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English Church Architecture -



SOUTHWOLD, St. Edmund (TM 507 763)     (June 2003)

(Bedrock:  Neogene to Quaternary, Crag Group)


Southwold is an excellent little town and the parish church is one of the noblest in East Anglia, with as fine a display of flint flushwork as may be found anywhere. The church (shown left, from the southeast) was constructed in almost a single building phase in the opening decades of the fifteenth century, a date deduced from the swan and ermine badges of Henry IV (reigned 1399-1413) and his queen, Joan of Navarre (crowned 1403), respectively, carved in the stonework of the chancel S. window, and from the crowned leopards of the same king that form the label stops to the N. doorway.  This is at odds with the church history proposed by Birkin Haward (in Suffolk Mediaeval Church Arcades, Suffolk Institute of Archaeology and History", 1993), who, in his attempt to associate the building with St. Andrew's, Walberswick, constructed by Richard Russell and Adam Powell (fl. 1420-70), is, for once, not convincing.    The S. porch is probably a later addition, however, as indicated by bequests proved in 1488 and '93.


The church consists of a six-bay nave and a three-and-a-half-bay chancel, with aisles that continue for a bay and a half beside the chancel to create chapels, and an outstanding diagonally-buttressed tower that rises in four stages, while the S. porch is two-storeyed with a stair turret in the re-entrant with the aisle to the northwest.


The exterior of the church is especially impressive, due predominantly to three things:  the uniformity of style, the admirable design of the windows, and the skilful use made of the building materials, which are local flint with dressings of white stone that may have come from Caen in Normandy.  Both Caen and Southwold are on or near the coast, of course, and so both had the advantage of good transport links at a time when the carriage of bulk materials inland was often prohibitively expensive.  The principal areas of flushwork are the tower and S. porch, together with all the buttresses and the basal frieze around the entire building.  The  tower W. front (shown right) has a large area of diapering beneath the second stage string course, an inscription above the W. window with each letter crowned (“SCT. EDMUND ORA P. NOBIS” - “Saint Edmund pray for us”), blank panelling each side of this window, and more lower down, either side of the W. doorway.   The S. porch displays: at the sides, flushwork two-light supermullioned arches on the battlements, and walls below entirely covered in diapering; and to the south, blank arcading in two tiers beside the outer doorway, more of the same on each side of the two, two-light windows in the upper storey, and the repeated monogram “MR” around the base.  (See the thumbnail, below left.)  This probably indicates that a statue of St. Mary once occupied the canopied niche between the upper storey windows where now there is a modern statue of St. Edmund.  Flushwork is also prominent on the parapet and outer faces of the tower buttresses.  The rest of the church is faced with knapped flints everywhere, fitted closely together with the narrowest of mortar joints.  In some places, such as the sides of the tower buttresses, these flints have also been accurately squared (shown below left), a task that must have constituted months of labour in a building on this scale.


Save only in the tower, the windows to the church are all four-centred and supermullioned.  The  aisle  windows are four-light with two tiers of reticulation units which occupy a third of the window depth, the clerestory windows are two-light, the chancel windows beyond the chapels are three-light with stepped supertransoms, and the E. and W. windows (to the chancel and tower respectively) are four-light with subarcuation of the outer lights in pairs, supertransoms, and to the east, a wheel of quatrefoils in the head. All lights are ogee-arched, and the sublights of all windows except those of the clerestory, are cinquefoil-cusped like the main lights.  The latter is nearly always a sign of work of high quality, which is clearly the case here.  The N. doorway carries two casement mouldings that rise between bowtells, decorated by carved fleurons at intervals.  The W. doorway presents a more elaborate version of this design and is set in a square surround with finely carved dragons in the spandrels (shown below right). The porch outer doorway has three orders of shafts with traceried spandrels and over the lower storey there is a tierceron vault.



Inside the church, the seven-bay arcades are formed of arches of two orders bearing wave mouldings, springing from tall piers composed of four semicircular shafts separated by hollows.  There is no chancel arch, screens alone dividing the nave and aisle from the chancel and its chapels, but  there are single arches between the chancel and the chapels in the style of the aisle arcades, and the tower arch differs only slightly, as befits its greater size.  This has three orders to the arch, with the inner springing from semicircular shafts and the outer two from bowtells.  The chancel windows have casement mouldings around them inside, with fleurons and leaves at intervals.


The church carpentry is rich though much of it is renewed. This includes the nave and chancel roof (shown left), of alternate arched brace and  hammerbeam construction, with the latter decorated with angels, which is now largely of 1867. The section over the chancel has been attractively painted, as also has the pulpit (in 1928), albeit not in a manner showing much sensitivity to the original work. The font cover, said to be the tallest in England, was made by F.E. Howard in 1935.  That leaves chiefly the screens of c. 1480 that stretch across both chapels and the chancel, and were judged by Pevsner to be by three different hands. The painted, panelled dados feature the nine orders of angels in the section facing the N. aisle, the apostles in the central section facing the nave, and a selection of Old Testament prophets in the section facing the S. aisle.  Backing against the central section are a number of misericords, but the arm rests on some of the other stalls are of more interest and include a lion and someone who obviously has toothache. Finally, the oak door to the church from the porch is original, as are the priest's door from the chancel (to the south) and that to the vestry (to the north).



(Basal frieze beneath the chancel E. window.)