At the sign of the Barking lion...

St Peter and St Paul, Fressingfield

At the sign of the Barking lion...

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curly-haired angel on a cloud south porch Assumption of the Blessed Virgin
Fressingfield sanctus bell turret tomb of William Sancroft


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Large and lovely, Fressingfield is a surprise of a village in the gentle hills between Framlingham and Norfolk's Harleston. Rising out of the barley plains is a village of about eight hundred people clustering around the wide churchyard of an impressive church. At the side of the churchyard is the Fox and Goose inn, which was the late medieval church house. On the wall post furthest east on the north side is a 15th Century image of St Margaret. A gild in her name was active here in the early years of the 16th century, and the north chancel chapel of the church may have been theirs. The churchyard is large and open, sloping dramatically away to the north carrying the headstones of centuries of generations of Fressingfielders, and their church rises like a great ship amongst all these memories of the past.

The church was largely rebuilt as the 14th Century became the 15th, the tower and chancel first and then the nave and aisle in between. The grand south porch was the gift of Katherine de la Pole in memory of her husband killed at Harfleur and her son killed at Agincourt. A boss in the vaulting depicts the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin, angels bearing her up to heaven. The nave must have been complete by 1449 when Elizabeth Brown left 10 marks to paint the rood loft, and although as late as 1511 John Bohun left money to the new building of an aisle on the north side of the chancel, the chapel here seems the work of a century earlier.

Riding the gable end of the nave is the surviving medieval sanctus bell turret, which likely dates from about 1490. In 1487 Robert Fox had left 13s 4d to the reparation of the high roof of Fressingfield church when they repair it new, and then in 1495 Richard Bohun left 10 marks to the fabric of the church and to the same church a bell called a sanctus bell weighing 100lb, by which time the turret must have been complete. The sanctus bell was rung at the consecration in the Mass so that those parishioners outside the church could be aware of what was happening. Most churches managed by ringing a hand bell at a pair of open shutters on the south side of the chancel known as a low side window, but a wealthy church like Fressingfield would go in for something grander. Inside the church, you can still see the hole in the chancel arch through which the bell rope passed.

You step into a wide open nave which, despite Bottle & Olley's substantial 1880s restoration which took away the west gallery and some box pews does not have the urban feeling you might fear in such a large church. There is hardly any coloured glass, no imposed Victorian grandeur. Indeed, the first impression is rather more a domestic one, for the entire church is carpeted in blue, preventing a sight of the 1489 brass to William Brewes and his wife, which is a shame. However, it is a more than decent setting for Fressingfield's famous 15th Century benches. What makes them so special is the sheer consistent quality of the whole collection. Nowhere else in East Anglia is late medieval church seating so substantial, so full of confidence. Charles Cox in his Bench Ends in English Churches (and he is talking about the furnishings as a whole, not just their end figures) wrote that Fressingfield church is better fitted throughout with excellent fifteenth-century benches than any other church in the kingdom. The side of each bench is decoratively carved, several with liturgical symbols including an IHC monogram and a chalice and host. The figures are largely of saints, including St Peter with his keys and St Dorothy with a basket of fruit. A figure with a dog is St Roch, who was invoked against plague. The leg he is lifting to show his plague sores has unfortunately been lost. An angel with a scroll and the Blessed Virgin at a prayer desk form together an Annunciation scene, and the figure of Sloth from the Seven Deadly Sins shows that there must once have been others.

IHS bench end with Blessed Virgin at the Annunciation floral bench end with St Roch and his dog chalice and host bench end with part of winged bull of St Luke
St Dorothy with her basket of fruit hooded figure holding head (Sloth?) Elephant and Castle
St Roch and his dog Blessed Virgin at the Annunciation seated at a prayer desk holding lilies St Peter holding keys
man with his hand on a book seated angel holding a scroll winged lion of St Mark

The benches at the west end of the nave are known as the passion bench and the dedicatory bench. The first shows symbols in shields along their backs that are more familiar from East Anglian fonts, the crown of thorns and nails, the reed and sponge, the three dice, and so on. The second shows St Andrew's saltire cross, the papal symbol of St Peter as well as his keys, and several others.

One of the benches bears initials that may very well be those of Katherine de la Pole who we have already met in the porch. High above, the golden hammerbeam roof is a fine counterpoint to the benches. If you look carefully you can see that it has a slight but consistent twist to it. The church also retains the window that provided a back-light to the rood, and when I visited in March 2022 scaffolding had been erected to insert glass into it by Surinder and Rowland Warboys. The grand piscina and sedilia up in the sanctuary came as part of Richard Phipson's earlier restoration of the 1860s, I think. There is also a smattering of surviving medieval glass, including an emblem of the Trinity in the south of the chancel. This is slightly different from its normal form, forhere, the three roundels are labeled Pater (Father) Fili (Son) and Su S (Holy Spirit), the three ribbons into the middle contain the word est, and the centre states Deus (God). The most memorable glass is at the west end of the south aisle, Henry Holliday's figures of Hope and Love.

Facing across from Holliday's gorgeous figures is the austere portrait of Archbishop William Sancroft. Sancroft was born here in Fressingfield, and his family lived at Ufford Hall in the south of the parish. He found himself in the unenviable position of being Archbishop of Canterbury during the brief but volatile reign of James II. Sancroft had to defend the authority and position of the Church of England twice in those three years. His actions may seem contrary to each other today. Certainly, he seems to have alienated just about everybody at the time. Firstly, he refused to allow Anglican ministers to read out the King's declaration allowing freedom of worship to non-conformists and Catholics. He drew up a petition at Lambeth Palace with six other Bishops to ensure that Anglican primacy continued to be enshrined in law, and was lucky to escape without a prison sentence. Secondly, he refused to recognise the political coup d'etat by the London merchant classes that deposed James II, and put William III on the throne. Sancroft said that he could not take the oath of allegiance to a King crowned by an authority other than God.

A man of integrity rather than pragmatism, he was thrown out of Canterbury and Lambeth, and retired here, licking his wounds. The last few years of his life were spent lavishing love and attention on the church at nearby Withersdale. A long tradition holds that he could never again bear to enter Fressingfield church for Matins, because this would mean hearing prayers for the King he denied. He is buried here in this churchyard.

Also buried here in this great sea of the Fressingfield dead is Mary Borrett, the wife of Daniel Borrett, who died on December 30th 1853. She was 55. Her inscription reads:

Blest mother, I remember thee from early childhoods hour
When first my heart awoke to feel maternal loves deep power,
In midnight dreams thy angels form around my couch appears,
And oft thy hand seem stretched again to wipe away my tears,
When laid within thy narrow bed where now the green turf grows,
While we where left alone to stem the tide of human woes.

The Suffolk dialect form of the verb in line four and the spelling mistake in line six only serve to make it more poignant. Beside her lies her husband who died in the 1880s, and beyond him their son, presumably the author of the verse. Interestingly his stone also includes his wife who died in the mid-20th Century, a good 80 years or so after her mother-in-law. All three headstones are the same shape, a classical form which must have seemed old-fashioned even in the 1850s, a mark of the typical conservatism of a rural English parish. Only the lettering reveals that the headstones were produced over the course of a century or so.

Simon Knott, March 2022

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scaffolding for installing new glass in the window above the chancel arch chancel looking west through bench ends
Hope and Love (Henry Holiday, 1895) Hope by Henry Holiday, 1895 Love by Henry Holiday, 1895 Jacob Robert Aldous, 1876


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