St Mary, Bury St Edmunds
www.suffolkchurches.co.uk - a journey through the churches of Suffolk
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This is Suffolk's great urban church. Well, that's not strictly true; Lavenham, Southwold and Mildenhall are also great urban churches, but St Mary has the town to go with it, and that makes a difference; the west door here opens directly onto the busy road, as does the one at St James a hundred metres north. Ipswich can only gape in envy.
I had come here on the train from Ipswich on one of those glorious January days when the sky is crystal blue and the air full of ice. It had been two months since I had completed my quest of visiting every single Anglican and Catholic church in Suffolk, but St Mary was the last one that remained unphotographed. In a way, it was the real end of it all.
From the train, I gazed out on high Suffolk. The line threaded through spare winter fields. Not far off, the silhouette of Creeting St Mary church brooded on its ancient hill. Beyond, Phipson's mutant spire at Woolpit pierced the haze.
I thought back to starting at Thornham Parva four years before. It didn't seem very long. I got my camera out and fiddled with it, finally working out how to set the autofocus properly. Well, it was about time. I was also playing with my favourite Christmas present, a zen audio jukebox; no bigger than a pack of cards, but with 30Gb of storage on it. I'd already put 300 CDs on it, and there was room for another 1000. Soon, nobody will buy CDs any more, we'll just plug into each others record collections and download them. It is the death of recorded music as we know it. Having seen Lost in Translation for the second time the previous evening, I had the Jesus and Mary Chain on shuffle; gazing out at Suffolk unfolding, recognising distant towers, listen to the girl as she takes on half the world...
I wandered out across Angel Hill and past the former St James, now the Anglican cathedral. I'm not terribly fond of St James, beyond being amused by the Festival of Britain makeover that the eastern end has received at the hands of architect Stephen Dykes Bower, the man responsible for the folly tower currently taking shape above it. But St Mary is very different, and although the hand of the Victorians fell heart-breakingly hard here, this is above all else a great medieval church, one of three built by the wealthiest abbey in England during the 14th century.
St James was another, of course, and there was also St Margaret, now gone; but its charnel house survives in what is now St Mary's rambling graveyard. At one time, the graveyards of all three met to the north of St Mary, but that of St James was shamefully cleared to create a cathedral close after Diocesan status was achieved in the early 20th century.
From the graveyard you will see the Notyngham porch of the mid-15th century. As with much of this church, it was paid for with the new money of the time; like Lavenham, St Mary is a monument to Mammon as much as it is to God. Curiously, it retains features of a hundred years earlier that were presumably part of an earlier porch. At one time, there was a south porch too; but this was removed as part of the 1840s restoration, and still stands as a folly today in nearby Nowton park.
The graveyard may distract you, but you must still return to the busy street to enter this church from the west. You step into an internal box porch familiar from continental Catholic churches, and then into this vast building; in terms of volume, it is one of the biggest parish churches in England. It was almost entirely rebuilt during the course of the 15th century as a result of numerous bequests, giving it a more organic feel than Southwold or Lavenham.
I have to say that I am used to wandering around big churches on my own. But that was not my experience at St Mary. It was a cleaning day, and the church was full of helpers. They were just ordinary Bury people, not medieval historians, but as I wandered about, they were extremely helpful, and all of them seemed to know a lot about their church. This is not my usual experience. They also allowed me to go anywhere I liked, pretty much, including up into the sanctuary and onto the ledges of the great memorials. One of them illuminated the 15th century roof for me. I put more money in the box at the end of it than I have in any English church before. Thank you to all of them.
To begin with, then, look at the images below. These are the first sights of this great building on entering it. Hover your cursor over them to read, and click to enlarge them.
These are the longest, finest, highest arcades in Suffolk. It is like walking through a forest. I thought of something Simon Schama wrote in Landscape and Memory, when he was still pretentious and before he became a TV star; he argued that the great cathedrals deliberately echoed the great forests. It was humbling to think that St Mary had once been just a tiny corner of the great abbey complex; on the painting at the end of the entry for Bury Abbey, St Mary is dwarfed by the great building beside it.
The Notyngham porch was inaccessible on the day of my visit because of a scaffolding tower, so I shall have to go back and photograph the boss in the roof. Angels surround foliage out of which an old man is peeping. Perhaps he is a green man, or more likely at such a late date it is a rare image of God the Father.
I said before that St Mary was built by trade, and apart from John Notyngham the two most significant 15th century donors were Jankyn Smith and John Baret. Smith lengthened the church eastwards with chancel chapels to south and north and a projecting sanctuary. The altar pieces here are modern and splendid: to the south, a representation of the incarnation above a simple wooden altar, and to the north an embroidered screen in the Sarum tradition.A brass of Smith and his wife can be found in the south chancel chapel, although his chantry was actually a parclosed screened area at the east end of the north aisle. Click on the images to see them enlarged.
But it is Baret we remember today. Before Smith built the south chancel chapel, Baret carved out for himself a chantry chapel at the east end of the aisle. In it he put a cadaver memorial which is generally considered the best in England; unfortunately, because of this, on the day I visited to take photographs it had been removed to take part in the Gothic exhibition at the Victoria and Albert Museum. I hope it had a nice time. Whatever, I shall go back to photograph it when it comes home, and will update this entry accordingly.
Far more remarkable than Baret's corpse is England's finest surviving 15th century church ceiling. It sits above the former chantry chapel, and is stunning. The legend Grace me Governe is worked across the ceilure panels with illuminated capitals and tiny stars that have real mirrors at their centres. it was sensitively restored in 1968 and you can see a photo and a detail of it by clicking on the images below.
As if this wasn't enough, the nave roof is also the gift of Baret, and Mortlock thought it the finest in England (Cautley goes for Mildenhall). The most easterly brace forms the now repainted canopy of honour to the original rood. Because St Mary is so vast, the roof is a less intimate experience than Mildenhall, but they will illuminate it if you ask nicely, and binoculars will find many of the details. The 10x optical zoom on my camera did just as well once the sunlight began slanting through the clerestory. As well as the angels, there are figures representing the heirarchy of the Catholic church, and the wallposts contain Apostles, Saints and Prophets. I found the one which has been identified as my old friend St Walstan, and you can see him below.
The historian Clive Paine, in the church guidebook, suggests that an intriguing detail of the roof is the pair of figures to the west. They could possibly be interpreted as Christ in Majesty and Mary Queen of Heaven. However, as the female figure is holding her crown rather than wearing it, it may very well be that it is Margaret of Anjou, who was engaged to marry Henry VI (who in turn may be the figure wearing a crown). If this is so, then it may be that the roof was planned and begun between the betrothal of October 1444 and the enthronement of May 1445. Mortlock suggests that it may have been completed in time for Henry's parliament which was held here in Bury in February 1447. It may be that the religious iconography of the royal couple was intentional; enthusiasm for the Assumption as a Church festival was at its height in the mid-15th century (it is entirely expunged from official Anglican doctrine today) and Paine records that the Abbey poet John Lidgate compared Margaret of Anjou's entry into London with the bodily assumption and coronation of the Blessed Virgin Mary into heaven.
But St Mary doesn't have just two amazing roofs. There is also the chancel roof, which is ceilured, and although it has been extensively repainted it is largely to its medieval integrity. Angels carry verses of the Te Deum, and there are musical instruments and mythical beasts. It is a delight.
The roodscreen is an elegant one of the early 20th century, and if you pause and look back you will see the great west window, believed to be the largest in any church in England. The mawkish glass in it was given in thanksgiving for the bumper harvest of 1854. Indeed, if you like sentimental 19th century glass then the south aisle at least will be a feast for you. I can take a little, but tend to think that, as with Schubert's lieder, Ibsen's dramas and chicken liver paté, Victorian glass is best served in small portions. However, there's a nice scourging in the south chancel chapel which you can see to the left.
East of the screen, flanking Smith's extension, are two grand memorials, both topped by couples. To the south are the Drurys, familiar from Hawstead, and to the north are the Carewes. Both monuments have been knocked about a bit, losing their canopies in the process. The best faces are the male Carewe and the female Drury. Again, click below to see them enlarged.
The most famous person buried here is neither Drury or Carewe, or indeed Baret or Smith. It is Mary Rose Tudor, sister of Henry VIII, who was married off to the King of France in the hope of cementing peace between the two kingdoms (pragmatically, Henry married his other sister off to the King of Scotland). Unfortunately, the French King put a spoke in the wheel by dying shortly after the ceremony, so Mary came back to England and married Charles Brandon, Duke of Suffolk. They lived at Westhorpe, and she is remembered in the church there. When she died, she was buried in Bury Abbey, and at the dissolution her tomb was moved here. It appears to have been dismantled in the 18th century, and has been replaced by a rather mundane floor monument; but above it on the wall are an 18th century plaque and a modern plaque like the one at Westhorpe. Rather neatly, the cusping of Smith's blank arcades above ends in Tudor roses.
In the South chancel chapel there is a 19th century window by Clayton & Bell, supposedly paid for by Queen Victoria, which tells the story of Mary Tudor's life. The panels are sombre, although not without interest; I rather liked the final one of Mary's funeral Mass in Bury Abbey. The officiating Abbot would join Mary here in the chancel floor after his death.
Elsewhere, there is much of interest, lots of little details that alone would make a visit to a smaller church worthwhile. Although the panels of the font bowl were destroyed by the reformers, the shaft is a nice one with lions flanking men carrying swords. At the west end of the north aisle is the so-called St Walstan chapel, which is now full of the paraphernalia of remembrance, and to the east of this the Victorian restoration reset all the wall monuments, which make a rather impressive piece together. Tucked around the corner is the monument to Peter Gedge, who published Bury's first newspaper and died in 1818: like a worn out Type he is Returned to the Founder, in hopes of being recast in a better and more perfect Mould. Did early 19th century Burians believe in reincarnation, I wonder?
I thanked the nice people, and headed out into the Saturday traffic.
So, that was it. I had now photographed every single Anglican and Catholic Parish church in Suffolk, as well as all the redundant ones. I'd done most of the ruins and even photographed a dozen or so empty fields where churches had once been. St Mary was the 641st. I had taken about 7000 photographs and written over a million words. God knows how many miles I had cycled - thousands. I had visited every village in the county, some of them several times. The website had had more than 80,000 visitors through the front door alone, and had been featured in the national press and on television in Britain, the US and Australia. It had spun off into a six part radio series (with a second series to come this summer, if you are in East Anglia). It had generated about 6000 e-mails from people offering or asking for information.
I wandered back up to Angel Hill, William Reid's breathy voice and those bottom-of-the-liftshaft drums resonating in my head. The hardest walk you will ever take is the walk you take from A to B... It was time to go and do something else.
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