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English Church Architecture.

 

PARHAM, St. Mary  (TM 310 606),

SUFFOLK. 

(Bedrock:  Neogene to Quaternary, Crag Group.)

 

A village church with close similarities to St. George's church, Stowlangtoft,

 most probably built by the same mason 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 very interesting building even though it is no longer an attractive one as four of the nave windows (all three to the south and one to the north) have lost their tracery (apparently since Pevsner's visit in 1961) and received instead just an ugly central mullion whose sole purpose can only be to prop up the arch.  Fortunately, the original tracery still survives in the easternmost N. window (illustrated right) and the W. window to the tower, which are virtually identical to windows in more than a dozen other churches in the county, of which St. George’s, Stowlangtoft, is the 'type' example. Although aisleless and modest in size, St. George's is a handsome church, dateable from various pieces of evidence to the final decade of the fourteenth century, and significantly, a near date seems to be attributable to the church here at Parham, which is believed to have been the gift of William de Ufford, 2nd Earl of Suffolk, who died in 1382 and whose shield can be seen above the priest's N. doorway to the chancel and on the south face of the font.  (See the photographs below.)  Thus St. Mary's may actually have been the prototype for the later church at Stowlangtoft, designed by the same mason with the benefit of further experience - a  possibility that at least stands up better to scrutiny than the judgement of most writers.  Nikolaus Pevsner and James Bettley for example (The Buildings of England: Suffolk East, New Haven & London, Yale University Press, 2015, p. 454) correctly ascribe the nave to William d'Ufford but describe the tower as Decorated, seemingly on the strength of the enormous, eroded niche above the window to the west.  Yet compare the profile of the tower from the southeast with the profile of Stowlangtoft's tower from the same direction:  they are virtually identical. D.P. Mortlock (The Guide to Suffolk Churches, Cambridge, The Lutterworth Press, 2009, pp. 377-378) and the British Listed Buildings web-site, on the other hand, accept the fact that the tower and nave were constructed together c. 1370, but consider the windows to be later additions.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

In fact, the windows at Parham differ in a three minor respects from the design at Stowlangtoft:  the central pair of ogee sub-lights are cinquefoil-cusped instead of trefoiled;  the eyelet contains an octfoil rather than a quatrefoil;  and the little linking element above and between the lights is an inverted "V", not an inverted "U".  The subtle changes made in the later work (i.e. at Stowlangtoft), can probably be said to produce a slightly better effect and were probably introduced for that reason, but lest they be thought to weaken the connection between the two churches, there are plenty of other remarkable similarities to notice:  the windows at both are two-light and segmental-pointed, formed of two-centred cinquefoiled lights and four straight-sided sub-lights, the inner pair, ogee-pointed and the outer pair, two-centred (as precisely described on the page in this web-site for Sproughton);  they are linked at both churches by a string course at the springing level of the lights and separated below by buttresses decorated with flushwork rectangles;  the diagonal buttresses of the tower are similarly embellished and, in both cases, have four set-offs; and both churches - except, in the case of Parham, for the chancel - are topped by plain parapets without battlements, giving rise to the slightly curious, truncated appearance to the tower.  That the chancel here at St. Mary's is not contemporary is shown by the two windows on either side, which, together with the similar N. window to the nave, immediately east of the porch, though also Perpendicular and of similar dimensions, have supermullioned tracery of entirely conventional design.  This is presumably the work of a different time or hand or both.  Different again - and surely fifteenth century by now - is the rather grand N. porch (shown left), with a flushwork basal frieze, battlements decorated with flushwork arches in the merlons and carved shields in octfoils beneath the embrasures, three tiers of flushwork arches on the N. front and diagonal buttresses, a canopied niche above the apex of the doorway, and a doorway bearing a series of complex mouldings springing from two engaged shafts.

 

Inside the church, the chancel and tower arches carry a series of rolls and hollows supported on semi-octagonal responds with deeply moulded capitals, but the most significant feature, for it can be seen at Fressingfield, Wortham and Wingfield, all of which have 'Stowlangtoft-type' windows, are the narrow flat chamfers outside the responds (in this case, on the sides facing the nave only), running up to terminate in incised trefoiled arches, barely 2" square, just under the capitals.  (See the photograph, left, showing the chancel arch N. respond viewed from the nave.) Yet another connection is provided by the segmental-pointed hood-moulds above the rere-arches to the nave doorways. (The hood-mould above the S. doorway here, and the arms of George II above that, are illustrated in the photograph below right.)  Unrelated features in the nave include an unmoulded arched recess on either side of the chancel arch, that once presumably held statues, and the rood stair in the N. wall of the nave, immediately to the west. The capitals of the chancel arch have been mutilated where formerly they held a rood loft.

 

Furnishings in the building include the octagonal font, already mentioned, with the Ufford arms on the south face of the bowl and various Decorated and Perpendicular tracery patterns on the other faces, all of which were presumably still current at the time of the church's construction.  The nave roof is of very low-pitched couple construction, and in this respect again is very similar to Stowlangtoft, suggesting not only that these buildings shared a mason but that the mason also brought with him his preferred master carpenter.  This supports an inference drawn by Birkin Haward, writing in 1993 (Medieval Church Arcades, Hitcham, Suffolk Institute of Archaeology and History, 1993, pp. 117 & 119).  The Parham roof seems to have been considerably restored but the point is still valid, especially as no weathering line of a former, more steeply-pitched roof, is visible on the external E. wall of the tower. 

 

Thus the many common features described here show there is a very strong likelihood that the churches listed in the test box at the head of this page, were indeed built, altered or refenestrated under the direction of the same master mason during the closing decades of the fourteenth century.  Nevertheless, however strong that likelihood is, it is inevitably still only a theory, rather than a guaranteed  proven fact.  It would be good to have some documentary evidence to back up these ascriptions, and for that, the interested reader may wish to turn to the entry on this web-site for Brundish.