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DEBENHAM, St. Mary Magdalene  (TM 174 632),


(Bedrock:  Neogene to Quaternary, Crag Group.)


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. 


Debenham is an attractive little town (population approximately 2,000) with a very well preserved high street, although the settlement as a whole has sprawled excessively on the outskirts in the last twenty or more years. The admirable church has been too much written about (not least by Roy Tricker in the church guide) to give anyone much hope of adding to the discussion, but this is an important building which cannot be passed by.  It consists of a tall aisled nave without porches, now in Perpendicular style, a much shorter Early English chancel, a relatively short but sturdy Anglo-Norman W. tower with a Decorated bell-stage, and a W. galilee beyond, which is also Decorated.  The building is best described in approximate age order, beginning with the tower.


This has been variously described as belonging 'to the so-called Saxo-Norman Overlap' (James Bettley and Nikolaus Pevsner in the 'Suffolk East' volume of The Buildings of England, New Haven & London, Yale University Press, 2015, p. 188) and as pre-Conquest work with Norman alterations, but it is probably most likely to be a straightforward Anglo-Norman structure of c. 1075, as suggested by the coursed flintwork, laid herringbone-wise.  This, according to Sir Alfred Clapham (English Romanesque Architecture: After the Conquest, Oxford, The Clarendon Press, 1934, p. 115) 'is practically always an indication of an early date, and though it was used occasionally in the Saxon period it is commonly distinctive of late eleventh century building'.   Such an interpretation here depends on the assumption that a Saxon mason was responsible for the striking long-and-short quoins at the northwest and southwest angles, but that is not unreasonable in the early years after the Conquest.  The two little round-headed windows low down in the S. wall, are of Norman appearance, for the Saxon use of freestone for window dressings in East Anglia (which lacks such material) is almost unknown.  Unfortunately, inside the church, the arch to the nave is not especially helpful as the voussoirs towards the east have been renewed, but the arch certainly has the massiveness of Norman work, since the thickness of Saxon walls, even in majorbuildings, hardly ever exceeded three feet (90 cm.).


The chancel brings us forward to the thirteenth century, where two dates have also been proffered - an earlier one corresponding to the simple lancet N. windows, of which only the westernmost is now original, and a somewhat later one for the three two-light S. windows with plate tracery (shown right) - although, again, this may be an unnecessary complication.  Plate tracery was employed throughout much of the thirteenth century and the difference between the two sides of the chancel can probably be explained withequal or better justification as showing that, since the S. side of the church presents the principal façade, the rector, on whom the costs for the repair and maintenance of the chancel were likely to have fallen, saw no reason to go to unnecessary expense in the wall opposite.


The tower bell-stage is early fourteenth century work, as shown by the bell-openings with reticulated tracery beneath segmental-pointed arches.  However, the remarkable part of the church of this date is the large W. galilee, two storeys in height, with two-light reticulated windows at the sides.  The regional precedent for W. porches was probably the example at Ely Cathedral, where the work can be dated to c. 1215, and Cambridgeshire churches which later adopted this feature include Holy Trinity, Bottisham, where the work is part Early English/ part Decorated, and St. Mary’s, Swaffham Prior, where it is Perpendicular.   Here at Debenham, the W. front has been substantially renewed (as recently as 1993), but faithfully so, and its principal features are the three ogee-pointed niches with pinnacles at the sides, the first above the apex of the W. door and the other two in the leading edges of the angle buttresses each side.


Nevertheless, as significant as al; this is, the most striking part of the church is the Perpendicular aisled nave, formed of four tall bays and lit predominantly by windows with stepped lights, with transoms and supertransoms at two levels, the former, some three-fifths of the way up the lights, and the latter, immediately on top.  This is also the design of windows at nearby Thorndon and - perhaps significantly - quite similar to the design of the aisle windows at Bildeston and the tower W. window at Occold, though only the stepped supertransoms are present there.  The clerestory consists of ten pairs of three-light windows positioned above the arcade spandrels, without tracery but with stepped transoms about three quarters of the way up.  The E. and W. windows to the N. aisle and the window above the S. doorway, have simpler Perpendicular tracery, although the first two have a transom crossing all three lights, halfway up.  There is also a three-light E. window in the gable, above the chancel roof.  The S. doorway (illustrated left) carries a series of little mouldings all the way round it, separated into two orders by a wide casement carved with crowns at intervals.  The spandrels display feature shields at intervals and there are fleurons on the hood-mould.


Inside the church, the nave arcades are formed of arches of two orders bearing wave mouldings, springing from piers composed of four major and four minor semicircular shafts with fillets  (raised flat bands running down their full length), with capitals that run all the way round, variously carved with foliage patterns, fleurons and angels.  (See the N. arcade, illustrated right.)  This is a design that the late Birkin Haward compared with that of the nave arcades at Bildeston - where the work can be dated to c. 1420 - and Wingfield, which he suggested might be the work of the master mason Hawes of Occold, whose work is discussed in some detail under the entry for Bildeston.  The chancel arch may be essentially contemporary with the chancel, being composed of two flat-chamfered orders springing from two orders of semicircular shafts comprising the responds, but it appears to have been heightened and given new capitals, most probably when the arcades were built. Presumably it was also soon after this that the nave roof was constructed, with its castellated hammerbeams alternating with tie beams. The aisle roofs are partly old but the chancel roof is Victorian.


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