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English Church Architecture -



STOWMARKET, St. Peter & St. Mary (TM 049 586)     (October 2008)

(Bedrock:  Neogene to Quaternary, Crag Group)


Pevsner described this church (shown left, from the southeast) as “Externally all Decorated, except for the porches, the tower and the clerestory” (in the Suffolk volume of The Buildings of England, Penguin, 1974), while the anonymous writer of the church guide wrote, “The nave, chancel and tower of the present church were built in the early fourteenth century in the Decorated style.  The side aisles and the north and south porches were added about a hundred years later.”


Perhaps the root of this confusion lies in the use of the word “Decorated”.  Many discussions about mediaeval architecture are complicated by the employment of the same terms to describe architectural styles, on the one hand, and the periods of history when those styles predominated but with which they were inevitably not entirely coeval, on the other, and the term “Decorated” suffers particularly from this problem, being both the usual title given to the second, curvilinear, phase of English Gothic architecture, and the name commonly assigned to the period from 1300 to the Black Death of 1349, when that style was almost unchallenged. However, the Decorated style can certainly not be regarded as entirely contained within those years and Nicola Coldstream, indeed, saw fit in 1994 to subtitle her book The Decorated Style (The British Museum Press) as Architecture and Ornament: 1240-1360, while Bill Wilson, writing in the introduction to the two revised Norfolk volumes of The Buildings of England in 2002 (Yale University Press), wrote, “Altogether it must be clear by now that the notion that there was a sharp boundary between Decorated and Perpendicular - traditionally around 1350 - must be abandoned, just as one must forget the ideal dates for Early English.  This is not just true of Norfolk.  If one takes piers as an example then Decorated lasts from  c. 1240  to c. 1450; window tracery gives the dates c. 1300 to c. 1470”.


Wilson’s definition is unquestionably very loose, yet the point has some validity.  With the exception of the porches, clerestory and a few windows in the S. aisle, Stowmarket parish church is almost completely Decorated in style, but whether all or any of it dates from the early fourteenth century is open to question, for there are certainly enough hints in the architecture to suggest that a date c. 1380 might fit at least the S. side rather better, while Pevsner recorded that the tower was “called ‘new’ in a will of 1453”.  However, to consider the architectural evidence alone, the hints of a late date take one of two forms, the first consisting of minor but significant elements that accord with later work in churches elsewhere, and the second, of features showing such an elaborate handling of curvilinear designs as to suggest the mason was either a man of exceptionally advanced ideas or that he was re-visiting and embellishing some long-established familiar forms.  The church will be described first, in an anticlockwise tour of the exterior, and afterwards, inside.


The chancel is three bays long and, to the south, has three-light windows in the bays at each end, with slightly differing, elaborate traceries based on intersecting ogees arising from the lights below, which include short straight sections above the central lights, like half-formed supermullions - a design element that is also noticeable in the tracery of the two-light window in between.  (See the photograph above, showing the chancel and easternmost nave bay from the south.)  Perhaps this may be regarded, then, as the first suggestion of a late fourteenth century (or “early Perpendicular”) date for the work, although an additional complication here and elsewhere in the building is that it is often difficult to decide to what extent the masonry has been restored or renewed, with the concomitant possibility that the original form may have been changed. The five-light chancel E. window has reticulated tracery and the N. wall is now adjoined by a two-storey, lean-to vestry alongside its two eastern bays, lit by cusped lancets, and by an extension of the N. aisle beside the westernmost bay, to form a choir vestry and organ chamber.


Apart from this extension, the nave and aisles are seven bays long and the N. aisle, which faces the road, is independently-gabled and more than half as wide again as the lean-to S. aisle, which faces the churchyard, even though the S. porch is rather more prestigious than its northern counterpart.  The two eastern bays of the N. aisle "proper" have windows with stepped lights, with the central light stepped down and a wheel of six trefoils above, and the next two bays have cusped intersecting tracery, after which there comes the unambiguously Perpendicular porch, with segmental-pointed windows with renewed supermullioned tracery and, on the N. front, three tiers of trefoil-cusped, flint-flushwork arches and a niche above an outer doorway formed of two orders bearing waves.  The two further aisle bays to the west of the porch, have reticulated tracery to the north, with elongated quatrefoils in the heads, and the final bay is lit to the west by an arrangement that is now wholly Victorian, consisting of a four-light window above three large encircled septfoils.


The tall angle-buttressed tower rises in three stages to flushwork battlements and a recessed needle spire in the Hertfordshire manner, erected only in 1994, with an open gallery about a third of the way up, which manages to jar slightly with the architecture below.  The tower has doors to north and south, windows above with curvilinear tracery, and similar but larger bell-openings on all four sides.


The three-light S. aisle W. window (shown left) has subarcuated ogee-pointed outer lights and a latticed grill above the central light, which is interesting as the design is comparable to that of two three-light S. windows in the chancel at Cavendish, where the work can be dated by the will of Sir John Cavendish to c. 1381.  Of course, this window could be a later insertion, but if, as Pevsner seemed to believe, the aisle was constructed in the early fourteenth century, then why would it have been necessary to replace one of the windows a mere forty or fifty years afterwards?  Moreover, the S. windows in the two western bays of this aisle (see the first of these, illustrated right) have supermullioned tracery with little linking subarcuations between the lights in the local manner to be seen at Brettenham, Hitcham, Preston St. Mary, Rattlesden, Stowlangtoft and Wortham, among other places (see the entry on Brettenham for a fuller explanation), which are dateable by wills at Stowlangtoft to c. 1390.   The two-storeyed S. porch has tall renewed windows, flushwork to the south, very worn niches in the spandrels of the doorway, and a blocked niche above.  To the east of the porch, the four remaining S. aisle bays display more very ornamental tracery, featuring a profusion of mouchettes and quatrefoils. The S. aisle E. window has supermullioned tracery and stepped castellated supertransoms.  The clerestory consists of six pairs of windows set above the spandrels of the seven-bay aisle arcades within.  These windows are two-light and simple, with cinquefoil-cusped lights.


Inside the church, the N. arcade (shown left) consists of arches of two orders bearing wave mouldings, springing from quatrefoil piers with little right-angled spurs between the foils and capitals that go all the way round.  However, the S. arcade presents a more elaborate version of this design in which both the larger spurs between the foils and the outer order of the arches carry a finicky series of shallow mouldings, the inner order of the arches is flat-chamfered, and the piers have capitals to the foils only (i.e. and not over the spurs), and  Pevsner believed this to represent a Perpendicular remodelling of earlier work, presumably once similar to the N. arcade, whereas it probably shows simply that the aisles were constructed at different times.  Perhaps the most likely dates that can be offered for these are c. 1340 for the N. aisle and arcade, and c. 1380 for the S. aisle and arcade, when some remodelling and refenestration of the chancel may also have taken place.  The W. tower may have been part of this second building campaign or erected with the porches, around 1440-50.   


Finally and briefly, the church furnishings are mostly plain and modern, and only one large monument (shown in the thumbnail, right) requires a mention, at the N. aisle E. end, with an inscription in Latin commemorating William Tyrell (d. 1641) and his wife, and featuring busts of the couple set in round-headed arches and slightly turned towards each other, beneath an open pediment supported by black Corinthian columns. The couple's three children are depicted below, of whom two reclining had either predeceased their parents or else were still babies at the time of their parents' deaths.