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English Church Architecture.

 

WOOLPIT, St. Mary  (TL 974 625),

Suffolk. 

(Bedrock:  Neogene to Quaternary, Crag Group.)

 

An impressive village church containing some excellent mediaeval woodwork.

 

 

This is a part Decorated/ part Perpendicular building, albeit with a tower and spire reconstructed in 1853 by Richard Makilwaine Phipson (1827-85).  The important work is Perpendicular and consists of the two-storeyed S. porch, the nave clerestory (shown above from the north), and the exceptional nave and aisle roofs, but the church is best described in date order, beginning with work of the Decorated period.

 

This includes the five-light chancel E. window with reticulated tracery and the two-light windows to the S. aisle with renewed curvilinear tracery.  The nineteenth century N. aisle window with cruciform lobing set vertically, appears to be spurious as the N. aisle is otherwise Perpendicular.  This is demonstrated by its modest two-light windows with supermullioned tracery and, inside, by the differences between the five-bay aisle arcades, for although both are formed of octagonal piers and arches bearing sunk quadrant and hollow chamfered mouldings, the N. arcade mason has not managed to recreate the distinctive and more generous proportions of the S. arcade capitals opposite.  In contrast, the chancel arch in like style, does do so, thereby confirming the evidence of the E. window.  A probable date for the chancel and S. aisle, therefore, might be c. 1345, if the sunk quadrant moulding is accepted as a possible indication that the work is late within the period.  The N. arcade appears to be more firmly dated by a will leaving money for its construction in 1500, even though stylistically there is nothing about it that is not entirely commonplace.

 

The far more impressive S. porch (illustrated left, from the southwest), is dated by bequests of 1430 and 1452 and must be described in more detail.  Rising higher than the aisle behind, it is crowned by a parapet of open quatrefoils above a frieze of tiny, blank trefoil-cusped arches and a string course decorated with fleurons and carved faces, and is supported by angle buttresses with blank arcading on their sides and leading edges and with projecting bases on the set-offs that must once have supported statues.  The grand S. front features three further tiers of blank arcading on either side of the outer doorway and shallow niches with lierne vaults stepped over the doorway between.   The ogee-pointed outer doorway itself has a crocketed hood-mould, shields either side of the apex, and around the splays, wave mouldings springing from semicircular shafts and a casement filled at intervals with carved lions with distinctive leaf-like tongues.  Inside there is a lierne vault and the inner doorway bears a casement moulding filled with fleurons, crowns and faces.  A stair turret  in the northwest angle rises to the upper storey.  This was obviously an expensive piece of work and D.P. Morton (The Guide to Suffolk Churches, Cambridge, The Lutterworth Press, 2009, p. 526) identified 'the merchant's marks of  men who helped to pay for it:  John Turnour's is scratched on the stone just inside the entrance arch on the r., John Stevyenson's is in the corner to the r. of the inner door, and Johannes Regnold's is to be found in the l.-hand moulding of the inner doorway and has a heart at the bottom containing his initials'.

 

The nave clerestory may possibly be dated by a series of legacies running from 1444 to 1462, although this is uncertain.  It is composed of ten pairs of two-light windows (i.e. two per bay), with four-centred arches, drop tracery and elaborate flint flushwork between.  From bottom to top, this flushwork is composed of a tier of blank cinquefoil-cusped arches, a short tier of narrow trefoil-cusped arches alternating with other motifs, a chequerwork frieze, and above the springing, pairs of blank trefoil-cusped arches between the window heads and tumbled-in limestone alternating with flint around the window arches to look like voussoirs.   This was an East Anglian fashion that is certainly mediaeval in places but which, confusingly, appears to have been much spread around in nineteenth century restoration work.

 

The nave and aisle roofs are exceptionally rich. The nave roof (shown below) is of double-hammerbeam construction, although in fact the upper tier of hammerbeams are false as the arched braces rising from these beams spring from the back without taking structural advantage of their projection.  Both tiers are decorated with carved angels however, and there are more angels on the cornice (where they support carved niches) and in two tiers on the wall plates, albeit that many have inevitably been renewed.  The attractive aisle roofs are pitched inside the building but here the inner rafters are false (that is, the rafters sloping down towards the arcades) since the outer rafters actually continue above them to the nave wall to obviate the need for external gutters.  Here also, there are angels on the wall posts as well as figures on alternate principal rafters.  All three of these roofs (nave and both aisles) are thought to have been executed to the designs of Jonathan and Thomas Rollesby, who had a workshop at Bacton, Norfolk from around 1412. 

 

 

This leads to a consideration of the building's wooden furnishings.  The rood screen is arranged in five double-cusped, ogee-arched sections, with alternate tracery, subreticulation, and a painted dado featuring saints set in trefoil-cusped arches.  It probably dates from the fifteenth century but has been much altered.  More curiously, high above, attached to the E. wall of the nave, just below the three-light window in the gable looking out above the chancel roof, is what H. Munro Cautley  (Suffolk Churches and their Treasures, Ipswich, Norman Adlard, 1954, p. 146) called a canopy of honour (seen in the photograph above) and was convinced was part of the original rood scheme but which is now known to have come from another church c. 1870 where it was probably the loft of another screen.  Last but by no means least, the nave retains a wonderful set of mediaeval pews of the excellent Stowlangtoft/ Tostock school, nearly all them original except for the front two on each side and the two separate ones at the back.  They have carved backs and bench-ends, poppyheads and, above all, the menagerie of superbly carved 'arm rests' known from elsewhere in the region, some legendary but all characterful, including several dogs.  (See the three examples, illustrated at the foot of the page.)

 

Finally a brief description must be given of Phipson's tower and spire, which are well designed and in keeping with the architectural grandeur of the rest of the building, in spite of the fact that the flying buttresses from the pinnacles to the spire are somewhat underdone and the W. wall is rather a hybrid affair, with a W. window with curvilinear tracery that seems rather ill-at-ease beneath the five cinquefoil-cusped lancets above.  Yet the openwork parapet is a nice touch that does certainly unite the tower with the porch, and the slender spire with two tiers of lucarnes, undoubtedly adds grandeur to the building outline, even if it is does look a little alien in the Suffolk landscape.  Phipson worked from an office in Ipswich, from where he largely replanned the town's principal church of St. Mary-le-Tower.  Work there, however, was carried out from 1860-70.  By contrast, his tower at Woolpit is one of his earliest projects - he was only 26 when work began -  and he has certainly not disgraced himself.