The flint round-towered churches of Suffolk are some of its most enigmatic and atmospheric. Sometimes remote and isolated, often hidden from view behind a screen of trees, these towers loom out of their surroundings like monoliths.
There are 180 round-towered churches in England, the majority to be found in Norfolk and Suffolk. Dating from the Anglo-Saxon era, it appears that building continued into the c. 14th. There are 38 such churches in Suffolk, and Bramfield St Andrew is unique in England, in that the tower stands separate from the church itself and was probably designed as such (unlike Little Snoring St Andrew in Norfolk, where the tower was likely once joined to the church.)
An early theory of these towers’ purpose is the provision of defence: they functioned as defensive watchtowers, perhaps to provide shelter from and advance warning of Viking attacks. William J Goode, founder of the Round Tower Churches society, refuted this theory. Instead he proposed that their shape was a function of the lack of access to dressed stone in the region; builders would have made do with flint and lime mortar and, on this basis, a round plan was the strongest form (square towers supposedly needing solid quoin-stones.) Yet a number of square East Anglian church towers also use flint for quoins (Hethel, Warham St Mary, Little Bardfield, Beeston Regis and Heigham.) And churches that are contemporary with their round towers do use dressed stone for their wall-corners (i.e. it must have been available as a material), so this theory doesn’t entirely make sense.
A further notion is that East Anglian builders were influenced by continental trends (there are around 30 round church towers in regions of northern Germany, Poland and southern Sweden.)
Yet another theory proposes that these round towers were a response to King Athelstan’s (924–939) decree that any man desiring to achieve the rank of thegn would need to build a bell-tower on his lands. This is borne out by the fact that the belfries of many of these towers can be shown to be contemporary with the lower stages of the tower.
I like to think that the reality is a mix of these theories. In the case of Bramfield St Andrew, the tower is thought to be Norman; it houses five bells and sits on high ground above a tributary of the River Blyth. Originally it would have been positioned directly beside the old Dunwich to Bury road, perhaps suggesting it did have a watch-tower function, or was part of a set of defences for the local manor. Round towers (indeed any church tower) may also have been used as navigational marks; the spire-topped octagonal church tower at Wickham Market, for instance, despite being 12.5km inland, was reputedly used as a sea-mark!
The church itself at Bramfield is c. 14th, entirely thatched, with a superb rood screen. A well-preserved green man is carved on the eastern eaves of the nave. This is a unique church – an important feature of Suffolk’s heritage – in well-kept grounds; the village is clearly proud of it. The Queen’s Head pub, before the church, has a well-stocked beer garden with views back to St Andrew’s.
The Bramfield Oak
The Bungay Ballad, published in The Suffolk Garland, detailed the flight of Hugh Bigod from the men of Henry II to his castle in Bungay. The 5th stanza of the ballad mentions ‘The Bramfield Oak’:
When the Baily had ridden to Bramfield oak,
Sir Hugh was at Ilksall bower;
When the Baily had ridden to Halesworth cross,
He was singing in Bungay tower-
“Now that I’m in my castle of Bungay,
Upon the river of Waveney,
I will ne care for the King of Cockney.”
The location on the Bramfield Oak is uncertain; some think it is the stump of an ancient oak, felled in 1843, within the grounds of Bramfield Park. A map of 1900 marks an oak north of Broadoak Farm, to the west of the village. Either way, the oak is probably no longer alive, but its legend lives on. More information is available here.
The parish is thought to contain a stone circle (12 large and eight smaller stones arranged in a circular pattern) although the location is unknown.