At the sign of the Barking lion...

All Saints, Brandeston

At the sign of the Barking lion...

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Brandeston is a polite village in the quietly rolling lanes south of Framlingham, and the church sits next to Brandeston Hall, once home of the Revett family but today a public school. The church in front of it has cheery white rendered walls under a trim 19th Century red tiled roof. A 1432 bequest survives for the tower, and another in 1472 tells us that John Wynston left two bushels of malt to the bells of the church. The towet was clearly complete before 1487, because its fine proportions were specifically sited in wills that year as the model for nearby Helmingham and Framsden. The chancel appears earlier, but in fact it was ruinous a century or so after the Reformation, and much of what we see today is Richard Phipson's work of the 1870s. A pair of yew hedges line the path up to the Victorian north porch, an approach quite unlike any other in Suffolk.

You step into a church which is wide and open, and full of light thanks to the lack of coloured glass. The font is one of those 13th Century Purbeck marble pieces common in the east of Suffolk and Norfolk. Some mutilated bench ends towards the west of the range are rather jolly, including several birds and the best of them, a cowled figure reading an open book, but the feel of the interior is perhaps a little austere if you have just come from Cretingham or Monewden. This is probably a reflection of the extent and quality of the later woodwork, some of it a result of money spent by John Revett of the Hall in the 18th Century. There are some curious survivals of this time, for the substantial pulpit and reading desk were both constructed in the 19th Century from panelling used to line the sanctuary in the 1740s, and they still carry his name and date. It is perhaps a pity that they are no longer in situ, because they would be a foil for the communion rails which he had given in 1711 and which unusually for the time carry a dedicatory inscription on their front, although of course we are not asked to pray for his soul.

reading desk (1863, made from 1745 panelling) reading desk (1745) Joans Revett Gen restauravit AD 1745 (Sir John Revett restored AD 1745) Impensis Jos Revett Gen: AD 1711 (installed by Sir John Revett, 1711)

Within the sanctuary, on the north wall is a modern memorial to the parish's most famous son, John Lowes. 17th Century Suffolk was not a good place to be sacramentally minded. The Reformation of a century earlier had found Suffolkers to be energetic Protestants, destroying the Catholic liturgical apparatus of their churches with energy and zeal. The Edwardian ordinances against images in the late 1540s meant that virtually all that remained visible in Suffolk was that which was inconvenient to destroy, like gable crosses and hammer beam angels, and that which was inconvenient to replace, like stained glass. These, however, would also eventually meet their doom. In the 1640s, a full century after the Anglican Reformation, Puritanism met with considerable enthusiasm in Suffolk. The attempts to enforce the aim of Archbishop Laud to restore the sacramental nature of parish churches in the 1620s and 1630s had met with opposition in the county, despite (or even perhaps because of) the strong-arm tactics of the Laudian Bishop of Norwich.

But there were pockets where the faithful saw the potential beauty of the Anglican prayerbook, and allowed it fit a wider vision of their Catholic past. One such place was Brandeston. John Lowes became vicar here in 1596, before he was thirty years old. He stayed until he was eighty, but by then the political and theological landscape had changed dramatically. A child of the Elizabethan Settlement, Lowes allied himself with the Laudian party, which didn't go down so well with many of his parishioners. Once the 1640s came and the Civil War was over, once the King was dead, the Commonwealth declared and the Church of England suppressed, these brave clerics were left high and dry.

Ministers like Lowes considered themselves priests rather than simply preachers, and they became increasingly isolated from their flocks and from each other. At Theberton, Ufford and elsewhere such priests were prosecuted as 'scandalous ministers'. Their activities on the Sabbath were scrutinised, their ritualistic behaviour carefully noted and used as evidence against them, as well as nonsense like heavy drinking and consorting with prostitutes. At Brandeston the local Puritans went one stage further, and under the authority of Matthew Hopkins the Witchfinder General, Lowes was indicted on a charge of witchcraft. This poor old man, who had overseen the pastoral care of his parish for longer than most of his accusers had been alive, was tortured into insanity. Eventually, he signed a confession that he had employed two imps to sink ships at sea. Taken to Bury St Edmunds, he was one of forty innocent men, women and children hanged there in the autumn of 1646. Brave to the last, he read the suppressed Anglican burial service out as he was taken to the scaffold.

It is hard to imagine this in such a peaceful spot today. There is no doubt that Lowes was murdered simply for his steadfast Anglican beliefs, and although the Church of England doesn't really believe in such things, it would be nice if he had some official liturgical recognition of his bravery, since he is the nearest thing they have to a Suffolk martyr.

You might hope that the grand Stuart pulpit might be the one used by John Lowes, but a description of a century after his time calls it 'old and decaying', so it probably came here from somewhere else. Suffolk is not short of ringers' boards beneath its towers commemorating significant peals of the past, but one here at Brandeston is particularly special. It is designed in a trompe-l'œil style and dates from February 1750. It records that on the tower's six bells the seven peals underwritten were rung here (without intermission) in 2 hours and 55 minutes and not a bell out of course. It goes on to list them as London Surprise, Cambridge Surprise, Francis Genius, Francis Goodwill, Oxford Treble Bob, Court Bob and Grandfire Bob, number of changes 5040. Just in case you are wondering, a note at the bottom informs us that Francis Genius and Francis Goodwill were compos'd by this Society, and the sequences of each are detailed down each side.

There is a good scattering of old glass including a continental roundel of St Mary Magdalene, and two other pieces featuring an abbot and a monk which Francis Young tells me originally came from Bury Abbey. Also striking is an Arts and Crafts portrait of a bearded figure, possibly intended as John Lowes but likely a studio piece using a cartoon of one of the disciples. Above and below the panel are set square panes of what appear to be 17th Century continental decorative glass, although they are probably the work of the artist of the portrait. There appears to be no record of who made it or how it came to be here. It would be interesting to know its provenance.

Small among the glass is a little early 16th Century lozenge with the pomegranate symbol of Henry VIII's first wife, Katherine of Aragon. The Latin text says Whom God has joined together, let no man put asunder. Henry's divorce from his first wife Katherine led inexorably to the opportunity for power of the Puritans, and to the death of John Lowe. As Sam Mortlock wryly observed, historic irony is almost always accidental.


Simon Knott, April 2021

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looking east sanctuary looking west
pulpit (17th Century) font studio piece? (early 20th Century) crucified John and Alice Revett, 1671
St Mary Magdalene monk (15th Century) praying figure (donor? 15th Century)
bench end: cowled figure with an open book (15th century) bench end: bird (15th century) bench end: bird (15th century) bench end: bird (15th century)
pomegranate On Feb 2nd 1749/50 the seven peals under written were rung here St Edmund
hanged for witchcraft cherub First Headmaster of Brandeston Hall
In the yere of our Lord God 1616


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