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English Church Architecture.


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


(Bedrock:  Neogene to Quaternary, Crag Group.)


A church with a proud Perpendicular tower and clerestory

and an exceptional double-hammerbeam nave roof.




This village and this building 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 (that is, it has transepts but no true crossing), 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 of good roofs that cover besides the chancel and both transepts.  The transept roofs are now largely Victorian, although still good examples of carpentry, but the nave and chancel roofs are essentially late fifteenth century work, like the W. tower and nave clerestory.  The nave and chancel themselves are earlier - thirteenth century (Early English) in the case of some of the building's basic masonry to judge from the single lancet in the chancel and the two, possibly re-set, Y-traceried windows to the S. transept, and early fourteenth century (Decorated)  in the case of the crossing arches and most of the other windows.  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 N. wall of the chancel is pierced to the west by the lancet just mentioned (and shown in the photograph of the church from the northeast, below left), while the two Y-traceried windows, the first much larger than the second, light the S. transept from the south and east respectively.  These were presumably part of an earlier building on this site, along with parts of the surviving walls.


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 apex.  The N. and walls are each pierced  by a cusped Y-traceried window commensurate with c. 1300, while recessed internally in the S. wall of the sanctuary, there is a double piscina in  Decorated style that seems to predate the general appearance of the ogee, c. 1315.  A double sedilia immediately to the west has been formed from the lowered sill of one of the windows just described, with the seats separated by the recumbent dog (now headless).


The nave is lit by two Decorated windows on the north side, one each side of the doorway, and on the south side, by one two-light Decorated window with cinquefoil-cusped lights and an irregular sexfoil in the head, 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 been re-set from its former position in the nave W. wall.  The S. porch looks most likely to be a late fourteenth century (i.e. early Perpendicular) addition to the building:  the windows here with depressed, cusped Y-tracery, are set in larger blank arches internally, and the tall outer doorway bears a sunk quadrant moulding (most often associated with the second half of the fourteenth century in East Anglia) and a hollow.    The excellent Perpendicular nave clerestory consists of equally-spaced, two-light, segmental-arched windows, with depressed trefoil-cusped Y-tracery, and - on the south side - two tiers of flushwork arches between.


The tower rises in three stages supported by diagonal buttresses with six off-sets, and features a semi-octagonal bell-turret at the east end of the S. wall reaching up as far as the bell-stage, and bell-openings formed of three stepped lights with split 'Y's.  Its striking appearance however, is created by its flushwork parapet and surmounting stepped battlements, of which the former is decorated with blank arches and shields in square surrounds, and the latter, with trefoil-cusped flushwork arches in the merlons, and shields in circles beneath the embrasures.  The W. doorway has carved roses filling the spandrels and more roses decorating the label (rectangular drip-stone).  The door itself is traceried and probably mediaeval too.


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

i.    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;

ii.    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;

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

iv.   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;

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


This is thus an exceptionally rich and complex piece of carpentry, which was considered by Pevsner in the original edition of The Buildings of England: Suffolk (1961) to be 'without hesitation... the most beautiful single-hammerbeam roof in England', which was 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 to have been restored.


The octagonal pulpit (below right) is another beautiful piece of woodwork, which dates, according to notes in the church, from the reign of James II (reigned 1685-88 only).  This 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 (seen in the photograph of the nave roof above), in its usual place over the chancel arch.