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English Church Architecture.


FRESSINGFIELD, St. Peter & St. Paul  (TM 261 775),


(Bedrock:  Neogene to Quaternary, Crag Group.)


A village church, part-built by the 'Master of Stowlangtoft'

during the reign of Richard II (1377-1399).




The question of whether or not it is pertinent to talk about 'the mediaeval mason' is a subject that has fiercely divided architectural historians in recent decades, with many taking the view that the very concept of 'authorship', defined as the consideration of a work of art as an expression of an individual's creative skill and personality, had no currency before the Tudor period.  This supposition has coincided with the passing from fashion of connoisseurship as an approach to art history more generally, whereby the identity of individual artists was previously sought by stylistic analysis, in favour of such modern obsessions as  understanding art as an expression of ethnicity, colonialism, gender, 'the male gaze', or similar issues, and since some academics have built their reputations on the basis of these new studies, they naturally seek to defend them vigorously.

This shift in the focus of art history has not gone completely unchallenged however, albeit that some of the greatest champions of 'the old school' have since passed away too.  One such was Dr. John Harvey (1911-97), whose biographical dictionary English Medieval Architects (Gloucester, Alan Sutton, 1987) identified some 1,700 men of varying importance, who appear to have been responsible for buildings or part-buildings in England before 1550, and who argued that the only reason the men who designed mediaeval buildings are so little known is that no-one makes the effort to discover them.  This theme was subsequently taken up at a local level in Suffolk by the late Birkin Haward (1912-2002), who tried to group Suffolk's mediaeval churches on the basis of their aisle arcades (Suffolk Mediaeval Church Arcades, Hitcham, Suffolk Institute of Archaeology and History, 1993) and who, in particular, went on to pick out on stylistic grounds, a dozen churches in mid Suffolk that appear to have been part-built by the same master mason, referred to by name in a building estimate for work at Wingfield church as 'Hawe[s], mason of Ocolte' (Master Mason Hawes of Occold, Ipswich, Suffolk Institute of Archaeology and History, 2000).  This led the writer to attempt to apply a similar methodology to another group of Suffolk churches with striking similarities to one another and to the church of St. George, Stowlangtoft, in particular, and by good fortune, it subsequently proved possible to provide a degree of support for the findings through  documentary evidence.  Readers wishing to understand how this was done and the conclusions reached - as well, of course, to judge for themselves the validity of the exercise - should first read the page for Stowlangtoft, then (in any order) the pages for Brettenham, Holton St. Mary, Norton, Preston St. Mary, Rattlesden, Rickinghall Superior and Thrandeston, and then finally, in this precise order, the pages for Sproughton, Fressingfield, Wortham, Wingfield, Parham and Brundish.




This is a large church with many interesting features. It consists of a W. tower, an aisled nave with N. and  S. porches, and a chancel with N. chapel, and is essentially Decorated (early fourteenth century) in the tower and chancel, early Perpendicular (late fourteenth century) in the nave and aisles, and later Perpendicular (mid fifteenth to early sixteenth century) in the porches, clerestory and N. chapel.  The church is probably most notable for its mediaeval benches, which are so good one is often left wondering whether the work has been renewed.


First however, the early fourteenth century work...  The tower rises in four stages to (probably later) battlements above a bell-stage with openings with reticulated tracery to the east, south and west, and of non-standard form to the north.  The first two stages are supported by diagonal buttresses, the W. window has cinquefoil-cusped Y-tracery, and inside, a doorway communicates with the nave, rather than an open arch.  The N. chapel (now the organ chamber) has a re-set, restored three-light N. window with cusped intersecting tracery, that probably came from the chancel N. wall, and there is a similar window with cinquefoil-cusped Y-traceried further east in the north wall of the sanctuary.  The chancel interior has been heavily restored and is now the least rewarding part of the building.


The significance of the nave and aisles lies chiefly in their kinship with work at a dozen or more other Suffolk churches, among them Stowlangtoft, Sproughton, Parham and Brundish, as well as Wingfield and Wortham, the first of which is dateable to the reign of Richard II (1377-99).  All of this can almost certainly be attributed to the same master mason, termed on this web-site as  'the Master of Stowlangtoft' since he seems to have been responsible for the whole of that church. His stylistic signature is seen especially in his windows, described in detail on the page for All Saints', Sproughton. There are two of these windows at Fressingfield, in the E. walls of the S. aisle and N. chapel (shown right), where it has doubtless been re-set after being removed from the E. wall of the S. aisle.  The three windows in the N. aisle (two to the north and one to the west) and the two windows in the nave S. wall,  show a reduced form of this tracery, probably by someone else (cf., for example, two S. aisle windows at Badwell Ash).  However, the four-light, two-centred E. window to the chancel is comparable to an unrelated window at Rattlesden, except that the design there has been extended to include five lights.  


To return to 'the Master of Stowlangtoft' however, finding features apart from windows that appear associated with his work is more difficult.  The church he appears to have built in its entirety, at Stowlangtoft, is aisleless, and so provides no opportunity to compare its nave arcades.  The tower and chancel arch responds are semi-octagonal moreover, which is a very common form.  Only three churches where the Stowlangtoft master appears to have worked, have arcades with octagonal piers - at Wingfield, at Wortham, and here - although others have semi-octagonal responds to the tower and chancel arches.  It is necessary to examine all these carefully to see if anything emerges that might be diagnostic of the Stowlangtoft mason.  Fressingfield's three-bay nave arcades consist of arches bearing one flat and one hollow chamfer, springing from plain octagonal piers with prominent, finely-moulded capitals. (The photograph, left, shows the N. arcade, viewed from the chancel.)  The responds at the ends, like the responds of the chancel arch, also have a narrow, additional flat chamfer terminating in an incised trefoil. (See the photograph, right, showing the N. respond of the chancel arch, viewed from the nave.)   The entrance for the rood stair may be seen in the S. aisle, and the exit, immediately below the S. respond capital in the nave.      


The clerestory is faced with uncoursed knapped flint and formed on either side of six, two-light, four-centred windows (i.e. two per bay), with supermullioned tracery, split 'Y's, and flattened daggers in the apex.  Externally, the window arches are decorated with tumbled-in brick alternating with flint in the local Suffolk manner, and the eastern gable of the clerestory is surmounted by a Sanctus bell turret which is probably contemporary.  The two-storeyed S. porch (illustrated below left) is an excellent piece of work, with a flushwork basal frieze and an elaborately decorated façade:  (i) the outer doorway has an order of shafts with castellated capitals, a surrounding hollow chamfer containing carved crowns at intervals, and a hood-mould and label decorated with carved roses, rising from king and queen label stops;  (ii) there are two tiers of flushwork arches either side of the doorway, while a third, above, is arrayed like battlements, with flushwork arches beneath the mock merlons and carved roses beneath the mock embrasures;  (iii) above again, a tier of carved arches with crocketed ogee points, gives place in the centre to two canopied niches flanking a two-light window;  and, finally, (iv) the whole composition is set off by a parapet with a carved frieze of blank quatrefoils.  Yet further embellishment may be found inside, where the lower storey has been provided with a tierceron vault (seen below right), with carved bosses at the intersections of the ribs and quarter-shaft springers in the corners of the porch, with carved capitals depicting the symbols of the Evangelists.  The stair turret to the upper storey is enclosed within the southwest corner of the S. aisle.  The single-storeyed N. porch seems to have had most of its details renewed. 













Church woodwork includes, most especially, the bench ends already mentioned, of which there are nine pairs each side of the central aisle.  Their poppyheads are conventional but the traceried sides are elaborate and distinct  (see the three examples, illustrated below), and some retain their original figure 'arm rests', portraying an assortment of figures (saints?) and a variety of creatures, both real and imaginary.  In addition, the rear benches have elaborately carved backs, of which that to the north displays the emblems of the Passion.


Finally, another fine piece of work is the attractive hammerbeam nave roof with braced collars above (seen below from the east).  Almost inevitably, it has lost its angels, but the wall plates are nicely carved, all the principal timbers are moulded, and the spandrels between the hammerbeams and hammerposts are filled with openwork tracery.  The chancel roof is also essentially mediaeval, though rather heavily restored.