At the sign of the Barking lion...

St Mary, Bury St Edmunds

At the sign of the Barking lion...

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Bury St Mary

Bury St Mary Bury St Mary Suffolk, early autumn

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This is Suffolk's great urban church. Well, perhaps that's not strictly true, for Lavenham, Southwold and Mildenhall are also great urban churches, but St Mary has the town to go with it, and that's what makes the difference. The west door here opens directly onto the busy road, and as Pevsner points out this is an impressive church, but impressive in an urban way, a large church which has been constantly reappraised, restored and reinvented over the centuries to suit the whims and needs of changing liturgical fashions and an urban congregation. Ipswich town centre's pocket-sized parishes packed like squares of wheat with their dozen medieval churches have nothing to compare.

If you approach the church from Angel Hill you pass the former parish church of St James. This is now rebadged and largely rebuilt as St Edmundsbury Cathedral, very much a church of the late 20th and early 21st Centuries thanks to the work of the architect Stephen Dykes Bower, not to mention the money that he bequeathed in his will towards its tower. But St Mary is different, and although the hand of the Victorians fell hard here, this is above all else a great medieval church, one of three built by the wealthiest abbey in England during the 14th and 15th Centuries. St James was another, and there was also St Margaret, but that is now gone. 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 cleared to create a cathedral close after Diocesan status was achieved in the early 20th Century.

The view of St Mary from the churchyard belies the urban setting to the west, for from the north you get a more typical view of a large East Anglian church of the 15th Century, except that the tower sits to the north of the west end of the aisle. The clerestory doubles the number of large aisle windows of the nave beneath it, and then there is the Notyngham porch, also of the mid-15th Century. This is a good place to start, for as with much of the church it was paid for with the New Money of the time. As at Lavenham, this building is a monument to medieval Mammon as much as it is to God.

Simon Cotton and Peter Northeast unearthed several dozen late medieval wills leaving money to the reconstruction of St Mary, and these bequests give something of a picture of its development. Several wills of 1393 are the first to mention the tower, and in one of them Robert Mandeville perhaps gives us a starting date for its construction when he leaves 40d to building the tower of the church of Blessed Mary if they proceed. By the start of the 15th Century work is clearly underway, attention switching to the body of the church, for by the 1420s there is a succession of merchants' wills leaving money variously to the fabric of the new church (John Pyrye), to the paving and the making of the new church (John Bowre), the sum of 100s to the fabric of the new church of St Mary at Bury (John Somerton) and a remarkable 20 to paving and building the new church of Saint Mary (John Bouvre). So as we can see, money was no object. Construction seems to have proceeded quickly, because by 1437 John Notyngham's will leaves another 20 towards the construction of 2 porches at St Mary's church. Two wills of 1442 leave money to the making of the battlements of the church of Blessed Mary. Subsequent bequests are for the internal fixtures and furnishings, so we may assume that by the middle of the 15th Century this church was pretty well complete.

The entry to the church nowadays is from the west street front, which as at St James is entirely stone-faced. There is no porch now, and you step through a surprisingly discreet doorway flanked by large image niches into this huge building. In terms of volume it is one of the largest parish churches in England, and so it is humbling to think that St Mary was once just a small corner of the great abbey complex. Stretching to the east are the longest, highest arcades in Suffolk. They remind me of something Simon Schama wrote in his book Landscape and Memory, that the great medieval cathedrals and churches of northern Europe deliberately echoed the great forests.

looking east looking west chancel
arcades and candelabras south aisle: arcades and candelabras arcades and candelabras

There were three 19th Century restorations here, each of which has left its mark and character. Lewis Cottingham was here for most of the 1840s and his was the major structural work, including the removal of all the galleries which had been installed barely twenty years earlier. How quickly fashions change. Cottingham died in 1847 while the work was still in progress. Arthur Blomfield came next in the 1860s, and the nave furnishings are all his. Blomfield also oversaw the installation of much of the glass. Finally, at the end of the century George Bodley was here to restore and refurnish the chancel.

At the west end of the nave sits what at first appears to be a typical 15th Century East Anglian font with an octagonal bowl. The stem is supported in the familiar manner by four lions alternating with figures that appear to be men holding swords erect, but which were almost certainly originally woodwoses holding clubs. But the bowl was recut with new designs, perhaps in the 17th Century, shields and recessed squares which were presumably once painted but which now look very odd. To the north of it, at the west end of the aisle, sits a WWI memorial chapel with an imposing cenotaph of 1920. To the east of this Cottingham reset the wall monuments which once lined the nave walls, making 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. The inscription tells us that like a worn out Type he is Returned to the Founder, in hopes of being recast in a better and more perfect Mould, a simile which might suggest to the unknowing that early 19th Century Burians believed in reincarnation.

Also in this corner is the memorial to 55 men drowned at the wreck of HMS Birkenhead on 26th February 1852. The Birkenhead was a troopship, a steam frigate that was carrying troops and officers' families from a garrison in Ireland to the South African Xhosa Wars. It was wrecked just off of the Cape when it wandered onto submerged rocks. Fewer that two hundred of its six hundred and fifty passengers survived. There were not enough lifeboats, and a legend arose that the soldiers were told to stand by and not jump overboard so that the lifeboats would not be swamped. The new popular newspapers of the day referred to this as 'putting women and children first', a phrase which became so embedded in the popular imagination that it was soon a protocol. How the Victorians loved that kind of thing. But in fact almost all of the survivors were soldiers, many of whom were able to swim ashore, as did eight of the nine horses. The dramatic relief above their names on the memorial shows the ship foundering and the words "A Deathless Story".

To explore the church, a good way to begin is to walk up the south aisle. Two other significant 15th century donors here were Jankyn Smith and John Baret. Smith lengthened the church eastwards with chancel chapels to south and north and a projecting sanctuary. There is a double figure brass of Smith and his wife in the south chancel chapel, although his chantry was actually a parclosed screened area at the east end of the north aisle. East of the screen, flanking Smith's extension, are two grand memorials, both topped by couples. To the south are the Drurys, familiar from nearby Hawstead, and to the north are the Carewes. Both monuments have been knocked about a bit, losing their canopies in the process. But it is John Baret that any visitor to the church will remember, for 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.

The rotting corpse of John Baret (1467) John Baret cadaver (detail)
Sir William Carewe, 1501 alert greyhound Lady Drury

Above Baret's corpse is one of England's best surviving 15th Century church ceilings. The legend Grace me Governe is worked across the ceilure panels with illuminated capitals and tiny stars that have real glass mirrors at their centres. it was sensitively restored in 1968. As if this wasn't enough, the nave roof is also the gift of Baret, and Mortlock thought it the finest in England (Cautley went for Mildenhall). The most easterly brace forms the now repainted canopy of honour to the original rood. Because St Mary is so big, the roof is a less intimate experience than at Mildenhall, but it can be illuminated to bring out the detail. As well as the angels there are figures representing the hierarchy of the Catholic Church, and the wallposts contain Apostles, Saints and Prophets. The historian Clive Paine writing 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 at the Coronation of the Blessed Virgin. 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 which would neatly fit in with the dates of the bequests we know about. 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, for enthusiasm for celebrating the Feasts of the Assumption and Coronation of the Blessed Virgin were at their height in the mid-15th Century. Paine recalls 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 remarkable roofs. There is also the chancel roof, which is ceilured, and although it was extensively repainted during Bodley's restoration it is largely to its medieval integrity. Angels carry verses of the Te Deum, and there are musical instruments and mythical beasts. The roodscreen you step through is an elegant one of the early 20th Century, and it is a good place to turn and look back at the great west window, believed to be the largest in any church in England. The glass is by Ward & Hughes, and generally the aisles and chancel are a good catalogue of many of the major 19th Century glass workshops, including Clayton & Bell, Thomas Willement, Heaton, Butler & Bayne and Henry Hughes. The east window is early 20th Century work by Percy Bacon & Bros, but the best of the 20th Century work here is in the north aisle chapel, redesigned and refurbished in 1935 by Ninian Comper as the Suffolk Regiment Chapel. The fixtures and fittings are all his, including the sanctuary with its altar frontal and screen, the glass, the curious ceiling and the wrought iron gates. It is one of the largest schemes of his work in Suffolk, with which only Lound can compare.

Suffolk Regiment chapel altar (Ninian Comper, 1935)

commemoration board by Ninian Comper, 1935 ceilure by Ninian Comper, 1935 ironwork and ceilure by Ninian Comper, 1935

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 perhaps 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 mundane floor monument, but above it on the wall are an 18th Century plaque and a modern one similar to that at Westhorpe. Rather neatly, the cusping of Smith's blank arcades above ends in Tudor roses. The glass in the south aisle by Clayton & Bell remembers her life, and was supposedly paid for by Queen Victoria, a pleasing continuity in one of East Anglia's more significant medieval churches.


Simon Knott, January 2021

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woodwose flanked by two lions ceilure: 'grace me governe' rood screen
font the glorious dead west window the collected dead
Transfiguation (Ward & Hughes) St James, St Peter, St John (Ward & Hughes) regimental glas by Ninian Comper, 1935
Bishop HMS Birkenhead memorial a deathless story south aisle altar
grace me governe Christ is whipped (Continental)<Mary Tudor Queen of France
Jankyn and Ann Smith Ann Smith Edmund Lucas


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