St Peter and St Paul, Eye
www.suffolkchurches.co.uk - a journey through the churches of Suffolk
The great flint-encrusted tower of St Peter and St Paul rises above a stunningly crafted interior. Here inside, we will find the nearest thing Suffolk has to a fulfilment of the ecclesiological aspirations of our great-grandparents' generation.
From a tiny spark, a glint in the eye of John Keble at Oxford in the 1830s, the sacramental revival in the Church of England spread like wildfire over the course of the ensuing century. The Church set about rediscovering its Catholic roots, and the preaching houses of the Hanoverians were stripped bare and filled with all the best that the Gothic revival had to offer. In many medieval churches, original artefacts were rediscovered and pressed back into service. Where this wasn't possible, the mass-production workshops of Birmingham and London could be called upon to provide what history could not.
Ironically, the catalyst for all this had been some of those very reform acts which had deprived Eye of its 'rotten borough' status. Catholic emancipation in the 1820s had been followed by grants to a Catholic university in Ireland; Keble, along with Pusey, Newman, Froude and the others, saw that the Church of England was in danger of being sidelined as a protestant sect. The Oxford Movement, as it became known, published a series of tracts to try and educate the middle classes about their lost past. Their intention was that the Church would recover its catholicity, and its destiny as a national church; the inevitable result was that some of the Movement, Newman among them, would leave the Church of England to become Catholics themselves.
The medieval past that they most admired was that of the early 14th century. This allowed them to see the later medieval period as an abuse-riddled downturn, from which the Church had to be rescued at the Reformation. However, as the Movement went on, there were many who asked if the Reformation had really been necessary at all.
The grandeur of Suffolk's biggest churches is an eve-of-the-Reformation wealth of the medieval industrial-heartland-of-England thing. Here at Eye it rebuilt the tower in the second half of the 15th century. As at Stradbroke, with which the tower has much in common, it was De la Pole money that rebuilt it, and the family arms are discernible still. Mortlock points out that you can see the shape of the windows change from late-Decorated to Perpendicular over the course of the 40 years or so it took to build. You can see the last windows, the pure rationalism of the late Perpendicular period, right at the top in the bell-stage. Beneath are some mystical Decorated windows, and below them the vast west window which bridges the gap between the two.
As the tower was being completed, so the rest of the church was undergoing an opulent rebuild. You can see evidence of the extension at the east end of the south aisle, where a blocked door sits beside the new one into the chancel. As at Lavenham, the parishioners here were left in no doubt about secular power and its might. Soon, the De la Poles, the Springs, the De Veres and so on would outgrow the middle ages, and the aspirations of wealthy families such as these would give rise to the Reformation, the nation state, and ultimately capitalism itself.
This was in the future. For now, the De la Poles invested in prayers as well as commerce, and although their south porch is a bit battered these days, it remains one of the loveliest in Suffolk, its brickwork echoing the gildhall on the other side of the church. You can only enter it from inside the church if you hope to see the dole table and fine 13th century doorway that survives of the earlier church, and you have to be there when it is open, for it now contains a shop.
Externally then, this is one of the great East Anglian churches. Here we see the late medieval Church in all its glory.
But in the 1530s, a collision of expediency and opportunity put an end to it all. Henry VIII took the church out of Europe; his son Edward VI enforced its protestant credentials, and Edward's sister Elizabeth I settled the whole thing by imposing a tyrannical oppression of the old ways, to bolster her grip on power. The past was subverted and lost, as first Anglicans, and then Puritans, overthrew the religion of their parents and grandparents, of the long generations. They all but obliterated the old order, the ancient faith. Much was lost, and much was forgotten. This was what the Oxford Movement tried to recover, but in the context of a national established church, with spectacular results.
All gone now, alas, alas. The ritualist tide has receded almost completely, and only the trappings and debris survive here and there, a reminder of what once was. An age that hovers on the edge of a public memory, when the formal vision of the established Church was at the heart of British daily life; an age of candles and incense, of richly coloured vestments and four-part choirs. An age of anthems, and war memorials, and processions, and coronations, and a liturgy that brought you to your knees.
Some of this still survives. Here at Eye the tradition has not completely receded.
You walk beneath the great tower with its wonderful fan-vaulting so uncharacteristic of Suffolk, and then into the open space of a large, civic church. As at Hadleigh, Halesworth, and other small Suffolk towns, the 19th century restoration here was pretty significant. However, into this created space have been placed furnishings of superb quality and design. The centre piece is Comper's magnificent rood screen and loft, built on the remains of the old one in the mid-1920s. The screen below is good, although not as good as some of the county's other late-15th century screens; the loft however, is easily the best 20th century work in Suffolk.
The figures on the dado screen must have been painted in 1500. Pevsner says, somewhat harshly, that they are all bad. It is true that they are doll-like, with nothing like the sophistication of those across the A140 at Yaxley, for example, but they have a certain naive charm. Curiously, the gessowork that forms a relief to the figures is really quite sophisticated. They are, from north to south: I: St Paul, II: St Helen, III: St Edmund, IV: St Ursula and her ten thousand virgins, V: Henry VI, VI: St Dorothy, VII: St Barbara, VIII: St Agnes, IX: St Edward the Confessor, (the gap into the chancel is here), X: St John the Evangelist, XI: St Catherine, XII: St William of Norwich, XIII: St Lucy, XIV: St Thomas of Canterbury, and XV: St Cecilia. You can see them all below - click on them to enlarge them.
Many of these Saints had strong local cults in the late medieval period, and are familiar from other East Anglian screens. The less common St William of Norwich adds a little colour, standing as evidence of an anti-semitism that persisted well into the late middle ages, despite (or perhaps because of) the fact that the Jewish population had been expelled some two centuries previously. Two of the other images resonate strongly - the cults of Henry VI and St Thomas of Canterbury were particularly frowned upon by the 16th century reformers.
Up in the chancel, an entirely secular memorial recalls the Reverend Thomas Wythe, for fifty years Vicar of this Parish. he died in 1835, and the monument notes that he cordially believed, zealously preached, assiduously practiced. It is unlikely that the Reverend Wythe would recognise the inside of his church today. Much of what was foregrounded in this church by the considerable 1850s restoration was further adapted and enhanced by the higher church over the ensuing century. The most spectacular work is by Ninian Comper. As well as the rood and rood loft already mentioned, he produced the great east window depicting the Risen Christ flanked by St John, St Peter, St Paul and St Polycarp. His also is the towering font cover, and the image of St george in the north aisle, which I liked best of all.
The process continues; the elegant tomb recess in the north aisle, for example, is host to Lough Pendred's 1960s Madonna and child. Pendred carved the same subject in a different composition for the lady chapel in the south aisle. To be honest, this kind of light wood romantic abstraction is very much of its decade, but there is a poignancy to its presence here in one of the surviving outposts of modern Anglo-catholicism. Eye is one of the few Suffolk churches that still 'sports the big six'; that is to say, has six tall candles on the high altar.
Comper decorated the chancel roof, which glows magnificently in the morning light through the east window. Tucked away in two corners are two post-Reformation tombs to Nicholas Cutler and William Honyng, the first in the north aisle (it was originally in the sanctuary, according to Mortlock) and the second in the south aisle chapel. They are curious, because they appear to be almost identical, although whether this is a tribute to early-modern vanity, competing arrogance or mass-production I couldn't say.
This is a church in which to wander. It is full of interest, little details and quiet corners. A bit like Eye itself.
Simon Knott, 2003 (updated 2007)
St Peter and St Paul, Eye, sits near the centre of this fine town just to the east of the A140 Ipswich to Norwich road. It is open every day.
Please note that the photographs on this page remain copyright of The Suffolk Churches website, except for the main picture which is by Rod Humby, and retains his copyright.
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