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BRAMFORD, St. Mary  (TM 127 463),

SUFFOLK. 

(Bedrock:  Upper Cretaceous, Upper Chalk.)

 

Another Suffolk church that can probably be associated with the group 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. 

 

Birkin Haward made no mention of this church in his monograph, Master Mason Hawes of Occold, Suffolk, yet the three-light aisle and clerestory windows with strong mullions and stepped castellated transoms beneath segmental-pointed arches, are identical to those he attributed to Hawes of Occold at Bildeston, Combes, Otley and elsewhere (p. 9).  Hawes's career appears to have spanned the three decades c. 1410-40 and it seems as safe as reasonably can be to assume that this is his work also.  (See the photograph of the N. aisle window, left. This is also supported within by the hammerbeam nave and chancel roofs, with their moulded ridge beams, moulded purlins at the ⅓ and ⅔ positions, carved wall plates, and arched braces supporting collars (of which the nave roof  is illustrated, right).  These are very similar to the roofs at Bildeston and Wickham Skeith among other places where Haward believed Hawes had worked, and although Hawes was unlikely to have been responsible for the carpentry himself, he probably had a long-standing arrangement with a master joiner with whom he habitually collaborated - possibly John Hore of Diss, for whom a contract with the Abbot of Bury is dated 1434 (John Harvey, English Mediaeval Architects, Gloucester, Alan Sutton, 1984, p. 148, and Birkin Haward, Master Mason Hawes of Occold, Suffolk, p. 3).

 

The earliest surviving work at Bramford, however, is probably to be found in the chancel, which is short but exceptionally tall and seemingly dated by the two-light, late thirteenth century window in the eastern end of the S. wall, formed of two lancets set within an encompassing arch, with a diamond light above.  The triple sedilia recessed in the inside of the same wall, with a single flat chamfer around its three bays, two at one level and the third (the easternmost) at a higher level, is quite clearly contemporary, while further to the west, the two-light windows opposite each other with tracery formed from the intersection of an ogee with an inverted ogee, are, equally obviously, Decorated insertions.  (The N. window, obscured by the bush in the  photograph at the top of the page, is illustrated above left.)  Their rere-arches carry a series of wave mouldings around the heads, above an order of circular shafts with moulded bases.  The nave arcades are Decorated work (i.e. early fourteenth century) to judge from the profile of their  prominent capitals, which is characteristic of the period, although there is evidence that at least one of these -  the central one to the south - has been remodelled.  (The church interior is shown at the foot of the page, viewed from the west, and a close-up of the central pier to the north is illustrated on the right.)  They were certainly erected before the tower, which is also Decorated however, for the four original bays have been truncated by the tower's internal buttressing, leaving, as it appears, approximately 3.6. (Curiously, D.P. Mortlock draws the contrary conclusion in his Guide to Suffolk Churches (Cambridge, The Lutterworth Press, 2009, pp. 68-70), but this is not a view supported by Nikolaus Pevsner or James Bettley in The Buildings of England (in the 'Suffolk West' volume, New Haven & London, Yale University Press, 2015,  pp.108-110).  The narrow semi-octagonal E. responds to the arcades only support the inner order of the arches, leaving the outer order to die into the wall.

 

The tower is late..,  perhaps very late..., Decorated work, and the britishlistedbuildings web-site's suggestion of  a  date c.1370 may not be far from the mark.  It is a massive structure with a chequerwork basal frieze, angle buttresses, an irregular semi-polygonal stair turret at the east end of the N. wall rising to the bell-stage, battlements, and a 'slender timbered-framed and lead-covered spire which is thought was added in the eighteenth century' (Rev. Canon Roger Dedman, Welcome to St. Mary the Virgin, Bramford, Suffolk,  2001, p.2).  Only the bell-stage is demarcated by a string course and the renewed bell-openings have flowing tracery formed of a quatrefoil on a stem, above two mouchettes, resembling a child's drawing of a flower standing above two leaves.  Inside, the exceptionally tall tower arch has a complex profile more Perpendicular in form than Decorated, and high up on the W. side of the arch there are very large corbel heads that may once have supported an upper floor.  The rather crudely constructed S. porch of uncertain date, now serving as a kitchen, has side windows formed of two lancets set within round-headed arches and an outer doorway bearing two flat chamfers dying into a single flat chamfer below the springing. 

 

The late fourteenth century N. porch (seen left, from the northwest) may have been added at the same time as the figure and animal pinnacles to the nave and N. aisle, perhaps in 1468, when a bequest was left for work 'to the body of the church'  (Welcome to St. Mary the Virgin, Bramford, Suffolk, p.2).  It shares with the N. aisle an attractively designed, carved parapet, which was also recreated when the cross-gabled N. vestry was constructed in 1896 (The Buildings of England: Suffolk West, p. 108).  It seems virtually certain that before this porch was built, the principle entrance to the church had been from the south, for the N. doorway (inside the porch) is modest and off-centre, and clearly not designed to be part of a grand entrance. The diagonal buttresses at the corners of the N. porch and aisle are decorated on their leading edges with little blank arches on the base, crocketed Y-traceried ogee arches beneath the first off-sets, and canopied niches with a vaulted canopies below the second.  The porch E. window, formed of two large trefoil-cusped lights with a rounded triangle above, appears to have been brought from elsewhere and re-set in this position, though Pevsner drew the odd conclusion, not contradicted by James Bettley but not supported by D.P. Mortlock or Canon Roger Dedman, that it is in its original place and the porch was subsequently reconstructed around it!   The elaborate outer doorway is formed of an arch bearing two continuous wave mouldings insider a label (rectangular drip-stone) rising from two lion hood-moulds, with shields in the spandrels and a canopied niche above, containing a modern statue of the Virgin and Child.

 

None of this is even to mention thus far the church's most impressive internal feature, which is the three-bay stone screen filling the space beneath the chancel arch (as shown in the photograph, right).   The outer arches carry wave mouldings above two orders of shafts rising from a plain stone dado with a moulded stone rail, and the central arch is double-flat-chamfered with an inner order that continues uninterrupted all the way round.  This is thirteenth century work but the two large encircled quatrefoils piercing the spandrels and the castellated stone rail on the top are probably Victorian 'improvements', probably by  the designer of the chancel arch above - Ewan Christian (1814-95),  none of [whose] churches rise above mediocrity'  (Basil F.L. Clarke, Church Builders of the Nineteenth Century, London, SPCK, 1938, p. 159). 

 

The pulpit and the massive font cover are examples of Tudor carpentry.  The former is octagonal and decorated with linenfold panelling, but the latter is more striking due entirely to its size: decorated with tabernacle work on the sides and topped by a crocketed ogee-pointed dome with a finial, it dwarfs the octagonal font beneath, which is carved with angels holding shields on the ordinal faces of the bowl and shields in pointed sexfoils on the cardinal faces.

[Other churches featured on this web-site where Hawes of Occold appears to have worked include Bedingfield, Bildeston, Debenham, Thorndon, Wickam Skeith and Wingfield in Suffolk, and Dickleburgh, just across the county border in Norfolk.]