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English Church Architecture.

 

RATTLESDEN, St. Nicholas  (TL 978 591),

SUFFOLK. 

(Bedrock:  Neogene to Quaternary, Crag Group.)

 

A substantial village church, part-built by the 'Master of Stowlangtoft'

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 quite a big, impressive building which has a number of different affinities with other local churches.  Consisting of a W. tower with a shingled broach spire, a five-bay aisled nave with a S. porch, and a chancel, it is constructed of flint and pebble rubble with dressings of Clipsham or Casterton stone from the Middle Jurassic Series wherever the work dates from the 1883 restoration of 1883, carried out to the designs of Sir Arthur Blomfield (1829-99).  (Roy Tricker, St. Nicholas Church, Rattlesden, Suffolk: a History, Margate, The Church Publishers, undated, p.5.)  Blomfield's contribution includes the pinnacles at the corners of the aisles and a considerable proportion of the stonework of the windows.  However, the church belongs essentially to early Decorated and Perpendicular times and there is still important work remaining from both periods.  The former is responsible for the tower, the aisle arcades and the S. doorway inside  the porch (illustrated left), the last of which has two orders of shafts with fillets integral with the jambs and three rolls with fillets around the arch, which still clearly owe a debt to Early English (thirteenth century) forms. The circular window above contains a wheel of bifoils, similar to the chancel N. windows at Stanningfield.  The tower, which rises in three stages supported by clasping buttresses, has probably been remodelled by Blomfield, who also added the spire. The tower arch bears three hollow chamfers which die into the jambs, the chancel arch has two of these springing from heavy semi-octagonal responds, and the excellent nave arcades have double-hollow-chamfered arches rising from octagonal piers, with hollowed sides and incised cinquefoil-cusped arches immediately below the capitals (see the N. arcade pier, right) in the manner seen at Lakenheath, Norton and Walsham-le-Willows, where the mason was probably the same.

 

Turning to the Perpendicular work and beginning with the chancel, this has a  two-storeyed mediaeval N. vestry, which the church guide describes as a sacristy and which Pevsner ignores, reminiscent of similar additions at Cockfield and Hitcham, where they were probably once dwellings for acolyte priests.   Further west, a window into the chancel copies those to the south, which are three-light with inverted daggers above the outer lights and two tiers of reticulation units separated by supertransoms above the central lights, like the chancel windows at Great Shelford, Cambridgeshire, dated by Dr. John Harvey to 1396 - 1411  (The Perpendicular Style, London, Batsford, 1978, pp. 125 & 142).  The five-light, two-centred E. window (illustrated left) displays  intersecting subarcuation of the lights in threes, through reticulation, and two tiers of supertransoms above lights 2 and 4.  (See the glossary for an explanation of these terms.)  Around all these chancel windows there is the voussoir-like arrangement of brick alternating with flint, so often found locally. The aisle windows (shown in the photograph, right) are identical to those at Stowlangtoft and elsewhere, at the first of which they can be ascribed to c. 1390.   It seems likely therefore, that all are work of the same master mason, using the same templates.  The battlements, which are probably a later addition, are decorated with carved blank tracery that continues around the porch, and a partly-projecting stair turret between the easternmost S. aisle bays, gives access to a rood loft (shown  below).  The clerestory is composed of three-light supermullioned windows with stepped lights, strong mullions, and supermullions splitting into 'Y's at the top.  The masonry around them is faced with knapped flints and the battlements are decorated in flushwork reminiscent of Long Melford (that is, with pairs of blank arches on the embrasures and shields in blank octfoils in the merlons), where the work is dated 1481.  The two-light side windows to the porch have supermullioned tracery with split 'Y's, the south front is decorated with four tiers of blank arches, and there is a canopied niche above the apex of the outer doorway, with shafts with capitals decorated with fleurons, set in a square surround with spandrels filled with blank quatrefoils and daggers.  Inside the porch, an earlier roof-line is fossilized above the inner doorway and the wheel window described above.

 

The church contains some notable woodwork, of which by far the most striking is that of the elaborate and attractive parclose and rood screens with interconnecting lofts (seen below left).  They were designed by G.H. Fellowes Prynne and date only from 1916, but they show how the mediaeval screens must once have been arranged, with access to the rood loft via the stair turret in the S. aisle S. wall, then the parclose loft round two sides of the S. chapel (west and north), and the wooden stair and stone steps rising from this to pass through an opening in the south side of the chancel arch.  Older furnishings include the seventeenth century hexagonal pulpit with two tiers of panelling, the communion rails with turned balusters of similar or early eighteenth century date, and the double hammerbeam nave roof, now almost entirely by Blomfield.  The boarded chancel roof of ogee section, has been created by panelling over another of single hammerbeam construction.  With its castellated purlins and shallow carved bosses, it is similar in its present form to the chancel roof at Cockfield and almost identical to the chancel roof at Hitcham.

 

Finally, a note must be added on the ornate octagonal font.  (See the photograph, right.)  Its deep bowl has a castellated rim and faces lavishly carved with crocketed, cinquefoiled ogees between pinnacles rising from carved heads at the angles, while the stem features a very small, two-bay, blank ogee-pointed arcade on every side.  The date of the work could be a couple of decades later than that of the aisle arcades but stylistically, the gap is wider.