English Church Architecture -
RICKINGHALL SUPERIOR, St. Mary (TM 041 746) (August 2006)
(Bedrock: Upper Cretaceous, Upper Chalk)
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 hands 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” may refer to nothing more than the fact that the church stands here on somewhat higher ground.
Consisting of a only a chancel, nave, W. tower and S. porch, St. Mary’s, Rickinghall Superior (shown left, from the southeast) 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 photograph of the easternmost S. window, below 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 three tiers of subreticulation units with stepped supertransoms above the sublights. 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, like an arch above a tomb chest, and this arch may also be seen internally, leading the anonymous author of the church guide to surmise that what has been lost is an erstwhile “chantry chapel, or possibly the Lady Chapel”, though if that is so, it was an exceptionally low-roofed structure, constructed in an odd position. 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). Another rather grand affair, this porch is two-storeyed, 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, the porch E. wall and, indeed, across most of the available space on the N. and S. walls of the nave, albeit that here it only takes the form of a distinctly inaccurate chequerwork. The date of the nave, and/or perhaps the porch, may be indicated by a will of 1442, bequeathing forty shillings (£2) to the “dedication and sanctification” of the building, for it is hard to see what else this might relate to if not one or the other, for the chancel and tower remain largely intact from Decorated times. The best feature of the former is the E. window (shown in the thumbnail, below right) with three-light intersecting tracery below a two-centred arch, and reticulation units filled with daggers and mouchettes. In the N. and S. chancel walls, but at the eastern end of both, to light the sanctuary, a pair of inserted Perpendicular windows with supermullioned tracery, have quatrefoils in the apices and lights linked with small subarcuations in the manner commonly encountered a little to the south, at Brettenham, Hitcham, Preston St. Mary, Rattlesden, Stowlangtoft and Tostock. The W. tower is diagonally-buttressed and rises in four stages, with reticulated bell-openings and a two-light reticulated W. window. The stepped battlements with flushwork decoration are presumably an addition.
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 left.) 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, such as gave rise to the proverb “the weakest go to the wall”. In the E. end of the chancel S. wall, a trefoil-cusped piscina with castellated square surround is probably a fifteenth century addition 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. At the other end of the nave, the massive tower arch consists of three flat-chamfered orders, the innermost with capitals and the others continuous all the way round. The arch is described as “fifteenth century” in the church guide, but that hardly seems right and nor was it an opinion shared by Pevsner.
The font is octagonal, with elaborate but indifferently carved early fourteenth century traceries decorating the faces of the bowl (though the church guide rates 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, “a man of not much talent” (Pevsner). In his home county, he was the architect of All Saints’, Knapwell and St. Mary’s, Longstowe, and little can be said of either.