English Church Architecture -
GREAT BARTON, Holy Innocents (TL 890 661) (July 2004)
(Bedrock: Upper Cretaceous, Upper Chalk)
Two and a half miles northeast of Bury St. Edmunds, the sprawling dormitory settlement of Great Barton on the busy A143 is not one of the county's most attractive villages, yet the church half a mile to the south stands in a still very pleasant, rural spot, seemingly by-passed by the march of time. Constructed of the usual materials for this area, there is work here of, perhaps, five building phases, represented in order by the chancel, S. arcade and S. aisle E. window, N. aisle, W. tower, and, finally, clerestory, S. porch and S. aisle S. windows. However, after considering the chancel it will be convenient next to discuss the tower - which is the only part of the building that can be closely dated - following which the nave, aisles and porch can be examined together.
The chancel, then, is late thirteenth century work and has an E. wall supported by large hexagonal buttresses of deep projection that must be for show as much as support. There are two windows each to the north and south, with plate tracery featuring a quatrefoil above two trefoil-cusped lancets (see the N. window, left), while the E. window (shown right) mixes plate with bar tracery and is formed of three lancets (the central one, cusped and ogee-pointed) and three encircled quatrefoils in the head. The priest's doorway has one order of narrow shafts beneath large capitals, and three rolls with fillets round the arch, and beside it is a large gabled tomb recess, which is probably not it situ. The chancel arch is double-flat-chamfered and springs from semi-octagonal responds with capitals carved with foliage patterns. It has spread greatly over the years and at the time of this visit, bulged rather alarmingly.
The Perpendicular tower (left) is dated by wills left for its construction in 1440 and 1449 and is interesting not least because it appears likely to have been the model for the tower at Rougham, just two miles southeast, which is dated by wills to c. 1460 through to c. 1472. This must open the possibility at least, that its designer was William Layer (d. 1444), master mason of the aisled nave at St. Mary's, Bury St. Edmunds, who owned property in Rougham and left 20 marks (£13-6s-8d) towards work on the church there. Both towers are diagonally buttressed and topped by stepped battlements decorated with two tiers of flushwork, the lower featuring wheel motifs, and both have the same arrangement of string courses aligned with the springing levels of the windows instead of their sills, with the result that the main W. window straddles stages 1 & 2 instead of fitting into one or the other, and the smaller, two-light window above, straddles stages 2 & 3. These windows have supermullioned tracery but the former also has a quatrefoil in the apex, in conformity with what appears to be another local fashion (cf., for example, the tower at neighbouring Fornham St. Martin). Other features to notice include the W. doorway, which is not placed within the usual square surround, and the bell-openings, with stepped lights and supertransoms. Inside the building, the tower arch is formed of a flat-chamfered inner order springing from semicircular responds and an outer casement that continues down the jambs. A roll moulding applied to the wall to the east is now truncated at the springing, leaving open to question its original form.
Turning next to the nave and aisles, the earliest work is undoubtedly the four-bay S. arcade, which is Decorated and formed of arches bearing two deep hollow-chamfered mouldings and piers that are circular except for the central octagonal one. (See the photograph, right.) The capitals have a distinctive early fourteenth century profile, decorated with carved fleurons, and there are more fleurons on the N. arcade capitals, although here the work is Perpendicular and perhaps contemporary with the N. aisle windows. These are of the type dated by Dr. John Harvey at Great Shelford in Cambridgeshire, to c. 1396 (The Perpendicular Style, Batsford, 1978), with two tiers of reticulation units above the central light and inverted daggers beneath the subarcuation of the outer lights. The N. arcade consists of arches bearing a hollow chamfer on the inner order and a recessed flat chamfer on the outer order, and compound piers (as in the example, left) with semicircular shafts towards the openings, attached to rhomboidal wall pieces down which the recessed flat chamfers continue uninterrupted. This is a section which Birkin Haward showed to be almost identical to that of the N. arcade piers at nearby Fornham All Saints (Mediaeval Church Arcades, Suffolk Institute of Archaeology and History, 1993), making the involvement of the same mason at both places highly likely, although his suggestion that this could be William Layer, seems to be merely speculative. However, there does appear to have been some discontinuity between the construction of the N. aisle and that of the clerestory and S. aisle S. windows, for which a late fifteenth century date probably fits better. The S. aisle S. windows are three-light and supermullioned and have what are almost latticed supertransoms above the central lights. The clerestory windows are arranged two per bay and have cinquefoil-cusped Y-tracery beneath four-centred arches. To the north, an embattled, octagonal rood stair turret between the chancel and the nave, rises above both. The S. porch has had battlements added subsequently in brick and its S. face has been rendered.
The much restored nave roof is of single hammerbeam construction, and although the figures on the hammerbeams remain, they have predictably lost their heads. The pews are mostly of nineteenth century date but six original bench-ends are left. The church contains two rather ordinary monuments to members of the Bunbury family, both signed and featuring scrolls, one bearing the names of Henry William Bunbury (d. 1811) and his wife Catherine (d. 1799), by Magnus of London, of whom nothing seems to be known whatever, and one commemorating Louisa Emily Bunbury (d. 1828), by Thomas Milnes (b. 1813). According to Rupert Gunnis, Milnes's exhibition in 1844 of a group of sculptures entitled "The Death of Harold at the Battle of Hastings" was described by the Literary Gazette as "the strangest collection of short trunks and consumptive legs ever gathered together" (Dictionary of British Sculptors: 1660-1851, The Abbey Library, 1951) and the monument here seems unlikely to have made any pressing case for the artist's re-assessment.