St Peter and St Paul, Hoxne
www.suffolkchurches.co.uk - a journey through the churches of Suffolk
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|The valley of the River Waveney
separates Suffolk from Norfolk, and it does indeed feel
like a separation. In fact, there are curiously few
places along the Suffolk and Norfolk border where there
is not this sense of difference, unlike along the River
Stour which forms the border with Essex, or that with
Cambridgeshire, a county which Suffolk fits into like
fingers into a glove. Hoxne sits in the gentle hills to
the south of the Waveney, and the busy road from Diss to
the sea runs on the Norfolk side of the river leaving
these small Suffolk parishes in peace. Hoxne, pronounced hox'n,
is among the largest of these villages, although James
Bettley, revising the Buildings of England volume
for East Suffolk, recalls Daniel Defoe's description of
it as a bye-place, and out of the common remark.
This probably tells you as much about the other villages
as it does about Hoxne, and in any case Hoxne's church is
one of the largest in the Waveney Valley, its mighty
tower visible for miles from both sides of the river. But
as you get closer it disappears from view, for the
landscape ripples, the trees grow tall and the roads
wander wildly. The village of Hoxne is down in the dip,
but its church stands above it in a surprisingly wide
churchyard. Both it and the old rectory garden next door
have their fair share of exotic trees, some of them
perhaps a couple of centuries old. Maybe a rector here
was a collector, a popular pastime for the leisured
gentry in the 18th and 19th Centuries.
The church as we see it today is all of the 15th Century and later. Plenty of will evidence survives, transcribed by Peter Northeast and Simon Cotton. In 1445 Bishop Thomas Brown made a bequest to the tower of Hoxne and 40 marks to the work and construction of the chapel of Hoxne. Thereafter there followed an enthusiastic number of bequests to the furnishings of the church, suggesting that the structure was complete. But then in 1472 comes a curiosity, for Edmund Dem left the relatively small amount of 3s 4d to to the reparation of the S side called our Lady's aisle. The odd thing is that there is no south aisle, and never was. And yet two years later in 1474 Richard Smyth left 40d to the reparation of the new aisle, and in 1475 the will of Margaret Smyth, perhaps his widow, tells us that I be queth to the making of an ymage of king herry the vith xiiis iiiid, and then continues I be quethe to the ele (aisle) of the seid chyrche for reparacon (building) of xxii s. The cult of Henry VI was a popular one in East Anglia, and although no sculptural images have survived he does appear on a number of late 15th and early16th Century rood screens. That Margaret Smyth also saw fit to leave money to the aisle suggests it may have been intended for that part of the church. But from then on none of the many surviving bequests mention the south aisle, and so perhaps the idea was quietly dropped.
Given that there is no south aisle it is no surprise that there is no clerestory on the south side, and it is hard to see how one might ever have been fitted in. But there is a north aisle, and it has a clerestory thanks to the fact that there is a strikingly low arcade, as we will see inside. There was a substantial restoration in the 1850s which included the complete rebuilding of the chancel. This in its turn underwent a further restoration by Ewan Christian in 1879. There is a south porch, but it is not a grand one in comparison with others in this area.
You step through it into the west end of the nave. Thanks to the narrowness of the nave and the low north arcade there is an overwhelming sense of length. The font is a good example of the typical 15th Century East Anglian style with the symbol of the evangelists alternating with angels holding shields. The clerics seated around the stem have been decapitated. On the north wall of the nave above the arcade are four large wall paintings, set neatly between the windows of the clerestory. They are in poor condition. The first appears to depict two figures. The one on the left is St Christopher, facing east with the Christ child on his shoulder. The other figure also appears to be holding a staff. But who is he? Not so very far from here at Potter Heigham in Norfolk is a similarly-placed painting depicting St Christopher and St Anthony of Egypt facing each other. It seems likely that this is also a figure of a saint facing St Christopher, perhaps even St Anthony. The second painting is the Seven Deadly Sins, arranged as was conventional at the time in the form of a tree growing out of Hell's mouth. The third is a sequence of the Seven Works of Mercy, similar to those to the east of Norwich at Wickhampton and Moulton. Last of all, and so faint that it is barely there now, a Last Judgement scene.
There are some old benches in the north aisle, and one of the bench ends depicts a wolf with a crowned head between its feet. This is a depiction of the martyrdom of St Edmund, or at least the aftermath of that martyrdom, and Hoxne is one of the places that claim to be its site. Edmund was King of East Anglia, and in his legend he was murdered by a raiding party of Vikings in the year 870. Shot by arrows, he was then decapitated. His followers, searching for the head, found it three days later, guarded by a huge wolf. St Edmund's symbol of a crown and arrows can be found everywhere in Suffolk. Bury St Edmunds, which hosted his shrine, is named after him, and there are wall paintings depicting the martyrdom in churches between Hoxne and Bury St Edmunds at Thornham Parva and Troston, romantically claimed as stopping places for the procession that carried his body there. This is not the only bench end in East Anglia depicting a wolf and a crowned head, and It must be said that several other places also claim to be the site of the martyrdom.
At the east end of the north aisle is the imposing 1740s memorial to Thomas Maynard. He is life-sized, standing in his toga against an urn with an obelisk behind him. It is curiously stark and out of place in its setting. On the pedestal of the urn is a delightful relief of three women and their busy children which you might take to be Maynard's wives and families, but in fact Pevsner tells us they represent the Christian virtues.
The populations of East Anglia's rural parishes reached their peak at the 1851 census, and they have been in slow decline ever since. Hoxne's population at the 2021 census was a little over 800, but back in the middle of the 19th Century this parish had almost 1,500 inhabitants. There were three pubs, two beerhouses, a grocer, a chemist, a draper, four shoemakers, three blacksmiths, a tailor, two saddlers, a wheelwright, a butcher, a miller, a surgeon and three schools. On the morning of the 1851 Census of Religious Worship eighty people made their way to the church to attend divine service. However, this congregation was supplemented by fifty seven day scholars and sixty five Sunday scholars, who all had no choice but to be there. The scholars came back in the afternoon for the sermon and were joined by no fewer than two hundred and thirty parishioners, a reminder that 19th Century East Anglians preferred a good sermon to any kind of formal worship.
Simon Knott, April 2023
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