St Lawrence, Brundish
www.suffolkchurches.co.uk - a journey through the churches of Suffolk
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I have a vivid memory of cycling out of Ipswich to visit this church on a late summer's day about twenty years ago. It was the main goal of my bike ride, but I called in at other churches on the way as the countryside grew wilder, the villages more remote. I'd foolishly left my Ordnance Survey map at home, though I'd known the lanes well enough until I got to Badingham. Chatting to a woman in the churchyard I'd asked her if I should turn right or left on the village street I wanted to get to Brundish next. "Brundish?" she replied. "Not sure. That'll certainly take you down to the Framlingham road." At the house on the corner a man was working in his garden. "Well now", he said, straightening up. "that'll be the road to Stradbroke. Not sure about Brundish. Is it a village out that way?" If I remind you that I was barely three miles from Brundish at this point, it might give you an idea of how insular some of the villages of high Suffolk still were at the start of the 21st Century.
The great unbuttressed expanse of the tower of St Lawrence is Norman in origin and the lower part of it survived the complete rebuilding of the church in the late 14th Century. Around the corner is the later porch, probably a century younger than the nave against which it is built. It is a lovely thing, although the workmanship of its join to the south wall is a bit shoddy, frankly, a reminder that not all medieval builders were master masons. You see something similar at Thornham Magna. The south door, excitingly, is contemporary with its doorway, and the lock is probably the original one too. However, as this church is open every day you won't get a chance to try out the ancient key.
You step through into an enchanting interior, at once simple and dignified and full of light. The open, even cavernous, space of the nave segues into a chancel big enough to shrug off its 19th Century restoration. There is a grand echo, deep and resonant. The effort of singing here must be amply repaid. "You and I could stand under that chancel arch and sing an aria", said the nice lady who welcomed me on the occasion of my first visit here back in the 1990s, "and we'd think we were at Covent Garden." This beautiful space feels loved and cared for. And the light! Even on a dull day the white light falls evenly across the brick floors, the old woodwork, the brass lamps. There is no 19th or 20th Century glass at all, for what little there was was removed by a stray German bomb in 1941.
Although the interior as we see it today is the result of the sacramentalist reordering that virtually all English churches underwent in the second half of the 19th Century, many of the furnishings here are from earlier. Indeed, the most westerly range of benches is 15th Century, with surviving damaged bench ends. Two appear to depict the fragmentary evangelistic symbols of St Matthew and St Mark. There are similar bench ends nearby at Tannington and Bedingfield. To the east of these benches are box pews dating from a time when the pulpit was probably in the centre of the church. However, some of them contain medieval benches. A medieval misericord chair is bolted down in the north doorway, and when you lift it up, you see underneath the seat the ghosts of elaborate and mysterious carvings. Someone called J Pollard is commemorated on it, at the age of 92. Was he an elderly parishioner who sat in it, perhaps in the 18th Century? Was his name painted here to remember him when he died?
Simon Cotton and Peter Northeast unearthed an unusual 1470 bequest by one Roger Cok of the remarkably large amount of £10 to Sir Thomas Swayn, the vicar of Brundish (Sir being a courtesy title allowed to pre-Reformation priests). It required him to celebrate for a whole year in the parish church of Brundish except that in the second year the said Sir Thomas to celebrate in Scala Celi near the court of Rome 3 Masses for the health of my soul, Alice my wife and all my benefactors. Equally intriguing is a long series of later bequests all to the one purpose. In 1495 Roger Brodhok left 40s to paint the candlebeam of Brundish. Four years later in 1499 Roger Alvard also left 40s to the painting of the candlebeam in the same church. Again in 1501, and John Colby's bequest is worth quoting at length, to the payntyng of the candill beme in the said chirche of Browndische 20s. I woll that an honest prest shal be hired be myn executors to singe and praye in the parisshe of Browndisch for my soule and the soule of the right noble prince John late Duke of Suffolk my especiall good lord and the soules of my fader and moder and of Symond Pyle and Beatrice his wife, Agnes Warton and Sir William Goldwyn Prest and all those soules that y am most in charge for and most bounde to pray for by the space of II years. There were further bequests to the painting of the candle beam in 1504, 1506, 1507 and 1509, when Harry Crokelyng also left one and a half nobles for a new bell.
These wills give an
insight into the urgency of making bequests that would
contribute to the liturgical life of the Catholic church
in a late medieval country parish. Of course, within half
a century it would all come to an end. While we can do
little more than imagine the destruction that occured
here in the 1540s when the protestant Reformation's
iconoclastic destruction of English churches was at its
height, we can more easily conjure up what happened a
century later on the afternoon of Monday April 3rd, 1644.
This was the day that the puritan William Dowsing, the
official commissioner of the Earl of Manchester to the
counties of Cambridgeshire and Suffolk, visited Brundish
to make sure that the Parliament's edicts against
idolatry were being enforced. He'd started the day at
Kenton and then came on through Bedingfield and
Tannington, both places where he found much to do. His
journal records his activities here at St Lawrence: There
were 5 pictures of Christ, the 12 apostles, a crucifix,
and divers superstitious pictures. The vicar have 2
The most famous of
them sits under a tomb canopy on the north side of the
nave. This isn't the brass's original position, but it is
in remarkably good condition. It is to a priest, Sir
Edmund of Brundish. Unusually, the inscription beneath it
is in Norman French: Sire Edmound de Burnedissh iadys
person del esglise de castre gist icy dieu de salme eit
mcy. It is worth pointing out that Dowsing respected
figures in brass and heraldic imagery in general, but was
wary of the inscriptions beneath them. Despite Sir
Edmund's Catholic prayer clause, an invocation for
prayers for his soul, this inscription survived Dowsing's
visit intact. As the late John Blatchly observed, it was
usual for Dowsing to leave inscriptions in French alone,
but the prayer clauses in inscriptions in Latin were
often destroyed or damaged. We may be sure that Dowsing,
an educated man, could read Norman French. But he did not
destroy it. This suggests that Dowsing believed that
ordinary people could read Latin as late as the 1640s,
but not French.
There are other brasses, several of them to Colbys, up in the chancel, interesting because they have some of the earliest post-Reformation memorial inscriptions in Suffolk: Within this grave entombed lyeth a man of noble fame, a souldier to the Prince was he, John Colby night his name. he lived fforty years and nyne in credit with the best, and dyed such as here you see, his sowle in heven doth rest. Another, from early in the following century, shows Thomas Glemham kneeling at a prayer desk with the inscription Yf life in God, and like of good, yf love of Christ, and eke his word, yf strif with vice, as fire with wood, Yf death with faith, in thouly Lord, are tokens sure of endles bliss, which god prepared, hath for his, then Thomas Glemham, here doth lye, who rest with Christ, in heaven lye. There were once more brasses. Some that are now missing were recorded as being here in the early 19th Century.
A more recent memorial remembers Judith Calvert, late of Brundish Lodge, who died at the age of 41 in November 1766. She was courteous to all her acquaintance, and remarkably prudent in domestick affairs. At the bottom of her inscription we learn that she also lays her son Turner an infant in the same grave. He'd died a few days earlier, so perhaps her own demise was as a result of the child's birth, or possibly they had both succumbed to the same infectious disease, neither outcome terribly rare in 18th Century rural England. Not far off, William Beckford Miller is remembered. He was the father of the vicar, and he died in his son's vicarage in 1844. He was, his inscription tells us, for many years an eminent bookseller in the City of Westminster. Joseph William Bazalgette, son of a later vicar, accidentally drowned at sea from the SS Port Jackson whilst performing his duty in 1912. He was 18 years old.
The Laudian tester to the pre-Reformation pulpit, which Cautley had seen displayed beside it in the 1930s, was stacked in the space beneath the tower when I first visited, but today it has been reinstated to its proper place above the pulpit. John Blatchly had also found panels of the roodscreen beneath the tower while researching his contributions to Trevor Cooper's new edition of the Journal of William Dowsing in the 1990s. He discerned through the red and green paint the deep scratches and gouges left by iconoclasts at the level where the faces of the figures were. This is commonly found, and the likely result of the iconoclasm of the 1540s, but there is still the possibilty that these figures are the 12 apostles mentioned by Dowsing in his journal. I hasten to add that isn't likely that Dowsing himself was responsible for the scratching out of the faces, but he may well have baulked at seeing the scratched out panels still in situ, and the paint that now covers them may have been a result of his instructions.
Back in the 1990s I'd thought Brundish church beautiful, but I was struck by an air of sadness and decay. Over the next ten years or so the parish galvanised itself and restored St Lawrence to the condition we find it in today. But it reminds us that the survival of England's medieval churches is uncertain but vital. They are our national touchstones down the long generations. And more than this, there is a feeling of silence which infuses the light here, a sense of the numinous. It is the silence of a place waiting through the centuries, a humbling silence, a reminder that we are transient creatures, and our time is short. Change and decay in all around I see, but thou who changest not...
Simon Knott, January 2021
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