At the sign of the Barking lion...

St John the Baptist, Badingham

At the sign of the Barking lion... - a journey through the churches of Suffolk


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From the west, the site climbs steeply.

From the east - the Victorian chancel.

Grand and elaborate - the 1480s porch.

Porch spandrels.

12th century corbel: like an Aztec god.

12th century corbel: a cat?

St Edmund on the font shaft.

The roof, facing west.

Looking east.

The sanctuary.

Looking west.

Cotton memorial.

William Cotton and wife.

Mrs Cotton.

Image niche? Doorway?

Window by Hugh Easton.


Entrance to an ancient space.

Just to the north of Framlingham you will find two fascinating churches within two miles of each other. If the contents of this one were inside neighbouring Dennington they would form a building of national significance. As it is, the pair still remain of outstanding interest, and a walk between the two can be justifiably combined with a visit to either of the village pubs.

As I say, St Mary at Dennington is the finer building, but this one is still worthy of note. The church is approached between two old houses, and on my first visit in 1999 I found one of them being rebuilt. This has now been completed, and the entrance area of the churchyard tidied up with a sturdy gateway and wrought-iron arch. These give the churchyard an almost urban feeling of enclosure, and it is a steep climb up to the church, a suggestion that this church stands on the site of an earlier building whose purpose may have been defensive and pre-Christian. There will be other clues, as we will see.

The church is generally an early completion of the late 13th century, with Norman details surviving to show that it was not a total rebuild. It was tinkered with on the eve of the Reformation, with Perpendicular windows and a kind of pseudo-clerestory added to light the rood. The most striking survival of this period is the lovely porch which has some unusual details; the dragon and woodwose are not as spectacular or well-preserved as those at nearby Cratfield, but look at the buttresses. They have very unusual carvings on. The one to the east appears to show a dog holding a bowl in its mouth. Can this be true? Did dogs have bowls in the 1480s? There is an image at the bottom of this page. Some people think it might be the bestiary legend of the tigress distracted by a mirror. What do you think?

The chancel was rebuilt by the Victorians, but more interesting in any case are a couple of really early details inside the porch; corbels that Mortlock dates as 12th century. One shows a jolly cat, and the other looks like nothing so much as one of the Aztec gods in the recent exhibition at the Royal Academy. You can see them on the left.

Stepping inside can be a bit unnerving. The church slopes steeply up towards the altar, almost a metre between the west and east end of the nave. Coupled with the absence of aisles, this accentuates a feeling of narrowness. The dedication makes this even more interesting, because churches on previously pagan sites were often dedicated to St John the Baptist because his feast day falls so close to midsummer. It must have seemed entirely natural to local people that, on this day of all days, their building should have faced the rising sun.

Because the church is so small, the fact that it contains one of Suffolk's thirteen seven sacrament fonts may make it feel as if the building were specifically constructed to contain it. As the font dates from the 1480s we know that this cannot be so, of course, but of the other seven sacrament font churches only Weston is smaller. Although Westhall is my favourite of the series, Badingham's runs it a close second; mainly because it has suffered less damage than any of the others, but also because the reliefs are so characterful. If it was in the Victoria and Albert Museum it would be considered a national treasure, and we would all travel to London to see it.

Don't miss the Last Rites panel. Under the bed, we see the dying man's shoes and chamber pot, and his wife weeps into a hankie. The Mass panel is also famous, because one figure holds the sacring bell and we see two observers peering over the screen behind. In a moment, we are transported back to 15th century Catholic England. On the Baptism panel a woman holds a chrysom cloth; this is also one of several seven sacrament fonts in Suffolk that depict the devil fleeing on the Penance panel. The man's hat on the Matrimony panel helps to accurately date the whole piece. The shaft and base contain many other images, including a fine St Edmund.You can see all the panels below; hover to read and click on the images to enlarge them.

Font from the east. Font from the west.
Baptism Baptism of Christ Confirmation Last Rites
Mass Matrimony Ordination Penance

There is more to this building than its font. Looking up, you see what some consider the greatest glory of this building - the hammerbeam roof. Cautley thought it the most perfect example of a single hammerbeam in England. The angels replace those ordered down by William Dowsing in September 1644. That Dowsing did not remark on the font may be because it was plastered over a century earlier by the Anglican reformers.

As you walk east, a large expanse in the north wall is surmounted by a crocketted arch. Mortlock describes it as an image niche, but I did wonder if it could be the entrance to the roodloft stairs. Opposite is a fine window by Hugh Easton of 1928.

William Cotton and his wife lie up in the sanctuary on a vast bed in the north wall. They seem strangely domestic compared with the Bardolphs across the fields at Dennington. Their hands are big; their piety outweighs their grace, and perhaps they symbolise better than anything the difference between the two churches.

Dog with a bowl? Tiger with a mirror?

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