They are formed of double-hollow-chamfered arches above octagonal piers and semi-octagonal responds, except that the first pier on each side from the west, curiously enough, is circular.  (See the N. arcade, right, viewed from the west.)  The tall arch to the tower is formed of three orders - the innermost, flat-chamfered and springing from semicircular responds and the outer two, hollow-chamfered and continuous all the way round.   The mediaeval chancel arch has been re-used by the restorers and carries wave mouldings above semi-quatrefoil responds.


Finally, the church contains few wooden furnishings of note and only the dado of the parclose screen between the N. aisle and organ chamber needs mentioning.  Painted with a random selection of saints, this is dated by an inscription reading 'Pray for the welfare of William Boyle and Kathryn his wyffe'.  William Boyle died in 1504. Just to the west, in the aisle N. wall, are the remains of a rood stair.

[Other related churches to consult on this web-site include Badwell Ash, Elmswell, Ixworth, Grundsiburgh and Gipping in Suffolk and Fincham in this county.]