The winter was
cold and dark, but the days were lengthening. It was a
Sunday in early February 2017 which had promised gloom,
but which burst instead into a bright unforecast winter
sunlight. I got on my bike and I headed back to Flowton.
All the way, the fields were dead, the crows in
possession. Riding the hills from Nettlestead, I
freewheeled down into Somersham and up the other side of
Now the clouds began to gather again, but I was not
downhearted, for snowdrops in the hedgerows signalled the
yearly cycle beginning again, spring not unheralded. The
world would come back to life, and all too soon it would
be May, Mary's month. Listen: the hedgerows full
of birdsong, as the endless circle of life renews itself.
Chaffinches spiralling and flustering in their ritual of
courting and nesting. Below them, a pair of warblers
twisting in a perilous skein over the road surface. A
pair of jays hammer the sky beyond.
This is spring as it has always been, adapting itself
minutely from year to year as Suffolk around it changes.
A hundred years ago, these lanes were full of people, for
in those days the villagers were enslaved to the land.
But a farm that might support fifty workers then needs
barely two now, and the countryside has emptied, villages
reduced to a third of their size.
To be a farmworker these days is a solitary calling, and
I felt at one with them as I raced over the gentle rises
on my bike. In all this journey from Bramford, apart from
a brief frenzy of activity at Somersham, I had seen only
one other person, and she was on horseback three miles
ago. Suffolk is quieter now than at any time since before
the Saxons arrived, and nature is returning to it.
In the early spring of 1644, a solemn procession came
this way. The body of Captain William Boggas was brought
back from the Midlands, where he had been killed in some
skirmish or other, possibly in connection with the siege
of Newark. The cart stumbled over the ruts and mud
hollows, and it is easy to imagine the watching
farmworkers pausing in a solemn gesture, standing upright
for a brief moment, perhaps removing a hat, as it passed
But no sign of the cross, for this was Puritan Suffolk.
Even the Church of England had been suppressed, and the
local Priest replaced by a Minister chosen by, and
possibly from within, the congregation.
William Boggas was laid to rest in the nave of the
church, beside the body of his infant daughter who had
died a year earlier. His heavily pregnant widow would
have stood by on the cold brick floor, and the little
church would have been full, for he was a landowner, and
a Captain too.
And the story doesn't end there. So, I cast my mind back
to a glorious May day in 2007, with the heat of summer
already more than a promise, I arrived again in Flowton.
Here, the trees in the hedgerows gathered, and the early
leaves sent shadows dappling across the road beneath my
wheels. The antiquarian David Davy came this way in a bad
mood in 1829, with his friend John Darby on their way to
record the memorials and inscriptions of the church: ...we
ascended a rather steep hill, on which we travelled thro'
very indifferent roads to Flowton; here the kind of
country I had anticipated for the whole of the present
day's excursion was completely realised. A more flat,
wet, unpleasant soil and country I have not often passed
over, & we found some difficulty in getting along
with safety & comfort.
The roads have changed here since Darby and Davy came,
but the church hasn't much. The Victorians were kind to
Flowton, and perhaps this was because the Puritans had
been. It has a delicious atmosphere, that of an
archetypal English country church. The narrow green
sleeve of the graveyard enfolds it, rather formal to the
north, but wildly overgrown on the south side. The tower
is one of those curious affairs where the upper storeys
have been taken down at some time, presumably because
they were unsafe. The capped base looks rugged and
primitive; one might think it early, even Norman. In
fact, this pretty little church is almost all of a 14th
century piece, in the Decorated style.
The west face of the tower still has its niches, which
once contained the images of Saints who watched over the
travellers passing by. Another thing curious about the
tower is that it has no west door. Instead, the door is
into the south side of the tower. There must be a reason
for this, for it exists nowhere else in Suffolk. Perhaps
there was another building to the west of the tower.
However, there are several churches in this area with
towers to the south of their naves, and the entrance
through a south door into the porch beneath the tower.
Perhaps that was originally the intention here.
The signs by the lychgate say Welcome to Flowton
Church. Now, this is easily done, but does it mean
anything? Yes, it does, for this church is always open
during the day. And so you step into a sweetly ancient
space, a slight damp in the air from the winter now
going. The brick floor is uneven but lovely, lending its
organic quality to the font, a purbeck marble survival of
the 13th Century which seems to grow out of it.
The bricks spread eastwards, past Munro Cautley's pulpit
of the 1920s, and up beyond the chancel arch into the
chancel itself. Glazed Victorian tiles have their place,
but fortunately that place is not here. On the south side
of the sanctuary there is a great rarity. The piscina
that formerly served the altar here still retains its
original wooden credence shelf. On the opposite wall is a
fine corbel of a madly grinning devil.
But it may be the ledger stone of Captain William Boggas
that first catches your eye, a pool of dark slate in the
soft sea of bricks. It reads Here lyes waiting for
the second coming of Jesus Christ the body of William
Boggas gent, deere to his Countrey, by whoes free choyce
he was called to be Captayne of their vountaries raysed
for their defence: pious towards God, meeke & juste
towards men & being about 40 yeeres of age departed
this life March 18: 1643. To the north of it lie two
more ledgers, the easterly one to his young daughter,
which in chilling legalese records the date of her birth
and her death in the next ensuing month. To the
west of that is one to William, his son, who was born on
April 11th 1644.
Now hang on, you may
be thinking. How could his son have been born in April
1644 if William senior had died in March 1643? Simply, in
those days the New Year was counted not from January 1st,
but from March 25th, a quarter day usually referred to as
Lady Day, in an echoing memory of the pre-Reformation
Feast of the Annunciation. So William Boggas died one
month before his son was born, not thirteen.
It would be nice to think that William Junior would have
led a similarly exciting and possibly even longer life
than his father. But this was not to be, for he died at
the age of just two years old in 1645. As he was given
his father's name, we may assume that he was his father's
first and only son.
A further point of interest is that both Williams' stones
have space ready for further names. But there are none.
There would be no more children for him; how could there
be? But William's wife is not buried or even remembered
here. Did she move away? Did she marry again, and does
she lie in some other similarly remote English graveyard?
Actually, it is possible that she doesn't. Boggas's wife
was probably Flowton girl Mary Branston, and she had been
married before, to Robert Woodward of Dedham in Essex.
Between the time of William Boggas's death in 1644 and
the 1647 accounting of the Colony, Mary's daughter and
nephews by her first marriage had been transported to the
Virginia Colony in the modern United States. Is it
possible that Mary went to join them?
And finally, one last visitor. Four months after the
birth of the younger William, when the cement on his
father's ledger stone was barely dry, the Puritan
iconoclast William Dowsing visited this remote place. It
was 22 August 1644. The day had been a busy one for
Dowsing; Flowton was one of seven churches he visited
that day. Like me, he came here after Nettlestead and
Somersham. Like me, he noticed the piscina in the
sanctuary. Unlike me, he ordered its destruction. This
obviously didn't happen, so perhaps it was filled in
Dowsing had arrived here in the late afternoon on what
was probably a fine summer's day, since the travelling
was so easy. I imagined the graveyard that day, full of
dense greenery. He came on horseback, and he was not
alone.With him came, as an assistant, a man called Jacob
Caley, a Portman of Ipswich, was well-known to the people
of Flowton. He was the government's official collector of
taxes for this part of Suffolk. One thinks he must have
not been a popular man. What the villagers couldn't know,
of course, was that Caley was actually hiding away a
goodly proportion of the money he collected. In 1662, two
years after the Commonwealth ended, he was found guilty
of the theft of £3000, about a million pounds in today's
money. He had collected £118 of this from Flowton alone,
and John Blatchly, in Trevor Cooper's edition of the
Dowsing Journals, thinks the amount he was found guilty
of stealing is probably understated.
On that May day in 2007 I stepped out into the calm of
the graveyard, through clusters of yellow cowslips that
were scattered here and there across the tussocky ground.
In this place of the dead, I breathed deeply the smell of
new life. A cluster of sparrows suddenly erupted from the
undergrowth, boiling high above me in busy chatter, and
on this bright day I thought this as lovely a place as
any I have ever been in Suffolk.
Knott, November 2019
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