At the sign of the Barking lion...

St Mary, Bacton

At the sign of the Barking lion...

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red brick tower stairway flushworked clerestory Bacton
AMR dedicatory inscription

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    Bacton is one of a cluster of villages along the railway line between Stowmarket and Diss, and it is the biggest of them. Indeed, if the energetic sprawling of new build that I see from the train each time I pass through is anything to go by, it is getting bigger all the time. Unusually for rural East Anglia these days, Bacton feels as if it might have some degree of independent life, and as if to emphasise this the church sits in the heart of the village beside the school. The tower appears to be all of the late 14th Century apart from the red brick stair turret on the south side, a fashionable material in Suffolk in the early 16th Century. The rebuilding of the nave and the chancel would progress through the second half of the 15th Century, and although this is not a large church it is grand, and it feels large. It speaks to us of the enthusiasms and money of late medieval Suffolk, as do bequests transcribed by Peter Northeast and Simon Cotton. In 1480, Roger Paske left 20s to leading the steeple (which is to say weatherproofing the tower with lead) and 10s to stooling (furnishing) the church. This suggests that the nave of the new church was approaching completion, and seven years later Alice Cake directed that daughter Joan to buy an ornament for use in Bacton church for 1 out of the residue of goods. The ornament for use was perhaps a cope or a devotional statue. Interestingly, Simon Cotton points out that the supervisor of Alice Cake's will was one James Hobart, and on the south aisle there is a dedicatory inscription asking for prayers for James Hobart and his wife Margaret and for Hobart's parents.

In 1508 Richard Heywarde left a total of 41s 8d to the reparation of the church and chancel, suggesting that not everything was complete yet, but the 1515 will of Thomas Chestyn, a tanner of Bury St Edmunds, declared that I bequeathe to the Church of Bekton x li for to performe the covenant that I have made for the making of a new Rodeloft to stond in the said Church of Bekton with the mony that I have paied onward of the same werke. Chestyn's Rodeloft would have barely thirty years of life before it was taken down again. Externally though, not much more would happen other than repairs. Mortlock thought the strangely rounded 'Norman' west door was actually the work of William Butterfield, the restoring architect in the 1860s. There seems to be no other Norman evidence here. A curiosity is the pair of Decorated windows, one at the east end of each aisle. Were they reused from the previous nave? Or were they brought here by Butterfield? The most memorable feature of the exterior is the late 15th Century clerestory. It has sacred monograms between the windows picked out in flushwork, including the Holy Trinity, Ave Maria Regina and St Catherine, and there is another dedicatory inscription asking you to pray for the souls of Robert Goche and his wife on the north aisle.

The church is open every day, as with pretty much all of them around here, and you step into a wide light interior with no coloured glass in the nave. Looking up, you see Bacton's famous 15th Century hammerbeam roof, the supreme example of the genre to the extent that this style is known as a 'Bacton roof'. There's another one a mile or so off on the other side of the railway line at Cotton, and also nearby at Earl Stonham and Wetherden. These double hammerbeam roofs are intended to carry across a wider space in a single span than was previously possible, at the same time creating the effect of the roof floating in air. The most easterly bay formed the canopy of honour to the rood, and was repainted in traditional colours in the 19th Century. You can see the same thing without paint nearby at Cotton.

nave roof nave roof canopy of honour to the rood

The 15th Century font has angels and blank shields which presumably would originally also have been painted. The furnishings came as part of Butterfield's restoration, but a couple of old bench ends survive at the west end of the range including one which is curious. It appears to show a monk or friar standing in a pulpit, this presented as was common like a castle. He leans forward, and with his hands appears to cover the eyes of a bird. It may well be that his hands are actually forming an attitude of prayer, and if the bird is an eagle it may represent the act of preaching the Gospel, the eagle being the symbol of St John. However, 15th Century bench ends were often an opportunity to satirise the clergy and their enthusiasm for preaching, sometimes presenting them as foxes and pigs, and you can't help wondering if in this case the preacher is shown as hiding the Gospel from the people.

Contemporary with the bench end is the Doom painting above the chancel arch. It would have been associated with Thomas Chestyn's Rodeloft. The loft and rood figures would have been set in front of it. The Doom depicts the Last Judgement of Christ, and although much of it is now lost we can see the dead rising from their graves at the bottom left, and then on the top level queuing up to be judged. On the left hand side an angel herds the fortunate souls into heaven, St Peter standing in the gateway wearing a papal crown and carrying his keys. However, on the right hand side the not-so-fortunate are driven down into hell.

Doom: St Peter welcomes souls into heaven Doom: thedead rise from their graves
Doom: bottom, the dead rise from their graves. Top, they queue for judgement. Middle, St Peter welcomes them into heaven Doom: above, souls queue for judgement. Below,St Peter welcomes souls into heaven doom: souls taken down into hell

When I revisited in the spring of 2023 I had a nagging feeling that something was missing, and looking at photographs I'd taken ten or so years before I realised what it was. In the 19th Century a parclose screen had been moved from the south aisle and set in the chancel arch. It didn't fit very well and must have formed something of a hindrance for the congregation coming for communion, and so perhaps not surprisingly it has recently been removed and set up in the west gallery behind the organ. This is a shame because the gallery is closed off to visitors and so the screen can't be approached, but it is hard to think of another practicable solution.

The quiet chancel is an intimate space, perhaps something of an anticlimax after the nave. The geometric patterns of the floor came with Butterfield's restoration as did the glass on the south side by O'Connor, bejewelled depictions of St Peter and St Paul. However, all of this forms a simple setting for the east window, one of the largest Morris & Co windows in Suffolk. Christ the Saviour of the World is flanked by St Peter and St John and two angels blowing the last trump, while below them the Blessed Virgin and child are flanked by the four evangelists. The glass was installed in 1922 as a war memorial, and the figures of the evangelists are those famous ones by Edward Burne-Jones that were first used at Paisley parish church in 1876. The angels at the top are also his, while the other figures by John Henry Dearle, the workshop's chief designer after the deaths of Morris and Burne-Jones.

angels and instruments of the passion (Morris & Co, 1922)

Salvator Mundi: Christ flanked by St Peter and St John and two angels blowing trumps (Morris & Co, 1922)

Blessed Virgin flanked by St Matthew, St Mark, St Luke and St John (Morris & Co, 1922)

On the north side of the chancel arch behind the pulpit is a painted inscription to Thomas and Dorothy Smythe, who died in 1702 and 1728. Another husband and wife are commemorated down at the west end of the aisle, by almost identical cartouche memorials facing each other across from the south and north arcades. George and Jane Pretyman died in the 1730s, and you might think that their memorials were made at the same time if it were not for slight differences that suggest one was copied from the other, perhaps by a different mason. The winged skulls at the bottom are particularly fiendish. The Pretymans used the east end of the south aisle as a family chapel, and in the east window of the aisle is set a shield with three mitres and three lions, the last being separated by a chevron. Mortlock tells us that it is the arms of Richard Nix, who on the eve of the Reformation was the last Bishop of Norwich to also hold the manor of Bacton.

They seem to have been a particularly Godless lot in this area in the middle years of the 19th Century. At the time of the 1851 Census of Religious Worship, most Anglican churches in Suffolk could reasonably expect about a fifth to a quarter of the parish population tipping up on a Sunday. But in this area to the north of Stowmarket, which was always strong non-conformist territory, Anglican congregations were often barely a tenth of the population, with Bacton one of the worst examples. Out of the nine hundred people living in the parish at the time of the census, just twenty five attended St Mary on the Sunday morning. And it doesn't seem that the missing souls were going anywhere else. Two hundred and sixty people did attend the nearby Cotton Methodist Church in the afternoon, but that was in the adjoining parish where another almost six hundred lived. Bacton's own Wesleyan and Primitive Methodist churches managed about sixty each, but unless the people of Bacton were going down the road to the Baptists at Stowmarket, it looks as if they simply stayed at home.


Simon Knott, March 2023

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looking east chancel looking west
font east window (Morris & Co, 1922) organ gallery and rescued parclose screen man in a pulpit prays over an eagle
Thomas and Dorothy Smyth 1702/1728 St Peter and St Paul (O'Connor, 1858) Sir George Pretyman, 1732 three mitres and three lions


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