( back to home page)

English Church Architecture.

 

RUSHALL, St. Mary  (TM 198 837),

NORFOLK. 

(Bedrock:  Upper Cretaceous, Upper Chalk.)

 

One of 181 churches in England with round towers, of which all but five are in Cambridgeshire ( with 2), Essex (with 6), Norfolk (with 126) or Suffolk (with 42).

Round church towers were almost invariably assumed by Pevsner to have a Saxon or Norman origin.  That is not necessarily the case, and the form is a function of geology rather than age, for the lack of the ready availability of good building stone to serve as quoins made this a cheap design option by avoiding the expense in the pre-railway age of bringing, usually by horse and cart or at best along the rivers by boat, heavy, bulk materials from afar.  The definitive book on this subject is, and is long likely to remain, the late Stephen Hart's The Round Church Towers of England  (Ipswich, Lucas Books, 2003), to which the notes on these buildings are inevitably, to a greater or lesser degree, indebted.

 

This attractive little church, seen above in a churchyard yellow with buttercups, elicits a mere six lines in the Northwest & South Norfolk volume of The Buildings of England (Nikolaus Pevsner & Bill Wilson, New Haven & London, Yale University Press, p. 621, compared to nearly three closely argued pages in Stephen Hart's The Round Church Towers of England (Lucas Books, 2003), so it is hardly surprising that little store can be set by the former.  In fact, this is another building in the immediate vicinity with a round tower surmounted by a polygonal belfry (cf. Shimpling and Thorpe Abbotts in this county, and Stuston in Suffolk), for which the traditional interpretation has been that the round part is necessarily Saxon or Norman, and the octagonal bell-stage on top, an inevitably later addition.  The little church leaflet (by Richard E. Emms) adopts this approach, but that was written in 1965, whereas The Buildings of England was revised only in 1999, by which time one might have expected such a factoid to have been thoroughly exploded, and it is especially remarkable that the feature that then seemed most to indicate the tower's Saxon origins should have been the blocked circular opening to the west (illustrated below left), turned, of all things, in mediaeval brick (outer ring)!  The round section of the tower rises in two almost equal stages, divided not by a string course but by a slight recessing of the second stage relative to the first, and the octagonal bell-stage above has bell-openings in the cardinal faces only, with depressed cinquefoil-cusped Y-tracery in Perpendicular style.  The angles of this stage are constructed in brick, but even a casual examination of the round section of the tower reveals a few bricks used at random in the rubble masonry here as well, in places they would have been most unlikely to have been inserted in a pre-existing structure.  In addition, the tower arch to the nave is pointed (indeed, four-centred), and there is a pointed one-light window in the tower wall to the west, below the blocked opening. However, what is really decisive is that Hart was able to show the tower had added to an earlier nave (p. 142-144) and that in the course of its erection, a pointed (and thus post-Norman) window, high up in the nave W. wall, but within the nave, was enclosed and used for a time as a doorway (reached by a ladder).  This of itself suggests that the octagonal and circular sections of the tower are likely to be contemporary since the time scale in which their construction must therefore have taken place, is consequently so depressed, but a contributory piece of evidence discovered by Hart is that the transition from the circular to the octagonal cross-section, occurs some 2' 3" (70 cm.) higher internally than it does on the outside.  Even so, perhaps his most remarkable finding of all was that the blocked circular opening actually represents the closing up from below of an earlier pointed window with a brick arch (still visible inside), and he surmised this was done in the seventeenth or eighteenth century (the likely age of the inner ring of brick) for the purpose of holding a clock!  Thus the conclusion is that the whole tower is fourteenth century work at the earliest.  Hart considered it may have been built around the time of the Black Death of 1349, with an inevitable but, perhaps, short interruption.  However, judged purely from the style of the bell-openings, a fifteenth century date might actually fit better.

 

The rest of the church can be quickly described.  The chancel is thirteenth century work and may be part of the first building on this site:  there are two tall, renewed, lancets to the north and south, and two more in double-flat-chamfered surrounds, that may be original, to the east.  The nave windows to the south are Perpendicular, with two lights beneath segmental-pointed arches.  A blocked arch in the N. wall of the nave appears to show the position of a former chantry chapel.  The S. porch has no side windows and the outer doorway bears a wave moulding and a hollow.

 

Finally, inside the building, the most remarkable feature is probably the extent to which the nave and chancel walls now lean outwards.  There is a recess in the N. wall of the chancel that probably once held a tomb.  The chancel arch (seen right) is formed of two orders, the inner of which springs from semi-octagonal responds, but the arch itself looks likely to have been retooled or remodelled.  The nave and chancel roof are new, as is almost all the woodwork apart from the door to the former rood stair, immediately west of the chancel arch to the north. 

 

[Other churches with round towers featured on this web-site are Bartlow and Snailwell in Cambridgeshire, Quidenham, Roydon, Shimpling and Thorpe Abbotts in Norfolk, and Aldham, Brome, Hengrave, Higham, Little Bradley, Little Saxham, Rickinghall Inferior, Risby, Stuston, Theberton, Wissett and Wortham in Suffolk.]