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English Church Architecture.

 

RICKINGHALL SUPERIOR, St. Mary  (TM 041 746),

SUFFOLK. 

(Bedrock:  Upper Cretaceous, Upper Chalk.)

 

An attractive little church, showing evidence of the work of the 'Master of Stowlangtoft', executed 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 one of two churches which formerly served the settlement at Rickinghall, although the buildings stood in different parishes, firmly separated by the ancient boundary dividing East and West Suffolk.  Today the single parish of Rickinghall is ministered solely from St. Mary’s, Rickinghall Inferior, half a mile to the north, and St. Mary’s, Rickinghall Superior, is in the care of the Churches Conservation Trust, a decline in fortune probably attributable to being further from the centre of population.  So, indeed, it may always have been, for the suffix 'Superior' seems to refer only to the fact that the church stands on higher ground.

 

Comprising only a chancel, nave, W. tower and S. porch, St. Mary’s, Rickinghall Superior, is nevertheless a sizeable building, with an internal feeling of space enhanced by large, clear glass, Perpendicular nave windows, which being of unusual design, require detailed description.  (See the easternmost S. window, illustrated right.) Beneath very depressed four-centred arches, they are each formed of three broad lights with dropped supermullioned tracery, intersecting two-centred subarcuation of the lights in pairs and of the three lights grouped together, and stepped supertransoms above the sublights.  (See the glossary for an explanation of these terms.)  There are four of these windows to the north, of which the second from the west is raised to accommodate the N. door below, and three to the south, where the westernmost (i.e. the window west of the porch) is raised to allow for a broad blocked arch beneath, looking very much like an arch above a tomb chest, and this arch may also be seen internally, leading Roy Tricker to surmise that what has been lost is an erstwhile 'chantry chapel, or possibly the Lady Chapel', although that being so, it was an exceptionally low-roofed structure, constructed in an odd position (Church of St. Mary, Rickinghall Superior, Suffolk, London, The Churches Conservation Trust, p.4).  Whatever purpose it did serve, however, it was substantially built, as shown by the remains of the heavy masonry that still forms part of the S. porch W. wall (shown in the photograph below left).  The porch is a rather grand affair - two-storeyed, and with a tierceron vault above the entrance passageway.  The outer doorway has blank encircled shields in the spandrels and a frieze of flushwork motifs above, and there is more flintwork on the buttresses and the porch  E. wall, as well, indeed, across most of the available space on the N. and S. walls of the nave, albeit that here it takes the form of distinctly imprecise chequerwork.  The date of the nave, and/or the porch, may be indicated by a will of 1442, bequeathing forty shillings (£2) to the 'dedication and sanctification' of the building (ibid., p. 2), for it is hard to understand to what else this might relate if not one or the other since the chancel and tower remain largely intact from Decorated times.  The best feature of the chancel is the three-light E. window (shown above right), with intersecting tracery below a two-centred arch and reticulation units filled with daggers and mouchettes, but perhaps more interesting are the windows in the eastern ends of the north and south walls (one each side), inserted to bring additional light into the sanctuary, for these are exact copies of the windows at Stowlangtoft and feature the same little subarcuations linking the main lights, the same form of supermullioned tracery, and  the same quatrefoils in the apices, as also encountered at Brettenham, Norton and Preston St. Mary among other places.   The earlier W. tower is diagonally-buttressed and rises in four stages to bell-openings with reticulated tracery, lit by a two-light W. window with the same.  The stepped battlements with flushwork decoration were probably added to the tower later.

 

To all of this, the church interior adds relatively little, although it is certainly light and airy, and an admirable illustration of the 'Perpendicular glasshouse' that now seems so curiously modern in comparison with the nineteenth century’s infatuation with 'dim religious light'.  Yet large as they are, the nave windows are set in still wider blank arches, divided by wall shafts reaching up to meet the roof wall posts.  (See the N. windows, illustrated right.) There are thus four of these bays on each side, of which the second from the west on the S. side, not only encompasses the porch inner doorway, but immediately to the east, a smaller door to the porch stair.  Along the sides of the nave there is a long stone bench for the old and infirm, as gave rise to the proverb 'the weakest go to the wall'.  In the east end of the chancel S. wall, a trefoil-cusped piscina with castellated square surround is probably a fifteenth century insertion and the same century may be responsible for the present chancel arch with what looks like a recessed wave moulding set high above the irregular semi-octagonal responds. Northeast of this, a rood stair has been built into the corner of the nave, while almost opposite, in the nave S. wall, is a second piscina, now with a plain four-centred arch.  The massive tower arch to the west is formed of three flat-chamfered orders, of which the innermost rises from capitals while the others continue uninterrupted down the jambs   The arch is described as 'fifteenth century' in the church guide (ibid., p. 5), but there is reason to doubt that, even though Roy Tricker is usually a reliable authority.

 

The font is octagonal, with elaborate but indifferently-carved early fourteenth century traceries decorating the faces of the bowl (though Roy Tricker calls it 'a masterpiece').  The church contains no old woodwork and no monuments, almost all its present furnishings being the result to the restoration carried out in 1868 by W. M. Fawcett of Cambridge.