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BEDINGFIELD, St. Mary  (TM 160 688),

SUFFOLK. 

(Bedrock:  Neogene to Quaternary, Crag Group.)

 

One of a group of Suffolk churches identified by the late Birkin Haward as having been part-built by the same master mason, 'Hawes of Occold', fl.  1410-1440.

 

 

The question of whether or not it is pertinent to talk about 'the mediaeval mason' is a subject that has fiercely divided architectural historians in recent decades, with many taking the view that the very concept of 'authorship', defined as the consideration of a work of art as an expression of an individual's creative skill and personality, had no currency before the Tudor period.  This supposition has coincided with the passing from fashion of connoisseurship as an approach to art history more generally, whereby the identity of individual artists was previously sought by styllistic analysis, in favour of such modern obsessions as  understanding art as an expression of ethnicity, colonialism, gender, 'the male gaze', or similar issues, and since some academics have built their reputations on the basis of these new studies, they naturally seek to defend them vigorously.

This shift in the focus of art history has not gone completely unchallenged however, albeit that some of the greatest champions of 'the old school' have since passed away too.  One such was Dr. John Harvey (1911-97), whose biographical dictionary English Medieval Architects (Gloucester, Alan Sutton, 1987) identified some 1,700 men of varying importance, who appear to have been responsible for buildings or part-buildings in England before 1550, and who argued that the only reason the men who designed mediaeval buildings are so little known is that no-one makes the effort to discover them.  This theme was subsequently taken up at a local level in Suffolk by the late Birkin Haward (1912-2002), who tried to group Suffolk's mediaeval churches on the basis of their aisle arcades (Suffolk Mediaval Church Arcades, Hitcham, Suffolk Institute of Archaeology and History, 1993) and who, in particular, went on to pick out on stylistic grounds, a dozen churches in mid Suffolk that appear to have been part-built by the same master mason, referred to by name in a building estimate for work at Wingfield church as 'Hawe[s], mason of Ocolte' (Master Mason Hawes of Occold, Ipswich, Suffolk Institute of Archaeology and History, 2000).  The validity of this exercise is ultimately for the reader to decide, but the examples illustrated on this web-site will seek to promote it.  Indeed, the present writer has attempted to identify another group of Suffolk churches using Haward's methodology, centred on and around St. George's church, Stowlangtoft, and these can be examined separately. 

 

The little villages around Bedingfield are notable for the large number of minor and often now redundant churches they contain.  St. Mary’s, Bedingfield is not an especially important building, considered architecturally, but it has a number of features of interest and it is pleasant to find it both open and in use, albeit that on this visit, it did not appear to be in a very good state of maintenance or repair.

 

The church consists of a chancel, a nave with S. porch and balancing cross-gabled Victorian N. vestry, and a W. tower, and is externally partly Decorated and partly Perpendicular in style.  The most important individual feature is the nave S. window, east of the porch (illustrated below left), however, which is almost an exact copy of the aisle windows at Bildeston, and very similar to the aisle and nave windows at Debenham and Wickham Skeith among other places.  It is composed of three stepped ogee lights, with castellated supertransoms on top of the lights, and split 'Y's, set within segmental-pointed arches, whereas the windows at Debenham and Wickham Skeith have, in addition, a lower tier of stepped transoms about a third of the way down. The possible significance of this is dependent on whether at Bildeston and Debenham, these windows can be associated with the same phase of building operations as their respective arcades, which Birkin Haward attributed Hawes of Occold.  (Occold is the neighbouring village to Bedingfield, towards the northwest.)  Nothing else here can be firmly connected with this window, however, so its insertion may have been the only work carried out hereat this time.  Other windows in the nave and chancel are mostly of simpler form and either restored or renewed. The S. porch is faced with knapped flint to the south and has an outer doorway bearing a series of wave mouldings. 

 

The W. tower rises in three stages to battlements.  The bell-stage has bell-openings that have had their tracery broken away to the north and south, but which retain their reticulation unit above and between the lights to the west.  This is presumably Decorated work, and Pevsner was happy to describe the whole tower to those times (i.e. the first half of the fourteenth century), but is that the case?  The lower stage is square and unbuttressed, whereas the two upper stages are slightly recessed and supported by narrow diagonal buttresses at the northeast and southeast angles, decorated with a little flushwork on their leading edges.  It seems rather more likely, therefore, that the lower stage is early thirteenth century work, and that the upper stages represent the partial reconstruction or completion of the original structure about a hundred years later.

 

Inside the porch, three very worn tie beams support king posts from which transverse braces rise to the ridge.  The inner doorway has a complex Perpendicular profile formed of wave mouldings and deep hollows and there is a niche high up in the right hand spandrel.   Inside the nave, the arch to the tower supports the hypothesis that the lower stage may be early thirteenth century work, for it is very plain arch cut through a very thick wall, entirely without responds and with just two flat chamfers that continue all the way round without intervening capitals.  The chancel arch carries a series of wave mouldings above semi-octagonal shafts.  The nave roof (shown left, from the west) is of double-hammerbeam construction, with the upper tier of hammerbeams arched to collars and now, alas, with all the figures sawn off.  However, the benches are possibly more interesting although they are curiously reconstructed using a combination of Jacobean bench ends towards the central aisle and very worn mediaeval bench ends towards the N. and S. walls.  One bench on the N. side of the nave carries the name “B. Bond”, which is probably more likely to have been the name of a former church warden than of the carpenter.   

 

[Other Suffolk churches featured on this web-site where Hawes of Occold appears to have worked are Bildeston, Bramford, Debenham, Thorndon, Wickam Skeith and Wingfield.]