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English Church Architecture -



BOXFORD, St. Mary (TL 963 405)     (October 2001)

(Bedrock:  Palaeocene, Thanet Sand Formation)

This is quite a large church (seen above, from the south), standing in the centre of the village.  With the obvious exception of its wooden N. porch, it is predominantly Perpendicular in style and consists of a W. tower now with a surmounting timber lantern, a four-bay aisled nave with a large, stone-built S. porch, and a three-bay chancel with a two-bay chapel on either side.  It is constructed of flint and pebble rubble with the additional use of a considerable amount of a white, calcareous stone that appears at first to be clunch, but which is actually Caen sandstone, demonstrating just how hard it can sometimes be to identify building stones by visual examination alone.


The logical place to begin a detailed description of the church therefore is with the wooden N. porch (shown left), for this is Decorated and probably dateable to c. 1340, making it possibly the oldest timber porch of any church in Suffolk. Maybe it was for this reason that Pevsner considered it the most interesting feature of the building, which it nevertheless is not for its construction is really rather rustic, notwithstanding its wooden ribs rising from clusters of shafts at the angles and mid-points of the sides to form the skeleton of a sexpartite vault above each of its two bays.  It is unclear whether these were ever filled in.


The S. porch (illustrated below right) was described in Pevsner words, with complete justification, as "exceedingly swagger".  It is dated by money left for its construction and continuing aggrandizement, right through from 1441 to 1480, though the church leaflet describes it as "sixteenth century".  Two bays deep like the N. porch, it has a four-light unglazed window in each bay on each side, with supermullioned tracery and hood-moulds with head label stops, but their striking feature is their splays, which are decorated outside and in, by two tiers of canopied niches in casement mouldings.  The battlements at the sides of the porch are decorated with blank arcading beneath the merlons and openwork motifs beneath the embrasures, and there are more blank arches on the leading edges of the diagonal buttresses and on the internal walls below the windows, where the panels are separated by semi-octagonal shafts extending down from the window mullions above.  (See also the thumbnail below left, giving an internal view of the southeast angle.)  The outer doorway has two orders of bowtells at the sides and two tiers of canopied niches outside that, and the spandrels are decorated with carved figures which are so badly proportioned, they must surely be by another hand since they hardly live up to the urbane quality of the rest of the work. Above the doorway in the gable is a row of seven canopied niches, all with delicate little tierceron vaults. Altogether then, this is a rich display that must have looked especially fine when first built, if not even a little incongruous attached to a large but otherwise externally rather ordinary-looking church. 


Of the main body of this building, the exterior will be described first. The tower rises in four stages to battlements, supported by angle buttresses to the first three.  There is a stair turret built into the southeast angle, a simple W. doorway without capitals, a renewed W. window with three blank arches in flint flushwork on either side, and tall, two-light transomed bell-openings above.  The aisle and chapel windows are mostly restored or renewed but contain variants of supermullioned tracery.  However, the five-light chancel E. window with intersecting subarcuation and inverted daggers above the odd-numbered lights (shown in the thumbnail, left), is very similar to that at Great Shelford in Cambridgeshire, which Dr. John Harvey dated to c. 1396 - 1411 (The Perpendicular Style, pub. Batsford, 1978).


Inside the church the nave arcades consist of four bays formed of arches of two orders decorated by a hollow on the outer order and a double wave moulding on the inner order, springing from piers formed of semicircular shafts separated by hollows. (See the N. arcade, right.) The date does not look especially late and could match that suggested for the chancel E. window above.  Nevertheless, the tower arch is surely older and very possibly of the first half of the fourteenth century rather than the second:  here the arch carries a flat and a hollow chamfer, with the former springing from semi-quatrefoil responds and the latter continuing down the jambs without intervening capitals. The chancel arch is similar in form except that the inner order carries a roll moulding.  The arch from the S. aisle to the S. chapel - which is probably the "new aisle" referred to in Pevsner's footnote, whose construction he mentioned money being left towards in 1468 & '9 - consists of a double-flat-chamfered arch supported on semi-quatrefoil responds, and the two-bay arcade between this chapel and the chancel, is similar in style to the nave arcades.


That is not the case with the N. chapel, however, where the work is more accomplished and appears to be dated by a bequest of 1487. Here, the arch from the N. aisle carries a double wave moulding on the inner order and a casement on the outer order, above jambs with an order of narrow semicircular attached shafts, and the two-bay arcade to the chancel (left) has similar arches springing from a central rhomboidal pier with attached semicircular shafts to north and south, separated by casements from groups of three bowtells towards the openings.  This is a shape, as Birkin Haward pointed out in Suffolk Mediaeval Church Arcades (pub. Suffolk Institute of Archaeology and History, 1993), designed to combine the necessary width across the thickness of the wall, with "the least visual bulk and the greatest clear span between piers", and of the particular design found here, with the clusters of three bowtells to the east and the west, Haward considered five of the eight examples to be found in Suffolk, to be the work of one man, John Melford of Sudbury (also known as John Mason of Sudbury) (fl. 1460 - 1509), the one-time apprentice of Reginald Ely, who probably worked with Ely at Burwell in Cambridgeshire and who appears subsequently to have adopted (and adapted) many of Ely's designs.  He is considered in more detail in these notes under the entry for Cavendish.    


However, remaining with the present building, the church contains few furnishings of note but one important exception is the ogee-domed font cover (illustrated in the thumbnail, right), which is a seventeenth century piece with folding doors, panelled outside and painted within.  The font itself now consists of a wooden bowl set on the original Perpendicular stone stem, which has blank tracery on the sides.  Above the chancel arch is the remains of a mediaeval wall painting, depicting angels with wings spread, and there are more traces of ancient paintwork on and around the two tiers of niches to either side of the S. chapel E. window.  The church contains no monuments of sculptural significance but a wall tablet in the S. chapel that will appeal to lovers of curiosities, commemorates one Elizabeth Hyam "Fourth time Widow" and tells how she was "hastened to her End [by a] Fall... on the 4th May 1748 in her 113th year".