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WICKHAM SKEITH, St. Andrew  (TM 099 693),

SUFFOLK. 

(Bedrock:  Neogene to Quaternary, Crag Group.)

 

One of a group of Suffolk churches identified by the late Birkin Haward as having been part-built by the same master mason, 'Hawes of Occold', fl.  1410-1440.

 

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 styllistic 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 Mediaval 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).  The validity of this exercise is ultimately for the reader to decide, but the examples illustrated on this web-site will seek to promote it.  Indeed, the present writer has attempted to identify another group of Suffolk churches using Haward's methodology, centred on and around St. George's church, Stowlangtoft, and these can be examined separately. 

 

Except in one regard, this is one of the less interesting mediaeval churches in the area, consisting of a W. tower, a nave with N. and S. porches, and a chancel, of which the first is Decorated and the rest, Perpendicular.  The diagonally-buttressed tower rises in two stages to two-light reticulated bell-openings and battlements.  However, the tall nave and chancel windows are by far the building's best feature and can probably be associated with master mason Hawes of Occold (fl. 1410-40) by virtue of their similarity to windows at Bildeston, Debenham and Occold among other places.  They are segmental-pointed with supermullioned tracery, split Ys, and either two-lights in the N. and S. walls of the chancel or three lights in the chancel E. wall and the N. and S. walls of the nave, but what is telling is that the three-light windows have stepped lights crossed by two castellated transoms, one immediately on top of the light and the other, about eighteen inches (45 cm.) below. (See the example in the nave S. wall, shown left.)  The S. front of the tall S. porch has a S. front (right) faced with flushwork arches in three tiers on either side of the doorway, and by plain knapped flint above, separated into two large sections by a narrow, vertical panel of stone surrounding an even narrower central opening. The N. porch (below) is covered wholly in flushwork, again consisting of three tiers of arches on each side of the doorway, but now with a fourth tier over the top above a plain stone frieze, a canopied niche in the centre, and battlements above this, with flushwork arches in the merlons and shields in stars beneath the embrasures.  The N. porch windows are similar to the chancel side windows but have the addition of little quatrefoils in the apices. 

 

Internally, the church is very plain with almost the only features of note being the three niches cut into in the nave E. wall, north of the chancel arch, and the rood stair, which is further north again.  The chancel arch springs from head corbels while the tower communicates with the nave through a small flat-chamfered doorway only.  The octagonal font is badly worn and it is hard to make out what James Bettley and Nikolaus Pevsner describe as the signs of the Evangelists and 'four Wild Men' set out around the stem (in the 'Suffolk West' volume of The Buildings of England, New Haven & London, Yale University Press, 2015, p. 561).  The only woodwork of significance is the hammerbeam nave roof constructed in four bays but,  predictably, the figures have been sawn off.

 

[Other churches featured on this web-site where Hawes of Occold appears to have worked include Bedingfield, Bildeston, Bramford, Debenham ,Thorndon and Wingfield in Suffolk, and Dickleburgh, just across the county border in Norfolk.]