(« back to home page)


English Church Architecture.


HELMINGHAM, St. Mary  (TM 191 576),


(Bedrock:  Upper Cretaceous, Upper Chalk.)


A church with a proud  W. tower dated c. 1490, by master mason Thomas Aldrych,

 and a large collection within of important seventeenth to nineteenth century monuments.




This web-site is not much concerned with church monuments but an exception is made of some important late seventeenth to early nineteenth century examples that serve to illustrate wider trends in the art and architectural history of these years.  Although any attempt to divide a complex series of changes into discrete stages is susceptible to the charge of over-simplification, as a basic introduction to the subject, four principal phases in its evolution can be identified:

1.  the age of heraldry and ostentation, which is essentially the late Stuart period, c.1660 - c.1714, in which the aristocracy sought to depict their departed relations, bewigged and dressed in all their finery, with coats of arms to display their long pedigree, and 'symbols of mortality' (most notably skulls) to advertise their piety;

2.  the Age of Politeness, corresponding roughly to the period of the Whig Supremacy and the ascendancy of Palladian architecture, c. 1714-60 (that is, the reigns of the first two Georges), in which the new ruling class actively rejected the old Tory memes and mores and sought to present themselves as the new èlite, and their deceased relatives dressed in the timeless apparel (usually Roman togas, suggesting they themselves were like Roman senators)  that eschewed vulgarity and ostentation (skulls again, heraldic devices - not least because their pedigree often offered little to shout about) in favour of the appearance of effortless superiority;

3. the period of the 'Gothick' style, which overlapped periods 2 & 4 but which was particularly prevalent around the third quarter of the eighteenth century and was in turn a reaction to the Age of Politeness in favour of something more theatrical and exciting, frequently characterised by monsters or Death personified as a skeleton, on the one hand, and a damsel in distress on the other or some other form of female imagery calculated to add some sexual frisson;

and 4. the Age of Sensibility, in which it suddenly became not only fashionable for gentlemen to show display their emotions, but de rigueur.

These themes between them, fashioned many of the monuments of these years to a greater or lesser degree, as will appear further on the page below.  




This is a long, though (as it is aisleless) not especially large church, situated on the edge of Helmingham Park, at the junction of the B1077 with the B1079.  The building consists of a chancel with a lean-to N. vestry, a four-bay nave with a S. porch, and a W. tower, and it is the last that dominates its appearance when viewed from the south, together with the dormer window above the junction of the first and second nave bays from the east, presumably inserted to accommodate the great Jacobean memorial within.  Indeed, fine though the building is, the monuments it contains are more notable.  The architecture must be described first, however, and the tower is the correct place to begin, for while not the oldest part of the church, it is both the grandest and most closely ascribed, due to the survival of a building contract for the work, dated 1490, with one Thomas Aldrych, master mason of North Lopham, Norfolk, for an agreed price of £30.


Aldrych’s tower can probably serve as a good example of moderately expensive parochial work in East Anglia at that date, as the donor, John Tollemache, who also built Helmingham Hall, could surely have been relied upon to insist on something up-to-date and in keeping with his ambitions.  It is faced in knapped flint and rises in four stages supported by diagonal buttresses with flushwork decoration, to reticulated bell-openings beneath segmental-pointed arches. The W. window (shown right), with strong mullions, three stepped lights topped by supertransoms, supermullioned tracery with split 'Y's, and a little quatrefoil in the central oculus, looks out above a doorway with fleurons around the hood-mould, spandrels containing carved shields, and a double-trefoil-cusped niche on either side, while a flint flushwork frieze between the door and window features blank arches alternating with motifs that include the crowned 'M. of St. Mary  and the Sacred Monogram.  (See the detailed discussion of such motifs under the entry for St. John the Baptist’s church, Elmswell, where the work can be dated to c. 1476.)   The basal frieze around the tower is carved in ashlar and decorated on the N. side by encircled shields and quatrefoils, and on the S. side by an inscription that reads, 'Scandit Ad Aethera Virgo Puerpera Virguli Jesse' [The Virgin Mother, branch of Jesse’s stem, ascends to heaven].  (See the photograph below.) The tower battlements appear to be a later addition for they carry the date 1543 on the southwest corner (James Bettley & Nikolaus Pevsner, The Buildings of England: Suffolk East, New Haven & London, Yale University Press, 2015, p. 271).  These are stepped and adorned with more flushwork (consisting of a lower tier of arches and an upper tier of shields in pointed octfoils) and with crocketed pinnacles at the corners and the mid-points of the walls.





As to the rest of the building exterior, the oldest significant feature is the S. doorway to the nave (i.e. inside the porch), which is Early English in style and bears a complex series of mouldings around the arch, including rolls with fillets, springing from jambs of two orders, with more rolls with fillets at the sides.  The nave windows, however, are Perpendicular insertions of similar design to the W. window to the tower.  They have been renewed to the south, where they are separated by buttresses with flushwork decoration.  The dormer window previously mentioned, has four lights and septfoil-cusped supermullioned tracery.  The S. porch roof appears to have been raised at some stage from an original lower pitch, and the area on the S. front between the two gable lines has been filled with flint flushwork arches set out in two haphazardly-arranged tiers.  The Victorian chancel windows, in Decorated style, may be the work of Anthony Salvin (1799 - 1881), who restored the church c. 1840.


Inside the church, the tower arch is very tall and formed of a flat-chamfered order supported on semi-octagonal responds and of two slightly hollowed outer orders that continue all the way round without intervening capitals.  The chancel arch consists of two flat-chamfered orders springing from semi-octagonal responds.  The nave has an attractive collar beam roof with pendants hanging from the junctions of the principal rafters with the collars and from the centres of the collars themselves, cross-bracing between the bays, and deep wall plates carved with what may loosely be described as shell patterns and roundels containing wheels of mouchettes.  The font  (illustrated left) is sufficiently similar to that at neighbouring Pettaugh to suggest it may be by the same hand, being decorated by lion supporters alternating with buttresses around the stem and by lions alternating with shields on the faces of the bowl.


The more important monuments within the building are now probably best described in date order, beginning with those erected in the seventeenth century and continuing with those of the eighteenth and nineteenth.  Only two of these were listed by Rupert Gunnis, both of which are signed by Joseph Nollekens (1737-1823) (Dictionary of British Sculptors: 1660-1851, London, The Abbey Library, 1951, pp. 276-279), although notes in the church ascribe a third to Peter Scheemakers, to whom Nollekens was apprenticed in 1750.  The writer could find no signature on this, however, and nor did Pevsner appear to notice one.



(i) On the S. wall of the nave beneath the dormer window, a highly elaborate monument dated 1615 (shown right), commemorates four generations from the male line of the Tollemache family, all named Lionel, and features two tiers of deeply recessed coffered arches, with three arches in the lower tier and one in the upper, each containing a kneeling figure facing east, with ruffed collars and swords by their sides, except for the foremost in the lower tier which has no sword and appears to represent the first Lionel (d. 1550) who 'Traind in the Law' as the long inscription beneath describes.  Of its nine verses, just the two dedicated to this particular gentleman will serve to illustrate the style:

'Baptized Lyonel Tollemache my Name

Since Normans Conquest of unsoyled


Shows my Descent from Ancestors of


And that my Life might not belye my Birth,

Their Virtues Track with heedful Steps I


Rightful to Men[,] Religious towards God.


'Traind in the Law I gaind the Bar and


Not bent to Kindle Strife, but rather


Gentle to Clients, in my Counsels Just[,]

With Norfolk’s Great Duke in no little trust

Sir Joyse his heir was my Fair Faithful


Bently my Seat and Sevnty Years my


The arch in the upper tier has a standing figure on either side, and there is an architrave above with a pinnacle at either end, two reclining putti inside these, and an achievement in the centre.


(ii) On the N. wall of the nave, a superficially similar but less well designed monument to yet another Lionel Tollemache (d. 1640), features a painted and rather rigid reclining figure behind two tall coffered arches, supported on Corinthian columns in black alabaster, the middle one of which inevitably obscures part of the effigy behind. 


(iii) On the N. wall of the chancel, in the fourth position from the east, a monument to Lieutenant-General Thomas Tollemache, who died at Brest (France) in 1694, displays a finely-carved bust on a pedestal, with the instruments of war behind, depicted in shallow relief, and beneath, a long inscription giving details of his many campaigns.



On the N. wall of the chancel in the third position from the east, beneath a broken pediment, a very large wall monument (shown left) has been ascribed by Matthew Craske to William Palmer (1673 - 1739) (The Silent Rhetoric of the Body, Yale University Press, 2007, pp. 274-275) and offered as a poor example of a design based loosely on Peter Scheemakers monument to the first Duke of Buckingham (d. 1722) in Westminster Abbey.  It commemorates Sir Lionel Tollemache, Earl of Dysart (d. 1727), and features a reclining and rather gaunt Sir Lionel, with Grace Wilbraham, his wife, the donor, depicted standing at his feet, looking down at him, with her head resting mournfully on her raised hand.  Craske's ironic comments are worth quoting in full:

'Attempts to imitate [Scheemaker's] design at cut price can be quite amusing in their crudity.  Such is the monument set up by Lady Dysart to her deceased husband at Helmingham in Suffolk that was announced completed in 1732.  Made by William Palmer, it is essentially an exercise is reducing the design to a composition that was sufficiently light to be suspended from the wall.  In essence, the composition was abbreviated to donor figure and reclining subject of grief, the scale of the design being insufficient to carry the gravitas of the original concept.'

Scheemakers huge standing monument to the first Duke of Buckingham was completed in 1723 and included, besides effigies of the deceased and his wife, a life-sized winged figure of Time standing on a ledge above, holding portrait medallions, and well-fed, child-sized putti peering down from the corners.



(i) On the N. wall of the nave, immediately west of the N. door, an impressive wall monument (right) commemorates the Countess of Dysart (d. 1804), showing on the left hand side, a woman leaning on her elbow on the plinth beneath a central urn and with a book open on her lap, and on the right, a weeping putto leading a lamb.  It is signed, as already mentioned, by Joseph Nollekens (1737 - 1823), a fine artist who made a particular reputation for himself by carving busts of Charles Fox and William Pitt the Younger, though he was himself the subject of 'probably what is the most candid, pitiless and uncomplimentary biography in the English Language, Nollekens and His Times [by] J.T. Smith, the sculptor's pupil, [one-time]friend and disappointed executor' (Dictionary of British Sculptors).   The scene itself fails to show much originality and it is striking how generally similar it looks to William Palmer's monument to the Earl of Dysart, just discussed, but note, the deceased who is being commemorated here is a woman(!), and the inscription beneath records the Man of Feeling's proper response to the loss of his wife, in this case after thirty-one years of marriage: 

'Her Death was lamented and regretted by all, and particularly by her afflicted and disconsolate Husband, who erected this Monument as a Mark, [illeg.] as it is, of his Grief and Affection, and to perpetuate the memory of the most excellent of Women.., [whose] loss was irreparable to her Husband, to her Relations, and to her Friends.'


(ii) On the N. wall of the nave, immediately east of the N. door, a much more unusual design by Nollekens, featuring a roundel containing a head in profile above flags, trumpets, and the instruments of war, commemorates the eighteen-year old Lionel Robert Tollemache,  who 'died nobly fighting for his king and country' at the siege of Valenciennes in 1793.  (See the photograph, left.)  'His death was the more unfortunate as he was the only British officer killed on that occasion,' and to bring the pojnt home,  the inscription also records the deaths of his father (killed in a new York duel) and two uncles (lost at sea).  'So many instances of disaster are rarely to be met with ion the same family.'  The monument was seventeen years in the making and finally erected in 1810.


(iii)  In a round-arched recess in the chancel S. wall, a monument to John, 1st Baron Tollemache (d. 1890), features another bust beneath another broken pediment above, this time supported on two black alabaster columns, which Pevsner ascribed to Thomas Mayes.


Other (lesser) monuments include two by J. Bedford of London (d. 1875), commemorating Vice-Admiral J.R Delap (d. 1837) and Georgina Louisa Tollemache d. 1846), and a third to Lady Emma Tollemache (d. 1869) by Thomas Gaffin.  Gunnis recorded Gaffin's workshop as ceasing production c.1865, but clearly that cannot be right.