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English Church Architecture -



HELMINGHAM, St. Mary (TM 191 576)     (October 2008)

(Bedrock:  Upper Cretaceous, Upper Chalk)


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 from the south (see the photograph left), together with the dormer window above the junction of the first and second nave bays from the east, which may possibly have been 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, a 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), which has 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 on the hood-mould, spandrels containing 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 on 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 (Pevsner again): 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 now 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 a low-pitched original position, to its steeply-pitched present form, 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 lions alternating with buttresses around the stem and by lions alternating with shields around 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 Gunnis (Dictionary of British Sculptors: 1660-1851, The Abbey Library, 1951), both of which are signed by Nollekens, 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), commemorating four generations from the male line of the Tollemache family, all named Lionel, and featuring 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), featuring 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 chancel N. wall in the fourth position from the east, a monument to Lieutenant-General Thomas Tollemache, who died at Brest (France) in 1694, which features 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), which Matthew Craske says is by William Palmer (1673 - 1739) (The Silent Rhetoric of the Body, Yale University Press, 2007) and which he gives 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.



(i) on the N. wall of the nave, immediately west of the N. door, an impressive wall monument (right) commemorating 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 carving busts of Charles Fox and William Pitt the Younger.  He was also 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, friend and disappointed executor" (Gunnis).

(ii) on the N. wall of the nave, immediately east of the N. door, a simple monument (left), also by Nollekens, commemorating Lionel Robert Tollemache - who died in 1793 although the monument was not erected until seventeen years later - featuring a roundel containing a head in profile and more instruments of war in shallow relief beneath.

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