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English Church Architecture.

 

BRUNDISH, St. Lawrence  (TM 271 695),

SUFFOLK. 

(Bedrock:  Neogene to Quaternary, Crag Group.)

 

A village church, part-built by the ' Master of Stowlangtoft'

during the reign of Richard II (1377-1399).

 

 

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).  This led the writer to attempt to apply a similar methodology to another group of Suffolk churches with striking similarities to one another and to the church of St. George, Stowlangtoft, in particular, and by good fortune, it subsequently proved possible to provide a degree of support for the findings through  documentary evidence.  Readers wishing to understand how this was done and the conclusions reached - as well, of course, to judge for themselves the validity of the exercise - should first read the page for Stowlangtoft, then (in any order) the pages for Brettenham, Holton St. Mary, Norton, Preston St. Mary, Rattlesden, Rickinghall Superior and Thrandeston, and then finally, in this precise order, the pages for Sproughton, Fressingfield, Wortham, Wingfield, Parham and Brundish.

 

 

This is an interesting church in an attractive rural setting.  The tower is essentially Norman but the rest of the building belongs to the group exemplified by St. George's, Stowlangtoft, known to have been constructed in the reign of Richard II.

 

The tower is characteristic of its time in its lack both of buttresses and of string courses dividing it into stages, but the twelfth century features notable by their presence rather than their absence are the bell-openings in the E. wall (illustrated right), the blocked openings lower down in the north, west and south walls, below the present bell-openings, and the blocked arch between the tower and nave, best viewed from inside the former. Examining these in turn, the E. bell-openings, above the fossilized gable line of the earlier, steeper nave roof, consist of two round-headed lights decorated with nailhead, divided by a demi-shaft with a leaf volute capital. They appear to have been re-set since the blocked openings  in the S. wall, below the current bell-stage (just discernible in the photograph above), suggests the tower once ended here before being heightened in the early fourteenth century and given its present reticulated bell-openings on three sides.    The tower arch (left) is formed of a single unmoulded order resting on abaci with chamfered under-edges.  It does not appear to be especially late.

 

The nave and chancel are particularly intriguing for they are lit entirely by windows of the Stowlangtoft, Parham and Wingfield (nave aisles) pattern, which is dateable in all three of those places to the late fourteenth century. This design, save only for the number of lights, is virtually unvarying:  the lights are linked by little subarcuations above; the straight-sided, trefoil-cusped sublights are round-arched in the outer pair and ogee-pointed in the others; and quatrefoils occupy the window heads, beneath the segmental-pointed (occasionally segmental) arches.  Still more of these windows to be seen at Fressingfield,  Preston St. Mary and Wortham, among other places. Brundish has twelve altogether - four each side of the nave and two each side of the chancel, all of which are two-light except for the easternmost on each side of the nave. (The photographs, right, show the easternmost N. window to the nave and the next immediately to the west, respectively.)  Another common feature between many of these churches, seen here on the S. front of the nave, is the linking of these windows by a string course at the springing level of the lights.  However, there are further close similarities to be discovered inside, and when one recognises these windows, one has a good idea what to expect.

 

St. Lawrence's church is aisleless and the Norman tower arch has already been discussed. However, the chancel arch is identical to arches or arcades at Fressingfield, Wortham, Wingfield and Parham, which are composed of two flat-chamfered orders springing from semi-octagonal responds with the additional, diagnostic feature of an additional narrow flat chamfer immediately outside, terminating just below the capital. (See the photograph of the N. respond, left.)   A second feature seen in most of the other churches mentioned (Parham is a good example), is the segmental-pointed hood-mould over the nave doorway rere-arches (or rather, its precise form), with little 'L' and reverse 'L'-shaped side pieces. (See the S. doorway hoodmould, left.)

 

These features taken together make a fairly convincing argument for the involvement of the same master mason at all the churches listed in the test box above, but they are not, of course, conclusive proof.  It would be good to have documentary evidence of a connection between them in addition, and here, an inauspicious-looking sheet  of close typing hanging in a frame on the W. wall of the nave is particularly helpful for it proves to be a transcript of an exchange of letters between Henry Spenser, Bishop of Norwich from 1370 to 1406, and John Pyshale, priest, laying out the foundation deeds of a chantry chapel Pyshale wished to establish, together with that of a third letter from Richard II, granting the king's permission.  The chantry is traditionally believed to have stood about a hundred yards south of Brundish church, on the present site of Chantry Farmhouse, but Pyshale’s letter specifically refers to 'a Chantry of one Chaplain which by the help of God I intend to found at the altar of the Blessed Virgin Mary in the church or chapel at Brundissch', so Chantry Farmhouse may occupy instead the site of 'the house built and provided for the aforesaid Chantry'  in which the chaplain was required to 'reside continuously.... for as long as he shall hold [the office]'.  Such dwellings could be very mean indeed by present day standards - sometimes no more than a little lean-to structure attached to the north wall of a chancel (see, for example, St. Peter's, Cockfield, St. Nicholas's, Gipping and All Saints', Hitcham) - but that is unlikely to have been the case here as the first man to be 'inducted into the corporal possession of the foresaid Chantry' was Sir Gilbert Spryngman, who would presumably have expected better.  The endowment was, in any case, a rich one, for the letter from Richard II, dated '24 November in the eighth year of our reign [1385]', gives Pyshale permission, for a fee of £30 to the exchequer (the equivalent of about £18,500 today), to transfer to the foundation 'two messuages, one hundred and eight-four acres of land [presumably arable], ten acres of meadow, ninety-three acres of pasture, thirty-six acres of wood, £4.10s.0d rent [approximately £2,800 today], and a rent of one chicken and eighteen pullets and one pound of cumin, with their appurtenances, and three autumn works[?] at Tatyngton, Brundissch, Wilbeye, and Denington, and assign the same to a Warden or Chaplain of a certain Chantry at the altar of Blessed Mary in the church of St. Andrew [the former dedication of the church] at Brundissch to be founded by the foresaid John'.   It does not automatically follow, of course, that any of this income was spent on the reconstruction of the church building itself, but it shows a source of funds was available and it seems likely, if such a chantry were to be established, that a soundly-built church in good order would have been regarded as a necessary prerequisite.

 

In addition, John Pyshale’s letter 'given at Brundische, 10 April A.D. 1385' includes a list of nine, presumably local, witnesses - 'William de Wingefield, John de Wingefield, William Jermye, Philip Deneys, knights, Robert Carbonel, William Philipp, William Rous, Robert de Pyeshale, John Fanne and others'.  Subjecting these men to fairly superficial internet searches, very soon reveals the following:

 

There is no information on William Rous, Robert de Pyshale (presumably a relation of John Pyshale) or John Fanne, and none on Sir Philip Deneys apart from the date of his death (1391), although he is also mentioned earlier in the Brundish transcript as one of the group of people in addition to John Pyshale for whose 'good estate and health... while we shall live, and for our souls when we shall have departed this life' the chaplain was required to pray.  Sir William de Wingefield (c.1326 - 1398), however, was the cousin and executor of the John de Wingefield who bequeathed money for the reconstruction of Wingfield church, was 'well respected in the community of East Anglia [and] constantly in demand as a trustee of estates and an executor of wills.'  He obviously knew a number of masons for in 1365 he was 'commanded to conscript masons for the king’s works [at that time, Edward III].'  He served with the Black Prince in France in the 1340s and ‘50s, was elected to parliament in 1376, where he gained a reputation for strict fiscal propriety, and was a beneficiary under the will of William d’Ufford, who had a high regard for him.  He also held the manor of Thrandeston from 1381.  His cousin Thomas’s only son was Sir John de Wingefield (c. 1345-89), M.P. for Suffolk from 1384, but Thomas also had two daughters and a stepson, Sir Robert Carbonel  (d. 1399).  

 

Sir William Jermye (c. 1350-1386) appears to have served under both Edward III and Richard II and, on his early death, to have left money to a number of Suffolk churches, not one of which, unfortunately, is among the group under consideration here.  Little else appears to be known about him, but Sir William Philipp (or Phelip) (c. 1342 - 1405) of Dennington makes a series of appearances in the Patent Rolls, often in company with John Pyshale and Robert de Ashfield, among others, suggesting the three men were part of a group of friends.  Thus on the 2nd December 1375, for example, they were fined for purchasing land and property from William d’Ufford, who held them in chief, without first obtaining licence from the king, and they had to appear again before the court on 1st May 1383, in connection with disputes arising with the Countess of Norfolk over their administration of William d’Ufford’s estate, of which they were executors.  Subsequently, William Philipp acquired the Manor of Little Wilbraham, Cambridgeshire (in 1392), through his wife Catherine, née Chamberlain.

 

John Pyshale (d. 1390) was rector at Cawston in Norfolk from 1371  and  in addition to his appearances in the Patent Rolls with William Philipp and Robert de Ashfield (c.1320 - 1401), the chief benefactor of the new church at Stowlangtoft, his name crops up in association with the latter only on numerous occasions.  Thus the two men appear together with William d’Ufford (c.1339 - 1382) in the Patent Rolls for the 28th January 1382 in pursuit of a claim against Thomas, vicar of Gorleston, whom they alleged owed them £160.  Then, when William d’Ufford died without heirs later the same year, Sir John Pyshale and Robert de Ashfield became trustees of the Manor of Byng, near Wickham Market, which William d’Ufford had held since 1376.  These men clearly spent a lot of time in each other’s company and if William d’Ufford was paying for the erection of Parham church in the late 1370s or early 1380s (see the page on this web-site for that church), it seems likely this would have cropped up in conversation and that his friends would have known the identity of the mason he had employed when Pyshale came to establish his chantry in 1385 and Ashfield decided to finance the reconstruction of Stowlangtoft church, some four or five years after that.  They might also have been more able to do this if they had received bequests from their recently departed friend, whose four sons had predeceased him.

 

In the introduction to his 1954 edition of English Mediaeval Architects (Gloucester, Alan Sutton, p. xxxix), John Harvey wrote:

'Four centuries have passed since Giorgio Vasari wrote his remarkable book on the lives of Italy’s painters, sculptors and architects:  Italy owes much of her pre-eminent reputation as an artistic country to this delightful work....  The keynote of his book is human interest; the personality of each artist being set before us with vividness and fidelity - each is an inspired pen-portrait which seizes on the imagination and endows its subject with a three-dimensional quality rare at that period  France, Germany, Spain and England, not less endowed with masters of their own, had no Vasari, and we peer into a darkness illumined only by sparse gleams of light.'

 

No one has done more than Harvey to snatch from anonymity the names of some of England’s mediaeval artists and architects - both the great and not so great - before the fog of time enshrouds them for ever, but inasmuch as the Stowlangtoft Master remains nameless, this little investigation fails to add to it. Nevertheless, a number of conclusions can surely be drawn, namely:
  (i) that the churches listed in the test box at the top of the page, all had some input from the same master, and that at several of these churches, he was the principal architect;
 (ii) that this man was a skilled craftsman, of the second rank perhaps, but nonetheless of notable ability and artistic judgement;
(iii) that the relevant parts of these buildings are thus approximately coeval, attributable to the last quarter of the fourteenth century and the reign of Richard II;
(iv) that just as one might recommend a plumber to a friend today, so too in the Middle Ages, craftsmen and artisans derived much of their employment from personal recommendations between friends and acquaintances, and this was a major determinant of where they found work.
 

Be that as it may, the last word can go to Harvey, from his reflections on the condition of the mediaeval architect in 1954 (ibid. p. xl):

'A craftsman is apprenticed..., takes a private contract, is asked to advise a [client] on some building problem, travels to seek materials or men and renders a detailed statement, takes a younger man as his partner or warden owing to advancing years, makes a will, perhaps with reference to his family, his friends, his colleagues, his work, the tools of his trade:  finally he is buried beneath a tomb or brass recording his name or office and begging the passers-by to pray for his soul and that of his wife.  Research and good luck may show that he was the richest man in his village when a Fifteenth was collected, that he was a farmer as well as an artisan, and possibly that he was part-owner of a quarry.  Yet there remains little but the skeleton of an existence before us - his temper, his family life, his illnesses, his pastimes; jovial hours spent with his fellows; all have passed away.'