English Church Architecture -
ELMSWELL, St. John the Baptist (TL 982 636) (March 2004)
(Bedrock: Neogene to Quaternary, Crag Group)
The W. tower (shown left, from the southwest) is the most interesting feature of this church, partly for the flushwork devices displayed on the frieze around the base and on the leading edges of the diagonal buttresses (discussed below), and partly for its close similarity to the towers at Badwell Ash and Ixworth in this county, and Garboldisham in Norfolk, all three of which are only a few miles away, to the north or northwest. Stylistic evidence alone is sufficient to show these towers must be by the same hand but supporting evidence is also available in that three of them can be close dated to 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" (The Buildings of England: Northwest and South Norfolk, by Wilson & Pevsner, pub. Yale University Press, 2002), 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 & 2, a panel on the southeast buttress bearing the name of Abbot Schot of Bury St. Edmunds, abbot there from 1470-3, 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 (Pevsner). 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 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, flushwork panels running the full height of the lights between the middle pair, and flushwork roundels on either side in the arch heads. They are also reminiscent of the bell-openings at St. Edmund's, Southwold, where, in work ascribed to the first decade of the fifteenth century, the middle lights are separated by flushwork buttresses. 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 similar 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, 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 (pub. Poppyland, 2004) 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 (second photograph from the top of the page, on the left) - (i) third from top, the crown of thorns, with palms above and below; basal frieze, 1st section (shown in the photograph immediately above) - (ii) first from left, the “T” of Thomas 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 (second photograph below) - (v) first from right, the pommée cross of St. Michael; and basal frieze, 4th section (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 having not previously been one), and Robert Jewel Withers restored the chancel in 1872, while another (oral) source was adamant that the most important work throughout 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, however, for the creations of none of these men seem ever to have risen above the second rank. What they left here of the mediaeval building, beside the tower, is the five clerestory windows to the south with supermullioned drop tracery, two S. windows to the chancel, one with reticulated tracery and one with supermullioned, and the S. arcade, with wave mouldings and a hollow round the arches and with large capitals to the piers of seemingly Decorated profile. Above the arcades on both sides there is a narrow frieze with leaf motifs, forming a kind of string course, from which rise semicircular shafts that must once have reached 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 remains unaltered, yet it closely resembles the mediaeval porch at Badwell Ash and it shares with that, and the towers at both places, a similar basal frieze with flushwork devices, suggesting it was originally built by the same unidentified mason.
The church contains just one item of woodwork worth particularizing, and that is the parclose screen demarcating a chapel at the E. end of the S. aisle, which has ogee-pointed, two-light divisions and supermullioned tracery above. 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!