At the sign of the Barking lion...

Blackfriars Church, Ipswich

At the sign of the Barking lion...

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sacristy, looking east

looking east from the middle of the nave looking west from the high altar looking east from the west end of the south aisle through the arcade
looking west over the nave altar base high altar sanctuary in the choir chapter house

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Ipswich is probably the oldest continuously occupied town in England, and its oldest parishes by the docks are the longest continuously occupied parishes in England. A conurbation of several known Saxon settlements (and possibly a few others that aren't yet) developed into a town that was among the half dozen largest in England by Domesday, when ten parish churches were recorded. Prosperity came in waves, and by the 12th Century, the modern street pattern was more or less laid out, and, in addition to a number of chapels, there were now fifteen parish churches.

None of these survive today, for they were all either rebuilt in a further wave of prosperity in the 14th and 15th Centuries, or demolished shortly after the Reformation. However, twelve town centre churches of medieval foundation, all in the Perpendicular style, survive today, as a testimony to the piety and prosperity of those distant days. Outside of London only Bristol, York and Norwich have more surviving medieval churches than Ipswich, and it is a smaller town than all three. Some of the churches are very close together. Barely a hundred yards separate the three churches of St Stephen, St Lawrence and St Mary le Tower, for instance. And by the 12th Century there began to be new arrivals, foundations of priories and friaries with their own churches.

Two Augustinian Priories were established. The Priory of the Holy Trinity was roughly where Christchurch Mansion is today, while the Priory of St Peter and St Paul was east of the church of St Peter. The priories received their income from land transferred from the churches they served, which was either sublet for rent, or used for growing produce for sale. In addition, the town had a number of chantry priests working in the parish churches and chapels, and possibly attached to one of the two priories. No trace of either priory survives today, although the building that houses an estate agent on the corner of Soane Street and St Margaret's Plain is part of the former guest hostel of Holy Trinity Priory.

By the 13th Century, other organisations were arriving in Ipswich to serve ministries of the church. Predominant amongst them were the orders of friars, who were preachers, teachers and evangelists. Three orders of friars had communities in Ipswich. In 1278 the Carmelites, or Whitefriars, arrived. They spent their time studying and lecturing, much in the manner of a modern university.Their friary was roughly where the Buttermarket Shopping Centre stands today. During the course of the 14th Century it expanded rapidly, and stretched all the way from what is now Queen Street to St Stephen's Lane. It was the biggest foundation in Ipswich, and one of the largest Carmelite communities in England. No trace of it survives.

The Franciscans, or Greyfriars, were founded as missionaries and itinerant preachers, and in 1298 they established a base house near where the tower block of St Francis House stands today, just to the west of St Nicholas church. They were probably the most popular order with the ordinary people of the town, for their work involved them in helping the poor. Ironically, their house would later be used by Presbyterians expelled from the Ipswich parish churches in the 1660s, before they established their own church in what would become the Unitarian Chapel across the road. The Friary was demolished in the 18th Century, but some surviving stones forming arches are set in the wall of Franciscan House which now stands on the site. As well as giving their name to an office block, they were also remembered in the name of the Greyfriars Centre, a large and ugly urban renewal scheme which went up in the late 1960s near the site, but which is now largely demolished.

The only substantial remains of a medieval community's foundation in Ipswich are those of the church of the Dominicans, the Blackfriars, whose friary lay to the south of Tacket Street. The Order was founded by St Dominic barely half a century before they arrived in Ipswich, and their rule was as an order of preachers. Dominicans took vows of poverty in the belief that this freed them from the care of property to travel and to preach, and they could live as the Apostles did in the Gospels, an apostolic life in community with each other. The Blackfriars community here had been the first of the three friaries to be established in Ipswich, preceding the other two in 1263. The community grew, and and within fifteen years the Ipswich foundation numbered about fifty members. It gradually took over the fallow land that lay to the south and east, including part of the town wall and ditch, and new buildings were erected. Unlike the priories, the friaries were not allowed to own land beyond their own premises, and so they could not receive any income from rents. Instead, they relied on charitable donations for their upkeep. This might have been their salvation when the other foundations came to be sequestered and dissolved, but it proved to be their downfall, as we shall see.

The Blackfriars church was dedicated to the Blessed Virgin Mary, and it was one of the biggest churches in Ipswich, fully 150 feet long. There were aisles to north and south of the nave and a choir separated nave and chancel, in the cathedral manner. There was a central tower, and early mentions of a spired church seem to refer to this one. The chancel had a chapel to the south, probably constructed after a bequest by the Dukes of Suffolk. Between this chapel and the nave were the chapter house and the sacristy.

It is possible to walk the length of the church along a footpath which connects Foundation Street with Lower Orwell Street and Fore Street. You enter the site from the Foundation Street end at the west end of the north aisle. To your right below the wall you can see into the nave of the church, the square bases of the arcades standing out of the grass. As the path reaches the west end of the nave it turns into the walkway that separated nave and choir. Ahead of you now is a large square area that formed the crossing beneath the tower. The east end of the nave is to your right, and the two stone bases that housed altars stand either side of the entrance to the choir. The path now turns east again and takes you exactly up the centre of the choir. The L-shaped outlines either side of the path were resonance chambers, once filled with hollow jars and set below a wooden floor to amplify the singing from the choir above. Off to the right are the four blank arcades in the east wall of the sacristy and beyond that the chapter house. Following the path you travel to the east wall of the chancel, the sanctuary marked by a raised step, before the path jinks and takes you out of the church to the south of the high altar.

In the middle decades of the 16th Century, the busy liturgical life of medieval Catholic Ipswich began to come to to an end. In 1528, the Priory of St Peter and St Paul was suppressed, freeing up land and assets for Thomas Wolsey's ill-fated Cardinal College. The other priory, Holy Trinity, fell victim to the dissolution of the monasteries in February 1537, and its assets were stripped to line the coffers of the treasury, the land sold off or offered as largesse to favoured citizens. The friaries of course had little in the way of land, and so were not such a priority for asset stripping. However, as the Reformation progressed the State became particularly wary of preaching orders who could not be relied upon to toe the new line. Only one in five parish priests in Suffolk had been considered trustworthy enough to be licenced to preach by the ruling Protestant reformers, and the friars were certainly not to be accorded this privilege. Their donations dried up, and the communities were left to wither on the vine. Inevitably, the friars began to sell their possessions in order to survive. The Treasury soon realised that there would be nothing left for them to sequester, and so in November 1538 the friaries were closed, their assets also going to the State. The land where the Blackfriars foundation stood was granted to the Borough.

Over the next century parts of the friary buildings were demolished, while others became part of Christ's Hospital. The Hospital was, in fact, an amalgamation of foundations, including the first buildings of what went on to become Ipswich Grammar School. This time also brought a prison, an orphanage and Tooley's almshouses (which still survive in rebuilt form today). Part of the Hospital was a workhouse, with dormitories and a workshop, William Smart having left endowments to provide for the needs of the deserving poor. The chancel of the Blackfriars church became the chapel of the Hospital, although there may have been some conflict, because the Parish of St Clement administered the buildings and which might explain why over the course of the 17th Century the chancel and choir fell into disuse, and along with the nave they were largely demolished to provide building stone for the rest of the site.

As buildings crumbled they were replaced with new ones, and soon nothing remained above ground of the friary, except for a row of four blank arcades, part of the interior east wall of the sacristy. By the 19th Century this area between the new town centre and the docks had become industrialised, and a brewery, a slaughterhouse and several workshops stood on the friary site. For a hundred and fifty years, only the mysterious arches on the edge of the brewery yard in School Street suggested that anything had happened here in what was an increasingly remote past. An area of slums spread north and east of the area, along Cox Lane and Rope Walk. In the 1860s the Catholic church of St Pancras was built in Tacket Street, on the edge of the site. As the economy of Ipswich changed, some of the factories fell into disuse, and some were demolished.

In the 1890s, the archaeologist Nina Layard began to investigate the site. Layard was a significant figure in late 19th Century antiquarian circles, and in Ipswich her investigations and discoveries included the site of a Saxon village on what is now the Hadleigh Road industrial estate, one of the founding settlements of Ipswich with a cemetery of 160 graves, as well as the Ice Age remains of settlers along the dried-up river bed that forms a dip in Foxhall Road to the east of the railway bridge. The excavation of the Blackfriars site remains her most visible achievement in Ipswich. Layard died in the 1930s having recorded the layout of the site among its jumble of 19th Century industrial buildings.

In the 1980s, the demand for car parking and low-cost rented accommodation in central Ipswich persuaded the Borough Council to allow the development of the area to the south of Tacket Street. This is a sensitive area, for Fore Street, Lower Orwell Street and Foundation Street are three of the most historic streets in the town and all had been badly served by development in the 1960s. The scheme combined award-winning flats with a privately managed multi-storey car park. As part of the development, the site of the Blackfriars church was at last fully excavated, and at a layer several feet below the modern townscape, some substantial and remarkable remains were properly exposed and preserved. They document a major urban church of the 13th Century which you can at last explore today.


Simon Knott, February 2021

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external buttress on the east wall of the chancel east wall of the sacristy crossing under the tower
sacristy from the crossing under the tower exterior of the sacristy east wall looking east in the chapterhouse
resonance chamber in the choir, sacristy and chapterhouse beyond resonance chamber to the choir looking west from the east end of the south aisle
Suffolk snow Nina Layard


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