St Genevieve, Euston
www.suffolkchurches.co.uk - a journey through the churches of Suffolk
Outside the towns, Suffolk is largely a patchwork of fields and woods, and so the setting of St Genevieve is quite out of the ordinary. The walled graveyard is set in the open parkland of Euston Hall, home of the Dukes of Grafton. The green park spreads for hundreds of acres on three sides, a sward punctuated by patiently grazing sheep. Beyond the fourth side are the grounds of the Hall, but the sense of remoteness is not disturbed by this. It is a long way to walk to discover that you need to go all the way back to the estate office to get the key (a round trip of about four miles) so I will tell you that now.
The walk across the park to the church is a pleasant one on a sunny spring day, with the wide open blue sky enfolding the green. Occasional clouds scuttered slowly, reflecting the sheep below, who found me even more interesting than I did them. On the hill behind, a building like an observatory was obscured by the trees. It was built in the late 17th century as a banqueting hall by the architect William Kent, for Lord Arlington, owner of the Euston estate. More accurately, Kent designed it; it was built by hundreds of local peasants. Arlington was one of Charles II's advisers, and is remembered in the name of the settlement that is now a suburb of Washington DC, and home of the US's national cemetery. He had got the estate for a pittance thanks to his slavish devotion to the crown; previously, it had been owned by the Rokewodes of Stanningfield; but they were Catholics, and were ruined by implication in the Gunpowder Plot.
William Kent also designed the great pile of Euston Hall, but barely a quarter of it survives today after a serious fire and rationalisation. Capability Brown and John Evelyn are responsible for the Park. The setting would be even better without the churchyard wall; the sheep would be able to get in among the gravestones to keep the grass down, and it wouldnt have been necessary to move some of the stones into a line against the wall. However, the gift of hindsight is a rare and precious one.
Long before you get to the church, as soon as you see it in fact, you know that here is something rather extraordinary. St Genevieve is a purpose built 17th century Anglican parish church. It is unusual in England, and unique in Suffolk. It has a touch of the Christopher Wrens about it, but the outline and tower owe something to Suffolk medieval as well, and I like it for that. It is probably exactly on the site of a medieval predecessor, of which it retains some features, as we shall see. Arlington wrote in the 1660s that his heart grieved that he sould see Gods house in the ruins it lay at Euston, so a rebuild was timely. In the years after the construction of St Genevieve, Euston Hall park enclosed the settlement and church of Little Fakenham, which were completely erased from the face of the Earth.
Beside the unused south door, a simple inscription tells us that the Duches of Grafton and Countese of Ewston layed this stone 21st day of April 1676 - they were the same person, of course - and a later restoration is remembered beside it. To get in, you walk around to the west end, and are instantly transported to the heart of London. Curved steps lead up to a double door, with rails narrowing on either side. It was so much like a Wren city church, I found myself watching for traffic.
We had enjoyed a certain amount of suspicion when we obtained the key. The keyholder recognised me, but still insisted on taking my address, as well as the car registration of my colleague. Since he drives a Lotus Elise, and there's hardly room in the boot for my camera, we were scarcely likely to be plundering the furnishings. As if this wasn't enough, the doors of the church were chained at the top so that it was only possible to enter by moving sideways and breathing in - and I have met other churchcrawlers far less sylph-like than me.
However, once inside the illusion of a Wren city church is sustained. This is partly because of the merciful removal of some of the most hideously awful Victorian glass in the county. Now, the church is full of enfolding waves of white light, from round and round-arched windows. It is all in the late 17th century baroque style, sensitively restored and maintained. The plasterwork is magnificent, the woodwork wholly in keeping. It is breathtaking.
There are two pre-Victorian windows, and also two very good 19th century windows that were justifiably kept. One of them in particular, showing the Presentation in the Temple to Simeon and Anna, is worthy of note.
Lord Arlington's daughter married his friend the Duke of Grafton, and Euston has been in the hands of the Graftons ever since. Inevitably, the church is a bit of a mausoleum (I have recently heard this kind of building described as a 'tribute-church', which is rather neat) but it is all very understated, and a far cry from Boxted or Helmingham. The family pew in the south aisle is backed by a couple of grand memorials, including one to Alington himself; there are some simple ones at the back of the church and on the arcade, and about twenty coffin plates that have, in recent years, been taken from the Grafton vault and placed around the walls, that's all. It is very seemly.
The 1882 memorial to the 6th Duke of Grafton in the south aisle is probably the best, but I did like very much the simple mosaic memorial in the arcade to Edward Fitzroy, killed in France in 1917, and the 1810 inscription to Frances Fitzroy,which includes 'her own words on her death bed': I thank Almighty God for granting me such an end. I am an object of envy not of pity. Well, maybe that is how it seemed to her at the time.
Looking around, the names resonated a kind of nostalgia for me. I grew up in the part of Cambridge where the Grafton Shopping Centre is now, a maze of streets named after the Graftons: Fitzroy Street, Burleigh Street, Edward Street, James Street, and so on. The terraced streets were built on land owned by the Graftons. It was curious to think that this was where they had all ended up.
The woodwork of the pulpit, and especially that of the reredos, is attributed often to Grinling Gibbons. It is certainly in his style, recalling similar work at the Ipswich churches of St Mary le Tower and the Unitarian chapel. The pulpit is magnificent, a focus for the whole church.
The church has some excellent brasses, but the two best are beneath the carpet. I am afraid to say that we removed the carpet to photograph them, and the underlay broke up a bit. I did look around for a hoover, but there wasn't one. I apologised to the keyholder later.
There are six brasses all told. Three of them are couples (the large one under the carpet is probably the Rokewodes), one a single woman, one a priest (the most interesting, this - he seems to have died at the age of 104) and the other a simple inscription. Most date from the early years of the sixteenth century.
Those of you with an incomprehensible passion for Royal Arms will have noticed the set in the image of the west end on the left, and wondered at them. This is because they aren't Royal Arms at all; Mortlock tells us that they are the arms of the first Duke of Grafton.
Despite a certain amount of 20th century clearing, the graveyard is fascinating, and there are some fine late 18th and early 19th century survivals. Many, if not all, of the people here must have worked for the Graftons or on the Estate, but an 1840s memorial to a house servant particularly struck me. Several of the larger tombs commemorated Graftons, but there is nothing outrageous or vulgar. The air was silent except for a light wind in the trees, birdsong, and the calling of the sheep. It was a lovely place to wander.
Scenes from the graveyard:
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