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English Church Architecture.

 

HOLTON ST. MARY, St. Mary  (TM 059 368),

SUFFOLK. 

(Bedrock:  Neogene, Red Crag Formation.)

 

A humble village church, showing evidence of the work of the 'Master of Stowlangtoft',

executed 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 humble building consisting of a chancel with a N. vestry, a nave with a S. porch, and a stump of a diagonally-buttressed tower, topped by later brick battlements.  The tower predominates by virtue of its bulk, and the thickness of the walls is shown by the tower arch, yet it shows no particular evidence of a Norman origin and seems most likely to be thirteenth century in date.  It is also unclear whether or not it was actually ever finished.  Its most important feature now is its inserted W. window (illustrated right), with a segmental-pointed arch, little linking subarcuation above the lights, and four sub-lights, of which the inner pair are ogee-pointed and the outer pair, two-centred.  This is virtually identical to the windows at St. George's, Stowlangtoft, erected c. 1390.

 

The nave is lit on either side by a two-light Decorated window, each with trefoiled ogee lights and a dagger in the head.  The porch and vestry are Victorian and the chancel windows with Y- and intersecting tracery date entirely from the restoration.

 

The church interior reveals few features and what there are, are mostly modern.  The octagonal font is Perpendicular, however, with blank quatrefoils on the faces, enclosing a series of simple carvings, and the piscina in the S. wall of the sanctuary has a trefoiled arch supported on little shafts with the appearance of c.1300.  A similar recess opposite probably once functioned as an aumbry.   There is no chancel arch and the tower arch is double-hollow-chamfered above shallow semi-octagonal responds.