At the sign of the Barking lion...

St Mary, Brent Eleigh

At the sign of the Barking lion...

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Brent Eleigh

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Here we are in the gentle yet secretive hills to the east of Lavenham. It was April 2019, and I'd come by the top road from Monks Eleigh, a lonely road where cars rarely stray and grass grows up in the middle. I imagined it was a bleak place in winter, probably snowbound between the hedges. About halfway between the two villages I was woken from my reverie by a large roebuck jumping through a gap in the hedge across the road about ten yards ahead of me. I brought my bike to a swift halt, and watched in wonder as he was followed by two more bucks, and then three, and then a couple more. In the end I watched thirteen of them pass before me, as big as calves.

They knew I was there. They looked back at me from a field of shooting barley, their white rumps in a line. And then they broke for cover, and were gone over the rise.

Still full of this thrilling sight I freewheeled down into the village until I reached the church. It had been several years since my last visit, but I remembered much about the place because St Mary is a church of outstanding interest, but little known to those who rely on older books for the churches they visit, for the great treasure here was not discovered until 1961. Even without knowing about it you can see that this is a lovely village church, rebuilt with 14th Century wealth that came from the cloth trade, for this was one of the villages where wool was spun in river-backed courtyards for the Lavenham merchants.

The name of the village reflects a dramatic event. At some point in its history, it was destroyed by fire (Brent='burnt'). Not far away, there is Bradfield Combust, a name denoting a similar incident. The church sits in a long sleeve of a churchyard, full of robust birdsong in the late winter sunshine, its chancel pointed towards the road. Externally, St Mary is that rare beast in Suffolk, a largely late Decorated building. It looks well on its rising ground. The old door with its ironwork latch is probably the one provided by village carpenter and blacksmith back in the 14th Century, a startling thought. I lifted it, and once again I stepped into the cool inside, a beautiful cool, ancient space, the walls laid with brick, the 19th century furnishings immaculate. Sam Mortlock was right to call it charming.

One of the stories that haunted me as a child was that of Howard Carter finally discovering Tutankhamun's tomb in the Valley of the Kings. If you remember, it was on one of the last days, just before the money ran out. Carter breaks a tiny hole in the seal of the door. He shines his torch through at the treasures beyond. "What can you see?" asks a breathless assistant. "Wonderful things", whispers Carter.

In 1961, the Victorian reredos was removed from the sanctuary of St Mary, to enable a repair to the east wall. Traces of colour were visible behind the thin layer of plaster. Gently, it was removed, revealing, as in Carter's words, wonderful things, for here are some of the finest and most beautiful wall paintings in Suffolk.

Most striking is the crucifixion scene above the altar, forming a retable. The Blessed Virgin and St John flank the crucified Christ. They date from the start of the 14th century, making them roughly contemporary with the figures at Little Wenham and on the Thornham Parva retable. They are similarly angular yet fluid, as though in motion. These are doubly remarkable survivals, for early in 2016 they were attacked by someone with a knife or screwdriver, perhaps someone with an anti-religious mania or a hatred of images. It took over a year for the wallpainting specialist Dr Andrea Kirkham to collect together thousands of flakes of plaster and paint and restore them to their original place. You really would not know to look at it today.

Blessed Virgin at the foot of the cross (c1300) Christ crucified (c1300) St John at the foot of the cross (c1300)
reredos (c1300)

Either side of the reredos are slightly earlier paintings, late 13th Century. To the left, two angels censing a space with thuribles, and the space must have contained an image bracket, probably for a crucifixion, or perhaps an image of the Blessed Virgin. But the most unusual scene is to the right of the crucifixion. This shows the Harrowing of Hell. Christ descends into Hell to free Adam and those condemned before the arrival of salvation. But the most intriguing feature is the figure kneeling in the bottom corner. He is probably the donor, and part of his intecessionary scroll survives.

There was a falling out of fashion for non-liturgical wall paintings in the middle years of the 15th century. Many seem to have been whitewashed then, a full century before the protestant Reformation, not to see the light of day again for nearly half a millennium. Perhaps the two outer scenes were covered then, and the painted reredos lasted until the Reformation itself.

two angels cense an image (late 13th Century) Christ at the Harrowing of Hell, donor bottom right (late 13th Century)

Eerily, the scene in this central painting is echoed in the 1860s glass by the O'Connor workshop above, although of course the Victorians cannot have known that they were doing so. And as if the wall paintings were not enough, the sanctuary is contained within another great treasure, the three-sided 17th Century communion rails. There are fewer than half a dozen sets of these in all East Anglia.

The box pews in the nave are complemented by some surviving 15th century benches at the west end. At one time, they may have faced the Decorated parclose screen in the south aisle. It is slightly later than the wall paintings, but you can begin to imagine the Catholic life and liturgy of this place. Mortlock thought it the oldest screen in Suffolk, and curiously St John is represented on it by an eagle, more often on screens in East Anglia he is shown by a poisoned chalice, the eagle surviving elsewhere only at Sotherton in Suffolk and Magdalen in Norfolk. The screened chapel later became a family pew.

Up in the chancel is one of Suffolk's more dramatic memorials. It is to Edward Colman, who died in the 1740s, at a time when many English churches were falling into disrepair, and no doubt welcomed the patronage of those who wished to use the buildings as a kind of mausoleum. Colman reclines life-size behind a spiked iron fence, which looks as if it is there to stop him escaping. These fences are typical of the period, but many must have been removed during World War Two for scrap. There is a pensive smile on his face, as if he is resigning himself to the inevitable. High above, a crown in heaven waits for him, clasped in the chubby arms of a cherub, and Colman stretches out his left hand as if to receive it.

Edward Coleman, 1740s Edward Coleman, 1740s cherub woth a crown of glory for Edward Coleman (1740s)

Colman's father is remembered for bequeathing to the church a parish library of more than a thousand books. They had their own building, which was demolished in the restoration of 1860, but the volumes had been dispersed some years earlier. Many can now be found in university libraries around the world. The memorial was apparently the work of Thomas Dunne, who built churches for Hawksmoor. The Colmans, and other parishioners, were baptised in the Purbeck marble font with its elegant cover at the west end of the south arcade. A beautiful light falling into this aisle distracts from the height of the nave, which looks as if it might have been waiting for clerestories and a north aisle before the Reformation intervened. The north wall is home to the royal arms of Queen Anne, relettered for George I, a hatchment, and a surviving biblical inscription from those days when the Elizabethan Settlement tried to make us all into protestants.

The spring afternoon was almost over, a chill beginning to make itself felt in the low sunshine. It was time to head back to Ipswich. I wandered back down to the road in the bright sunlight and headed north into the hills, the haunting and beautiful church at Kettlebaston keeping me company on a ridge to the east. I looked back to make out the tower of Brent Eleigh church behind me. Soon, the low hills enfolded it, and it disappeared.

Simon Knott, September 2019

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looking east sanctuary with three-sided altar rails
within the parclose south door (14th Century) Crucifixion (O'Connor, 1860s) font south aisle and parclose
Queen Anne royal arms relettered for George I Elizabethan text changed this life for eternity St John
The Glory of Children

tombchest (18th Century) skeleton on a tombchest (18th Century)

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