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English Church Architecture -



RICKINGHALL INFERIOR, St. Mary (TM 039 752)     (March 2007)

(Bedrock:  Upper Cretaceous, Upper Chalk)


This is an interesting church which poses a few problems of interpretation, exacerbated by the difficulty in distinguishing between its genuine mediaeval features and work modified in restoration.  Indeed, even the round tower which appears so clearly Norman as far up as the octagonal bell-stage, has a more complicated history than first appears, as shown by (i) the change in the composition of the flint rubble walling about seven feet (2 metres) below the bell-stage, and (ii) the abrupt truncation of the erstwhile roof line at the same height on the east side of the tower (not visible in the photograph left, taken from the south), where instead of continuing up to a point, the weathercourse ends suddenly in a short section of horizontal moulding - two features that Stephen Hart has shown to represent the removal of the upper parts of the original structure and its replacement by a still circular but probably thirteenth century bell-stage, with what look like lancet openings, now blocked and scarcely discernible to the north, east and south.  (See The Round Church Towers of England, Lucas Books, 2003.)  Presumably these lancets, if such they were, were filled in when the present bell-stage was added in its turn, most probably in the fourteenth century.  The fine flushwork battlements may be later still, with their shields in encircled sexfoils beneath the embrasures and crocketed pinnacles at the angles.


The rest of the building, comprising a chancel and a nave with a wide independently-gabled S. aisle and a two-storeyed S. porch, presents conflicting evidence between late thirteenth and early fourteenth century work.  A compromise around the year 1300 does not really address these difficulties for some features of the church can scarcely predate 1315 at the earliest, while others would have been conservative at least fifteen years before.  In such cases, it is sometimes possible to imagine two master masons at work, one early and one late in their careers, co-operating in the work while each contributing his favourite designs, yet the two styles are so jumbled here, that this hypothesis is not convincing either and instead, Birkin Haward's theory (in Suffolk Mediaeval Church Arcades, Suffolk Institute of Archaeology and History", 1993) that the aisle was first added in the late thirteenth century but that the arcade was reconstructed within the earlier walls, just a few decades afterwards, seems most likely to be correct.


Be that as it may, the most impressive features here are the two S. windows to the S. aisle, with proud geometrical tracery commensurate with c. 1290-1300 and so similar to another at nearby Thelnetham, that the same mason must surely have been involved. The heads of all these windows contain quatrefoils in circles above trefoil-cusped lancets, but the more easterly window in this church (shown right) has additional trefoils in the heads of the lights.  The S. aisle W. window has “a rather muddled early fourteenth century design, still without any ogees” (Pevsner), now substantially restored, while the five-light E. window is Perpendicular, with supermullioned tracery and two tiers of reticulation units.  The two S. windows in the chancel have cusped and uncusped Y-tracery respectively from the west, of c. 1300 or before, but the restored chancel E. window has full-blown curvilinear tracery which can hardly be earlier than c. 1325 if, indeed, it is reliable (which it may not be). The N. windows to the nave and chancel are Perpendicular insertions, in the first case with supermullioned tracery and strong mullions beneath segmental-pointed arches.  The porch lower storey is lit by two short Y-traceried side windows, which open inside beneath low, two-bay blank arcades, supported on central octagonal shafts.   (The arcade in the E. wall is illustrated left).  An open quatrefoil pierces the central pair of spandrels.  The upper storey may be a Perpendicular addition: the present two-light S. window is certainly of this period and there is a barely detectable alteration in the masonry, about two fifths of the way up the side walls, suggesting they were met here once by a steeply pitched roof.  


To this, the church interior adds just the aisle arcade and the tower and chancel arches, although these are significant. The Norman tower arch (shown in the thumbnail, right) is characteristic, being thick and unmoulded, while the four-bay S. arcade is typical Decorated work, composed of arches bearing a roll and a hollow, springing from quatrefoil piers with fillets with the narrowest of filleted spurs between the foils.  The chancel arch, though simpler, could nevertheless be contemporary, with  its two hollow-chamfered orders supported on semi-octagonal responds.