BILDESTON, St. Mary Magdalene (TL 986 493),
(Bedrock: Upper Cretaceous, Upper Chalk.)
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.
Bildeston is one of Suffolk's most attractive villages although the church stands half a mile to the east down a narrow country lane, marking the site of an earlier settlement. It is quite large and in spite of the Ordnance Survey's contradictory symbol, it does have a W. tower, albeit not the tall one recorded by Pevsner on his visit in 1961 as a large part of that collapsed fourteen years later and was replaced by the present, inadequate, upper stage in wood, with its narrow surmounting spire. The rest of the building consists of an aisled nave and chancel constructed as one (i.e. without an intervening chancel arch), and an ambitious S. porch. The nave arcades are five bays long but the chancel extends a further two bays, the S. chapel, a further one, and the N. chapel (now the organ chamber), a further bay and a half, beyond which there is a diminutive vestry. The church is chiefly Perpendicular in style but a little Decorated work survives, as seen in the three-light E. window to the N. aisle with reticulated tracery and, perhaps, in the two-light N. window to the sanctuary (in the very short section of chancel wall east of the vestry) where the tracery is curvilinear, although if the latter is genuine mediaeval work, it must be re-set, for the sanctuary otherwise is now wholly Victorian (a state of affairs unnoticed by Pevsner). The Perpendicular work appears to derive from two building phases, with the S. porch being of a different date to the rest, and although this is the later piece, it will be convenient to consider it first.
The porch, then, is large, angle-buttressed, and altogether so similar to those to be seen in the immediate area at St. Peter's, Felsham, All Saints', Hitcham and St Mary's, Preston St. Mary, that it must surely be by the same unknown hand. (See the photograph, left, taken from the southeast.) Decorated on the S. front with four tiers of flushwork arches, canopied niches on the buttresses above the first tier of off-sets, and a third niche in the centre, the outer doorway bears an inner wave moulding springing from semicircular shafts and two outer hollows decorated at intervals with carved leaves and animal faces, set in a square surround with narrow crocketed pinnacles at the sides and large flowers in the spandrels. The side windows (as at Felsham and Hitcham but not Preston St. Mary) are two-light and segmental-arched, with drop tracery and castellated supertransoms between the two tiers of reticulation units. The inner doorway displays two hollow mouldings, decorated with shields and crowns, and a hood-mould decorated with flowers, springing from lion label stops, all set in a square surround with shields in the spandrels. The work can probably be dated to c. 1470 by association with circumstantial evidence at Felsham and Hitcham.
However, as notable as this is, the earlier Perpendicular work at Bildeston is more so, for - thanks to the scholarship of the late Birkin Haward - it appears to be assignable to the master mason Hawes of Occold, whose work can probably also be seen at Debenham and Wickham Skeith, and - in this writer's opinion - at Thorndon, among other places, based on the form of the nave arcades where they exist, and otherwise, on the window traceries. From the examination of these two elements of design, it is possible to draw up a list of at least four that can usually (though not invariably) be associated with this mason, namely:
All these elements are present here (see also the carved capitals, both from the N. arcade, illustrated at the foot of the page) and if these are still not considered sufficient to associate the work with Hawes of Occold, then confirmation of the date may provides further help for I am informed by Dr. Simon Cotton that a bequest exists in a Norwich Consistory Court will, dated 1420, in which John Hastyng, chaplain, leaves 20s to the new work ['novum opus'] at Byldyston.
The church interior is as impressive as the exterior, even though there are few features of note apart from the tall aisle arcades. As mentioned above, there is no chancel arch, and the tower is separated from the nave by a wall containing a doorway. The nave roof (seen left, viewed from the west) appears to be original and is, indeed, constructed with alternating tie beams and hammerbeams, but unfortunately, the angels that once adorned the latter, survived the Cromwellian iconoclasts period only to be destroyed in the mid-eighteenth century after an excitable iconoclastic sermon by the Methodist, George Whitefield, and although the chancel was provided with replacements a hundred years later, these are very malnourished affairs. The font is Perpendicular but worn, and features the symbols of the Evangelists alternating with figures of angels on its eight faces, the latter, predictably, all with their heads broken off.
[Other churches featured on this web-site where Hawes of Occold appears to have worked include Bedingfield, Bramford, Debenham, Thorndon, Wickam Skeith and Wingfield in Suffolk, and Dickleburgh, just across the county border in Norfolk.]