All Saints, Wordwell, Suffolk
- Site Location
- National Grid Reference
- TL 828 720
North Elmham c. 950-1071
; Thetford 1071-94
; Norwich from 1094
now: St Edmundsbury and Ipswich since 1914
now (or name of monument): All Saints
- Type of building/monument
- Parish church (redundant)
II General Description
Wordwell lies alongside the B1106 Bury St Edmunds to Brandon road, just over five miles N of the centre of Bury. The tiny village lies at the SE corner of the enormous coniferous plantation of the King's Forest, and consists of just the church, a few houses, Wordwell Hall and the hall farm. The living was abolished in the 18thc. and the rectory demolished in 1736; after that date the church was served by priests from neighbouring parishes until the parish was combined with that of West Stow.
All Saints is a two-cell church of flint, substantially dating fromc.1100 but heavily restored, having a bell-cote on the W gable and an oak S porch. The nave is tall with 12thc. N and S doorways. Both have carved tympana but that of the N doorway now faces inside the church. There are no windows on the N side of the nave, and later medieval ones on the S. The W wall has a tall trefoil-headed lancet and gabled buttresses supporting the double bell-cote. The chancel arch dates fromc.1100 and is flanked by 15thc. niches with cusped heads. The chancel retains its 12thc. eastern quoins and much of its flint masonry is original, especially on the N side, but the ogee-headed priest's doorway and flowing E window are 19thc. work.
The church was very run down in 1757, 'a very mean fabrick and kept in a most nasty condition - tis almost quite un-tiled, but materials lye ready to repair it', according to Tom Martin. By 1829, when David Davy saw it, it had been put into good order. At this date it had already received 14thc. and 15thc. windows replacing the old 12thc. lancets, the nave had been given a crow-stepped gable, and there was a brick porch ofc.1500. Plans for the restoration that gives it its present appearance date from 1857, and were drawn up by S.S. Teulon, but the work was not completed until 1866 (date on bell-cote. Teulon's contributions were the present W front and bell-cote, the S porch, the priest's doorway, the scissor-beam roofs and the pulpit and reredos.
Important Romanesque sculpture is found on the two nave doorways and the chancel arch.
III Exterior Features
(i) Nave S doorway
Round headed, single order with tympanum. The tympanum is in two pieces, the small upper block being a small segment of a circle and the joint between the two blocks a horizontal chord. The tympanum is carved in relief with foliage formed of a vertical central stem forking and forming spirals to left and right, with side-shoots bearing trefoil leaves and Byzantine blossoms. The two tangles of foliage thus formed are inhabited by a pair of affronted passant lions. Each has a doglike head with an open mouth, a curly mane, and an S-curved tail ending in a leaflike tassel. The stems are reeded and have reeded clasps at the nodes. There is a broad plain fillet left uncarved at the bottom of the tympanum that acts as a groundline. The design is confined to the large, lower block of the tympanum, but both blocks have been coated with plaster at some time and much of it remains, white in the main but with traces of an ochre colour. A good deal of this plaster remains on the upper block and may conceal carving. There is a large mortar repair at the top right of the upper block.
The tympanum is surrounded by an arch of voussoirs carved with a heavy angle roll. The jambs supporting the arch have heavy en-delit nook-shafts on inverted cushion bases with roll neckings. Their capitals are simple volutes with roll neckings, and on the inner face of the block containing the E capital is carved a primitive frontal human figure in relief, recessed under a simple arch. This figure has an egg-like head, broad at the brow and pointed at the chin, with hollows for eyes and mouth and a straight nose. The body is thin, the legs set apart and covered by the skirt of a tunic. The arms are curved and long enough to reach the ground. Above the capitals the imposts are plain chamfered.
|h. of opening||2.08 m|
|w. of opening||0.97 m|
|h. of tympanum (radius)||0.58 m|
|w. of tympanum (diameter)||0.99 m|
|thickness of tympanum||0.13 m|
(ii) Nave N doorway
Round headed, single order with tympanum. From the exterior the design exactly mirrors the S doorway, but the outer face of the tympanum is uncarved; the block having been turned round at some point to face inside the church. Here it is seen to be carved with a pair of primitive figures with the egg-shaped heads, crude features and tunics of the figure on the E jamb of the S doorway. The left hand figure stands frontally, just to the left of the centre of the field. Its long arms are raised with palms open in the 'hands up!' position. The second figure stands frontally at the far right of the tympanum, apparently cut off at the level of the hem of the skirt. Its right hand is raised and holds a ring, apparently offering it to its companion. The left hand is lowered. Between the two is a roughly trapezoidal form in relief, like a house, a haystack or a mountain. This has a diagonal line dividing it into two parts, and both parts are roughly decorated with chip-carving. The background is plain, and the entire surface is whitewashed.
Dimensions were taken on the exterior.
|h. of opening||2.23 m|
|w. of opening||0.91 m|
|h. of tympanum (radius)||0.55 m|
|w. of tympanum (diameter)||0.93 m|
|thickness of tympanum||0.14 m|
IV Interior Features
a. Chancel/ Apse arches
(i) Chancel arch
Round headed, single order. The W face has en-delit angle shafts on inverted cushion bases with angle tucks and roll neckings. The capitals are simple volutes with roll neckings and the imposts, which continue across the embrasures and onto the E face of the arch, are chamfered with a row of chip-carved lozenges on the face. The W arch has a fat angle roll. The E face has plain unmoulded jambs and arch.
In 1086 Wordwell was listed among the holdings of St Edmundsbury Abbey, held from the abbey by 11 free men with 2 carucates of ploughland, 3 acres of meadow and a mill. There was a church with 1 acre of free land.
The manor was acquired, along with Ickworth, by the grandfather of Nicholas Harvey (1491-1532).
This former parish church is now in the care of the Churches Conservation Trust.
The two doorways are clearly the product of the same workshop, but it is difficult to believe that the same hand was responsible both for the primitive human figures on the N tympanum and S jambs, and for the precise and elaborate carving of the S tympanum. Pevsner's suggestion that "a Pagan stone was reused" for the N tympanum cannot be entertained in view of the carving by the same hand on the same block as a volute capital of the S doorway. The present author has no difficulty in accepting the primitive figure on both doorways as original to them, i.e. ofc.1080-1100, a position also accepted by Cautley, and would argue that the S tympanum, with its Byzantine blossoms, belongs to a remodelling in the 1130s or '40s.
The subject matter of the N tympanum has been the source of conjecture to some authors. Keyser reported the three commonest suggestion; the Sacrament of Marriage, Christ blessing someone holding the Crown of Thorns, and Edward the Confessor giving his ring to a beggar, who reveals himself as St John the Baptist.
The present author would like to raise the possibility that it represents the story of Lapides Igniferi, the fire-stones; a chapter of the Physiologus, core text of most English Bestiaries. According to this story, fire-stones are found in a mountain in the east. They are male and female. When they are far apart from one another the fire in them does not catch light, but when the female approaches the male, at once the flame bursts forth, so that the whole mountain is ablaze. The moral, of course, is to keep away from women lest you are consumed by the fire of lust. In one illustration of this chapter (Brussels, Bibl. Roy, MS 10066-77, f.141v), the male and female stones are shown as a ball and a ring, held close together and consequently in flames, by a female figure before a man, who holds out his hand towards her. The Wordwell tympanum includes elements of this story, in the ring held by one figure, the response of the other, and the central mass that may be intended for a flaming mountain.
- R. Baxter, Bestiaries and their Users in the Middle Ages. Stroud 1998, 66, pl.12.
- H. M. Cautley, Suffolk Churches and their Treasures. London 1937, 352.
- R. Halliday, 'The Norman doorways at Wordwell and West Stow churches'. Proceedings of the Suffolk Institute of Archaeology and History XXXVII (1992), 367-369.
- D. P. Mortlock, The Popular Guide to Suffolk Churches: 1 West Suffolk. Cambridge 1988, 228-30.
- N. Pevsner, The Buildings of England: Suffolk. Harmondsworth 1961, rev. E. Radcliffe 1975, 505.
- R. Tricker, All Saints Wordwell Suffolk. London (Churches Conservation Trust), undated leaflet.