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English Church Architecture -



WOOLPIT, St. Mary (TL 974 625)     (August 2004)

(Bedrock:  Neogene to Quaternary, Crag Group)


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, 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 the sunk quadrant moulding is accepted as a possible indication that the work is late within the period.  (See Appendix 2 for some close dated examples of the use of this moulding in East Anglia.)  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 commonplace.


The far more impressive porch (shown left, from the southwest), dated by bequests of 1430 and 1452, must be described in some detail.  Rising higher than the aisle behind, it is crowned by an openwork parapet above a frieze of trefoil-cusped arches and a string course decorated with fleurons and carved faces.  The grand S. front features three tiers of blank arcading below five tall, shallow niches with lierne vaults, stepped over the doorway.  The buttresses have more blank arcading and projecting bases on the set-offs that must once have supported statues. The outer doorway has a crocketed ogee-pointed hood-mould, shields bearing three crowns in the spandrels, and around the arch itself, wave mouldings springing from semicircular shafts, and a casement filled at intervals with carved lions with distinctive leaf-like tongues. The inner doorway bears a casement moulding filled with fleurons, crowns and faces, and a stair turret rises to the upper storey in the northwest angle between the porch and aisle.


Perhaps the nave clerestory (shown at the top of the page, viewed from the north) may 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 trefoil-cusped arches between the windows and limestone alternating with flint, tumbled in to look like voussoirs around the window heads.   The latter is a local 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 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 had to be renewed.  The attractive aisle roofs are pitched inside the building but here it is the inner rafters that are false (that is, those 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 too, there are angels on the wall posts as well as figures on alternate principal rafters.  All three of these roofs (nave and 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, Norman Adlard, 1954) called a canopy of honour (shown 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.