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English Church Architecture.


RISBY, St. Giles (TL 802 664),


(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.


The church consists of a short round tower, a long nave with a S. porch, and a two-bay chancel - three sections that are also distinct from one another in date and in style, the tower being twelfth century Norman work, the nave chiefly Early English (thirteenth century) albeit with theaddition of a Perpendicular porch, and the chancel being a product of the Decorated period (the first half of the fourteenth century), as witnessed by their windows, which are little round-headed openings arranged in no particular order around the top of the tower, two-light Y-traceried in the nave, and reticulated in the chancel. 


The begin with the tower, this is unbuttressed and has a tall arch opening into the nave, of typical Romanesque thickness, with two roll mouldings around it (as seen right), springing from an order of narrow shafts with scalloped capitals topped by abaci with diapered edges.  High above this is a smaller round-arched opening that in the absence of a stair turret  would probably once have given access via a tall ladder to an upper chamber immediately below the bell-stage, while also doubling as a Sanctus bell window that allowed the ringer of the Sanctus bell to follow the progress of the service. More Norman masonry is visible internally in the nave N. wall, where the remains of a round-headed window (now appearing 'eye-shaped') above the N. door can be found, and in addition,on the E. side of the chancel arch, which has re-used scalloped moulding incongruously re-set around it. 


That apart, the chancel arch looks like Early English work (pace Pevsner who said it is Decorated), with its acute arch, very slight chamfers on its two orders, and carved abaci, and this is the date of most nave windows, including the lancet to the north (though obviously not the three-light supermullioned window on its left), while other features of the chancel are consistent with the early fourteenth century, of which the best is the three-light E. window, which has large trefoil-cusped, ogee-pointed niches on each side within, that must once have held statues, while a similar arch in the S. wall protects the piscina.   The Perpendicular porch has a four-centred outer doorway and a collar-beam roof, and a cross-gabled nineteenth century N. vestry joins the chancel to the north.


The church contains two series of wall painting, one of the early thirteenth century, now very faded, and one of the late fourteenth, which is slightly clearer.  The first may be seen particularly around the N. door where, with the help of illustrated notes available in the church, a sequence of nativity scenes may be just about made out, depicting the shepherds, Herod ordering the massacre of the Innocents, the flight into Egypt, and the twelve year old Jesus talking to the doctors in the temple.  The second series includes the larger painting to the left, showing Christ appearing to Mary Magdalene (illustrated left) in the scene known as "Noli me tangere" ("Touch me not").


That leaves some of the church furnishings to describe, which must include in particular the rood screen, which to Pevsner was "uncommonly fine" and which Munro Cautley (writing in Suffolk Churches & Their Treasures, Norman Adlard & Co., 1954, p. 307) considered had been "badly treated".  It is an elaborate affair in three sections, the outer two of which are formed of three double-trefoil-cusped ogee lights and intricate tracery, while the central section features a triple-cusped, crocketed ogee arch above the opening.  (See the photograph, right.)  It was repainted and gilded in 1966 but is already very worn again.  On either side, set in the nave E. wall, there is a pair of richly-carved painted niches, with crocketed arches, little lierne vaults, and Tudor flower and fleur-de-lys patterning behind.  The pulpit is Stuart and possibly late in that period:  it is carved with the usual round arches but these are somewhat slighter than in typical Jacobean examples.  The font is Perpendicular and displays the symbols of the Evangelists on four of the eight faces of the bowl.


[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, Rickinghall Inferior, Stuston, Theberton, Wissett and Wortham in Suffolk.]