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English Church Architecture -



BURSTALL, St. Mary (TM 097 445)     (September 2012)

(Bedrock:  Eocene, London Clay)


Notwithstanding its modest external appearance, this interesting church contains one of the most remarkable arcades in Suffolk, and one, moreover, that poses a considerable archaeological puzzle.  Comprised of a chancel, a nave with S. porch and very broad N. aisle, and an unbuttressed W. tower, the building is constructed of knapped flint and flint & chalk rubble, rendered to the south but curiously arranged in blocks around the aisle. (See the photograph of the church from the south, left, and the N. aisle N. wall, below right.)  Superficially at least, nearly everything outside appears to be Decorated, the notable exceptions being the N. lancet and three-light E. window with intersecting tracery in the chancel, which suggest a late thirteenth century church was refenestrated or partially reconstructed half a century or so later:  the N. and S. chancel walls are each pierced by a single trefoiled light with an ogee point that cannot be earlier than c. 1315, the two-light nave S. windows have reticulated tracery, and the tower has trefoil-cusped lancet bell-openings and encircled quatrefoils high up in the stage beneath.  But what is one to make of the N. aisle windows?  The aisle E. window (below left) is of very curious design, as if of curvilinear pattern vaguely remembered and imperfectly understood.  The N. windows (below right) adopt a variety of forms although the third from the east is identical to the nave windows.  The first from the east has non-standard tracery formed of three trilobes set at odd angles within a rounded triangle over round-arched cinquefoil-cusped lights, and the second from the east and the aisle W. window, have a more conventional curvilinear tracery formed of a quatrefoil above two mouchettes, around which, however, two-centred arches of inadequate radii, manage to nip off the extremities of the mouchettes.  The effect is ornamental but somewhat less than fully competent.  












Inside the church, interest moves to the arcade.  This is a splendid piece of work, formed of four arches bearing a complex series of narrow mouldings, rising from rhomboidal piers with the mouldings continuing down the  north and south sides but interrupted  towards the openings by capitals finely decorated with fleurons.  Higher up, there are hood-moulds with well-carved head label stops on both sides (i.e. towards both the nave and the aisle).  (See the photograph of the arcade seen from the aisle, below left, and the close-up of the westernmost pier, below right.)  As Birkin Haward pointed out (Suffolk Mediaeval Church Arcades. pub. Suffolk Institute of Archaeology and History, 1993), there is no real parallel for this anywhere else in Suffolk, only the chapel arcades at Wingfield coming anywhere close.  There the work can be dated to c.1415 and a similar date would probably not be unreasonable here, although Haward plumped for c.1380.  What seems much less tenable is the "early C14" proposed by Pevsner and accepted by Mortlock and the britishlistedbuildings website, who, I suggest, merely looked at the aisle windows and made the obvious assumptions.  It may be instructive to have another look at the aisle windows, this time from within.         














Here the rere-arches have narrow engaged side shafts and a series of narrow mouldings round the heads comparable to those round the arcade, except in the case of the third N. window from the east - the one copying the nave windows opposite - which has neither.  The implication must surely be that this is earlier work, re-used, and since there is nowhere on the south side of the building that it could have been taken from, it seems likely it was originally set in the N. wall of the nave, before the aisle was added, perhaps fifty or more years afterwards.  The copying of earlier styles by mediaeval masons was uncommon but not unknown (see, for example, St. Mary's, Bury St. Edmunds) and the flaws in the tracery of the other windows suggest the curvilinear was not the builder's natural style.  This is speculation of course, but it seems more plausible that the windows should copy an earlier form than that the arcades should so dramatically anticipate a later one.


Moving on to other matters, the half-timbered porch appears to be Perpendicular, but so also does the inner doorway with its complex series of waves and hollow mouldings.   Inside the church, there is no chancel arch and the tower arch is hidden behind the organ though it can be seen to consist of two orders, each carrying a sunk quadrant, which in East Anglia appears most often to be a late fourteenth century form (see Appendix 2).


The easternmost bay of the aisle is divided off by a parclose screen to the south and west, to form a chapel, approached up three steps.  The screen, with turned muntins, an inverted round arch above each bay, and a castellated top rail (illustrated right, from the southeast) appears contemporary with the aisle itself, at least in its essentials.  There is a trefoil-cusped ogee niche either side of the E. window.


The chancel is approached up two steps. The trefoil-cusped window to the south has a  lowered sill to act as a modest sedilia and there is a piscina immediately to the east.  The reredos and communion rail are modern and the most attractive feature in this part of the church is the excellent Victorian floor tiling (seen at the foot of the page, photographed from the east).


Additional woodwork to notice includes the hammerbeam nave roof with carved wall plates and Victorian angels, and the chancel roof framed in five cants (and not scissor-braced as stated by Mortlock).  There are also several old pew-backs, perhaps of more than one date (sixteenth, seventeenth and/or the eighteenth century).