(« back to home page)

English Church Architecture.

 

NORTON, St. Mary  (TM 041 746),

SUFFOLK. 

(Bedrock:  Upper Cretaceous, Upper Chalk.)

 

A significant village church with several important features,

including chancel windows probably renewed by the 'Master of Stowlangtoft', c. 1390, and some excellent mediaeval woodwork

    

 

 

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.

 

 

St. Mary's, Norton, is another Suffolk church situated in an attractive rural spot, here with just the rectory of c. 1700 to keep it company.  It consists of a W. tower, aisled nave, S. porch and chancel, of which the tower, nave, and chancel probably date from the fourteenth century, and the aisle windows and porch, perhaps the fifteenth, although the chancel S. wall needed reconstructing in 1832, albeit re-using the original materials.

 

To begin, then, with the fourteenth century work, if that is what it is, the chancel has two cinquefoil-cusped Y-traceried windows to the north with the appearance of c. 1300, west of the vestry, one of which has a round arch, and the unbuttressed tower has a similar but pointed W. window, although how high up the tower’s construction went in this building phase is open to question as money had to be left for its completion in 1442.  (The bell-openings are no guide as they are now Victorian.)  The tower arch is formed of three orders bearing a hollow chamfer, a sunk flat chamfer and a wave moulding, the first springing from semicircular responds and the others continuous down the jambs, and the chancel arch has a wave moulding and a flat chamfer above semi-octagonal responds. The three-bay aisle arcades consist of double-hollow-chamfered arches on concave octagonal piers, with incised cusped arch heads  beneath the capitals like those to be seen at Lakenheath, Rattlesden and Walsham-le-Willows, which were all probably by the same hand.  (See the N. arcade, left.)  Unfortunately for their dating however, they are described in the 'Suffolk West' volume of The Buildings of England as 'early C14' (Nikolaus Pevsner and James Bettley, New Haven & London, Yale University Press, 2015, p. 442), by Birkin Haward simply as 'C14' (Medieval Church Arcades, p. 457), and by D.P. Mortlock (The Guide to Suffolk Churches, Cambridge, The Lutterworth Press, 2009, p. 363) and Roy Tricker (St. Andrew's Church, Norton, 2003, p. 8) as 'fifteenth century', so it is futile to add to the dispute in the absence of clear evidence.

 

The two large windows in the south wall of the chancel S. are similar to the aisle windows at Stowlangtoft and Rattlesden, which appear to have been constructed at the former in the closing years of the fourteenth century.  The chancel E. window (shown right), which Pevsner considered transitional between Decorated and Perpendicular, is not altogether unlike the windows at Great Shelford, Cambridgeshire, where they have been dated to between 1396 and 1411 by Dr. John Harvey (The Perpendicular Style, London, Batsford, 1978, pp. 124 & 142).  The aisle windows have supermullioned tracery and the porch windows, cinquefoil-cusped reticulated tracery, beneath segmental-pointed arches, but the latter must surely be regarded simply as a convenient design for a small window since the porch was clearly constructed as a piece with the S. aisle in Perpendicular times, as shown by the unbroken parapet and basal frieze with flint chequerwork patterning.  The S. wall of the porch is faced with knapped flints and septaria, and the porch side walls, S. aisle and chancel S. walls, with knapped flints and general fieldstones.  All windows are turned in brick and flint in the local style.  The tall porch outer doorway bears two hollowed-chamfered orders, the inner order supported on semi-octagonal responds.  There is a niche in the gable above.

 

The church contains a number of important furnishings.  These include the excellent octagonal font with mythical beasts and the symbols of the Evangelists carved on a bowl supported by angels and winged hearts, and with a stem covered in blank tracery, with standing figures bearing shields at the angles.  The woodwork includes seven original nave benches to the south and eight to the north, with carved figure and animal arm rests like those at Stowlangtoft and Tostock, albeit of lesser quality, and more especially the outstanding misericords in the chancel, which are worthy of the closest examination.  There are eight of these altogether, forming two freestanding blocks of three and one of two.  The subjects include the martyrdom of St. Edmund, the crucifixion of St. Andrew, a monk writing, and a woman warming her feet, and are carved with such life and vigour as to be rarely surpassed in work of this age or any.