At the sign of the Barking lion...

St Mary, Burstall

At the sign of the Barking lion...

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Burstall Passed churches: Burstall

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Burstall isn't far from the edge of Ipswich, a long and pleasant village which feels as if it might have been a fairly self-sufficient place at one time, although like many such villages the shop has closed and there is no school or post office anymore. The Arts & Crafts-style village hall is memorable, and the church is a grand sight beyond it in the village centre, for this otherwise fairly typical small parish church of the 14th Century was completed with a splendid north aisle with decorated tracery. The 13th Century tower was retained from the earlier church, which judging by a lancet in the north side of the chancel may have been late Norman.

The interior has a dim coolness, and again there is at first a sense of stepping into something entirely familiar in East Anglia, an ordinary village church which underwent a typical restoration in the 1870s at the hands of Suffolk architect William Barnes. However, alongside the nave runs the north aisle, opening out beyond an arcade which is remarkable for such a small church. It has intricately carved capitals with fleurons and paterae, exquisite on such an intimate scale. The tracery of the windows is thankfully not disturbed by coloured glass, the patterns allowed to swirl and flower in clear light, The range of old benches in the aisle cannot postdate it by much more than a century. At the east end of the aisle is a robust parclose screen in the same style as the window tracery, perhaps worked locally, which once contained a chantry altar. After the Reformation it became the family pew and mausoleum of the Cage family.

All that survives of the main screen between the nave and chancel is its dado. The reading desk on top of it was the work of Munro Cautley. This seems to have been part of a general refurbishment of the early 20th Century which also brought glass by Heaton, Butler & Bayne, one window of which is the parish war memorial. The hushed, sombre chancel created by the dark colours of the east window feels somewhat at odds with the lively light of the aisle.

This part of south Suffolk was wool-wealthy towards the end of the medieval period, and there are plenty of surviving wills and bequests which left money to Burstall church. For many East Anglian churches, these bequests were an opportunity to enlarge their churches and rebuild their towers, but at Burstall the church as we see it today was pretty well complete before the 15th Century began. Peter Northeast and Simon Cotton identified bequests in 1466 and 1477 made by John Spears and Lawrence Hoghson, who both left money to the new bell of the church. Interestingly, Spears also left money to the 'ele', or aisle of the church. It isn't clear whether this was intended for a repair to the north aisle or the construction of a south aisle. Whichever, an aisle was not mentioned in any further wills and a south aisle, even if intended, was never built. The one big building project before the Reformation intervened emerges in wills of the early 16th Century, and this was the rebuilding of the nave roof. This hammerbeam roof survives today, repaired by Frederick Barnes in the 1870s, who also added angels which James Bettley in the revised Buildings of England volume for Suffolk: West tells us were made by Thomas Stopher of Ipswich.


Simon Knott, April 2021

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north aisle looking east font
arcade looking west 14th Century capital
Mary and John at the Crucifixion east window 14th century glass and tracery
screen tracery 14th century tracery


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