English Church Architecture.
ELMSWELL, St. John the Baptist (TL 982 636),
(Bedrock: Neogene to Quarternary, Crag Group.)
One of several churches in Mid Suffolk and South Norfolk with related towers
notable for their similar decoration with flint flushwork devices.
Stylistic evidence alone is sufficient to show these towers are by the same hand but documentary evidence is also available for three of them, showing they were built within a few years of each other. Thus the prototype appears to be at Garboldisham where one, John Smyth, left 20 shillings in 1463 'to new tower for stipend of mason in first year of work' (quoted by Bill Wilson in the 'Northwest and South Norfolk' volume of The Buildings of England, New Haven & London, Yale University Press, 2002, p. 348), and this seems to have been followed within a decade by the tower at Ixworth, for the date of which there is a positive glut of evidence, including bequests of 1471 & '72, a panel on the southeast buttress bearing the name of Abbot Schot of Bury St. Edmunds, abbot there from 1470-73 (James Bettley and Nikolaus Pevsner, the 'Suffolk West' volume of The Buildings of England, 2015, p. 334), and a recorded observation of the eighteenth century antiquarian, Tom Martin, who noted the presence of a glazed brick in the S. wall inscribed with the name of William Dense, abbot of Ixworth Priory from 1467 to c. 1484. Finally, shortly after this was built, it seems that the tower at Elmswell must have been constructed, for in 1476 Margaret Walter left 40 shillings for the 'new tower' here. It is also interesting to compare Elmswell's bell-openings with the central nave windows in each side of St. Nicholas's chapel, Gipping, five miles (8 km.) to the east, which was once the private chapel of Sir James Tyrell and built at his expense just before or after he was knighted by Edward IV in 1482. Both those nave windows and the Elmswell bell-openings are four-light and have segmental arches and narrow dividing panels running the full height of the lights between the middle pair. The towers at Badwell Ash, Ixworth and Garboldisham have only two-light bell-openings, but the kinship between these and the tower at Elmswell lies chiefly in their similarly bulky construction, their stepped battlements faced with narrow flushwork arches, and, most especially, in the form and position of the flushwork devices on the buttresses and basal friezes. Yet compare, too, the W. windows at Badwell Ash and Elmswell: both are three-light with cinquefoil-cusped intersecting tracery beneath a depressed arch and both are rather too small for the wall in which they are set.... Or look at the profiles of the diagonal buttresses of these towers, for while there are seven set-offs at Elmswell and only six at Badwell Ash, in each case that is rather too many for the height of the tower, making the sections appear rather too short and too shallow. This, then, is not necessarily great architecture, but it is confident work, apparently by a mason who knew his mind, was happy with his creations, and was ready to reproduce them on request, largely unaltered, from place to place.
The flushwork devices are discussed in some detail in Mediaeval Flushwork of East Anglia by the textile artist, Margaret Talbot, who uses these emblems in her work and who has been able to identify no less than sixty-nine on the church tower at Elmswell (thirty-four on the buttresses, twenty around the top, and fifteen on the basal frieze), many of which she has also been able to interpret with reasonable certainty. The photographs on this page show the symbols on the northwest tower buttress and on four sections of the basal frieze, beginning on the W. wall, north of the W. door, then south of the door, and continuing along the S. wall, first west, then east. Included among them are those given the following interpretations: northwest buttress (illustrated above right) - (i) third from top, the crown of thorns, with palms above and below; basal frieze, 1st section (shown immediately above) - (ii) first from left, the “T” of St. Thomas à Beckett, and (iii) third from left, the crowned “M” of St. Mary; basal frieze, 2nd section (shown immediately below) - (iv) first from left, the cup and viper of St. John the Evangelist; basal frieze, 3rd section (shown in the second photograph below) - (v) first from right, the pommée cross of St. Michael; and basal frieze, 4th section (shown in the third photograph below) - (vi) second from left, the wheel of St. Catherine.
So much, then, for the tower. The rest of the church may be quickly described for it is largely Victorian and not very distinguished - the work of architects who seem somewhat in doubt, Simon Knott in his Suffolk Churches website declaring firmly that Edward Charles Hakewill rebuilt the S. aisle in 1862, John Drayton Wyatt added the N. aisle in 1867 (there had not been one previously), and Robert Jewel Withers restored the chancel in 1872, while a member of the church was adamant in a conversation with the writer that the most important work was done by J. Hakewill in 1872 (either John Henry, brother of Edward Charles, or James, his uncle). Perhaps this uncertainty is of little importance though, for the work of none of these men ever rose above the second rank. What they retained of the mediaeval building, apart from the tower, was the five clerestory windows with Perpendicular drop tracery on the S. side of the nave, the two Perpendicular but dissimilar windows in the S. wall of the chancel, and inside, the S. arcade, with wave mouldings and a hollow around the arches and piers with large, prominent capitals, commensurate with an early fourteenth century (i.e. Decorated) origin. Above the arcades, a narrow frieze with leaf motifs forms a kind of string course, from which rise semicircular shafts that must once have supported the wall posts of an earlier (and lower) nave roof. As for the heavily restored S. porch, it is hard to tell how much of this can be trusted, yet it closely resembles the mediaeval porch at Badwell Ash and it shares with that, and the towers at both places, a basal frieze with flushwork devices again, suggesting it was originally built by the same unidentified mason that built their respective towers.
The church contains just one item of woodwork worth particularizing, and that is the parclose screen with ogee-pointed, two-light divisions and Perpendicular tracery, that divides off the chapel at the E. end of the S. aisle. Within it stands a large wall monument commemorating Sir Robert Gardener, Chief Justice of Ireland (d. 1619) who is depicted reclining on a tomb-chest beneath a large coffered arch, with a rhinoceros at his feet!
[Other related churches to consult on this web-site include Badwell Ash, Gipping and Ixworth in this county, and Garboldisham in Norfolk.]