At the sign of the Barking lion...

St Mary, Gislingham

At the sign of the Barking lion...

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Gislingham: the village setting

    I always get a frisson out of visiting Gislingham, because it is one of the few East Anglian churches with Knotts lying in the churchyard. Here, the large, deeply incised headstones to the west of the tower speak of solid mid-Victorian respectability, and although none of these Knotts have any connections to me, I find this strangely comforting. When my son was a teenager he especially liked the one which begins James Knott fell asleep, because that is his name, and he had a large photographic reproduction of that headstone 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 squires 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. Within the village itself the church is set rather tightly against the northern side of its churchyard, but the tower is a pleasing counterpoint to the surrounding houses.

And the tower is 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 16th Century would cause more than a few Suffolk church towers to collapse during the course of the next two hundred and fifty years, before the Victorians stepped in to rescue them. Gislingham's was one of 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 popular modern notion 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 forty metres long. You enter through the long north porch and 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 double-hammerbeam roof which allows the great width of the church without any need for arcades. Sam Mortlock spotted pulleys on several beams, which were probably used 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. More beautiful are the fragmentary collections set below it, including one composite figure carrying the wheel symbol of St Catherine, and elsewhere a face, a foot, flowers and foliage and an exquisite roundel of the eagle symbol of St John the Evangelist.

St Catherine's wheel gloom is in the heart hand holding a book
foot Coronation of the Blessed Virgin eagle of St John
St Catherine (fragmentary, composite, 15th Century) 15th Century glass fragments: a saint fragments: a female saint
flowers and a foot (15th Century) vines, leaves and a face (15th Century) flowers, foliage and a foot (15th Century)

The church has undergone a lot of repairs in recent years, and for anyone who has visited it over that time it has looked increasingly fine. 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 beautiful in this ancient space. There are some box pews retaining their numbers, and the position of the three-decker pulpit halfway down the nave reminds us of the importance of preaching of the time. 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, and in any case I think the pulpit part of the structure is a modern replacement.

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, November 2018

looking east chancel
font looking west triple decker pulpit and numbered box pews Anthony Bedingfield, 1652
G III R royal arms rood screen tracery (15th Century) numbered box pews
gave the yearly rent of lands towards the encres of the maintenance of a grammar schoole for teaching poore children to reade Englishe Men of Gislingham who laid down their lives in the Great War Anthony Bedingfield, 1652 surgeon of the 53rd Regiment of Bengal Native Infantry, died at Cawnpore in the East Indies
draped skull and scrollwork 10

James Knott, who fell asleep


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