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English Church Architecture.


HENGRAVE, Church of Reconciliation  (TL 824 686),


(Bedrock:  Upper Cretaceous, Lower Chalk.)


One of 181 churches in England with round towers, of which all but five are in Cambridgeshire ( with 2), Essex (with 6), Norfolk (with 126) or Suffolk (with 42).


Round church towers were almost invariably assumed by Pevsner to have a Saxon or Norman origin.  That is not necessarily the case, and the form is a function of geology rather than age, for the lack of the ready availability of good building stone to serve as quoins made this a cheap design option by avoiding the expense in the pre-railway age of bringing, usually by horse and cart or at best along the rivers by boat, heavy, bulk materials from afar.  The definitive book on this subject is, and is long likely to remain, the late Stephen Hart's The Round Church Towers of England  (Ipswich, Lucas Books, 2003), to which the notes on these buildings are inevitably, to a greater or lesser degree, indebted.



The church stands in the grounds of the hall and has had this unusual dedication since 1974 when an ecumenical retreat and conference centre was established here.  Previously it had been a private chapel and before that, for more than three centuries, a family mausoleum, ever since the parish of Hengrave was amalgamated with Flempton in 1589.  Externally it is the round tower that is probably the building's most important feature, but the N. arcade is also interesting for reasons discussed below. The church consists of a W. tower, nave with N. aisle and S. porch, and a chancel with a N. chapel.


The tower has circular windows some 5' (1.5 m.) from the ground towards the south and west, and is now topped by battlements.  Stephen Hart pointed out a number of subtle features inherent in its construction, including: (i) the stratification of the flintwork in bands about a foot (30 cm.) wide, each representing the height of masonry laid between pauses to allow the mortar to dry, plus also three more substantial breaks in the fabric, probably indicating seasonal construction intervals; and (ii), the difference between the round-headed bell-openings to the south, west and north, which are original, and the pointed openings to the northeast and southeast, which on close inspection can be seen to have been inserted  (The Round Church Towers of England, pp. 21, 39 & 83-85).  On the basis of these and other features, he dates the tower to Norman-Transitional times. c. 1180-1210.     


The nave, aisle and porch are dated by an inscription over the S. door (illustrated right), recording that Thomas Hengrave paid for their construction. Thomas died in 1419, after which another Sir Thomas partially remodelled the nave about a century later and then his widow added the N. chapel c. 1540.  The porch is faced in knapped flint and has an outer doorway with a casement moulding decorated  with carved crowns at intervals, a hood-mould rising from lion label stops, and spandrels featuring carved shields, that on the left bearing a single row of denticulations and that on the right, a unicorn (as seen in the photograph).  These motifs are repeated on the spandrels of the porch inner doorway, though this is still more elaborate and, in addition to a sunk chamfer containing carved crowns, displays fleurons on a hood-mould and label rising from angel label stops. The chancel has a three-light E. window with intersecting tracery and two restored S. windows with Y-tracery, indicating this was once part of an earlier thirteenth century building.


The interior layout of the church is unusual as the chancel and N. chapel are now filled with funerary monuments and only the nave and N. aisle are used for services, the benches being arranged in a semicircle.  However, the most interesting feature here is the three-bay aisle arcade which springs from piers composed of four semi-octagonal shafts with little right-angled spurs between, and has angels holding shields at the arch apices and more carving on the capitals, mostly in the form of oak leaves and vines but also featuring encircling angels around the capital of the eastern pier.  (See the photographs below.) This is a design that the late Birkin Haward compared with that of the nave arcades at Bildeston, Debenham and Wingfield, and which he attributed to master mason Hawes of Occold (fl. 1410-40) (Suffolk Medieval Church Arcades, Hitcham, The Suffolk Institute of Archaeology and History, 1993, pp. 248-249), and the arcade can probably be dated accordingly.





















[Other churches with round towers featured on this web-site are Bartlow and Snailwell in Cambridgeshire, Quidenham, Roydon, Rushall, Shimpling and Thorpe Abbotts in Norfolk, and Aldham, Brome, Higham, Little Bradley, Little Saxham, Rickinghall Inferior, Risby, Stuston, Theberton, Wissett and Wortham in Suffolk.]