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English Church Architecture.

 

WORTHAM, St. Mary  (TM 085 788),

SUFFOLK. 

(Bedrock:  Upper Cretaceous, Upper Chalk.)

 

A church retaining the stump of what was formerly the largest round tower in England,

 where much of the remaining work is attributable to 'the Master of Stowlangtoft',

 carried out during the reign of Richard II (1377-99).

 

 

 

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 ther 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 building presents a strange spectacle for it preserves the stump of what was formerly the largest round tower in England, now open to the sky, and surmounted today by a little weatherboarded bell-turret covered with an ogee dome, resting partly on the tower's eastern rim and partly on the extreme western end of the nave roof.  The tower collapsed in 1789 and is now scarcely higher than the nave ridge but sufficient features remain to witness its Norman origins, most notably two blocked, round-headed east windows, visible through the huge open space from the west (as shown left).  The tower is 29 feet (8.8 metres) in diameter and was reputedly once 62 feet (18.9 metres) high.

 

The rest of the church is Perpendicular  externally and takes us to another group of - this time wholly Suffolk - churches with which this web-site is concerned, namely those that can probably be ascribed to the 'Master of Stowlangtoft', discussed at greater length on the page for that village.  It consists of a chancel, an aisled nave and a S. porch, from which the best work is clearly the nave clerestory (seen at the top of the page), composed of six two-light, four-centred windows on each side, with drop tracery, bricks tumbled-in around the arches, and flint flushwork between, forming a frieze just below the springing level and featuring motifs in squares, including various geometrical patterns, the sacred monogram 'IHS', and a crowned 'M' for Mary.  However, the most pertinent features for present purposes are the seven aisle windows and two easternmost windows in the chancel (one on either side), of the type to be seen at a number of Suffolk churches and at Stowangtoft in particular.  (See the example in the nave S. wall, illustrated above right.)   These have lights linked by small subarcuations beneath the supermullioned tracery, that are sufficiently distinctive to suggest they may be the work of the same mason, in which case they may be dateable by association with St. George's, Stowlangtoft, which was erected c. 1390.   (Note: the westernmost window on either side of the chancel adopts a similar but not identical  pattern which is not relevant to this discussion.)  Inside the church, the three-bay arcades comprise double-flat-chamfered arches springing from octagonal piers (see the N. arcade, left).  However, the important features to notice here are the outer flat chamfers at the sides of the semi-octagonal responds at either end of the arcade and on either side of the chancel arch, which terminate at the top in a little incised trefoiled arch-heads in what proves to be another diagnostic design element of this related group of churches.  (See the photograph of the chancel arch S. respond, below, viewed from the nave.)  

 

[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, Theberton and Wissett in Suffolk.]