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English Church Architecture.

 

STOWLANGTOFT, St. George  (TL 957 682),

SUFFOLK. 

(Bedrock:  Upper Cretaceous, Upper Chalk.)

 

The 'type' church of the 'Master of Stowlangtoft',

built 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 magnificent Perpendicular church (shown left from the southeast) both outside and in, although by no means a large one as it is aisleless and fairly short, with a nave of three bays and a chancel of two.  It is, however, tall in all parts and, in particular, the product of a single phase of construction, and it is this that gives the building the artistic unity that is largely responsible for the impression it makes. Still more fortunate is the fact that the work is closely dated by several pieces of evidence, including that Robert Dacy de Ashfield - who was Lord of the Manor and appears to have been the church's chief benefactor - asked to buried in the chancel when he died in 1401, that the rector, William Stanton, in his will of 1392, left the residue of his goods to Robert de Ashfield 'towards the chancel, being newly built', and that John de Aysschefeld, in his will of 1394, asked to be buried in the 'new church of Stowelangtoft' (Roy Tricker, St. George's Church, Stowlangtoft, 2007, p. 2).  This is thus a church entirely built on the eve of a new century, during the reign of Richard II, and it is instructive to examine it closely for it can help to throw light on the stylistic point reached by the English Perpendicular in the 1390s, at least in Suffolk, in well designed but only moderately expensive parochial work.

 

First, therefore, consideration will be given to those features of the building that bind it into a whole.  There are principally four of these, namely: (i) the deep parapets and basal friezes covered in flint chequerwork, which extend alike around the tower, nave, porch and chancel;  (ii) the string course which runs around the nave and chancel at the springing level of the windows;  (iii) the idiosyncratic, 'sawn-off' appearance of the tower, viewed in silhouette;  and (iv), the unifying effect of the windows, which are all two-light and triangular-headed, with lights linked by little subarcuations (as shown in the photograph, right) and drop tracery formed of straight-sided reticulation units with quatrefoils above - a form, perhaps, not Perpendicular at all in the strict sense inasmuch as the mullions are not carried all the way up to the window heads, but which is certainly very much within the spirit of the age.  The chancel E. window has five lights, supermullioned drop tracery, subarcuation of the outer lights in pairs, and supertransoms in the heads of these pairs and, in two tiers, above the central light.  (See the glossary for an explanation of these terms.)   The W. tower, which is diagonally buttressed, has square-headed, untraceried bell-openings, beneath which there is a similar window one stage below to the south and another, one and a half stages below, to the west.  The side windows of the S. porch are shorter versions of those in the nave and chancel although the porch itself is tall for a single-storeyed structure and has an imposing S. front (illustrated left), an effect created by being completely faced in accurately cut flint and limestone chequerwork that also extends across the inner sides of the diagonal buttresses, now set diaper-wise, by the tall outer doorway with mouldings arranged in two orders, and by the fact that the flushwork on the parapet here takes on the form of trefoil-cusped arches, in order to contrast with the chequerwork below.

 

Surprisingly, inside the church quite different matters come to the fore, for the architectural interest is less and one suspects the tower and chancel arches may have been restored, presumably by William White (1825 - 1900), great nephew of Gilbert White of Selborne.  William White was here in 1855 and it is he who has to accept responsibility for the stone pulpit.  This is hardly noticeable, however, for all attention is taken by the woodwork, especially the nave benches, of which eleven are original on the south side and twelve on the north, all with carved backs, traceried bench-ends and carved arm rests, featuring such subjects as a fox with a goose in its mouth, a chained monkey, a unicorn (shown below left), a boar playing a harp, and a mermaid with a mirror.  They are indisputably by the same firm responsible for the fine benches at other nearby churches, including Norton, Tostock and Woolpit, and would make an interesting subject for close study, to see whether the work of individual craftsmen could be distinguished, for it surely required a considerable number to make all of these.  Even on a superficial examination, however, many close similarities are apparent, not only in such basic matters as the overall shape of the bench ends or recurring subjects on the arm rests (note, for example, the preponderance of dogs), but also in their more subtle, less easily definable characteristics, relating to such things as the attitudes of the creatures and their facial expressions.  Yet even when one has tired of looking at these, the exhibition of mediaeval carpentry in the church is not exhausted for there is also the set of outstanding stalls in the chancel (see the bench end illustrated below right), both to north and south and backing on to the dado of the former rood screen to the west where there are three misericords on each side. The subjects of these are a dragon with a long tongue, the angel of St. Matthew, the eagle of St. John, the lion of St. Mark, the ox of St. Luke (shown at the foot of the page) and a hawk swooping on a hare.  The N. and S. stalls have carved figures in place of the usual poppyheads.  The dado of the rood screen  is composed of three double panels on each side, divided by buttresses with crocketed canopies.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Finally it remains to describe two monuments, one in the tower and the other high up on the chancel S. wall.  The former commemorates Sir Willoughby d'Ewes (d. 1685) and has an open pediment supported on barley-sugar columns.  The latter features three effigies beneath a coffered alabaster arch topped by an open pediment, featuring Paul d'Ewes (facing north) and his two wives (kneeling and facing inwards on either side), beneath which d'Ewes's son and seven daughters are depicted, two carrying skulls to indicate they had predeceased their father.  Unusually the contract for this work survives, showing it was carved in 1624 by Jan Janson of St. Martin-in-the-Fields for sixteen pounds and ten shillings.