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English Church Architecture -



EARL STONHAM, St. Mary (TM 108 588)     (July 2008)

(Bedrock:  Neogene to Quaternary, Crag Group)


This village and this building (shown above, from the south) should not be confused with Earl Soham and its similarly dedicated church, just eight miles to the east.  Both buildings, as it happens, have good Perpendicular towers and hammerbeam nave roofs, but the church here is pseudo-cruciform in plan (see Appendix 3 for a definition of this term as used here), with transepts leading into the eastern end of the nave, and its hammerbeam nave roof, though of single rather than double type, is not only better than its counterpart at Earl Soham, but is also one of a suite which covers besides, the chancel and both transepts.  The transept roofs are now largely Victorian, albeit still good pieces of carpentry, but the nave and chancel roofs are essentially late fifteenth century work, like the W. tower and nave clerestory.  The rest of the church is earlier - thirteenth century (Early English) in the case of a single lancet to the chancel and the two, possibly re-set, Y-traceried windows to the S. transept, which probably also date some of the building’s basic masonry, and early fourteenth century (Decorated) in the case of most other windows and the crossing arches (though probably not the porch - see below).  The building is best considered in approximate date order, with the outside and inside examined together.


Earl Stonham is an aisleless church, notwithstanding the fact that it has a clerestory, with wide transepts and a S. porch.  The chancel N. wall is pierced to the west by the lancet already mentioned (and shown in the photograph of the church from the northeast, below left), and the two Y-traceried windows, the first much larger than the second, light the S. transept from the south and east respectively. These are probably survivals from an earlier building on this site, for which the date could be the mid to late twelfth century.


The chancel E. window - like the (probably re-set) N. transept N. window (illustrated left) - is three-light, with thin trefoils and secondary subarcuation above trefoil-cusped outer lights, and a much larger trefoil in the head, above a cinquefoil-cusped central light.  The N. and S. chancel walls are each pierced towards the east by a cusped Y-traceried window with the appearance of c. 1300, while recessed internally in the S. wall of the sanctuary, there is a double piscina in a Decorated style that seems to predate the ogee, and a double sedilia immediately to the west, formed from the lowered sill of one of the windows just described, with the seats separated by the recumbent form of a dog (now headless).


The nave is lit to the north by two Decorated windows, one each side of the N. doorway, the more easterly with two-centred trefoil-cusped lights and a trefoil above and the more westerly with ogee-pointed trefoil-cusped lights and a quatrefoil above, and to the south, by a two-light Decorated(?) window with cinquefoil-cusped lights and an irregular sexfoil above, and by a three-light Perpendicular window with stepped lights and supermullioned tracery.  A similar Perpendicular window lights the S. transept from the west.  The W. tower has a three-light W. window with reticulated tracery that may once have come from the nave W. wall.  The S. porch looks most likely to be a late fourteenth century addition to the building (i.e. early Perpendicular):  the windows with depressed cusped Y-tracery are set in larger blank arches internally and the tall outer doorway bears a sunk quadrant moulding on the inner order (see Appendix 2 for some close-dated examples of the use of this moulding in East Anglia), springing from semicircular responds, and a hollow round the outer order, which changes to a flat chamfer down the jambs.  Inside the building, the chancel and transept arches are difficult to call in terms of how much may or may not be original and how much due to their nineteenth century restoration, but the style, at least, is of the early fourteenth century, for the arches are formed of two hollow-chamfered orders, albeit that they spring from corbels that do not look convincingly mediaeval.  The N. transept arch, however, also has a third, outer order, decorated with floral motifs and this does look old.    


The nave clerestory consists of two-light Perpendicular windows with depressed trefoil-cusped Y-tracery, which are surrounded to the south by flushwork decoration, consisting - below the springing - of four tall trefoil-cusped arches with crocketed ogee points, between each pair of adjacent windows, and - above the springing - of a much shorter tier of arches between the windows, that gives way to little quatrefoils above the windows themselves.


The tower rises in three stages supported by diagonal buttresses with six set-offs and with a projecting semi-octagonal bell-turret at the east end of the S. wall, to three-light bell-openings with stepped lights and supermullioned tracery.  There are two tiers of flushwork decoration around the top of the tower, one on the battlements and another forming a frieze immediately below (featuring blank arches and shields in square surrounds in the first case, and trefoil-cusped arches alternating with quatrefoils in squares or circles in the second), and there is also a basal flushwork frieze of trefoil-cusped lights.  The W. doorway has spandrels featuring carved roses and there are more roses decorating the label, while the arch itself is surrounded by a complex series of mouldings, including two casements above the springing, filled at intervals with roses in the outer order and crowns alternating with shields on the inner order.  The door itself is traceried.


However, to turn at last to the roofs and, in particular, the nave roof (illustrated right, from the west, and in the thumbnail left, from the east)), this is a most handsome piece of mediaeval woodwork, constructed in ten bays.  A description of this complicated structure is probably best enumerated:

  1. alternate pairs of hammerbeams are tenoned into the hammerposts from the sides, instead of supporting them in the usual way from below, so that the hammerposts can continue below the hammerbeams and terminate as carved pendants;

  2. the hammerposts are arched braced to collar beams, which in turn support short king posts that rise to the ridge, and there are additional pendants hanging from the centre of the collars;

  3. the hammerbeams and collars are variously castellated or brattished, and supported by arched braces with spandrels elaborately carved with leaves, flowers, beasts and grotesques;

  4. the wall posts and wall plates are also finely decorated, the former with niches containing figures and the latter with angels at two levels and lattice patterning between;

  5. there is openwork tracery above the hammerbeams and collars, and all timbers are moulded, including the common rafters.


Thus this is an exceptionally rich and complex piece of carpentry, that was considered by Pevsner to be “without hesitation... the most beautiful single-hammerbeam roof in England”, which is an accolade indeed. The chancel roof (shown below left, from the west) has carved wall plates with open tracery running longitudinally above, and more elaborate tracery above the hammerbeams and collars.  The transept roofs have simply carved wall plates, openwork tracery above the hammerbeams, and hammerposts supporting braces arched directly to the ridge.  Insofar as one can tell from the ground, the N. transept roof looks entirely renewed, but the S. transept roof appears merely restored.


The octagonal pulpit (below right) is another beautiful piece of woodwork, which dates, according to the church guide, from the reign of James II (reigned 1685-88 only).  This is is decorated with two and a half tiers of panelling, the lowest with fielded panels featuring central protuberances in squares, the next with the usual round arches, here more than usually well carved, and the top half-tier, with vine leaves and birds inside a castellated surround.  The choir stalls in the chancel with the symbols of the Evangelists on the ends are only Victorian, but the ones behind are old, with defaced figures and traceried backs.  The church contains no monuments of significance but there are various fragments of wall paintings in evidence, most notably the remains of a “Doom” painting (shown in the photograph of the nave roof above), in its usual place over the chancel arch.