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English Church Architecture.

 

THRANDESTON, St. Margaret of Antioch  (TM 117 765),

SUFFOLK. 

(Bedrock:  Quaternary, Norwich Crag Formation.)

 

A village church, part-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 church is attractively situated along a quiet country lane, less than three miles from the centre of Diss, and consists of a W. tower, a nave with embattled aisles and porches, and a chancel with a mediaeval N. vestry that seems once to have been two-storeyed.  It is a building that reveals a different history inside from that which appears without, for while, externally, everything is very neat and trim, here it is entirely Perpendicular in style, with many renewed or restored features.  The parts of the building that seem to have been least altered or repaired down the centuries, are the tower and nave clerestory. The tower has a basal frieze of flint flushwork (although, more precisely, it runs round the tower, about 4' up from the ground) and rises thereafter in three stages, of which the first is by far the tallest.  A projection at the east end of the N. wall houses the stair to the ringing chamber, the bell-openings have strong mullions and supertransoms resting on the stepped lights, and the bell-stage is surmounted by tall stepped battlements faced in flushwork and by crocketed pinnacles at the corners.  The three-light W. window in the first stage, rests on another flushwork frieze that includes three shields and an inscription.  The windows in the nave aisles are an assortment but all include at least a little supermullioned tracery above the lights, and one window each to the north and south displays a little linking subarcuation above and between the lights, like those to be seen at Stowlangtoft and other places, where the work is dateable to c. 1390.   The windowless N. porch projects only slightly beyond the aisle and now appears largely nineteenth century in date.  The S. porch outer doorway carries a series of wave mouldings arranged in two orders, of which those on the inner order die into a flat chamfer running down the responds.  The attractive clerestory consists of four, two-light windows on each side, with supermullioned drop tracery beneath triangular-pointed arches, trefoil-cusped sublights, and cinquefoil-cusped lights.  The chancel E. window is segmental-pointed and the north and south windows, square-headed, yet internally, they all retain an order of narrow colonnettes (as shown in the photograph left).  This is thirteenth century work, apparently in situ, within the windows original width of which, the windows have been remodelled.

 

If construction of the church began with the chancel, therefore (as was usually the case), then perhaps following an interruption in the proceedings, that might be consistent with the apparent early fourteenth century (Decorated) appearance of the nave arcades, being composed of double-flat-chamfered arches supported on octagonal piers with characteristically prominent capitals (as seen in the photograph of the S. arcade, left).  The alignment of the nave from the chancel is sharply southwards for which the traditional explanation is that it is intended to symbolize Christ’s drooping head after his death on he Cross, though nearly all such cases can probably be explained by the difficulties encountered in laying out of a building's foundations (albeit that it must be admitted that northward-deflections are rare).  The change of alignment at Thrandeston is exceptionally pronounced - in the order of 10° to 15° - and seems most unlikely to have been intended at the outset, raising such questions as whether a decision to make the nave longer than originally planned, could have meant that burials or other obstacles prevented work continuing westwards along the original building line.  The chancel arch does arguably span the transition between the Early English and Decorated styles, for while it is similar to the nave arcades in basic form (with two flat-chamfered orders above semi-octagonal responds), the capitals are enriched with leaf and vine carving which is still thirteenth century in spirit.  (See the capital to the N. respond, right.)  The tower arch consists of two flat-chamfered orders that die into the jambs while other masonry features include a Decorated piscina in the S. wall of the S. aisle, a blocked rood stair beside the E. respond to the N. arcade, and a trefoiled ogee niche for a statue in the N. wall of the N. aisle.  The octagonal font (illustrated left) has carved roses alternating with the symbols of the Evangelists on the faces of the bowl, and four very jolly lion supporters between buttresses round the stem, with frog-like back legs!  It is one of a number in this region aligned to face the secondary inter-cardinal directions (i.e. east-northeast, east-southeast, south-southeast, etc.), rather than the more usual cardinal and ordinal directions.

 

Finally, a few items of woodwork should be mentioned, most especially the chancel benches, of which there is a long one on the N. side (illustrated below) and a shorter one to the south.   These have tracery on the back and front panels of late fifteenth or sixteenth century appearance, but also - on the back panel of the N. bench, behind the gangway - a Jacobean round arch, suggesting either that the correct date is the seventeenth century or, at the least, that the work was altered then.  There are also two tall carved figures rising from the front panel on either side of this gangway, carrying a dog and a bird.  The rood screen consists of two, one-light divisions on each side of the central opening, with supermullioned tracery above and a carved dado below;  the central opening has two traceried lights above, again with supermullioned tracery.  Many of the nave benches appear to include old work re-used.