At the sign of the Barking lion...

St Mary, Dennington

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


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click to enlarge:

On a bright winter day, Dennington's stocky tower

Rood group of niches abve the west window

North porch facing the village square

Graveyard angel

North door - this church has been enhanced

Looking east

The sanctuary, with hanging pyx

Looking west

Decent font and eve-of-Reformation cover - shame Badingham's isn't here

Bench sides showing tracery

Odd one out: the sciapod bench side

Rous memorial

Those Rouses in full

South side of chancel arch

Chancel window and doorstop figures

Suffolk's best green man

Long eared owls

Modern altar rail in the north chapel

A rare survival: flanking candlestick in the Bardolph chantry

Hat pegs in the front box pew

Memorial above vestry door

George III royal arms

Sand tray in the north aisle


Treasure house: one of East Anglia's best churches


The main A1120 bypasses nearby Framlingham and threads through Dennington instead. The church dominates the parish, and you can't miss it. You approach from the west, and may notice that, like Parham on the other side of Fram, there is a rood group of niches set in the west face of the tower.

The exterior is solid, grand and bulky, but reveals nothing of the treasures to be found within. The main entrance is through the north porch, facing the village square, but don't miss the south face, and the grand window into the Bardolph chantry at the east end of the south aisle. You may also notice how little Victorianisation took place here; the same is true inside, and suggests that the building was in a reasonable condition at the start of the 19th century, and didn't need restoring, thank God, thank God.

You step into a light, open interior. The benches in the nave are divided into two ranges; those to the east are box pews, but to the west and in the aisles are medieval benches with some excellent bench ends. Because of more significant treasures that we will come to in a moment, Dennington is not famous for its bench ends. They are not normally spoken of in the same breath as those at neighbouring Wilby or Fressingfield, perhaps because they feature animals and mythical beasts rather than Saints and sacraments; but they are easily as good as those at Woolpit, Tostock and Combs, and moreover there are plenty of them. The most famous of all is not a figure on the end, but is a relief carved directly onto the side of the bench. It is a sciapod, a desert creature from the medieval bestiary with enormous feet with which it shaded itself from the sun. It is the only carved representation in England. You can see an image of it below; the three lumps in the middle are presumably the heads poking from burrows in the same position in manuscript images of the time. Also below are a selection of some of the best other bench ends, including England's only medieval tortoise; note also that the carver knew that a giraffe had a long neck, but not that it would hold its head erect. Hover to read the caption, click them to enlarge the images.

Dog Lion Mermaid The pelican in her piety Giraffe
The sciapod Unique in England, the tortoise Two-headed eagle Wolf. Its tail entwines its body as at Santon Downham

At the east end of the range, the pulpit is an interesting one. A Laudian creation of the 1620s in a pre-Reformation style, it was later converted nto a three-decker one. The box pew in front of it has a range of hat pegs.

But I am teasing you. If you haven't come for the sciapod (and the first time I came here it was for that alone) then you have come to see some rare medieval survivals, or one of England's finest 15th century alabaster memorials. Behind the pulpit, and matching it in the north aisle, are Suffolk's best parclose screens, gilded and brilliant, and uniquely in East Anglia retaining their lofts. The rood screen has been reduced to a mere dado, but you can see straight away that the lost rood loft (and East Anglia retains none at all of those) would have connected the two parcloses. You could walk from either of the doorways in the north or south aisles up into the parclose loft, across the rood loft and into the other parclose, descending into the opposite aisle.

The south parclose, enclosing the Bardolph chantry The north parclose, now enclosing a quiet prayer chapel Roodstair doorway in the north aisle - there's another in the south aisle.
How a loft turns around an arcade - south parclose from the inside How a loft turns around an arcade - south parclose from the outside. This would have been the entrance from the roodloft

The north chapel is now reserved for quiet prayer, but the south chapel remains Suffolk's most stunning example of a chantry chapel. It contains the Bardolph tombs, which are beautiful, but don't miss how the entire chamber has been designed to pay them homage. The dado of the wooden parclose is crowned with spikes, and the great loft above towers majestically. The great window spills southern light onto them, and, an extraordinary survival, the stone candlesticks still flank it.

The Bardolphs were an important family. William was chamberlain to Henry VI, a hero of Agincourt and Harfleur, a knight of the garter. He died in 1441, and lies with his collar of Ss. At his feet is a heraldic eagle, and in his helmet he looks a bit like Yuri Gagarin. His wife has a gorgeous wyvern at her feet, the best representation of this beast that I know. Her pillow is supported by angels that look as if they are whispering to her and singing her to her rest - a strain of Purcell comes to mind - and she too wears the collar of Ss. Click on the images below to enlarge them.

The Bardolphs The Bardolph chantry Yuri Gagarin?
Lady Bardolph takes precedence - the title came through her May flights of angels sing thee to thy rest Angel one Angel two
Lord Bardolph Lady Bardolph The Bardolph eagle

Above the Bardolph tombs is a fine 17th century monument to the Rous family, who succeeded them. Elsewhere in the nave are a Father Willis organ, a decent 15th century font with 16th century cover, and above it a curious early George III royal arms with churchwarden's inscription. In the north aisle, now a village museum, you'll find the sand tray used to teach village children to read and write in the early 19th century. If the chancel did not exist, this would still be a wonderful building.

And what the chancel contains would also be worth a visit alone. You step through between brilliantly castellated arch springs. This part of the building is full of the confident beauty of the years before the Black Death turned us all serious and gave us an acute sense of our own mortality. In particular, notice the window stops - the representation of a pope wearing a triple tiara is one of the few English survivals, and you'll also see some long-eared owls and Suffolk's best green man.

Hanging above the sanctuary is what is, according to Cautley, one of England's four surviving medieval pyxes. Here, the blessed sacrament was stored in Catholic days, for prayer in its presence, exposition and administration to the sick. It is about a metre and a half high, a spire in the sky; the sacrament is reserved in the base where the curtain falls. From the mid-16th century Reformation until the restoration of sacramentalism by the Oxford Movement in the 19th century, the sacrament was not reservd in English churches. Today, it has fallen increasingly into disuse in Anglican churches again. Cautley found this pyx in the museum wing back in the 1930s, but today it is in its original position, reserving the Anglican sacrament. Incidentally, Suffolk also hosts England's only surviving pyx cloth, which is at Hessett - or at least it was, before the British Museum stole it.

The hanging pyx - England has only three others.

So there we are - one of the best of all East Anglia's churches. Incredibly, Simon Jenkins only gave it two stars (he gave the triumphalist but dull Clare three). And as if that wasn't enough, a mile or so across the fields from here you will find the twin church of Badingham. Now, St John the Baptist is by no means as splendid as here, but it does contain one of the best seven sacrament fonts in East Anglia, and Cautley thought that the angel-bedecked roof was England's best example of a single hammer-beam. If Badingham's treasures were miraculously transported to Dennington (and stranger things happened in medieval days, or, indeed, in Victorian restorations) this would be one of the most significant medieval churches in the country. People would flock here, but we are lucky - they don't. Instead, you can wander leisurely between the two; both are open every day, and both villages have excellent pubs. So - what are you waiting for?

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