At the sign of the Barking lion...

St Nicholas Chapel, Gipping

At the sign of the Barking lion...

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Gipping Gipping Gipping
Gipping Gipping Gipping

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This is not the Suffolk the tourists love, for we are in the hardworking villages and fields to the north of Stowmarket, solid agricultural country. Muddy hedgeless lanes dart ruthlessly across the rolling landscape, and the little traffic that passes you if you cycle out this way is likely to be a tractor and a trailer, or possibly a great lorry carrying sugar beet or barley. Not far from here a spring rises, and the parish shares its name with the river that it makes, the River Gipping, which will wind through its water meadows until it reaches Ipswich and becomes the tidal River Orwell before flowing out to sea. But that is far away. Here, in the middle of nowhere, a farm track leads off to the north flanked by a few former council houses. After a quarter of a mile or so it leads you to the surprise of a sumptuously flushworked church. The tower beside it is later, perfunctory, ignorable.

St Nicholas is styled a chapel. This is because it is not a parish church, and it never has been, for it was built as the private chapel of Gipping Hall, the home of the Tyrrell family. The Hall stood to the east of the church, but it was demolished in the 1850s. All that remains today is part of the wide moat and a couple of outbuildings. And it would seem that this has always been a small community. At the time of the 1851 census of religious observance, when churchgoing in England was at its height, the congregation here only numbered 20. The officiating minister was the headmaster of Needham Market Grammar School.

This is a small church, but in its jewel-like flint-becrusted walls the tall three-light windows create a sense of space and height, an unusual split four-light window leading the eye to the south doorway below it. The tower was added in the 17th Century, but the nave and the chancel are all of a piece, a late Perpendicular church built all in one go in the middle decades of the 15th Century. Simon Cotton and Peter Northeast found a sequence of bequests to the building of the chapel from the 1430s to the 1480s, one of which, in 1446, left 4s to the making and paynting of St Christopher in the same chapel. It is hard to see where this could have been carried out in the nave, so perhaps the bequest was made before the structure was complete. Perhaps they didn't know quite how all-consuming the windows would be.

After completion the windows would have been filled with stained glass images of saints and perhaps heraldry, but the glass was destroyed, probably by 17th Century puritans. The iconoclast William Dowsing did not come here to Gipping, but he was methodical in his treatment of the Tyrrell's chapel in Stowmarket parish church, and the fact that he didn't come here might suggest simply that he knew it had already been dealt with. We know from his journal that the injunctions against superstitious imagery of 1643 and 1644 were equally applied to private chapels as to parish churches, and the Tyrrells were still tainted by their recusancy.

Because the windows are so vast, there is a kind of greenhouse effect. From the outside you can see right through the building, a counterpoint to the intricate flintwork. Above the door is written Pray for Sir Jamys Tirrell. Dame Anne his wyf. Sir James would go to the scaffold in 1502. Buttresses are punctuated with the iconography of the Tyrrell family, most notably the Tyrrell knot, a three-bowed interlacing that looks like the kind of thing I used to make with my spirograph set when I was little. Then there is the interlocking heart of the Arundell family into which the Tyrrells married, and the letters AMLA, perhaps an acronym of Ave Maria, Laetare, Alleluia! ('Hail Mary, rejoice, alleluia!') from the May anthem, or perhaps a reference to Anne Arundell, Sir James's wife. Also on the north side are the unusual chaplain's quarters, as if a small late medieval house in red brick had been grafted on. The northern wall of this transept has the shape of a window picked out in flint in imitation of those in the nave.

The south doorway is set in the middle of the nave wall, and there is no porch, so you step directly down into the nave. If the exterior of the building speaks of late medieval glory, the interior still retains much of its prayerbook atmosphere, from the time before the Oxford Movement resacramentalised the Church of England. But the glory of the inside is the remarkable east window, for here the many surviving glass fragments form the chapel have been collected and reset.

three bishops and fragments (15th & 16th Centuries)

Shields with Instruments of the Passion flanked by the Blessed Virgin and St John and fragments (15th and 16th Centuries)

Blessed Virgin in tears (early 16th Century) St John in tears (early 16th Century) a dog and a peacock tail (15th Century)
youth in a fashionable hat (early 16th Century) jolly bearded man (early 16th Century)
Bishop reading (early 16th Century) Bishop reading (early 16th Century) Bishop with a King's head (early 16th Century)
Gipping eagle of St John Gipping

Instruments of the Passion: Hyssop Stick and Lance (15th Century) Instruments of the Passion: Three Nails (15th Century) Instruments of the Passion: crossed flails (15th Century)
Instruments of the Passion: St Peter's sword and the high priest's servant's severed ear (15th Century) Instruments of the Passion: the Five Wounds of Christ (15th Century) Instruments of the Passion: the Crown of Thorns (15th Century)

Edmund Tyrrell Parson: Richard Chilton Curate 1756

The central subject is of the Blessed Virgin and St John at the foot of the cross. Their tears and elaborate grief are a good example of the extreme piety of late medieval East Anglia, which would reach a near-hysterical fever pitch before the Reformation intervened. The crucifix that once separated them has gone. Instead, the restorers reset shields once held by angels depicting the Instruments of the Passion in the shape of a cross.

Above this scene are three figures of bishops, one with the head of a king. Other fragments include part of the eagle of St John holding a scroll in its beak, a young man in a fashionable hat of the day, and a jolly bearded man who might have been a king. As often with reset old glass there are later inscriptions on the fragments. One scratched inscription reads Edmund Tyrrell Parson: Richard Chilton Curate 1756 and a painted one tells us that CCT JH 1932 repaired the window. These are the initials of Caroline Charlotte Townsend and Joan Howson who restored the window at the Glass House in Fulham.

It was as late as 1743 that St Nicholas became a public chapel, and a chapel of ease within Old Newton parish. The painted furnishings are simple, and probablythe chapel was refurnished for public worship in the 1740s. On either side of the east window are theatrical decorations, draped pillars that rise to the 15th Century ceiling. They would seem curious in most medieval buildings, but in the 18th Century such things were probably not uncommon. The Victorians would have hated them, and so few survive. There are no memorials. The Tyrrells are mostly remembered at Stowmarket, three miles away, where the parish church includes some intriguing 17th Century survivals. It is possible that the benches in the north-west corner, which are decorated with the Tyrrell knot, were brought here from Stowmarket when that church was restored in the 19th Century.

As overwhelmingly agricultural as this area is today, in 1844 White's Suffolk could describe Gipping as a well-wooded and picturesque parish, although it does qualify the final word with sometimes called a hamlet to Old Newton or Stowmarket, as if it is not really sure. At the time there were 93 people in Gipping, almost all of them farm and estate workers, and although the Hall still stood it was no longer lived in, the owner Charles Tyrrell preferring to live at Polstead, the Hall now only occupied occasionally as a sporting seat. It would be demolished soon after.


Simon Knott, February 2021

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looking east sanctuary
looking west Gipping


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