At the sign of the Barking lion...

St Peter, Elmsett

At the sign of the Barking lion...

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skull   Elmsett is a large working village to the west of Ipswich. It straggles around a number of lanes, and the church is to the north, out in the fields. Because this area is intensively farmed, the setting isn't as picturesque as some. But it does have something fascinating across the road, which we'll come back to in a moment. My most recent visit here was in the company of John Vigar, and he thought it was quite the best church we visited all day. It was my fourth or fifth visit, but I saw the building through new eyes. Additionally, this was the first time I had come this way with a digital camera, and that makes quite a difference too. All I can say is that, if I did not appreciate before what a beautiful and fascinating building this is, I hope I do now.

It was August, and despite the starkness of the recently harvested fields the graveyard was secretive and attractive, a lovely setting for the long nave and chancel with their neat 13th century tower. This is a building which appears larger than it actually is. The porch is delightful, being at least 600 years old, and retaining its wooden archway. It is interesting to compare it with the one at nearby Somersham.

When I first came here in the 1990s, I had found the church locked without a keyholder notice. A key became available soon after, but today this church is militantly open to pilgrims and strangers. We stepped into a long building, full of light. Not for the first time, I thought how dignified this interior was, and how well it retains a sense of each century in the last half-millennium.

At the west end, a fairly awesome Norman font sits on its blockish pedestal. It has a stubborn quality about it, as if, being quite the oldest thing here, it has no intention of ever changing. The pulpit is from the redundant church of Ipswich St Mary at Quay, now in the care of the Churches Conservation Trust. The crisp royal arms, which are at first sight to George II and dated 1758, are not quite right, and then you realise that these are not the arms of the House of Hanover at all. In fact, they are the arms of Queen Anne, and the reason that the words Dieu et mon Droit appear crammed into the banner below is that they originally read simply Semper Eadem.

Perhaps the best single feature of the interior is the 1609 memorial to Edward Sherland. He kneels at his prayerdesk, surrounded by a scythe, an hourglass and the whole paraphernalia of death. Beneath are two wickedly grinning skulls who seem to be enjoying their moment enormously. The inscription is reflective and cautionary: Tombes have noe use, unlesse it bee to showe The due respecte which friende to friende doth owe; Tis not a Mausolean Monument Or Hireling Epitaph that can prevent The flux of fame: A painted sepulchre Is but a rotten trustlesse treasurer, And a faire gate built to oblivion. But he whose life, whose everie action, Like well-wrought stones, and Pyramides, erect His Monument to honor and respect, as this mans did: Hee needes noe other herse, Yet hath but due, having both tombe and verse.

The Elmsett war memorial nearby lists eleven boys who never returned from the horror of the First World War, including three members of the Keeble family. Below this are ten names of villagers killed by German bombs on the 12th May 1941, including five members of the Taylor family. Most of the dead were children.

Back across the road, then. Here is the famous Elmsett tithe wars memorial. This recalls an incident, just one of many, in which possessions were seized from the home of a land owner in lieu of payments to the Church. It reads: 1934. To commemorate the Tithe seizure at Elmsett Hall of furniture including baby's bed and blankets, herd of dairy cows, eight corn stacks and seed stacks valued at 1200 for tithe valued at 385.

The relationship between churches and their villages is an easier one today than it has been for generations, since the abolition of the hated tithe system, by which landowners had to contribute a proportion of their income to the church for the upkeep of its incumbent. This was the case even if they were not Anglicans, which in Suffolk many were not.

It is salutary for us to recall that the tithe controversy has lingered well into the collective folk memory of modern Suffolk. This part of East Anglia gave strong support to the British Union of Fascists in the 1930s, who were vocal in their support for the tithe rebels. George Orwell documented the struggle in his novel A Clergyman's Daughter; a fascist councillor was elected by the tithe protesters at Eye and, in 1936, massed lines of police confronted fascist blackshirt thugs protesting outside Wortham Rectory. Hard to imagine, now.


Simon Knott, October 2009

looking west sanctuary looking west font
war memorial window tombes have no use unlesse it bee to showe looking out
tombes have no use unlesse it bee to showe killed in Emsett by enemy action G IV R


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