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English Church Architecture -



MILDENHALL, St. Mary (TL 710 746)     (September 2005)

(Bedrock:  Upper Cretaceous, Lower Chalk)


This is an all-embattled church, built on a grand scale, with an especially impressive W. tower that dominates the town above the roof tops.  It seems to derive largely from two periods - the thirteenth century in the case of the chancel and transversely-gabled N. vestry, and the reign of Henry V (1413 - 22) elsewhere, provided this is not to rely too heavily on the evidence of the swan and antelope emblems carved on the S. aisle roof.


The very large vestry retains three original lancets to the east (the central one slightly taller and wider than the outer two) and two to the north.  The date of the chancel is best shown internally by the chancel arch (the N. side of which is shown left), which carries dog-tooth moulding and a series of characteristic thirteenth century rolls above responds composed of clusters of keeled shafts with more dog-tooth and stiff leaf capitals.  The two chancel N. windows, east of the vestry, and the second and fourth S. windows from the west, are formed of stepped, trefoil-cusped lights in encompassing arches, with skewed daggers squeezed in above lights 1 & 3:  they are no earlier than c. 1300 and may either have been inserted in the chancel some years after it was first built or else represent a change of design during the course of the chancel’s slow construction.  Either way, pace the anonymous author of the church guide, there seems no reason why this should apply to the first and third S. windows from the west, which have intersecting tracery, for not only was this a perfectly usual later thirteenth century form but also, unlike the other four windows, nor do they have internal side shafts - which would be strange if they are contemporary and/or by the same hand. However, be that as it may, by far the most notable window here is the chancel E. window (right), which also has an order of internal shafts formed of seven lights of varying widths above which a band of quatrefoils runs round the perimeter of the arch from lights 1 to 7, large irregular cusped triangles with bowed sides, looking like Christmas trees, sitting inside subarcuations above lights 2/3 and 5/6, and a large octfoil inside an oval filling the central space between, itself surrounded by a border of little cinquefoils.   It is a unique, extremely rich, and ingenious design, even if it be admitted that the "Christmas trees" do look a little strange and not all the quatrefoils in the border round the oval, do really fit their allotted spaces.


The rest of the church consists of a W. tower, an aisled nave, and N. & S. porches, both two bays deep and, in the latter case, two storeys high.  The wide, tall tower (left) (30 feet square at the base and 120 feet high) rises in four stages and is supported by angle buttresses with crocketed pinnacles rising from the second, fourth and sixth set-offs in what Pevsner correctly pointed out is a Somerset motif (cf. for example, the church towers at Bishop’s Lydeard, Huish Episcopi and Ile Abbots in that county).  The W. doorway has traceried spandrels featuring shields in encircled octfoils, and a very shallow, double-cusped niche to either side, while the restored W. window above has six lights subarcuated in threes, with through reticulation, stepped supertransoms, and a frieze of blank, double-cusped quatrefoils along the base (right). The bell-openings are two-light with supermullioned tracery.  The stair turret at the southeast angle was added in 1864 when the tower was restored.  However, the unusual stone balcony inside (open to the nave), is mediaeval, as is the nice fan vault beneath, which rises from shafts at the corners and the one-third and two-third positions along the walls.  Perhaps these date from c. 1460 when, according to Pevsner, money was left for the repair of the tower (and, perhaps also, for additions and modifications).  The tower arch is composed of six orders bearing wave mouldings, all continuous down the jambs without intervening capitals.


The S. aisle S. windows (four to the east of the porch and one to the west) are segmental-pointed and four-light, with supermullioned tracery and quatrefoils in the heads.  The bays are separated by buttresses rising to crocketed pinnacles.  The E. window is supermullioned but five-light, with the central light lower than the outer four (sic).  The restored S. porch has two, two-light windows on each side, now with a form of reticulated tracery;  the very tall outer doorway has a hollow chamfer running round it, decorated with carved rosettes at intervals and, at the bottom on each side, a little pig that seems to be original.   The four-light N. aisle N. windows are supermullioned but different to their southern counterparts, with quatrefoils in the heads above split Ys and further quatrefoils beneath the subarcuations over lights 1/2 and 3/4.  On this side of the church - which is the principal show side - the buttresses are provided with niches for statuettes and two tiers of narrow blank arcading cover the battlements.  The same decoration continues round the massive N. porch (shown left, from the northwest), which the church guide claims, surely with complete justification, to be one of the largest in Suffolk.  The five-light N. aisle W. window (right) has strong mullions either side of a central light with two tiers of reticulation units separated by a castellated supertransom, while the outer pairs are subarcuated above alternate tracery.  The two-light windows to the N. porch lower storey are simpler versions of the N. aisle windows, the upper storey windows are two-light, untraceried and square-headed, and the N. window (above the outer doorway) has drop tracery beneath a very flat segmental arch.  Inside the porch, the lower storey has a tierceron vault rising from semicircular shafts at the angles and wall midpoints.  The inner doorway has traceried spandrels beneath a label, and there is blank arcading above and to either side, as well as more blank tracery on the wooden door itself, which seems largely original.  The porch upper storey opens internally to the N. aisle, above a balcony, through two uncusped, four-centred arches.


Inside the nave, the aisle arcades consist of just five bays, formed of arches bearing a complex series of shallow mouldings springing from lozenge-shaped piers with flattened, semi-octagonal shafts towards the openings only, and, to north and south, much narrower semi-octagonal shafts without capitals that rise up between the arches to support corbels on which the wall posts of the nave roof appear to rest.  The three-light clerestory windows have central lights lower than the outer two, supermullioned tracery, and little quatrefoils above.  The low-pitched nave roof (left) is formed, in effect, of five complete bays and a half bay at either end, separated by tie beams each supporting four pairs of little crown posts, and supported in their turn by arched braces with traceried spandrels below.  Carved angels decorate the wall plates, tie beams, and false hammer beams between the tie beams (or, more accurately, these are themselves carved into the form of angels, as distinct from having angels figures attached to them).  The majority of this is still mediaeval, although an “examination of the roof in 1930 showed that…  much of the woodwork was riddled with small shot [and] there were even… two arrow heads in the bodies of angels”  (church guide).  As for the aisle roofs, these “have been called the most elaborate aisle roofs in England.  Both are lean-to roofs and the massive hammer beams used are clearly there for decorative purposes only, being far heavier than would be required for structural reasons alone.  (See the N. aisle roof, right, viewed from the east.)  There is a wealth of carving here still but much was lost in Puritan times."  Nevertheless, the N. aisle still retains a series of carvings in the spandrels depicting twelve scenes that include demons playing an organ, St. George and the dragon, and the baptism of Christ, while carvings with similar subjects can be seen on the S. aisle roof.  "No less than 164 carvings of swans and antelopes, the emblems of King Henry V, have been counted in the mouldings of this roof”  (ibid).