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St Mary, Polstead, Suffolk

(52°0′20″N, 0°53′47″E)
TL 989 381
pre-1974 traditional (England and Wales) Suffolk
now Suffolk
  • Ron Baxter

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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


Interior Features


Chancel arch/Apse arches



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.


J. Bettley and N. Pevsner, The Buildings of England, Suffolk: West, New Haven and London 2015, 455-56.

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.