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All Saints, Wordwell, Suffolk

(52°18′56″N, 0°40′49″E)
TL 828 720
pre-1974 traditional (England and Wales) Suffolk
now Suffolk
  • Ron Baxter

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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.


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.


Exterior Features


Interior Features


Chancel arch/Apse arches

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.
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. Halliday, 'The Norman doorways at Wordwell and West Stow churches'. Proceedings of the Suffolk Institute of Archaeology and History XXXVII (1992), 367-369.
R. Tricker, All Saints Wordwell Suffolk. London (Churches Conservation Trust), undated leaflet.