( back to home page)

English Church Architecture.

 

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

SUFFOLK. 

(Bedrock:  Upper Cretaceous, Upper Chalk.)

 

One of 181 churches in England with round towers, of which all but five are in Cambridgeshire (with 2), Essex (with 6), Norfolk (with 126) or Suffolk (with 42).

 

Round church towers were almost invariably assumed by Pevsner to have a Saxon or Norman origin.  That is not necessarily the case, and the form is a function of geology rather than age, for the lack of the ready availability of good building stone to serve as quoins made this a cheap design option by avoiding the expense in the pre-railway age of bringing, usually by horse and cart or at best along the rivers by boat, heavy, bulk materials from afar.  The definitive book on this subject is, and is long likely to remain, the late Stephen Hart's The Round Church Towers of England  (Ipswich, Lucas Books, 2003), to which the notes on these buildings are inevitably, to a greater or lesser degree, indebted.

 

 

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 initially appears to be wholly 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) 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.  (The Round Church Towers of England, pp. 88-91.)  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 variously suggesting a late thirteenth century or early fourteenth century date, and unfortunately, a compromise  c.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 a case, it is sometimes possible to imagine two master masons at work, one early and one late in his career, co-operating at one level while yet each contributing his favoured designs, yet the two styles are so jumbled here, that this hypothesis is not convincing either and instead, Birkin Haward's theory (Suffolk Mediaeval Church Arcades, Hitcham, Suffolk Institute of Archaeology and History, 1993, pp. 328-329) 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 (illustrated right) also has trilobes (pointed 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) (i.e. before c. 1315), now substantially restored, while the five-light E. window is Perpendicular.  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.  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 (as shown left).  An open quatrefoil pierces the  spandrels in between.  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 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, and bears two hollow-chamfered orders supported on semi-octagonal responds. 

[Other churches with round towers featured on this web-site are Bartlow and Snailwell in Cambridgeshire, Quidenham, Roydon, Rushall, Shimpling and Thorpe Abbotts in Norfolk, and Aldham, Brome, Hengrave, Higham, Little Bradley, Little Saxham, Risby, Stuston, Theberton, Wissett and Wortham in Suffolk.]