At the sign of the Barking lion...

St Mary, Bures

At the sign of the Barking lion...

home index e-mail what's new? - a journey through the churches of Suffolk

Bures St Mary

south porch Waldegrave chantry
tomb recess The men of Bures St Mary and Bures Hamlet tower doorway

Follow these journeys as they happen at Last Of England Twitter.


Bures is a fine old riverside village, a town almost, partly in Suffolk and partly in Essex. The same was once true of nearby Sudbury, but the Ballingdon district there was drawn into Suffolk by boundary changes in the 1950s. Tradition survives here, and this is still a split town. The Essex side is called Bures Hamlet, but is now the larger part, with a railway station and housing estates.

The River Stour is the county border, and it flows not far from the western edge of the churchyard. The Suffolk side styles itself Bures St Mary, although I am told that this church was not dedicated to St Mary until the 19th century Anglican revival, when one of the results of the Oxford Movement was a renewed interest in church dedications. Many of these were restored by well-meaning antiquarians sorting through the ancient records of the Diocese of Norwich, and the confusion arose because of a now-vanished chapel in the churchyard dedicated to the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin. In fact, the dedication of this church in medieval times was probably to the feast of All Saints.

The north side of the church faces the street, although you can enter the church through either the north or the south porches. Both are lovely. The red brick early 16th century south porch is stately and grand, a holy water stoup with supporting figures, and a wide open space inside suited for the conduct of parish business. There is a fearsome exterior headstop low on the west side, which must surely be older than the porch - 13th century, I should think. Either the Tudors reused it, or the Victorians placed it here during their restoration.

The other striking feature of the exterior is the red brick massing of the Waldegrave chantry on the south side of the chancel, its east window somewhat grander than that of the chancel itself. Above the porches rises Richard de Waldegrave's tower of the late 14th century. However, the base of the tower is a survival of an earlier one, and on its southern side is a curious tomb recess, now empty.

St Mary is a quintessential Anglican church, its 19th and 20th century reorderings typical of thousands of large, prosperous buildings. But there are unusual things in this church, all worth going to see. If you look up, you will see that the ceiling consists of flat, wooden patterns, with modern lighting units set into them. Mortlock credits the woodwork to Ewan Christian, who carried out the 19th century restoration. The lighting system is from the 1990s. The arcades are lit from beneath, creating the effect of an undercroft.

In the sanctuary and to the north of the altar, one of the Waldegrave tombs sits grandly beside the high camp Victoriana. It has been rather battered by the fortunes of history; its brass has long gone, but the grand angel corbels that supported its also-vanished wooden canopy survive. It is to Richard de Waldegrave, who built the tower, and it was used as an Easter sepulchre. Wodewoses, East Anglia's wild men of the woods, guard the corners.

Easter Sepulchre tomb of Richard de Waldegrave Woodwose guarding Richard de Waldegrave
angel canopy corbel bearded man guarding Richard de Waldegrave

And then, to the south of the chancel is the Waldegrave chantry. A tomb in the south east corner, actually a cobbling together of two separate Waldegrave tombs, has lost its brasses, but the standing memorial to the west is more complete. Along the front, the children kneel in prayer. Their legs are curiously swirly, and someone recently said to me that they look as if they have been extruded out of a cake decorating set. The memorial remembers a William Waldegrave who died in the early 17th century, and the more you look at it the odder it gets. For instance, although the twelve weepers are in their conventional position, there are no effigies of the remembered dead. Even odder, the memorial inscription is on the back of the tomb, and ordinarily out of sight. This memorial is curiously awkwardly placed, and feels rather in the way, until you remember that for three hundred years after the Reformation the liturgy had no need for gangways for processions, or for views of altars. The tomb was probably placed deliberately so.

William Waldegrave (early 17th Century) five swirly girls (16th Century)

The Waldegraves were not popular people in this parish, apparently. At the time of the Anglican reformers in the 1540s, there was a general uprising here and the destruction in the church was so severe that the churchwardens were punished. A hundred years later, the puritans meted out their fundamentalist justice to the Waldegrave children, removing their hands. And yet, this rather ugly tomb still sits here, and who remembers the puritans now?

The location of the tomb is perhaps a pity, because the eastward view in the chapel is otherwise its triumph. The five light window contains 1920s glass by Horace Wilkinson. It is a memorial to the Waldegraves and the Proberts who succeeded them. Interestingly, memorial inscriptions have been added to it over the years, most reently in 1997 and 2012.

Heading back into the body of the church, a wooden effigy of a knight rests in peace on a north aisle window recess, which is obviously not its original place. It dates from about 1330, and is made of chestnut. No one really knows who he is, although some books mention someone called Richard de Cornard. The lion under his feet has a rather sad expression, I think. Suffolk's only other wooden medieval effigies are at Boxted and Heveningham. Mortlock says that the survival of his shield is notable and rare.This knight effigy may or may not have come from Bures church originally, and there is no way of telling now.

wooden knight (14th Century) sleeping knight (c1330)

The most unusual feature of St Mary is something you would not notice, or even think to look for unless you knew it was there. This is a strange little octagonal segment that juts out about ten feet up on the eastern face of the south side of the chancel arch. It is, of all things, a piscina. What is it doing up there? We need to imagine the rood screen, rood beam and rood loft, and all the liturgical paraphernalia of the pre-Reformation church. The rood loft here had an altar on it, and this piscina served the altar. Why is it so rare? Simply, this chancel arch was built with a drain inside it. Most rood loft altars must have managed with a takeaway bowl. An extraordinary thing, in many ways.

I'm always conscious along the River Stour of how civilised the south of Suffolk seems, and how wild Essex looks beyond it, as if the 21st century hadn't quite made it yet along the narrow lanes from County Hall at Chelmsford. North Essex is wonderful cycling and church-exploring country, but people seem to know the Suffolk side best. In the corner of the churchyard is a parish war memorial which is unusual, and possibly unique. It remembers The men of Bures St Mary and Bures Hamlet who gave their lives for King and Country in the Great War, which of course is to say the lost boys in two different counties.

Simon Knott, August 2019

Follow these journeys as they happen at Last Of England Twitter.

looking east

chancel Christ in Majestu (Horace Wilkinson, 1930s) Waldegrave chantry looking east
font war memorials roodloft piscina
her loving and devoted service for many years in the family of Captain Probert of Bevills

Amazon commission helps cover the running costs of this site