St Mary, Polstead, Suffolk

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Feature Sets (3)


Polstead stands on a hilltop on the N side of the Box valley, some 8 miles N of Colchester and 11 miles W of Ipswich, set in a landscape of woodland and pasture. Church and hall are close together at the W of the village. St Mary's is a flint church with an aisled nave, chancel and W tower with a spire. Evidence of a unaisled 11thc. church can be seen in the long and short quoins alongside the tower in the W wall of the S nave aisle. The 12thc. nave arcades are of four bays, the westernmost bay being separated from the rest by a short stretch of walling. Above the arcade arches are the blocked openings of the 12thc. clerestory, now rendered obsolete by the raising of the aisles. At the W end can be seen the inside of the 12thc. facade, with the rere-arch of the W doorway and a window above. The elaborate front of the W doorway is now inside the 14thc. tower. At the E end, the chancel arch is also 12thc. and goes with the arcades, and the narrow, boxy chancel has a blocked 12thc. window. The most surprising feature of this campaign is that the arches of the arcade and chancel arch, the rere-arch of the W doorway, all the windows and the chancel quoins are of brick and tufa blocks. Both Pevsner and Mortlock point out that this is unlikely to be reused Roman brick, as the size is wrong. These may therefore be the earliest English bricks in the country — certainly predating those of Little Coggeshall Abbey (Essex) ofc.1200, which are similar in size. The nave aisles were been heightened and widened in the 14thc.; the E windows of the nave aisles are reticulated (S) or flowing (N), perhaps ofc.1350, but the lateral aisle windows are late Perpendicular, as is the chancel E window — evidence of a major campaign around 1500. The 14thc. campaign also included the building of the tower, the addition of two-light lateral chancel windows and the replacement of the nave roof timbers. At the same time the lateral nave doorways and porches were added, and a start was made on replacing the nave arcades with pointed arches. The W bay of the S arcade was replaced, and some work done on the E arches of both arcades, but the project was abandoned. The exterior of the nave roof is now double-pitched with a flat top. Thefts of lead from the roof led to the cladding being replaced with stainless steel in 1983-88, and dormer windows were added at this time to compensate for the lack of a clerestory. Romanesque sculpture recorded below is found in the W nave doorway, the nave arcades and the chancel arch.


Before the Conquest Polstead was held as a manor by Robert, and by 1086 it had passed to his son, Swein of Essex. It had a hall, 4 carucates of ploughland, and woodland and meadow sufficient for 80 pigs, 28 head of cattle and 150 sheep. Twenty-one villans, 30 bordars and a slave were recorded in 1086, but no church was mentioned. The later history of the manor has yet to be elucidated. The Lambournes were lords of Polstead in the 14thc., and a shield bearing their arms is set over the N doorway. On the death of William de Lambourne in 1361 the manor passed to his sister, Joan, and thence to her husband, William de Chene, who still held it in 1386.

Benefice of Stoke-by-Nayland with Leavenheath and Polstead.


Exterior Features


Nave W doorway

Three orders, round-headed.

The E face of the doorway, inside the nave, has a round-headed rere-arch of brick springing from a higher level and thus enclosing a plain crescent-shaped lunette, now plastered. It is carried on square jambs with angle-rolls having tall pseudo-capitals, cushion-shaped with recessed shields with bands of nailhead around their lower edges. Imposts are hollow chamfered with a quirked roll on the face. They have been cut back flush with the wall on their inner faces.

h. of opening 2.96 m
w. of opening 1.59 m
First order

Square jambs with coursed angle rolls as shafts, having worn pseudo-bases, apparently cushions, and tall pseudo-capitals with square neckings. The N capital is a cushion with a keeled main angle and triangular wedges in the outer angles, while the S is a modern replacement cushion with a replacement impost. Imposts differ on the N and S embrasures of all three orders. Those on the N are block-shaped with a roll on the lower edge and a shallow hollow band in the centre of the face. The S imposts are hollow chamfered with a low roll on the face. The arch has an angle with a row of sawtooth outside it on the face.

Second order

Coursed cylindrical nook-shafts with roll-hollow bases. The N capital is a double scallop with vertical rolls between the cones; these rolls with a deep vertical groove incised. It has a roll necking and impost as the first order N. The S is a cushion with an angle tuck and double-sheathed cones. Its necking is square and its impost is the hollow chamfered type of this embrasure. The arch face is carved with two rows of chevron with a cogwheel edge. The inner row is of lateral centrifugal face chevron of roll profile, but the rolls taper towards the centre of each voussoir. The outer row is frontal chevron of slightly hollow profile.

Third order

Jambs as the second order with the same differences to necking and impost profile noted between N and S embrasures on the inner orders. The N capital is a triple scallop with sheathed cones; the S a cushion with an angle tuck. The arch face is carved with two rows of roll-profile lateral centrifugal chevron; the rolls tapering as before towards the centre of each voussoir. There is a chamfered label with a row of billet on the chamfer and a thin roll towards the intrados of the face. The arch has been cut back on N and S sides to accommodate the later tower walls, but this only affects the ends of the label.

Interior Features


Chancel arch/Apse arches

Chancel arch

Round-headed (slightly depressed), two orders to E and W Both arch orders are plain and of brick and tufa.

First order (shared)

The jambs have angle shafts to E and W, on cushion pseudo-bases. Capitals are multi-scallop with triangular wedges between the cones, and form a frieze running across the inner face below the soffit and terminating in pseudo-capitals above the angle shafts at E and W. The NW pseudo-capital is lost and a modern plaster repair attempted. Neckings are square and impost blocks differ on the N and S sides (as on the W doorway). The N imposts are block-shaped with rolls at their lower edges and double-grooves on the face. The S imposts are hollow chamfered with rolls at the lower angles of the face and double-grooves above them.

Second order

W face: Plain square jambs running continuously to meet the arch. The S side has been overbuilt by a monument inserted in the angle of the wall.

E face: Plain square jambs carrying flat multi-scallop frieze-capitals similar to those of the first order. Imposts also follow the first-order profiles on either jamb.



N arcade

Four bays, round-headed. The plain arches are of two orders to N and S, and are of brick and tufa blocks. The outer order of bay 1 on the nave side has been remodelled at the apex to produce a pointed arch. Bays 1-3 are separated from bay 4 by a stretch of walling (referred to below as pier 3). Otherwise the piers are rectangular in section, longer from E to W, with angle rolls carrying pseudo-capitals, and square section responds flanked by detached nook-shafts in the centre of the N and S faces. These responds carry the outer order arches on each face. Bases, where they survive, are of roll-hollow profile for the nook-shafts and cushion-shaped for the angle shafts.

E respond

Originally half a pier of the section described above, but the main vessel side has been remodelled so that the outer order of the embrasure is square in section with no capital or impost, the nook-shaft is gone, and the inner order angle shaft survives only in the lower part. The aisle-side inner order angle roll has a cushion capital with triangular wedges between the cones, originally part of a frieze capital extending below the soffit of the arch, and the aisle side nook-shaft has a double scallop capital with pyramid wedges between the cones. Neckings are all chamfered and where the imposts survive they are hollow chamfered with rolls at the lower angles of the face and double-grooves above them.

Pier 1 capitals

The capitals are essentially a single frieze capital extending right around the pier except at the thin respond towards the main vessel, which continues up to the impost. The neckings follow the profile of the pier section, but the capital transposes to a cruciform plan for the abaci and the imposts above. It is a multi-scallop form, but the normal cones, with cylinders between them, are overlapped by a band of vertical fluted leaves with a scalloped upper edge. The shields are left plain on the W side and the eastern part of the N side, but elsewhere each shield has a pair of leaves chip-carved at the bottom. The neckings are plain rolls but the NW nook-shaft has a single cable necking. The impost follows the profile of the E respond impost, but sections have been replaced at the N and S.

Pier 2, capitals

As pier 1, but both N and S side responds extend unbroken to the impost, and none of the shields are left uncarved. Neckings are all plain, and the impost is apparently entirely original.

Pier 3, E respond capitals

Basically as pier 2, but the shields are more elaborately carved. The capital of the N nook-shaft is a cushion with angle tuck and the band of fluted leaves covering the bell. Its shield is carved with a fluted-petalled half-daisy with a lower border of nailhead, and above this on the abacus is a band of lateral chevron of convex profile with dished triangular fields above and below. Alongside the capital, on the aisle wall, the block is carved with a rectangular daisy extending from necking level up to the lower edge of the impost. The S nook-shaft capital is a double scallop with cylinders between the cones, which are as ever overlapped by the band of fluted leaves. The shields have a pair of chip-carved leaves at the bottom, and above them a row of chevron of convex profile, disposed to leave lozenge-shaped fields in the centre of each shield. These lozenges are filled with a group of pellets, or a lozenge-shaped daisy, depending on the size of the space left available by the somewhat irregular carving. This design is continued on the E pilaster between the nook-shafts, except for three of the shields, which have simple chevron above the pair of chip-carved leaves and in phase with them, so that no lozenge-shaped field appears. Neckings are plain and imposts as on the other piers.

Pier 3, W respond

The two-order respond as well as the arch above it is of brick and tufa, and plain except for a stone impost of the standard form.Arcade W respond. As pier 3 W respond.

S arcade

Four bays, round-headed except bay 4. Generally as the N arcade, except that the W bay was entirely replaced in the 14thc., and this pointed arch has subsequently been blocked. As in the N arcade, the outer order of bay 1 on the nave side has been remodelled at the apex to produce a pointed arch. The pier forms also differ slightly from those of the N arcade. The piers are cruciform at impost level, but the lateral (i.e. N and S) projections of the pier, supporting the second order arch, differ on the aisle and main vessel sides. On the aisle side they consist of a broad flat pilaster with no capital, running up to the impost. Facing the nave they consist of a slender pilaster flanked by nook-shafts. Similarly the longitudinal (E and W) projections of the pier, supporting the first order arch, have angle shafts on the main vessel side only. Imposts are as on the N arcade and neckings plain. The two-order arches are of brick and tufa as before.

E respond

The half version of the pier form described above, except that the square second order jamb on the aisle side has a capital. All capitals are scalloped with triangular wedges between the cones; the second order capitals being double scallops and the first order with seven scallops on the main face.

Pier 1 capitals

The first order E capital is multi-scalloped with grooved truncated cone wedges between the cones. The first order E capital is a triple scallop with triangular wedges between the cones, the shields decorated with the half-daisy and chevron form found on the N arcade, pier 3. This decoration also appears on the two cushion capitals on the nook-shafts supporting the second-order, N face, and at the top of the slender pilaster between them is a band of nested chevron, two units running up the pilaster.

Pier 2 capitals

The first order E capital has two blocks with different treatments; the N section is triple scalloped with grooved truncated cone wedges between the cones, while the S section is similar but double scalloped with recessed shields with nailhead lower borders. The first order W capital is triple-scalloped with half-daisies on the lower parts of the shields, which are bordered with nailhead. The abacus is plain, and between the cones and in the angle tucks are triangular wedges or simple fluted leaf forms. The two cushion capitals on the nook-shafts supporting the second-order, N face are similarly treated but here the pilaster between them is uncarved.

Pier 3, E respond

The first-order capital is a multi-scallop, the S shield only of the W face having a lower border of nailhead. For the rest, the shields are plain and there are triangular wedges or leaf forms between the cones. The N nook-shaft of the second order has a double-scallop capital with triangular wedges between the cones.


All the 12thc. sculpture belongs together as part of the campaign that added aisles, clerestorey, W doorway and a new chancel to an aisleless 11thc. stone building; the experiments with the form of the scallop capital suggesting a date in the 1160s. This makes Polstead the earliest dateable example of the use of brick (other than Roman brick) in the country.


  • L. S. Harley, Polstead Church and Parish. Ipswich 1951 (8th ed. 2005).
  • D. P. Mortlock, The Popular Guide to Suffolk Churches: 2 Central Suffolk. Cambridge 1990, 184-86.
  • N. Pevsner, The Buildings of England: Suffolk. Harmondsworth 1961, rev. E. Radcliffe 1975, 395.
Exterior from SE.
Interior to W.
Interior to E.
Junction of W tower and S nave aisle from SW, showing quoins.


Site Location
National Grid Reference
TL 989 381 
pre-1974 traditional (England and Wales): Suffolk
now: Suffolk
medieval: North Elmham (c.950-1071), Thetford (1071-94), Norwich (from 1094)
now: St Edmundsbury and Ipswich
medieval: not confirmed
now: St Mary
Type of building/monument
Parish church  
Report authors
Ron Baxter