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English Church Architecture -



BILDESTON, St. Mary Magdalene (TL 986 493)     (October 2003)

(Bedrock:  Upper Cretaceous, Upper Chalk)


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 subsequently replaced by the present, inadequate upper stage in wood, with its narrow surmounting spire.  The rest of the  building (shown above, from the southwest) 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 beyond, the S. chapel, one, and the N. chapel (now the organ chamber), a bay and a half, following 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 meadiaeval 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 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 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 set-offs, and a third niche in the centre, above the doorway, it features an outer doorway bearing 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 supermullioned 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 other 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 (fl. 1410-40), whose work can probably also be seen at Debenham and Hengrave, and - in this writer's opinion - at Occold, Thorndon and Wetheringsett, among other places, for while Haward's attributions were all based on the form of the nave arcades (as described in his book, Mediaeval Church Arcades, pub. the Suffolk Institute of Archaeology and History, 1993), it seems a simple matter to extend a similar approach to the window traceries with which they seem invariably associated.  Based on these two elements of design then, it is possible to draw up a list of at least four features that are often (though not invariably) associated with this artist, namely:

  1. arcade piers composed of four major and four minor semicircular shafts, in which the major shafts bear fillets and the minor shafts sometimes do so;

  2. elaborate carved capitals in the form of angels or foliage, which extend continuously all round the piers (suggesting, in Haward's view, that Hawes was himself a skilled carver);

  3. three-light windows with strong mullions, stepped lights topped by castellated supertransoms, and drop supermullioned tracery beneath depressed segmental-pointed arches;

  4. nave and chancel roofs constructed with alternating tie beam and hammerbeam trusses, yet wholly without collars, suggesting that Hawes had his own preferred master carpenter who often worked with him.

All these are present here (see the two examples of carved capitals, both from the N. aracade, illustrated at the foot of the page) and each makes its contribution to the aisled nave's grand appearance, as does the separation of the aisle windows to the south by buttresses decorated with flushwork and, behind and above, the two, three-light clerestory windows lighting each bay of the nave.   The roof-lines are all embattled and one S. aisle window (seen in the photograph) has a castellated transom.  (Note - I have recently been 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 likewise impressive, even though there are few features of note apart from the aisle arcades.  (See the S. arcade, above right.)  These are tall and the arches themselves carry a series of wave mouldings arranged in two orders.  As already mentioned, there is no chancel arch, and the tower is separated from the nave by a wall and a doorway.  The nave roof (shown left, 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 a sermon by the Methodist, George Whitefield, and although the chancel was provided with replacements about 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, with their heads broken off.