Hengrave Hall chapel, Hengrave
www.suffolkchurches.co.uk - a journey through the churches of Suffolk
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|Traffic hurtles through on the
Bury to Mildenhall road, and you might easily miss the
scatterings of houses along it that form the village of
Hengrave. However, set back behind them is one of East
Anglia's more significant buildings, Hengrave Hall. It
is, as James Bettley revising the Buildings of
England volumes for Suffolk noted, one of the
most important and externally one of the most impressive
houses of the later years of Henry VIII. It was
built for Thomas Kytson, a London cloth merchant who had
bought the estate from the Duke of Buckingham. Work began
in the 1520s, and the house appears to have been more or
less complete by 1538, a date which forms part of an
inscription on the grand south facade. As was usual, the
Hall had its own internal chapel, not to be confused with
the medieval parish church which sits directly to the
east of the Hall. The chapel at Hengrave Hall is set
towards the west end of the south side. On the photograph
at the top of this page it is the bay to the left of the
main entrance that has windows on three levels.
The chapel is as narrow as the bay, with black and white squares on the floor and most furnishings removed, including the altar. A candelabra hangs from the ceiling. Beyond it, the windows are filled with what is probably the most important sequence of 16th Century glass in East Anglia outside of the Cambridge college chapels. James Bettley records that it was imported into England from France in 1527, a year or so after the building of the Hall had commenced, and was installed in the chapel by Robert Wright of Bury St Edmunds in 1540, the year that Thomas Kytson died. Kytson is buried in the church that sits beside the Hall, which later that century after the Reformation became a family mausoleum for reasons that are discussed elsewhere. However, the Hall chapel remained in use for the most urgent of reasons, for the Kytsons were recusant Catholics. The glass is set above what was the liturgical sanctuary, although it is at the south end of the chapel rather than the east. It is arranged on three levels, with each level consisting of seven panels. The top level has early scenes from the Book of Genesis, while the other two levels form a rosary sequence from the Annunciation through to the Ascension, with a Doom scene of the Day of Judgement at the very end.
The top level begins with the Creation story in the first chapter of Genesis. God blows into the air to create the spacious firmament indicated by the signs of the zodiac around the outside, and the parting of the waters to reveal the land within. In the second panel he rests at the top of a tree, looking down at the birds that he has created. The middle three panels of this level move the story on to the second book of Genesis. God creates Adam from the dust of the earth, he creates Eve out of Adam's rib, and then we see the pair expelled from Paradise, by an angel wielding a sword. In the background we see the couple eating the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge. In the next panel Adam digs, while Eve tends to the infants Abel and Cain. In the background, angels guard the entrance to Paradise with flaming swords. Finally, Noah and his family set sail, the animals and birds poking their heads out of the windows of the Ark. In the distance, Sodom is in flames, and angels are guiding Lot and his family away. But Lot's wife looks back, and she is turned to a pillar of salt.
The middle row begins with the Annunciation. The kneeling Blessed Virgin turns her head as the angel approaches. In the background we see the Blessed Virgin and St Elizabeth at the Visitation. The Nativity scene comes next, with an ox and an ass looking on and the shepherds coming down from the hills beyond. The middle three panels of this row show successively the Presentation in the Temple, the Adoration of the Magi and the Flight into Egypt with the Massacre of the Holy Innocents proceeding in the distance. The final two panels in this row show successively the young Christ preaching in the Temple with the Baptism of Christ in the background, and then Christ entering into Jerusalem on a young colt. In the background of this last panel we see Christ resisting the temptations of the Devil and healing the sick.
The lowest row starts with the Last Supper, a young-looking St John lying prone on the table beside Christ. In the background, Christ washes the feet of the Disciples and then prays at Gethsemane. The story then moves on to the Kiss of Judas, with Peter wielding his sword bottom right. The central three panels that come next would have formed a kind of reredos to an altar below them, for at the top of the central panel is the Crucifixion. Below it Christ carries his cross, to the left Christ is beaten and mocked, and to the right is the Resurrection with the Harrowing of Hell above. The Ascension follows. As is conventional all that we see of Christ is his feet and his footprints left in the ground below as the Disciples look up. Finally, a Doom scene, Christ sitting in Judgement on a rainbow while at the bottom the dead climb from their graves. In between, the Blessed Virgin and St John the Baptist intercede for the sinners who have pleaded with them for their help. There are close-up details of some of these panels below.
In the 17th Century the Hengrave estate was handed down to the Gage family, who like the the Kytsons were recusant Catholics. The Gages married into yet another local Catholic family, the Rokewodes of Stanningfield, but in 1887 the last of the Rokewode Gage's died heirless, and the estate, including the Hall and the church, was bought by Sir John Wood, the wealthy Conservative MP for Stalybridge in Cheshire. Sir John undertook a major restoration of the Hall at the hands of Walter Tapper. As part of this, the glass was also restored by Thomas Curtis of Ward & Hughes, not perhaps the first person you'd choose if you could travel back in time, but he seems to have made a decent job of it. I think some of the background scenes show his hand, particularly the Garden of Gethsemane and the Harrowing of Hell, and I assume the blue replacement glass in places is his. It was conventional to repair glass with a neutral colour like this.
When Wood died in 1951 the Hall and the church were sold again, this time to a Catholic order of nuns, the Community of the Assumption. They ran it as a school until 1974 when it became an ecumenical retreat centre which was also used by the local authorities for conferences and courses. However, the maintenance of the Hall was too great a burden for the sisters, and in 2005 they sold the estate. Since then, both the Hall and the church beside it have been in private ownership, and today the Hall is used for wedding ceremonies. Because of this, I'm afraid that the chapel isn't open to visitors.
Simon Knott, September 2022
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