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English Church Architecture.

 

THEBERTON, St. Peter  (TM 437 659),

SUFFOLK. 

(Bedrock:  Neogene, Red Crag Formation.)

 

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.

 

This is an attractive church composed of a nave and long chancel under a continuous thatched roof, a S. aisle and S. porch, and a round W. tower with an octagonal bell-stage.  The round tower should probably be discussed first since so much that has been written about it is thoroughly misleading and in this case, D. P. Morton (in The Guide to Suffolk Churches, Cambridge, The Lutterworth Press, 2009, pp. 463-465), The British Listed Buildings Web-site, and Pevsner in the original 'Suffolk' volume of The Buildings of England (though not James Bettley in the revised version), all repeat the mantra that by virtue of its shape, it can be presumedto be Norman, leaving Stephen Hart (in The Round Church Towers of England, Lucas Books, 2003, p. 129) to point out there is no evidence of a break in construction between the round section and the early fourteenth century bell-stage and no sign of earlier bell-openings at the top of the round stage either.  The bell-stage has cusped Y-traceried openings in the cardinal sides and cusped Y-traceried blank arches in flint flushwork in the ordinal sides, commensurate with a date c. 1280-1310, and the tower arch, which is commensurate, carries two hollow chamfers that die into the jambs.  However, the nave is Norman and retains its original N. doorway (or is it the S. doorway, re-set?), now enclosed within the Victorian vestry (as shown in the photograph, left), composed of three orders, the outer two bearing chevron moulding, supported on shafts with cushion capitals, and high up, further to the east, a blocked Norman window can also be seen, with  nook-shafts supporting a roll.  The nave windows are Perpendicular insertions.

 

The chancel is interesting because externmally on the north side, there is a clear break in the masonry halfway along, and the western section, in addition, has a round-arched corbel table beneath the eaves, showing this is Norman also.  Presumably this indicates the original length of the chancel before its later extension.   Inside, there is no chancel arch but the doorway to the erstwhile rood stair survives in the N. wall.  The continuous nave and chancel roof is ceiled but the ashlar pieces are exposed and very prominent on each side.

 

Finally, what of the S. aisle and porch?  The arrangement here is of an aisle of lean-to construction beginning at the chancel/nave junction and extending three bays to the west to butt up against the porch, yet even the aisle and porch together fail to extend the full length of the nave, leaving space further west again, for a two-light S. window with Perpendicular drop tracery.  Pevsner, however, considered the aisle to be Decorated and thus earlier than the Perpendicular porch, in which case, what a curious little aisle it was, terminating at such an arbitrary position!  Surely D. P. Morton is right, therefore, when he describes the porch as "late fifteenth century" and ascribes the aisle to the benefaction of Sir William Jenny (d. 1483), albeit he fails to follow his argument through and credit him with the arcade also, the salient point being that this would allow the porch to have been built first, even if only by a decade or two.  The porch could then have been constructed in the usual position and the length of the aisle would later have been constrained by it.  Moreover, if further evidence in support of this theory then needs to be sought, look at the porch east wall inside, where a large blocked window extending the porch's full height must once have looked outside.  The porch (illustrated above right) is a rather grand structure with a flint flushwork basal frieze, three tiers of blank flushwork arches entirely covering the S. front, and an elaborate canopied niche in the centre of the upper tier, above the apex of the doorway. The aisle bays are separated by buttresses decorated with flushwork motifs.  Inside the church, the three-bay arcade from the nave to the aisle is composed of arches carrying a hollow chamfer and a flat chamfer, but the distinctly tight-drawn capitals are not typical of the Decorated style.  The paintwork is a rather silly addition of 1848 (Pevsner), when the aisle was partially reconstructed using the old materials.  The colourful monument on the aisle W. wall dates from 1843 (ibid.) and commemorates Frederica Doughty,  whose family paid for the restoration.

 

[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, Risby, Stuston, Wissett and Wortham in Suffolk.]