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English Church Architecture.

 

SPROUGHTON, All Saints  (TM 125 451),

SUFFOLK. 

(Bedrock:  Upper Cretaceous, Upper Chalk.)

 

A village church built by the 'Master of Stowlangtoft'

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 a relatively modest and substantially renewed building, yet there is much to ponder here and a fascinating study could be made of this church alone.   Beginning from the west, the unbuttressed tower is Early English work of the late thirteenth century, which rises in three stages to 'Y'-traceried bell-openings and (probably later) battlements, lit below by a restored three-light W. window with intersecting tracery.  Windows in the rest of the building, aside from the wholly Victorian clerestory, have been renewed to the south and restored to the north while almost certainly retaining their mediaeval forms, as witnessed by the remaining mediaeval stonework to the north and the general 'hotchpotchedness' of the combination of designs.  There are two principal forms:  (i), a two-light window comprising Y-tracery with trefoil-cusped lights with trilobes above the lights and a dagger in the window apex (although one to the north differs significantly from the others); and (ii), a three-light Perpendicular form with little linking subarcuations above the lights, which appear to represent an extension of the two-light design encountered at Stowlangtoft and elsewhere.   The late Birkin Haward listed this church as one that may have been erected in a single campaign (Suffolk Medieval Church Arcades, p. 340), to which he applied a date of c. 1280.  Yet the tower and (as the church interior reveals) tower and chancel arches, could easily be earlier, while the two-light aisle windows and, still less, the arcades, seem unlikely to predate the turn of the next century.  This may suggest that an originally aisleless nave was reconstructed with aisles, some thirty or forty years later.  As for the inserted three-light Perpendicular windows (three renewed ones to the south and two partly old ones to the north), these can probably be dated by association with their two-light counterparts at Stowlangtoft, which are known to have been constructed c. 1390.  These windows appear more widely in a loose cluster around the present-day local authority of Mid Suffolk and seem almost certainly the work of the same hand, although attributing anything else to this mason with certainty, other than windows, except at Stowlangtoft, proves a real challenge.  These windows show one variation here, also seen at Rattlesden, in that two are segmentally arched (in the nave aisles, as illustrated by the N. aisle window, below left) instead of segmental-pointed, which is more usual.  (See the photograph of the re-set window in the organ chamber, below right.)  To describe these windows with complete precision, to try to ensure they are indeed the work of the same man:

(i) the principal lights are two-centred and trefoil-cusped;
 
(ii) there are four straight-sided subreticulation units above in the case of a two-light window and six in the case of a three-light window, of which the outer pair are two-centred and the inner units, ogee-pointed;
 
(iii) two-light and three-light windows have, respectively, either one or three quatrefoils in the heads of the arches, where the central quatrefoil is ogee-pointed at the top and the bottom and, in three-light windows, the outer pair of quatrefoils are ogee-pointed at the bottom but two-centred at the top.

 

  

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The church interior at Sproughton is dominated by the three-bay nave arcades (see the interior view of the church, below, and the larger photograph of the N. arcade, below left), described by Birkin Haward as 'of outstanding merit and the only examples of their kind in Suffolk'.    'The piers are deeply moulded with four filleted shafts and four keeled shafts in the diagonals... [separated by continuous hollows, and these support] deeply moulded capitals and arches' (Nikolaus Pevsner and James Bettley, The Buildings of England: Suffolk West, New Haven & London, Yale University Press, 2015, p. 485).  By contrast, the tower and chancel arches (which the British Listed Buildings web-site declares to have been reconstructed, although if they are, it must surely have been in the original form) are each composed, very simply, of two flat-chamfered orders.

 

 

East of the chancel arch, everything looks Victorian at first.  The church's present furnishings and fittings prevent the arches at the ends of the nave aisles from being distinguished between true arches or former windows, although they are actually the latter.  (Woodwork obscures the surviving masonry beneath the level of the former sills.)  This implies the aisles once ended here and confirms the nineteenth century attribution of the S. chapel and N. organ chamber.  However, error arises if the N. vestry is included with these extensions, for a squint in the S. wall looking through to the sanctuary proves it to be mediaeval, while the now internal doorway, westward into the organ chamber, with a dripstone with nicely-carved head label stops on the W. side, shows it was once an external door, albeit not, perhaps, for long, to judge from their good state of preservation.  That this vestry is contemporary with the thirteenth century phase of the church's construction, appears to be confirmed however by its 'Y'-traceried E. window with a little circle in the apex and by the solitary N. lancet.   As for the vestry's original function, both H. Munro Cautley (Suffolk Churches and their Treasures, Ipswich, Norman Adlard & Co., 1954, p. 317) and the britishlistedbuildings web-site assume it to have been a chapel, but since it appears that a former redecoration of the vestry revealed smoke stains on the N. wall, it seems more likely to have been the case that, not withstanding its small size, it was actually once the dwelling of an acolyte priest or hermit, like other ancient vestries to the north of the chancel in East Anglia, of which examples may be found at Gipping, Hessett and Hitcham in this county, and at Toddington in Central Bedfordshire.  Immediately to the west, the partially-old N. window in the Victorian organ chamber (of c. 1390?) is almost certainly the former N. aisle E. window, re-set, while similarly, the two-light E. window to the S. chapel has probably come from the former S. aisle E. wall.  The nave roof, although restored, is of hammerbeam construction, with partly original angels still in place on alternate hammerbeams.

 

Finally, although furnishings in the church are of less interest than the architecture, a few items are worth notice. The font (illustrated below right) is Perpendicular but has probably been retooled:  the octagonal bowl is decorated by symbols of the Passion on the cardinal faces and of the Evangelists between, and stands on an octagonal stem with two blank cinquefoil-cusped arches on every side.  Monuments include a large theatrical sixteenth century one on the N. wall of the sanctuary, commemorating Elizabeth Bull (d. 1634) and featuring the deceased in effigy (although probably, at that date, not intended to represent an actual likeness) kneeling in prayer before a prayer desk, while a pair of angels at the sides hold back a pair of curtains.  A much simpler memorial engraved in slate on the chancel S. wall, dedicated to a former rector, Joseph Waite (d. 1670), has the Chi Rho symbol at the top, an hour-glass standing on a skull in the centre, and a selective misquotation from Job, ch. 14, v. 14, below, which makes use of the fact that capital 'J's were once written as 'I's:  '...all the days of my appointed time will I waite, till my change come'.