Building » Beccles – St Benet’s Minster

Beccles – St Benet’s Minster

St Mary’s Road, Beccles, Suffolk, NR34 9NR

An impressive, large, cruciform church in neo-Norman style, built for the Downside Benedictines in 1898-1901 from designs by the Beccles architect F. E. Banham. Faced in limestone inside and out, it has a three-storey elevation to the nave, substantial crossing tower and an apsidal sanctuary. The barrel vaulted ceilings have much good quality stencilled decoration. A 1970s reordering by Andrew Anderson introduced some modern fittings in keeping with the original character, with an especially inventive iron and fabric tabernacle by Eric Stevenson. The church is a prominent feature in the local conservation area.

Beccles Minster is aligned north-south, but for the purposes of this report, liturgical compass points will be used, i.e. the high altar at the east end. This alignment results in the many grave markers in the surrounding churchyards standing parallel to the church.

From the late seventeenth century, Catholic worship in this area was maintained particularly by the Tasburgh family at Flixton Hall, associated with the Benedictines at Douai. A chapel was built at Bungay in 1829, served by Benedictines from Downside Priory and it was Dom Ephrem Guy OSB, priest at Bungay from 1885, who encouraged Prior Moore to obtain permission from the Bishop of Northampton to establish a new mission at Beccles in 1886.

John Kenyon converted to Catholicism in 1870, and in January 1889 when visiting his uncle at nearby Gillingham Hall (which he inherited), he promised Dom Guy £500 and £100 p.a. to pay for a priest. Later that year Kenyon bought the Minster site, presented it to Downside and Dom Edmund Ford OSB of Bungay was appointed the first priest. A large red brick presbytery was then built, now the adjacent school. The intention was to create a small monastery, so the ‘presbytery’ was designed as a priory building for four or five monks. The first Mass was on 30 November 1889, in its dining room.

In June 1891, a ‘temporary church’ attached to the presbytery was opened, with Mass celebrated by the Prior of Downside; it is now the school hall linking the south of the Minster to the former presbytery. John Kenyon’s new chapel at Gillingham (q.v.) was opened in August 1898 by the Bishop of Northampton; it was designed by Frank Easto Banham, a Beccles architect who was then mayor of the town. Banham also designed the Minster, and the foundation stone was laid in 1899 at a service led by Canon Duckett (who was also promoting the new church of St John the Baptist in Norwich, now the cathedral).

On 4 September 1901 the nave was opened, with a Pontifical High Mass celebrated by Bishop Riddell of Northampton. The church was opened on 10 July 1908, although the intended northwest baptistery had not been built (the blocked entrance arch can be seen in the north nave aisle), nor had the projected ambulatory and Lady Chapel.

Bernard Kelly’s Historical Notes on English Catholic Missions (1907) states: ‘the congregation – said to be mostly converts – numbers about three hundred’ and describes the original stone and marble high altar as ‘especially noteworthy’. It stood on steps in the apse, with a throne behind for a crucifix (or monstrance during Benediction); the choir stalls were in the crossing. The six candlesticks from that high altar now surround the present altar.

After Dom Benet Innes arrived in 1953, the presbytery was converted to a primary school (opened in 1957) and a bungalow built to the northeast of the church to replace it. The church had new heating and the original gas lighting was converted to electricity. A tapering tub font was given by Mrs Gwen Taylor, in memory of her son, Squadron Leader John Stuart Taylor, killed in action aged 23 on 12 July 1943.

In 1973 the sanctuary was reordered by Andrew Anderson, with a new square stone altar under the tower. A freestanding iron tabernacle was placed behind it, made by the Wroxham blacksmith Eric Stevenson and draped with fabric in the liturgical colours, to imitate the tent-like tabernacles described in scripture. In 1979 Anderson designed a stone pulpit similar in style to the altar. In about 1985 a fire in the presbytery required the replacement of the rood beam. More recently the present sanctuary platform was built, with presidential chairs on top of Anderson’s concrete square paving.

Description

A large cruciform church in Norman Revival style, designed by local architect F.E. Banham, 1898-1908. It is faced with limestone (Ancaster and Bath) ashlar walls inside and out, over a brick core, with red tiled roofs and an asphalt tower roof. On plan it consists of a seven-bay aisled nave with southwest porch, projecting transepts and crossing tower with southeast round stair turret, north transept with eastern apsidal chapel, south transept with eastern rectangular sacristy and a one-bay aisled sanctuary with apse, all forming a so-called ‘Benedictine’ plan.

The design is based on Anglo-Norman architecture of the early twelfth century, with limited decoration (although the parapet corbels at least were probably intended to be carved). Internally, there is billet decoration as found in many Norman East Anglian churches, but the south porch and doorway are decorated with versions of mid-twelfth century features such as beakhead, as though of a later phase. The west front has a gabled porch over a triple order entry arch with scallop capitals, rising into two large round-headed west windows flanked by square stair turrets that have two tiers of blind arcading and hipped stone roofs. The roof gable has three blind ‘windows’ with deep recesses.

The nave clerestorey and aisles are divided into seven bays by pilaster buttresses, each bay with a round-arched window, those on the aisle walls with a surrounding arch of a single order. The aisle roof has a plain parapet on uncarved corbels, the main roof without a parapet, the corbels supporting the iron rainwater gutter. This elevation continues on the west walls of the transepts, but the transept and apse roofs are set lower than the nave.

The north transept end elevation is divided into three ranges of windows, the top within an unlikely arcade of alternating round and triangular arches, the gable with a small roundel in a large moulded frame including billet moulding. (The south transept could not be seen as it is wholly enclosed by the school playground. It has the same middle and upper windows, internally obscured by the organ, but the ground stage is covered by a sacristy). The crossing tower, based on the Norman tower at Bury St Edmunds, has pilaster buttresses clasping each corner with a central buttress to each side. There are two stages, the lower of blind arcading, the upper with two bell chamber openings each side (only one small bell inside). The round southeast stair turret rises above the plain parapet, supported on an arched corbel table.

The five-bay sanctuary apse is preceded by a single aisled bay, each just with an east window because the round east chapel of the north transept and the large rectangular south side sacristy abut these aisle bays. The apse itself is rather less Norman-looking, with only one lower window each side, small round-arched clerestorey windows and Gothic buttresses. The corbel table supporting the gutters is less pronounced than either the transepts with their wavy arched corbel tables or the south transept chapel with paired arched corbels.

Internally, the nave has a three-storey elevation in East Anglian style, with no sub-division to the reduced middle pseudo-gallery stage (like Waltham Abbey nave) and no alternation to the elevation. There is no clerestorey passage either, just a single window surrounded by a single order to each bay. The roofs of the gallery are stencilled, but there are no staircases to reach it. The nave roof was designed to be open to the rafters between the round transverse arches (as at Jumièges in Normandy, perhaps) but has a plastered barrel ceiling. This has elaborate stencilling around each arch and a continuous inscription taken from the Rule of St Benedict at wall plate level.

The east nave bay has an elaborately gilded and stencilled ceilure powdered with golden crowned IHS symbols honouring the rood. The stencilling of the adjacent gallery roof timbers changes and the area over the chancel arch is also richly painted imitating fabric. The narrow processional aisles have groin-vaulted bays divided by a double order transverse arch rising from corbels. These have more elaborate scallop capitals than the main arcades, which randomly use three types of capital design. The south nave aisle wall includes a large wall arch for a statue of St Benedict and a doorway to the 1891 ‘temporary’ church.

The crossing piers are designed for stalls to run through the crossing, as the shafts on the inward-facing sides are corbelled. As in medieval examples, the north and south crossing round arches are narrower than those to east and west. The capitals are all multi-scalloped and the arch mouldings have billet hoodmoulds. Above the arches there are two wide blind round arches with heavy mouldings to each face and the ceiling above them is panelled and richly stencilled in mainly red and white.

The transepts are differently arranged, as a large organ gallery fills much of the south transept and the north transept has an eastern apsed Lady Chapel. The south transept also gives access to the sacristy on its south and east sides, with a door to the tower staircase. This was originally designed for the northeast corner of the tower, reaching the ground off the east side of the north transept. The staircase initially leads to the organ gallery, but then awkwardly protrudes from the angle behind the southeast crossing pier. The organ gallery fills the southern half of the south transept and obscures the end windows, which are similarly arranged to those on the north. The wide doors to the sacristy are closed and access is via the small door off the St Joseph Chapel.

The north transept has the east apsidal Lady Chapel, the vault painted dark blue and peppered with gold stars. The entrance arch has similar mid-twelfth century decoration (like Greek key) and its inner order rise from corbels. It is much larger than the arch to the north sanctuary ‘aisle’, the chapel of the Sacred Heart, which continues the width of the nave north aisle (though it is aligned slightly further north). The wall shaft below the transverse arch set mid-way across the transept therefore cannot reach the ground and has had to be awkwardly corbelled off the haunch of the Lady Chapel arch. Once again, the barrel ceiling is stencilled at wall plate level and around the transverse arches. Arcading runs continuously at mid-wall height around the transept, with a few small windows on the west and north faces. Three windows sit above and below in the end wall, each with a single order arched frame decorated with zig-zag.

The north transept is almost as decorated as the sanctuary, which has stilted round arches at ground level, the first on each side east of the crossing piers open to the side chapels, the next two enclose a small round window; the remaining three are blank, but were designed to frame the high altar. The original stencilling has been painted out. A continuous blind arcade runs at mid-height and there is a clerestorey window to each bay, apparently behind a wall passage. The cul-de-four above is painted red, with stencilled IHS and Marian symbols.

Although the 1973 stone altar by Andrew Anderson is under the tower, the original iron altar rail remains on the chancel step between the eastern crossing piers and a similar rail exists across the Lady Chapel. The latter has also retained its original painted wooden altar and reredos enclosing a possibly sixteenth century Italian painting of the Virgin and Child. Both the sanctuary chapels retain their statues on plinths below stained glass windows, but have no other furnishings. The most intriguing furnishing is the 1973 iron tabernacle with its fabric cover, looking a little flimsy against Anderson’s solid stone altar and pulpit, but nevertheless of artistic value.

Most windows are glazed in opaque white glass with coloured frames creating shapes, very much in the twelfth century Cistercian style. There are a few stained glass windows, some by Shrigley & Hunt: that of the Resurrected Christ over the northeast aisle door commemorates the church architect, F.E. Banham. The large framed plaster Stations of the Cross are of good quality. The 1899 foundation stone can be seen to the west side of the southwest door, and flanking the west door are brasses commemorating Frederick and Catherine Smith and Stephen Henry, benefactors. A stone statue of Mary, Queen of Heaven and the Christ Child stands on a multi-marble shafted plinth to the west of the southwest crossing pier.

Heritage Details

Architect: F. E. Banham

Original Date: 1908

Conservation Area: Yes

Listed Grade: Not Listed