At the sign of the Barking lion...

St Mary, Gislingham

At the sign of the Barking lion...

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St Mary, Gislingham St Mary, Gislingham St Mary, Gislingham

welcome   I always get a frisson out of visiting Gislingham, because it is one of the few East Anglian churches with Knotts lying in the graveyard. Here, the large, deeply incised headstones to the west of the tower speak of solid mid-Victorian respectability, and although I think it is unlikely that these Knotts have any connections to mine, I find this strangely comforting. My 15 year old son especially likes the one which begins James Knott fell asleep, because that is his name, and he has a large photographic reproduction of that gravestone up above his bed.

One of my favourite sights of the red brick tower of St Mary is that from the walks on the Thornham Estate of the Hennikers. One can imagine the 18th century residents, treating it as a 'view' and planting their copses accordingly. Closer to, the tower dominates the local countryside, grand, yet mellow, one of the best red brick towers in Suffolk.

And it is rather unusual, because it was built as a replacement for a medieval tower in the years after the Reformation. The neglect that set in the Church of England in the later part of the sixteenth century would cause more than a few Suffolk church towers to collapse during the course of the next 250 years, before the Victorians stepped in to rescue them. Gislingham's was probably the first to fall, hitting the ground in the winter of 1598. Robert Petto paid for the replacement in 1639, so it was probably an act of Laudian piety, and one that would have seemed heartily pointless through the twenty years of the Commonwealth period that followed. Come the Restoration, however, and John Darbye of Ipswich would cast two bells for the tower - he may be the same John Darbie who had given 100 for its construction thirty years earlier. Because of the early date, there are ecclesiological features which would be lost to brick towers for the next couple of centuries.

Unusually, St Mary presents its north face to the village street, with the grand porch and busy graveyard belying any misconception that the north side of graveyards were in some way 'unconsecrated'. The tower was rebuilt flush with this side, not centrally as before. St Mary is a big church, and looks all of its 40 metres long. You enter through the long north porch, where a lovely notice reminds you quite how welcome you are. The church you step into feels wide and open, with a sense of age not scoured by the 19th Century restoration. There is a fine hammerbeam roof. Mortlock noted the pulleys on several beams - only one of which, of course, could have been for the Lenten veil; but probably none of them were. Perhaps they were for pulling up candle lights.

St Mary has a good collection of fragments of medieval glass. The most significant scene is a Coronation of the Blessed Virgin, which is more commonly found in Norfolk, and may well be 14th Century. More beautiful are the fragments from a century later, including the wheel symbol of St Catherine, a face, a foot, and an exquisite roundel of the eagle symbol of St John the Evangelist.

St Catherine's wheel eagle of St John Coronation of the Blessed Virgin
hand holding a book face foot

The church has undergone a lot of repairs in recent years, and for anyone who has visited it over that time it is looking increasingly magnificent. The font has suffered the knocks and indignities of the centuries, but bears a dedicatory inscription to the Chapman family, who also gave the porch outside. The sanctuary, with its dark wood rails and panelling, is stunningly beautiful in this ancient space.

There are some interesting box pews retaining their numbers, and the position of the three-decker pulpit halfway down the nave reveals the Protestant pedigree of the preaching of the time here; it is a reminder that, for a couple of centuries, it was the pulpit rather than the altar which was the focus of worship in an Anglican church. Of course, the Oxford Movement put a stop to that.

Gloomy skulls peep from beneath drapery on the wall monuments. Elaborate tracery from the medieval rood screen is set on the north chancel wall; Sam Mortlock bemoaned its absence in 1987, when he described the condition of the inside of the church as being one of filth and decay. How very different things are today!


Simon Knott, February 2009

look east font inscription look east sanctuary
died at Cawnpore memorial tracery chancel composite St Catherine to doo good, & to comunicate for get not
skull skull

Ann Knott James Knott, who fell asleep James Knott


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