At the sign of the Barking lion...

St Thomas of Canterbury, Great Whelnetham

At the sign of the Barking lion...

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Great Whelnetham

Great Whelnetham Great Whelnetham Great Whelnetham

Joan of Arc   This pleasant little church sits out on the edge of a straggle of suburbia to the south of Bury St Edmunds, Great Whelnetham running into Sicklesmere, which gives its name to the ancient Hundred, but has no parish church of its own. The church is entirely in the Essex style, although we are still a good ten miles from the border here. The churchyard is secluded, setback behind the village school, a green velvet bed for a jewel of a church on the morning in late summer 2014 that I most recently visited. Sam Mortlock found it depressing on his visit in the 1980s, but the grim pebbledash he mentions has been repainted on the nave at least, and it presents a pretty prospect to the south. There probably never was a tower, although a 15th century bequest left money for one. In any case, evidence remains of the Norman, and possibly Saxon, origin of this church. The little clerestory is delightful, like the windows in the upper storey of a cottage.

As so often with churches of this kind, St Thomas of Canterbury seems larger inside than out, a feeling enhanced by the lack of clutter and the bright light inside. The chancel has been cleared of furnishings, a north transept neatly arranged with modern chairs. The transept was added in 1839, an early date and suggesting it was built for increased capacity rather than liturgical reasons. Its domestic window tracery and small chimney add to the sense of this being a cottage as much as a church. A tapestry of the Annunciation hangs in the transept, and generally there is an air of simplicity about the nave and its transept. A lot happened here in the 19th and 20th Centuries, but stil the Norman lancets remain to remind us of how long this serious house has been here. Everything is well looked after and obviously loved.

It is obvious too that this church had Anglo-catholic sympathies early in the 20th Century, and surviving evidence includes the rather extraordinary east window. It is by Burlison & Grylls, and forms the parish war memorial. From left to right, it depicts the boy David, St George, St Nicholas and Joan of Arc, an eclectic mix to find in an English country parish church, especially Joan of Arc who is rarely depicted in Anglican churches (although, quite by coincidence, I came across another representation of her later in the week at St Sepulchre on London's Holborn Viaduct). Scenes in the story of each are under their feet.

David, St George, St Nicholas, Joan of Arc David St George St Nicholas Joan of Arc

David with his sling slays the giant Goliath The King's daughter is led forth to be sacrificed to the dragon St Nicholas by his prayers maketh the storm to cease Joan of Arc is directed by the Blessed Virgin to deliver France

Fragments of medieval glass survive, and the most haunting is a fragment of a 15th Century nativity scene. An angel peeps in awe over the stable wall at the new born baby Jesus lying in the manger. But the angel is all that survives. But perhaps the most fascinating glass here is that reset in the south windows of the sanctuary. This is a part of Suffolk with plenty of surviving medieval glass, so you might at first not give these fragments a second look. But they are worth careful study because among them are several birds holding banners reading 'Jesu Mercy' and 'Jesu Help'. These must come right at the end of the medieval period, when liturgical devotion begins to be expressed in English rather than Latin. You often come across devotional inscriptions in English at the end of the late Medieval period on brasses, screens and the like, but on glass the only other ones in East Anglia that I can think of are at Leverington in Cambridgeshire. But those are not prayer clauses, and far as I know these prayer clauses written in medieval English are unique survivals in English glass.

jesu help Jesu merci Jesu help

There are a couple of interesting memorials. The best is to Charles and Elizabeth Battely, who died in the early 18th Century, and their memorial is a vast stone drape behind a tomb which looks rather alarmingly as if it might be made out of corned beef. The inscription mentions that it was placed their by their daughter Jane Merest, hastening to add that Jane's husband James had been Clerk Assistant of the House of Lords.

The church seems to be open every day from Easter to September, with a keyholder at other times. On one occasion I tipped up here on a Saturday in early Spring only to find all three keyholders out. Heading back to the church to photograph the outside, I met an old local in the churchyard who asked me if I wanted to see inside. I explained that I'd already tried the keyholders, to which he replied 'don't you worry about that', and gave me another address to try (something along the lines of "I think it's the third house along, or possibly the fourth, just bang on the door, open it and shout for Val, if she's not in the key's in the kitchen drawer" or something) but being metropolitan and not used to such country ways, I demured.

Great Whelnetham was home to one of the last abuses of pluralism in Suffolk in the 19th Century. In 1816, during the last years of the lengthy reign of King George III, a young man called Henry George Phillips was installed as the Rector here, for which he would earn 375 a year. Two years later, he was further installed as the Rector of the vast parish of Mildenhall, a poor industrial town 20 miles off, and Suffolk's biggest parish. His Mildenhall rectorship brought him a further 450 a year, the combined total of 825 being worth about 160,000 annually in today's money. Not unnaturally he preferred to live at Great Whelnetham, and he employed poorly paid curates to carry out the liturgical, pastoral and administrative work at Mildenhall. He started with some energy - the construction of the north transept here at Whelnetham was under his rectorship - but as the years passed he seems to have preferred the life of a country gentleman.

Over the next few decades, the rise of the Oxford Movement would transform the Church of England and do away with such abuses, but at the time of the 1851 Census of Religious Worship the Reverend Phillips was still firmly ensconced in both parishes, which appear to have been equally moribund. Of the 4750 people of Mildenhall only 340 attended morning service there under the eye of Samuel Banks, curate. At Great Whelnetham, with its population of 550, there were 56 people at morning service. The average in Suffolk was about a quarter, and sometimes as much as a third of the population of each parish, the high water mark of attendances in the Church of England, but the people of Mildenhall and Great Whelnetham seemed to have preferred non-conformism and simple absence in equal measure.

Phillips appears to have at least been aware that this didn't look good - compiling the return for Great Whelnetham, he added the note that a heavy storm of rain occured at the time of service which had reduced the attendance, and in any case a large proportion of the parish reside in the hamlet of Sicklesmere and frequent adjoining churches of parishes to which they belong. Samuel Banks, compiling the entry for Mildenhall, preferred to keep his silence, no doubt hoping that the figures would speak for themselves. Remarkably, Phillips hung on for another 17 years, dying in harness in 1868. There's a memorial tablet to him in the sanctuary. The pleasing state of the church today is down to his successors.

  a winged Saint looking out of a window

Simon Knott, December 2014


looking east transept looking west

jolly 15th Century lion wounded slain and risen again from this parish sacrificed their lives Annunciation

Clerk assistant of the House of Lords Charles Batteley 1722 heraldic shields and medieval fragments Holy Trinity foliage font

cross of medieval fragments

skull and draped scrolling had he asked us memory grief leans on a tomb

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