back to home page)

English Church Architecture -



ORFORD, St. Bartholomew (TM 422 500)     (August 2013)

(Bedrock:  Quaternary, Norwich Crag Formation)

Pevsner wrote of St. Bartholomew's, Orford, "The church consists of two parts, today of little connection with one another - the ruinous late Norman chancel, begun in 1166, and the Decorated nave aisles and W. tower", and that probably is the best way to approach and understand this building.  The twelfth century church was contemporary with the castle and a highly ambitious structure to boot, judging from the remains of the chancel (photographed above, from the south).  Six bays in length and probably originally covered by a stone vault (Sir Alfred Clapham, English Romanesque Architecture, Vol. 2, O.U.P., 1934), it had aisles ending one bay short of the square-ended presbytery and turning at right angles in their westernmost bay, to form E. aisles to the transepts.  The transepts themselves were demolished together with the crossing in the early fourteenth century to make way for the new nave.  However, the chancel appears to have continued in use until at least 1621 (church guide), even though the surviving evidence of the "join" between the twelfth and fourteenth century parts of the building is now largely confined to the eastern piers of the erstwhile crossing tower, visible only within, and one and a bit of the blocked aisle and triforium arches between the former N. transept and its E. aisle, seen within and without.  (The photographs below show these arches from outside and inside, respectively.  The pier that once supported the northeast angle of the crossing is seen on the right hand side of the second photograph.)   All traces of the original building, west of the E. wall of the crossing, have disappeared above ground, though the situation would doubtless be very different on excavation.


Some description of these Norman remains is necessary.  Four round arches survive on the north side of the chancel and just one to the south, all now exposed to the elements.  The circular piers retain evidence of decoration which include fragments of a protruding spiral pattern around two of them and the remains of vertical shafts attached to the others.  The large, square capitals are all scalloped, and the arches bear grooves and the eroded remnants of chevron.  The arches that once led from the N. transept into its E. aisle (probably constituting one or more chapels) appear to have differed, the arch towards the south being formed of two orders bearing rolls and chevron above tall circular shafts with scalloped capitals, and the arch towards the north, of which only a fragment remains, perhaps formed of a single order decorated with billet.  (See the photograph above right.)  The eastern crossing piers had pairs of attached circular shafts with scalloped capitals facing west and, perhaps, pairs of slightly narrower attached shafts facing north and south.  (Only one now remains on each side.)  The transept aisles carried a triforium above, of which one and a bit of the arches facing the former N. transept remain, replete with two orders of side-shafts.  The blocked arch leading to the triforium passage above the chancel aisle, is clearly visible within the southern triforium arch.



The reconstruction of the western part of the church (seen above left, from the southwest) appears to have taken place c.1320-30 and to have involved the demolition of the Norman nave, crossing and transepts, and their replacement with a tall aisled nave, five bays in length, and a massive W. tower.  The majority of this work remains essentially as built, but the bell-stage of the tower collapsed in May 1830 (church guide), and the blind upper stage that eventually replaced it, is a maladroit addition of 1962.  The aisle arcades are composed of arches of complex profile, springing from piers of quatrefoil section with small square spurs in the diagonals.  (See the S. arcade, illustrated above right.)  Birkin Haward considered that the exceptional width of the S. aisle (it is half as wide again as the N. aisle and slightly wider even than the nave) reflected the projection of the original S. transept (Suffolk Medieval Church Arcades, The Suffolk Institute of Archaeology and History, 1993).  The windows to both aisles, with the exception of the four-light renewed window in S. aisle to the west, are three-light and display the alternation of reticulated tracery of the usual pattern with a non-standard design featuring two encircled sexfoils and an encircled cinquefoil in the head.  (See the example, below left.)  The mediaeval section of the tower comprises the three lower stages, with massive diagonal buttresses, a W. doorway of complex profile above two orders of shafts, and a three-light W. window with renewed curvilinear tracery, separated from the doorway beneath by a short frieze of blank octfoils, with a trefoil-cusped niche in the centre.  Inside the building, the tower arch to the nave consists of four orders, the innermost of which springs from semicircular shafts.  The S. porch is Perpendicular and has an outer doorway surrounded by a casement moulding decorated with shields at intervals, and more shields in the spandrels.   The present E. wall of the church, cutting off the former chancel, was probably erected in the late seventeenth or early eighteenth century, and the nave divided by a screen, three bays from two, to provide both a nave and a chancel of itself.  The rood screen in position today was dedicated only in 1921 (church guide).  The very high E. window of the church dates from the heavy-handed restoration of the building by John Thomas Micklethwaite (1843-1906) in 1897 (church guide).


Except for a wealth of brasses, not usually covered in these notes, this left the building largely devoid of worthwhile furnishings, but the font (shown below right) is of some interest, even though it looks suspiciously as if it may have been retooled:  the eight faces of the bowl feature the emblems of the Evangelists alternating with the Pietà, the Instruments of the Passion, and emblems of the Trinity (two faces) (church guide), while supporting it around the stem, lions alternate with woodwoses.