The following account of Pentlow Church has come to light. It is refreshing since it has not been slavishly copied from other sources. It includes a brief note from the architect W. M. Fawcett, who was in charge of the restoration. Mr Wood was certainly correct that the round towers were common in Saxon times, but Pentlow Church tower is later, probably datable to 1320.
Notes on the Round Towers of Essex, Lamarsh and Pentlow. By J. M. WOOD, Esq
(details of Lamarsh Church
have not been included)
The name of the parish, Pentlow, is supposed to be derived
from the word ‘Pent’ and the Saxon word ‘loiue’. The meaning of the former is
well known, and the latter signifies an eminence ; so that, if I am correct,
the name denotes a hill or eminence, pent, here at the twining of the river
There is no mention of Pentlow in the Saxon chronicles, so
far as I can ascertain; neither is there any mention of a church at Pentlow in
the Domesday Book, the only entry being as follows : " Pentelauua was held
by a free woman, in the time of King Edward, for a manor and four hides and
three virgates", etc.; and at the time of the Survey was held by Ralph
The church is delightfully situated in the valley of the river
Stour, and within a few hundred feet of the river, and adjoins Pentlow Hall,
which is a moated house, and was once the home of a Norman noble. It stands
just within the present boundary of the county of Essex, and overlooks the
village of Cavendish, in the county of Suffolk. It is about five miles north
-north-west of Sudbury, and about ten miles north of Lamarsh Church. The church
is said to be dedicated to St. Gregory (see Morant), but in Bacon's Liber Regis vel Thesaurus Rerum Ecclesiasticarum
it is stated to be St. George, which is probably correct, and consists of a
round, embattled tower, rectangular nave, and chancel, with a semi-circular
apse, and a Lady chapel on the north side, adjoining the church.
This chapel belongs to the Kempe family, and contains a beautiful
monument in good preservation, and worth a visit. In the semi-circular apse is
a fine altar-tomb, probably belonging to the Felton family, the date 1542 being
scratched upon it ; but there is no inscription. The old Parish Register is in
excellent preservation, and dates from 1539.
The church is a remarkable structure with striking features,
having the peculiar appearance of being circular at both ends, viz., a round
tower at the west end, and a circular apse at the east.
Having examined the church as a whole, with an unbiased
mind, and some degree of care, I was once more led to believe that the tower
belonged originally to a structure of greater antiquity than the existing
church, for the reason that the walls of the tower are of much greater
thickness than the walls of the nave ; besides, the character of the
rubble-masonry appears different in the walling ; and for other reasons which
will be hereafter stated.
The nave, chancel, and circular apse were built probably in
the fourteenth century, the style being Early Pointed. The nave and chancel are
separated by a fine pointed arch of the above period, being of rather large
proportions, spanning the whole width of the nave. But a question may suggest
itself, Why was the circular apse built in the fourteenth century, being a
style so peculiarly Norman? To account for this one is led to suppose that the
original Norman church was either destroyed or removed, and the existing
structure built on the foundations. Now as to the tower, which, as before
stated, is at the west end of the nave, and is so placed that the walls of the
nave appear to be built into the circular work of the tower.
I have not been able to ascertain with any definite degree
of certainty if the walls of the nave are really bonded into the walling of the
tower, forming, as it were, one original piece of rubble masonry; or whether
the walls abut, forming a division such as exists at Broomfield, the tower
there being entirely separated from the walls of the nave. The reason that one
is not able to settle this important point is because the tower is plastered over
within and without. I am, however, strongly under the impression that the
tower-walling is not part and parcel of the nave wall, but merely abuts.
The tower, like the others described, is perfectly round on
plan, except where it is joined on to the nave-wall. It is clear internally
from base to summit, with the exception of a wooden floor and ladders reaching
up to the framing for carrying the five bells, which have the following
inscriptions upon them :
"Miles Graye made me,
1665." (Letters are small capitals.)
"Miles Graye made me, 1662." (Letters are small capitals.)
"Miles Graye made me, 1628." (Letters are large capitals.)
"John Thornton made me, 1711." (Letters are large capitals.)
The walls are nearly perpendicular both internally and externally,
the tower being about the same diameter at base and summit. Practically
speaking, there is no batter to the tower.
The proportion of the tower is 2* diameters in height, being
51 ft. high from the nave-floor to the top of the stone works forming the
embattlements, or 48 ft. high to the top of the flat lead roof. It has an
external diameter of nearly 22 ft., and an internal diameter of 13 ft. 2 in.; the
walls therefore, being of the great thickness of 4 ft. 5 in. to 4 ft. 6 in. ;
the walls of the nave being only from 2 ft. 6 in. to 3 ft. thick.
The rubble-masonry of the tower is of a rough character,
similar in many respects to that in the towers of Great Leighs, Broomfield, and
Lamarsh ; the materials being also entirely local, viz., rounded and angular
flints, besides nodules of water-worn sandstones brought probably by the "
drift", and picked up in the river-gravels. All are bedded in coarse
In the inside of the tower, about half way up, the original
rubble-masonry may be seen, not having been plastered over. From its appearance
one would at once say that it was built at an early period, and like the rubble-work
in the other towers before described, very little attempt has been made to lay
the material in course. But in the upper part of the tower a different condition
of things exists. Here the rubble-masonry has been carefully built in course ;
each stone seems to have been separately set and pointed. One can see at once that
the upper part of the tower is rather of a later period, or been rebuilt,
probably the latter.
Externally, the tower is unlike Great Leighs and Broomfield,
in that its summit is finished off by being embattled with Barnack stone, while
the before mentioned towers are all surmounted by spires. Beneath the flint embattlements
are a few odd pieces of Roman tiles.
The tower at one time had nine openings in it, viz., three
in the lower part, three at a higher level, and three a short distance from the
top. These openings, or their remains, are to be seen on the south, west, and
north faces, immediately above one another. The lowest opening on the south
face is a mere rectangular slit, 6 in. wide, and 2 ft.. 8 in. high, having
Barnack stone quoins, and a square stone head or lintel slightly splayed ;
while that on the west face is a large, pointed, perpendicular window in a wood
frame ; the original slit having probably been cut away to make room for the window.
On the north face, and at the same level, are the remains of a similar slit to
that on the south face ; but it is now filled in, the stone quoins and head
remaining. The openings in the next tier are also rectangular slits about 9 in.
wide, and of a similar character to those below; and look much like the
original openings. The three upper windows, or louvres, are pointed, having Perpendicular
tracery and stone mullions. From the position and appearance of the rectangular
openings, one is led to think they formed part of the original design of the
tower, while the pointed windows are of a much later period, being probably the
work of mediaeval architects. The west window in the lowest tier was, no doubt,
inserted for the purpose of giving more light to the interior of the lower part
of the tower, which is now occupied as a vestry. The three upper, pointed
windows were evidently inserted at the same time as the lowest west window, or
vice verse, being of the same character and period. These windows or louvres
give light to the bells, and were, no doubt, inserted for some purpose in connection
therewith, probably when the bells were fixed.
The only entrance to the tower is from the nave, through a
stone semi-circular tower-arch of Norman design, 4 ft. 7 in. wide, and 10 ft. 3
in. high to the soffit. The inner ring or intrados of the arch is perfectly
plain, also the sides of the opening; and when looked at towards the tower,
from the inside of the nave, it has the appearance of an ordinary, plain, semi-circular,
Norman arch with square stone quoins. This inner ring of stone, I am led to
think, formed the original tower-arch.
Having entered the tower, and looked towards the east, the
arch presents itself under entirely a different aspect. Instead of looking, as
one would have expected to do, upon a plain, semi-circular tower-arch, one sees
a beautiful early Norman semi-circular doorway fixed within the tower-arch.
(See sketch, fig. 3.) The semi-circular arch of the doorway is formed of plain
rings of stone and a bold, half-round, ogee-moulding. It is supported on each
side of the opening by a beautiful, slender stone column, the shaft of which is
quite plain, and about 5| in. diameter, having a cap or capital richly carved
with floral decoration, the design being different on each capital, and on each
face of the capital visible. The shafts are supported on pedestals having plain
mouldings, the stone of which the columns are formed being Barnack of a rather
coarse texture, while the stone forming the arch is a close-grained limestone.
A great part of this beautiful doorway, with its columns and
mouldings, are built partly, as before stated, within the tower-arch, and made
to appear as forming part of it, while a part of the carved capitals, etc., are
buried within the walling of the tower.
On looking at the doorway as a whole, it certainly strikes
one as being entirely out of place, and having the appearance of being stuck
into its present position, forming in no way any part of the original tower-opening.
To account for part of the arch-columns and / capitals being buried in the fj. wall,
it seems probable that the walling had to be cut away to ' accommodate the
doorway in its new position, and when fixed the rubblework was made good again,
care only being taken to preserve the contour of the circular work of the
tower, thereby allowing the flintwork to overlap or bury part of the doorway.
Just above the centre of the semi-circular arch forming the doorway,
and built into the walling of the tower, is Norman grotesque head, which certainly
appears out of place, and looks as if it had been placed there with the object
of preserving it.
Neither can I think that the semi-circular arch forming the
doorway is coeval with the beautiful columns which support it. One can hardly
imagine such delicate columns designed to support an arch carrying such a mass
of super-incumbent material ; nor can one imagine such carved columns forming
part of an arch devoid of all ornament. Neither must it be forgotten that the
stone of which the columns are made is of an entirely different character to
that forming the arch.
The doorway as a whole certainly has the appearance of
having been made up of pieces belonging to two different doorways (probably
parts of the north or south entrances to the original church), and that they
were placed in their present position with the sole object of preserving them.
All the openings in the inside of the tower, especially the slits, are heavily
splayed on all sides except the top, the splays in this tower being much heavier
than in those previously described. The quoins of the splays are formed in
Barnack stone and coarse, shelly limestone, and appear to have been inserted at
a later period ; but on this point I am not particularly clear.
In the nave, and close to the north door, is a very handsome
stone font, probably of the transitional Norman period, although stated by some
to be late Saxon, say 1150. It is in one block, 2 ft. 9 in. square, and 1 ft. 6
in. deep, and I am not quite clear if it is Barnack stone or a coarse, shelly
limestone. All its four faces are beautifully and richly carved with floral
designs, and on each face the design is different. The four corners are represented
by four columns having carved capitals and moulded pedestals. This font is
probably coeval with the columns forming part of the doorway in the tower, and
no doubt belonged to the original church. The font stands upon a rubble masonry
pedestal about 2 ft. high, and is surmounted with an exceedingly elegant wood canopy
which opens with doors (being a good specimen of the florid style), of about
the fifteenth century.
There are many other points of interest in the church worthy
of remark ; but they are external to the province of this paper.
It has been asserted by ancient and modern county topographers,
besides well known antiquarians, that this tower is strictly Norman ; others
say that it is after the Danish manner of building, whatever that may have been;
while others declare that the original Norman church had the existing
tower-arch, with its patchwork columns and ornamental capitals, for its western
doorway or main entrance, and that the tower was built up against this old
Norman doorway at the time the existing Early English church was built.
On visiting Pentlow Church I found the nave had lately been
restored by that eminent architect and antiquarian, Mr. William Fawcett,
F.S.A., of Cambridge ; so I determined to write to him and ask his opinion with
reference to the tower and the west entrance. He kindly replied as follows :
"At Pentlow there must, I think, have been a church before
the round tower was built. We cannot imagine any one so foolish as to build
that beautiful west door in a position in which it would hardly ever be seen,
and with parts of it buried in the tower-wall. The tower-builders probably
intended to remove it to some other position in due time ; or if not, probably
did not admire it, but thought it old-fashioned. It is astonishing how little
the work of one generation was appreciated by the immediate succeeding ones.
There is nothing either in the tower that would show it to be earlier than the
nave, so I feel no doubt about it myself. There is a similar case at Polstead
in Suffolk, near Bures. In both these cases they have evidently been elaborate
and stately west entrances."
It hardly becomes me to differ with those who take this
latter view, especially this eminent antiquarian, but it certainly appears to
me, from the style of the tower, its proportions as compared with the other
Essex towers, the thickness of the walls as compared with those in the church,
the character of the rubble masonry, and ,for other reasons before mentioned,
that the tower is of greater antiquity than any other part of the church, excepting,
perhaps, the font and columns, and that the tower-arch proper is coeval with
Had the tower been built at the same period as the church,
or even at a later period, it is probable its east face would have been built
flat, for the convenience of abutting the nave roof against, whereas it is
round, necessitating an awkward joint by cutting the nave-roof into the
circular walling of the tower. Mr. Gage, in his paper before the Society of
Antiquaries in 1829, makes no observation on this round-towered church, which
is remarkable, as its features are striking.
It is evident he was not aware of its existence, although he
visited Bartlow Church, just on the borders of Cambridge, within about fourteen
miles of Pentlow, with its round tower, and gives a drawing of it in his paper.
Once more quoting from Gage's paper, in which he says,
"The Saxon copy of Psychomachia of Prudentius, in the Cottonian Collection
at the British Museum, contains an illumination or drawing of a church with a
round tower : it was not unreasonable to expect to find at least one tower that
might pass as Anglo-Saxon, but all these thoughts vanished when the towers
themselves came before me in review."
To satisfy my curiosity I have examined this beautiful illuminated
eleventh century MS., and on p. 7 I find an illuminated drawing of a building
which I assume to be a sacred edifice. This building has a round tower or turret.
On p. 28 is a drawing in perspective of what appears to be a square fortress or
castle, the angles of which are round towers. Proceeding further, on p. 33 is
an illuminated drawing of a building, probably a church, and the one referred
to by Gage, having what I take to be an unmistakable round tower having a
rectangular opening in the base, with a semi-circular arch over it : this has
the appearance of being the main entrance into the tower. At a higher level are
two round holes or openings with a rectangular slit between them ; at a higher
level still the tower is smaller in diameter, with similar openings.
Besides this particular Saxon MS. there are others also containing
illustrations Of round towers. Surely this is evidence to support Mr. Brock's idea
that the origin of the round towers of Suffolk and Norfolk are due to the
Saxons. But there is one thing certain, and that is, if the Saxons did not
build round towers, they were cognisant of the style; otherwise they would not
have illustrated them in their manuscripts.
Fergusson, in his History of Architecture, (states, with reference
to round churches and towers, the following :
"The idea of round building seems to date from very early
times. They existed in the form of basilicas and tombs at Rome ; and a round
tower is to be found at the Port of Ravenna, attached to the Church of St.
Apollinare in Classe. The church is said to have been commenced in 538, and
dedicated 549 A.D. It is of the Romanesque style."
With reference to the round towers of Suffolk and Norfolk,
he states that there are in Norfolk and Suffolk some forty or fifty churches
with round western towers ; but as a matter of fact there are one hundred and
seventy -four, 1 which seem undoubtedly to be mere modifications of the western
round nave of Scandinavian churches. These Norfolk churches with round towers
may consequently be looked upon as safe indexes of the existence of Scandinavian
influences in the Eastern Counties, and also as interesting examples of the
mode in which a compromise is frequently hit upon between the feelings of
intrusive races and the habits of the previous inhabitants. It can scarcely be
doubted that round naved and round towered churches existed in the Eastern
Counties anterior to the Norman conquest ; and if any still remain, they have
not been described. The earliest that are known were erected during the Norman
period, and extend certainly down to the end of the Edwardian period.
Now with reference to these remarks of Fergusson's, I am
somewhat at a loss to know how he arrived at such a conclusion, viz., that the
round towers of Norfolk owe their origin or development to the existence of
Scandinavian influence in the Eastern Counties. The expression, "
Scandinavian influence", is somewhat broad and vague. It ^is difficult to
know exactly what Fergusson intended to imply. It may be that he intended to
apply it to all those races which invaded Britain from the first coming of the
Saxons down to the Norman conquest ; or, on the other hand, he may have
intended it to mean the Norwegians, Swedes, and Danes. I assume the latter. We
have no record, as far as I am aware, of any Swedish settlement in our islands.
As for the Norwegians, they only occupied, as far as I know, the Orkneys and
Shetlands and the northern parts of Scotland, whereas there is evidence to
prove conclusively that the Danes occupied in considerable numbers all our
northern and eastern counties.
According to the Saxon chronicles the Danes first landed in
England about 787 A.D.; but I believe they made piratical invasions prior to
this date. It was not, however, until 866 that they invaded Britain with the idea
of colonising a part of it, and it was not until 870 that they conquered East
Anglia. From the first landing of the Scandinavian race until 1013, when the Danish
kings commenced to rule, the Scandinavian invasion may be looked upon as a
period of continuous, barbaric fighting, robbing, plundering, and burning ;
besides it is recorded that in several instances they burnt many early
monasteries, etc. Under these conditions, and many others which I could
mention, it hardly seems probable that architecture owes much of its
development to Scandinavian influence.
If the round towers owe their origin to Scandinavian influence,
why are they only to be found in such a small portion of the country they
invaded ? I am under the impression that during the period the Scandinavian
races were invading our island, architecture in their own country was in a rude
and undeveloped condition. So far as my research into Scandinavian history has
yet carried me, I have failed to discover any record or trace of circular
building, except circular barrows, either in Norway, Sweden, or Denmark ; and
further, I am under the impression that prior to the commencement of the eleventh
century the Scandinavian races had not embraced Christianity, and were to a
certain extent barbarians. Of course I am well aware of the existence of their
round churches and semicircular apses of the later part of the eleventh
century, a style they may probably have learnt from our own island.
Had Fergusson stated that the round towers of Norfolk owed
their origin to the Saxons, I would not so much have doubted it, as it seems
more probable that the Saxons could have introduced or developed round towers,
coming as they did from that part of the Continent where undoubtedly
architecture was in a higher state of development ; besides which, it is
recorded that round towers existed on the Rhine at early times.
In offering these latter remarks I must ask you to accept
them with caution, as I have not yet sufficiently studied the subject from the
point of view mentioned. I have merely thrown out the remarks as a suggestion.