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English Church Architecture -



LITTLE SAXHAM, St. Nicholas (TL 799 637)     (August 2005)

(Bedrock:  Upper Cretaceous, Upper Chalk)


This is another church in a most attractive rural spot, even though it is situated beside the village cross-roads.  Pevsner considered the W. tower (shown left, from the south) to be "the most spectacular Norman round tower in Suffolk" but he might just as fairly have claimed it as the best in the country, the splendid effect being due in large measure to the contrast between the plain, lower three quarters of the structure, with its tiny W. window surrounded by the shallowest of incised chevron, and the well-proportioned detail of the bell-stage, which is demarcated below by a string course decorated with billet moulding and which has two-light bell-openings at the cardinal positions, deeply recessed in encompassing arches of two orders.  Both these orders as well as the lights within, have roll mouldings around them, springing from shafts with cushion capitals, and the bell-openings are separated at the diagonals by slightly shorter, two-bay blank arcades which are similarly adorned. The tower battlements are a later addition. 


Internally, the narrow but massive and exceptionally tall tower arch (shown below right) is also impressive and carries two roll mouldings, supported on abaci with chamfered under-edges. The plain, now blocked, round-arched opening above, would, in the absence of a stair turret,  at one time have given access via a tall ladder to an upper chamber immediately below the bell-stage, and it probably also doubled as a Sanctus bell window that allowed the ringer of the Sanctus bell to follow the progress of the service.  Other Norman work includes the low, blind, round-headed arch immediately south of the tower arch, and the S. doorway to the nave.  Pevsner considered the former to be the re-used N. doorway, but as the church guide points out, this cannot be right as the carved stone above the right capital is integral both to the blind arch and the tower arch (J.C. Wolton, 1998).  The S. doorway (illustrated left) has billet moulding and two rolls around the arch, and an order of shafts with capitals approaching water leaf form, so a late twelfth century date for this seems likely, and it is probable not only that the basic fabric of the nave is contemporary with this but also the tower in its turn for Stephen Hart has shown convincingly, by a detailed examination, that the tower and nave were constructed in a single building phase (The Round Church Towers of England, Lucas Books, 2003). However, the church has no other unambiguously dateable features older than the early fourteenth century, the period of the Decorated style.


To judge from its two segmental-pointed windows - one of which is two-light with reticulated tracery and one, three-light with cruciform lobing set vertically (cf., for example, Cowlinge and Stansfield) - this was the period when the N. aisle was added, although the three-bay arcade within would fit almost any date from the late thirteenth century to the early fifteenth.  This is due to the fact that although the arch mouldings consist of just two wide flat chamfers, which might be considered early, they continue down the piers without intervening capitals to form compound piers which in section are similar to some of humble Perpendicular vintage.  The little clerestory is hardly commensurate with such a date, however, being formed of just three small lancets, positioned over the apices of the arches below.  Nevertheless, probably also Decorated is the chancel arch with its two hollow chamfered mouldings, the outer continuous down the jambs and the inner springing from semicircular shafts with capitals.


Most other architectural features of the church are Perpendicular. They include the renewed windows in the nave south wall and the south and east walls of the chancel, all of which have alternate tracery (here entirely uncusped), a form more usually associated with the West Country, and the original five-light N. window (with supermullioned drop tracery beneath a four-centred arch) to the cross-gabled, former N. chantry chapel, now vestry, which was apparently built c. 1520 at the expense of Sir Thomas Lucas of Little Saxham Hall, formerly Solicitor-General to Henry VII.  Lucas's tomb, curiously constructed before his death (he was buried in London), "was replaced in the roughest possible manner with fragments being used to block up the archway" (Wolton) when its original position was usurped by what Gunnis considered to be the finest monument by Abraham Storey (d. c.1696) (Dictionary of British Sculptors: 1660-1851, The Abbey Library, 1951), one of Sir Christopher Wren's master masons.  It commemorates Lord and Lady Crofts and was erected c. 1678.  Unfortunately it is not generally on view to church visitors.


The church does, however, also contain some good woodwork and this can be examined.  The nave benches are of the type to be found in many churches in this area but are no less fine for that, even though a little care does need to be taken to differentiate between the original work and more recent additions in similar style. Both old and new benches have animal poppyheads and more animals on the arm rests, but the old work can be distinguished not only by the colour and condition of the wood but also by the livelier nature of the carving, for the creatures here still seem to invoke a sense of wonder, even sometimes of mystical terror, that is absent in the later work.  Subjects include lions (see the example illustrated right), dogs, and other beasts that are entirely mythical.  The bench ends are plain with one exception.  The pulpit is Jacobean but the large tester was added when it was restored in 1891, as recorded on an attached inscription.  More interesting is the communion rail (shown below), the striking appearance of which is due to its shape, which traces a reverse ogee curving out to the west.  This rail was brought here from Little Livermore in 1947 and is of eighteenth century date to judge from its balusters, each of which has a fluted upper portion above a turned base.