At the sign of the Barking lion...

St Ethelbert, Hessett

At the sign of the Barking lion...

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Hessett

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Hessett is a fairly ordinary kind of village to the east of Bury St Edmunds, but its church is one of the most important in East Anglia for a number of reasons, which I think will become obvious. Consider for one moment, if you will, the extent to which the beliefs and practices of a religious community affect the architecture of its buildings. Think of a mosque, for instance. Often square, expressing the democracy of Islam, but without any imagery of the human figure, for such things are proscribed. Think of a synagogue, focused towards the Holy Scriptures in the Ark, but designed to enable the proclaiming of the Word, and the way that early non-conformist chapels echo this architecture of Judaism - indeed, those who built the first free churches, like Ipswich's Unitarian Chapel, actually called them synagogues.

The shape of a church, then, is no accident. A typical Suffolk perpendicular church of the 15th century has wide aisles, to enable liturgical processions, a chancel for the celebration of Mass, places for other altars, niches for devotional statues, a focus towards the Blessed Sacrament in the east, a roof of angels to proclaim a hymn of praise, a large nave for devotional and social activities, and wall paintings of the Gospels and hagiographies of Saints, of the catechism and teachings of the Catholic Church. As Le Corbusier might have said if he'd been around at the time, a medieval church is a machine for making Catholicism happen.

No longer, of course. The radical and violent fracture in popular religion in the middle years of the 16th century gave birth to the Church of England, and the new church inherited buildings that were quite unsuitable for the new congregational protestant theology, a problem that the Church of England has never entirely solved.

Over the centuries, the problem has been addressed in different ways. The early reformers celebrated communion at a table in the nave, for example, and blocked off the chancel for other uses. Although this was challenged by the Laudian party in the early part of the 17th century, it was the way that many parishes reinvented their buildings, and most were to stay like that until the middle years of the 19th century. Some went further. A pulpit placed halfway down the nave, or even at the back of the church, meant that the seating could be arranged so that it no longer focused towards the east, thus breaking the link with Catholic (and Laudian) sacramentalism. For several centuries, Anglican churches focused on the pulpit rather than the altar.

With the coming to influence of the 19th century Oxford Movement, all this underwent another dramatic change, with the great majority of our medieval parish churches having their interiors restored to their medieval integrity, reinventing themselves as sacramental spaces. This is the condition in which we find most of them today, and some Anglican theologians are asking the question that the Catholic Church asked itself at Vatican II in the 1960s - is a 19th century liturgical space really appropriate for the Church of the 21st century?

So, let us hasten at once to Hessett. The church sits like a glowing jewel in its wide churchyard, right on the main road through the village. It is pretty well perfect if you are looking for a fine Suffolk exterior. An extensive 15th century rebuilding enwraps the earlier tower, which was crowned by the donor of the rebuilding, John Bacon.The nave and aisles are deliciously decorated, reminding one rather of the church at neighbouring Rougham, although this is a smaller church, and the aisles make it almost square. A dedicatory inscription on the two storey vestry in the north east corner bids us pray for the souls of John and Katherine Hoo, who donated the chancel and paid for the trimmings to the aisles. Their inscription has been damaged by protestant reformers, who obviously did not believe in the efficacy of prayers for the dead.

Although not comparable with that at Woolpit, the dressed stone porch is a grand affair, and a bold statement. You may find the south door locked, but if this is the case then the priest's door into the chancel is usually open. And in a way it is a good church to enter via the chancel, because in this way St Ethelbert unfolds its treasures slowly.You step into relative darkness - or, at least, it seems so in comparison with the nave beyond the rood screen. This is partly a result of the abundance of dark wood, and in truth the chancel seems rather overcrowded. The most striking objects in view are the return stalls, which fill the two westerly corners of the chancel. These are in the style of a college or school of priests, with their backs to the rood screen, but then 'returning' around the walls to the east. They are fine, and are certainly 15th or 16th century. But one of the stalls, that to the north, is different to the others, and seems slightly out of place. It is elaborately carved with faces, birds and foliage. Mortlock thought that it might have been intended for a private house. The stall in front of it has heads on it that appear to be wearing 18th century wigs. The sanctuary is largely Victorianised, with the east window by William Warrington depicting saints. The south windows of the chancel depict sumptuous scenes of the Adoration of the Shepherds and Magi by the O'Connors. The memorial to Lionel Bacon, who died in 1651, seems extraordinarily ornate for its date. Is it possible that it was actually erected after the Restoration, perhaps in the 1660s?

The chancel is separated from the nave by the 15th century rood screen, which is elegantly painted and gilt on the west side with friezes of birds, the beautifully tracery intricately carved above. The rood screen has been fitted with attractive iron gates, presumably evidence of Anglo-catholic enthusiasm here in the early 20th century, and you step down through them into the light.

birds on the rood screen rood screen rood screen detail (15th Century)

A first impression is that you are entering a much older space than the one you have left. There is an 18th century mustiness, enhanced by the box pews that line the aisles. And, beyond, on walls and in windows, are wonderful things.

The number of surviving wall paintings in England is a tiny fraction of those which existed before the 15th and 16th centuries. All churches had them, and in profusion. It isn't enough to say that they were a 'teaching aid' of a church of illiterate peasants. In the main, they were devotional, and that is why they were destroyed. However, it is more complicated than that. Research in recent years has indicated that many wall paintings were destroyed before the Reformation, perhaps a century before. In some churches, they have been punched through with Perpendicular windows, which are clearly pre-Reformation. In the decades after the Black Death, there seems to have been a sea change in the liturgical use of these buildings, a move away from an individualistic, devotional usage to a corporate liturgical one. There is a change of emphasis towards more education and exegesis. This is the time that pulpits and benches appear, long before protestantism was on the agenda. What seems to happen is that many buildings were intended now to be full of light, and devotional wall paintings were either whitewashed, or replaced with catechetical ones.

The decoration of the nave was the responsibility of the people of the parish, not of the Priest. The wall paintings of England can be divided into roughly three groups. Roughly speaking, the development of wall paintings over the later medieval period is in terms of these three overlapping emphases.

Firstly, the hagiographies - stories of the Saints. These might have had a local devotion, although some saints were popular over a wide area, and most churches seem to have supported a devotion to St Christopher right up until the Reformation.

Secondly came those which illustrate incidents in the life of Christ and his mother, the Blessed Virgin. Although partly pedagogical, they were also enabling tools, since private devotions often involved a contemplation upon them, and at Mass the larger part of those present would have been involved in private devotions. These scriptural stories were as likely to have been derived from apocryphal texts like the Gospel of Pseudo-Matthew as from the actual Gospels themselves.

Lastly, there are catechetical wall paintings, illustrating the teachings of the Catholic church. It should not be assumed that these are dogmatic. Many are simply artistic representations of stories, and others are simplifications of theological ideas, as with the seven deadly sins and the seven cardinal virtues. Some warn against occasions of sin (gossiping, for example) and generally wall paintings provided a local site for discussion and exemplification.

To an extent, all the above is largely true of stained glass, as well, with the caveat that stained glass was more expensive, relied on local patronage, and often has this patronage as a subtext, hence the large number of heraldic devices and images of local worthies. But it was also devotional, and so it was also destroyed.

So - what survives at Hessett? The wall paintings first.

Starting in the south east corner of the nave, we have Suffolk's finest representation of St Barbara, presenting a tower. St Barbara was very popular in medieval times, because she was invoked against strikes by lightning and sudden fires. This resulted from her legend, for her father, on finding her to be a Christian, walled her up in a tower until she repented. As a result, he was struck by lightning, and reduced to ashes. She was also the patron saint of the powerful building trade, and as such her image graced their guild altars - perhaps that was the case here.

Above the south door is another figure, often identified as St Christopher, but I do not think that this can be the case. St Christopher is found nowhere else in Suffolk above a south door. The traditional iconography of this mythical saint is not in place here, and it is hard to see how this figure could ever have been interpreted as such. I suspect it is a result of an early account confusing the two images over the north and south doors, and the mistake being repeated in later accounts.

In fact, digital enhancement seems to suggest that there are two figures above the south door, overlapping each other slightly. The figure on the right is barefoot, that on the left is wearing a white gown. There appears to be water under their feet, and so I think this is an image of the Baptism of Christ. Perhaps it was once part of a sequence.

The wall painting opposite, above the north door, is St Christopher. Although it isn't as clear as himself at, say, nearby Bradfield Combust, he bestrides the river in the customary manner, staff in hand. The Christ child is difficult to discern, but you can see the fish in the water. Also in the water, and rather unusual, are two figures. They are rendered rather crudely, almost like gingerbread men. Could they be the donors of the north aisle, John and Katherine Hoo in person?

St Barbara with her tower (15th Century) Baptism of Christ St Christopher

Moving along the north aisle, we come to the set of paintings for which Hessett is justifiably famous. They are set one above the other between two windows, at the point where might expect the now-vanished screen to a chapel to have been. The upper section was here first. It shows the seven deadly sins (described wrongly in some text books as a tree of Jesse, or ancestry of Christ). Two devils look on as, from the mouth of hell, a great tree sprouts, ending in seven images. Pride is at the top, and in pairs beneath are Gluttony and Anger, Vanity and Envy, Avarice and Lust. Some attempt has been made to erase the image for Lust, which may simply be mid-16th century puritan prurience on the part of some reformer here. This would suggest that this catechetical tool was here right up until the Reformation. If so, they were unsuccessful, because his erect penis is still discernible.

The idea of 'Seven Deadly Sins' was anathema to the reformers, because it is entirely unscriptural. Rather, as a catechetical tool, it is a way of drawing together a multitude of sins into a simplistic aide memoire. This could then be used in confession, taking each of them one at a time and examining ones conscience accordingly. It should not be seen simply as a 'warning' to ignorant peasants, for the evidence is that the ordinary rural people of late medieval England were theologically very articulate. Rather, it was a tool for use, in contemplation and preparation for the sacrament of reconciliation, which may well have ordinarily taken place in the chapel here.

The wall painting beneath the Sins is even more interesting. This is a very rare 'Christ of the Trades', and dates from the early 15th century, about a hundred years after the painting above. It is rather faded, and takes a while to discern, and not all of it is decodable. However, enough is there to be fascinating. The image of the 'Christ of the Trades' is known throughout Christendom, and contemporary versions with this can be found in other parts of Europe. It shows the risen Christ in the centre, and around him a vast array of the tools and symbols of various trades. One theory is that it depicts activities that should not take place on a Sunday, a holy day of obligation to refrain from work, and that these activities are wounding Christ anew.

Perhaps the most fascinating symbol, and the one that everyone notices, is the playing card. It shows the six of diamonds. Does it represent the makers of playing cards? If so, it might suggest a Flemish influence. Or could it be intended to represent something else? Whatever, it is one of the earliest representations of a playing card in England. Why is this here? It may very well be that there was a trades gild chantry chapel at the east end of the north aisle, and this painting was at its entrance.

Seven Deadly Sins (15th Century) Lust with erection Christ of the Trades (15th Century)

At the east end of the north aisle now is the church's set of royal arms. Cautley saw it in the vestry in the 1930s, and identified it as a Queen Anne set. Now, with additions stripped away, it is revealed as a Charles II set from the 1660s, and a very fine one. It is fascinating to see it at such close range. Usually, they are set above the south door now, although they would originally have been placed above the chancel arch, in full view of the congregation, a gentle reminder of who was in charge.

And so to the glass, which on its own would be worth coming to Hessett to see. Few Suffolk churches have such an expanse, none have such a variety, or glass of such quality and interest. It consists essentially of two ranges, the life and Passion of Christ in the north aisle (although some glass has been reset across the church), and images and hagiographies of Saints in the south aisle.

In the north aisle, the scourging of Christ stands out, the wicked grins of the persecutors contrasting with the pained nobility of the Christ figure. In the next window, Christ rises from the dead, coming out of his tomb like the corpses in the doom paintings at Stanningfield, North Cove and Wenhaston. The Roman centurion sleeps soundly in the foreground.

Christ is mocked and whipped (15th Century) Christ risen from the dead (15th Century) two angels blowing trumps (15th Century)

The most famous image is in the east window of the south aisle. Apparently, it shows a bishop holding the chain to a bag, with four children playing at his feet. I say apparently, because there is rather more going on here than meets the eye. The reason that this image is so famous is that the small child in the foreground is holding what appears to be a golf club or hockey stick, and this would be the earliest representation of such an object in all Europe. The whole image has been said to represent St Nicholas, who was a Bishop, and whose legends include a bag of gold and a group of children.

Unfortunately, this is not the case. St Nicholas is never symbolised by a bag of gold, and there are three children in the St Nicholas legend, not four. In any case, the hand in the picture is not holding the chain to a bag at all, but a rosary, and the hockey stick is actually a fuller's club, used for dyeing clothes, and the symbol of St James the Less.

What has happened here is that the head of a Bishop has been grafted on to the body of a figure which is probably still in its original location. The three lights of this window contained a set of the Holy Kinship. The light to the north of the 'Bishop' contains two children playing with what ae apparently toys, but when you look closely you can see that one is holding a golden shell, and the other a poisoned chalice. They are the infant St James and St John, and the lost figure above them was their mother, Mary Salome. This means that the figure with the Bishop's head is actually Mary Cleophas, apocryphal mother of St Simon, St Jude, St Philip and St James the Less with his fullers club. The third light to the south, of course, would have depicted the Blessed Virgin and child, but she is lost to us.

St Mary Cleophas with the head of a bishop and the young St Simon, St Jude, St Philip and St James the Less (15th Century) The young St James the Less with a fullers club, with St Simon, St Jude and St Philip behind (15th Century) The young St James and St John (15th Century)

Not only this, but Hessett has some very good 19th Century glass which complements and does not overly intrude. We have already mentioned the glass by William Warrington and the O'Connor Brothers in the chancel, and the best is beneath the tower, the west window with scenes of the Passion in a fully 15th Century style by Clayton & Bell.

If the windows and wall paintings were all there was, then Hessett would be remarkable enough. But there is something else, two things, actually, that elevate it above all other Suffolk churches, and all the churches of England. For St Ethelbert is the proud owner of two unique survivals. At the back of the church is a chest, no different from those you'll find in many a parish church. In common with those, it has three separate locks, the idea being that the Rector and two Churchwardens would have a key each, and it would be necessary for all three of them to be present for the chest to be opened. It was used for storing parish records and valuables.

At some point, one of the keys was lost. There is an old story about the iconoclast William Dowsing turning up here and demanding the chest be opened, but on account of the missing key it couldn't be. Unfortunately, this story isn't true, for Dowsing never recorded a visit Hessett. The chest was eventually opened in the 19th century. Inside were found two extraordinary pre-Reformation survivals. These are a pyx cloth and a burse. The pyx cloth was draped over the wooden canopy that enclosed the blessed sacrament (one of England's four surviving medieval pyxes is also in Suffolk, at Dennington) before it was raised above the high altar. The burse was used to contain the host before consecration at the Mass. They are England's only surviving examples, and they're both here. Or, more precisely they aren't, for both have been purloined by the British Museum, the kind of theft that no locked church can prevent.

But there are life-size photos of both either side of the tower arch. The burse is basically an envelope, and features the Veronica face of Christ on one side with the four evangelistic symbols in each corner. On the other is an Agnus Dei, the Lamb of God. The survival of both is extraordinary. It is one thing to explore the furnishings of lost Catholic England, quite another to come face to face with articles that were actually used in the liturgy.

In front of the pictures stands the font, a relatively good one of the early 15th century, though rather less exciting than everything going on around it. The dedicatory inscription survives, to a pair of Hoos of an earlier generation than the ones on the vestry.Turning east again, the ranks of simple 15th century benches are all of a piece with their church. They have survived the violent transitions of the centuries, and have seated generation after generation of Hessett people. They were new here when this church was alive with coloured light, with the hundreds of candles flickering on the rood beam, the processions, the festivals, and the people's lives totally integrated with the liturgy of the seasons. For the people of Catholic England, their religion was as much a part of them as the air they breathed. They little knew how soon it would all come to an end.

And so, there it is - one of the most fascinating and satisfactory of all East Anglia's churches. And yet, not many people know about it. We are only three miles from the brown-signed honeypot of Woolpit, where a constant stream of visitors come and go. I've visited Hessett many times, and never once encountered another visitor. Still, there you are, I suppose. Perhaps some places are better kept secret. But come here if you can, for here is a medieval worship space with much surviving evidence of what it was actually meant to be, and meant to do.

Simon Knott, October 2019

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font sanctuary font
orate pro animabus return stall detail Charles II royal arms
Lionel Bacon, 1651 Adoration (O'Connor Brothers) fragment: angel with outstretched hands (15th Century) Passion of Christ (Clayton & Bell) a valiant soldier honoured to have served with so many gallant men
Esther before Ahasuerus? (15th Century) Harrowing of Hell (Clayton & Bell) BVM (William Warrington) Adoration of the Shepherds (O'Connor Brothers) Adoration of the Magi (O'Connor Brothers)
St George (19th Century) St Etheldreda (19th Century) St Edmund (19th Century) St Peter (19th Century) St Ethelbert (19th Century) Blessed Virgin  (19th Century)
moor's head Blessed be the man
Ascension

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