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

SUFFOLK. 

(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.

 

 

 

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 stylistic 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 Mediaeval 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. 

 

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:

1. arcade piers composed of four major and four minor semicircular shafts, in which the major shafts bear fillets (raised flat bands running down their full length) and the minor shafts sometimes do (see the photograph, right);

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 (i.e. mullions that continue all the way up to the arch head with no diminution in thickness), stepped lights topped by castellated supertransoms, and drop 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 worked with him.

 

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