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English Church Architecture -

Suffolk.

 

ACTON, All Saints (TL 892 453)     (April 2004)

(Bedrock:  Neogene to Quaternary, Crag Group)

 

The church is more interesting than it first appears for the tower is short, with a blank W. wall, and the only immediately striking thing is that the building has been much altered and patched up down the centuries.  It consists of a W. tower, nave and chancel, with a wide, independently-gabled N. aisle and chapel that ends in line with the chancel, and a narrower but very long S. aisle and chapel that extends to the east of the chancel (sic).  The building history of this last is especially difficult to unravel for externally it appears to be constructed wholly of rendered brick, yet some of its Y-traceried windows look old internally, its roof is partly mediaeval,  the S. porch seems to be in situ, and the nave arcades are identical to north and south.  Perhaps the outer wall of this aisle was rebuilt, therefore, when it was extended eastwards to house the large wall monument to Robert Jennens (d. 1725) (illustrated left).  This shows Jennens reclining on his elbow, with his wife at his feet, beneath a pediment supported by pilasters.  Jennens was Marlborough's adjutant and it was the death of his son, William, as "the richest commoner in England", that led to the legal battle that gave Dickens the idea for Bleak House.

 

The N. aisle raises other questions.  Though wider than the S. aisle, the simple N. doorway appears to be thirteenth century in origin.  The N. windows with supermullioned drop tracery are obviously Perpendicular, but the N. chapel N. window (shown right) has cruciform lobing set vertically, combined with cinquefoil-cusped lights and a four-centred arch above. Pevsner always described windows with cruciform lobing as Decorated, even though some are demonstrably later.  (See the entry on Stansfield church for a more detailed discussion of this feature.) Here, however, although the E. window is Victorian, the N. chapel is divided from the chancel by an elaborate, double-cusped open ogee arch above a tomb chest which does seem to be of early fourteenth century date, and in the floor is a brass of exceptional quality (shown below left) to Sir Robert de Bures, who died in 1302.  Thus the late Birkin Haward's suggestion (in his, nevertheless, outstanding book, Suffolk Mediaeval Church Arcades, pub. The Suffolk Institute of Archaeology and History, 1993)  that this window may be attributable to John Melford (fl. 1460 - 1509), the one-time apprentice of Reginald Ely, is almost certainly spurious, and not least because it is, in any case, utterly different in appearance to Ely and Melford's window traceries elsewhere, as a comparison with St. Mary's, Burwell, Cambridgeshire, or Cavendish in this county, will readily show.

 

Though partly rebuilt around 1920, the Early English origins of the tower are witnessed by its lancet windows to north and south, and by the tower arch of Romanesque thickness that appears to date back to the beginning of the thirteenth century. That the chancel is also Early English is shown by its E. window with intersecting tracery, and so a church of the present length existed here, in all probability, by c. 1260.  For reasons it fails to give, the church guide says the S. aisle is fifteenth century work.  That seems unlikely, however, for while its Y-traceried windows have very possibly been moved here from the original nave S. wall, the style of the arcades does not really fit this date either, being more in keeping with the second half of the fourteenth century:  the three-bay nave arcades consist of arches bearing two sunk quadrants, springing from piers formed of four semi-octagonal shafts, with capitals towards the openings;  and the two-bay arcade between the chancel and S. chapel carries a sunk quadrant and a hollow chamfer above a central pier formed of semicircular shafts towards the openings and semi-octagonal shafts to north and south.  (See Appendix 2 for some close dated examples of the use of the sunk quadrant moulding in East Anglia.)    Nevertheless, a lot of questions are raised here, and the architectural evidence is too fragmentary to permit firm conclusions.