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English Church Architecture -



DEBENHAM, St. Mary Magdalene (TM 174 632)      (October 2008)

(Bedrock:  Neogene to Quaternary, Crag Group)




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 (shown above from the south) has been too much written about (not least by Roy Tricker in the church guide) to give one any real 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” (Pevsner) 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, pub. the Clarendon Press, 1934) “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 (see the former, illustrated left), 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 major buildings, 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 with 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 elsewhere.


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 is now 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 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.  (See the precise definition of these terms in Appendix 3.)   This is also the design of windows at nearby Thorndon and Wetheringsett, and - perhaps significantly - quite similar to the design of the aisle windows at Bildeston and the tower W. window at Occold (see below), 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 supermullioned 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 casement carved with crowns at intervals.  The spandrels display carved shields at intervals and there are fleurons on the hood-mould.


Inside the church, the nave arcades are composed of arches of two orders bearing wave mouldings, springing from piers composed of four major and four minor semicircular shafts with fillets, with capitals that run all the way round, variously carved with foliage patterns, fleurons and angels.  (See the N. arcade, right.)  This is a design that the late Birkin Haward compared with that of the nave arcades at Bildeston, Hengrave - where the work can probably be dated to the early fifteenth century because the donor appears to have been Thomas Hengrave, who died in 1419 - and Wingfield, and 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 St. Mary Magdalene's church, 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.


It remains to add a brief note on a few furnishings and fittings.   The pulpit is Jacobean and all that remains of what once a three-decker piece.  The large tomb-chest against the chancel S. wall, commemorating Sir Charles Framlingham (d. 1595) and his first wife, Dorothy, was erected in 1598, and features two stiff effigies, she wearing a voluminous petticoat and ruff, and both lying on their backs with their hands together in prayer.   The other important monument (shown left) stands against the S. aisle wall, immediately east of the doorway:  this is dedicated to John Symson (d. 1697) and features a bust of the deceased with his right hand raised in greeting, set inside a round arch with a large putto on either side.  Finally, the nave paving is particularly attractive and composed of red and yellow bricks fired locally in 1871 and tessellated together with black and yellow encaustic tiles.