At the sign of the Barking lion...

St John, Great Wenham

At the sign of the Barking lion...

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Great Wenham

Great Wenham Great Wenham Great Wenham

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Great Wenham sits in that curiously flat plain to the north of East Bergholt. The former Raydon Second World War airbase is not far off, and in this intensely agricultural area Great Wenham feels like a proper working village, albeit not a very big one. Close to the house are terraces of brightly coloured former council houses, but the church itself sits in the old village centre with a farm for company.

This church isn't far from its beautiful sister out in the fields at Little Wenham, and externally there are some similarities. Great Wenham's most striking feature is its fine 15th Century tower. But stepping inside, the contrast couldn't be greater. This is a small church, and there were two major 19th Century restorations here, one in the 1840s that brought the vestry and then a more expensive and extensive one in the 1860s. Since then time seems to have stood still, because the floors, font, furnishings, organ, sanctuary and glass are all of this date. It is like a time capsule. The organ sits snugly under the tower with fine panelling creating a pleasing foil to the panelled reredos at the other end of the church. This is a memorial to Daniel Whalley, the rector here who oversaw the 1860s restoration and died a year or two later. His successor Joseph King's life was soon marked by tragedy, for a memorial in the chancel tells us that in 1869 his 17 year old son, also Joseph, accidentally drowned on his second homeward voyage and sank before the boat could reach him in lat 5 N long 27 30 W, a location roughly a thousand miles west of the coast of Sierra Leone.

You may have to step outside to remind yourself that you are actually inside a medieval building, and not in some mid-19th Century chapel. There's nothing surviving from lost Catholic England to be seen - or, almost nothing. For up in the sanctuary are some medieval tiles, rare enough in Suffolk, and perhaps reset here from elsewhere. The 19th Century replacements among them are a good match for the older ones.

Interestingly, when William Dowsing came this way on the morning of February 3rd, 1644 he found nothing to offend his puritan sensibilities, and there may be a very good reason for this. The rector of Great Wenham was James Hopkins, himself a strong puritan, and his son Matthew grew up to be the infamous self-appointed Witchfinder General, operating in the years that Dowsing himself was active. Matthew Hopkins was responsible for the deaths of at least a hundred people, most of them elderly women, in the mass hysteria of the 1640s, dragging them before courts on ridiculously concocted evidence. Fundamentalism, whether religious or political, never ends well, though in fact the tyrant Hopkins died of tuberculosis in his bed at Manningtree and was buried in the churchyard of the now-abandoned Mistley Old Church, of which just a lonely ruin remains on Mistley Heath. He was only in his mid-twenties when he died.

There was once something more here. When I first visited this church in the 1990s, a helmet, crest and sword hung above a 17th Century memorial. One day in 2006 someone came into the church, took them down and walked away with them. They have never been recovered. For many years after that this little church was kept locked, but I am pleased to report that now, even in this second year of the Great Coronavirus Pandemic, the church is open to pilgrims and strangers every day.


Simon Knott, April 2021

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looking east sanctuary looking west
font ( Peter Stephens) pulpit ( Peter Stephens) sanctuary St Peter and St Paul (Lavers, Barraud & Westlake, 1870s)
accidentally drowned on his second homeward voyage and sank before the boat could reach him in lat 5 N long 27 30 W late medieval tiles Georgina Robson and Daniel Whalley


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