At the sign of the Barking lion...

St Mary, Ickworth

At the sign of the Barking lion...

home index e-mail what's new? - a journey through the churches of Suffolk



Follow these journeys as they happen at Last Of England Twitter.


In a number of ways this is a most unusual church, even before you consider the setting. The church and its churchyard form a walled island within the Park of the National Trust's Ickworth House, one of the most significant late 18th Century houses in England and until very recently the home of the Herveys, the Earls and later the Marquesses of Bristol. The church sits away from the House on a rise above the gently rolling sheep meadows, an English pastoral scene, the west tower an imposing sight as you approach. The tower is the first sign that things are a little out of the ordinary here, for it was entirely rebuilt in brick in the 1770s, an unusual date for such things, and even had a stubby spire if a contemporary drawing of the church is to be believed.

However, by the 1830s this spire had gone, and the tower was heightened with a bell stage and the whole thing was rendered. It is likely that the architect was William Ranger who was building the new church at neighbouring Westley in that decade. Ranger was based in Sussex, but was clearly highly thought of by the Herveys, for in 1841 he would be responsible for the great church of St John the Baptist a couple of miles off in Bury St Edmunds, the first large Victorian church in Suffolk and a building bankrolled by the 1st Marquess. Ranger had developed an artificial stone which the Marquess was enthusiastically using for buildings on the Ickworth estate, and this seems likely to be the reason for his selection as architect here and at Westley. A possible connection is that the Marquess owned land in Brighton that would later become Kemp Town, and he may have come across Ranger in the work carried out there.

If you had travelled this way when the tower was first rebuilt you would have thought this was rather a small church, with no aisles and its nave and chancel continuous under a single roof. By the 1770s there was no longer a village, the parish being united with that of Chedburgh to the south-west, and the only local parishioners were those who lived and worked on the estate. To all intents and purposes the church was a private chapel for the Hervey family, for their use and for their servants and tenants. But there were big changes ahead, for as part of Ranger's restoration in the 1830s he built a substantial aisle onto the south side of the church. The aisle is tall because it has two storeys, the upper one a large family pew for the Herveys and the lower one their mausoleum. A curious single storey structure tucks into the west corner between the aisle and the nave with attractive Perpendicular style windows. Its purpose will become evident inside.

The grand entrance to the church is through the west doors beneath Ranger's reimagined tower, although I am told that these doors are ordinarily kept locked because otherwise inquisitive sheep find their way inside. Instead, we go through a gate into the walled churchyard and enter the church through the north porch. The overwhelming impression on stepping inside is of the 1830s restoration, for this is a largely Georgian interior. A steep west gallery and the dark wood of the south aisle's upper storey dominate the nave. This may surprise anyone who was lucky enough to see the church twenty years ago, for at that time it was abandoned and decaying, for reasons that we will come back to. But for the moment, there is the pleasure of a splendidly well-kept interior that feels loved and well-used.

As was the fashion of the day in the 1830s, the three lancets of the 13th Century chancel were filled with roundels of collected early modern continental glass. These were later moved to a window on the north side of the nave. They are particularly interesting because this is an area of Suffolk with a fair amount of continental glass. Indeed, neighbouring Nowton has what is probably the largest collection in England, with more than eighty 16th and 17th Century roundels, installed by Orbell Ray Oakes of Nowton Hall in memory of his wife who had died young. His plan was to beautify Nowton church in her memory, but also to provide an appropriate setting for her last resting place. This was a time before the English stained glass industry got going, but there was plenty of coloured glass being imported from abroad because of the disruption and destruction caused by the French Revolution and the Napoleonic Wars. It must be said too that some churches and monasteries on the continent also saw that there was a market in England for glass and were happy to sell off what they had before it was taken from them.

Dealers like JC Haamp in Norwich imported vast quantities of old glass from the continent, but there were also collectors who bought it for themselves while on the traditional Grand Tour of the late 18th Century. We know that several of the Herveys were keen travellers, but it seems more likely that the glass at Ickworth came from the same source as that at Nowton, which was Colonel Rushbrooke of Rushbrooke Hall to the east of Ickworth. It may be that Rushbrooke had collected it himself, or that he had acquired it all from Hampp in the first place. Rushbrooke himself was not above a spot of forgery when it suited him, but the glass at Ickworth (and, indeed, at Nowton) all appears to be genuine.

the beheading of Holofernes (Flemish, 17th Century) Adoration of the Shepherds (Flemish, 17th Century) St John is boiled in oil (Flemish, 17th Century)
Mass of St Gregory (Flemish, 17th Century) Baptism of Christ (Flemish, 17th Century) Mary Magdalene, Martha and Lazarus are set adrift in a rudderless boat  (Flemish, 17th Century)
St John the Evangelist (Flemish, 17th Century) St Nicholas brings three dead boys back to life (Flemish, 17th Century) St Nicholas calms the waters (Flemish, 17th Century)
The Triumph of the World (Flemish, c1550) The Priests of Bel feasting (Flemish, c1700) Daniel revealing the fraud of the Priests of Bel to Cyrus (Flemish c1700)
The wooden horse of Troy (Flemish, 17th Century) St Margaret? (fragmentary composite, 16th Century)

The subjects of the Ickworth roundels are interesting, for as well as the more frequently found subjects they include stories from the Golden Legend, allegories and even a Greek myth, which I've not come across in any other East Anglian church. Some of the glass was obviously originally intended for domestic settings, it is mostly Flemish in origin and most of it dates from the end of the 16th and the start of the 17th Centuries. In the first row above, the first roundel depicts the beheading of Holofernes by Judith, a story from the Apocrypha. It is a surprisingly common subject in continental glass. Judith is shown putting Holofernes head into a bag which is held by her servant. Meanwhile, Holofernes himself sits up in bed behind her in an attitude of surprise, his blood still spurting from his neck. Next, the Adoration of the Shepherds in the stable at Bethlehem, and then the boiling of St John in oil, an attempt at his martyrdom that failed.

The second row begins with a monk kneeling before Christ the Man of Sorrows, an echo perhaps of the Mass of St Gregory, in which Christ the Man of Sorrows appears on the altar while the saint celebrates Mass to demonstrate the doctrine of transubstantiation. The next is the commonly found Baptism of Christ in the River Jordan, but the third roundel is a most unusual subject. It depicts Mary Magdalene, Martha and Lazarus being set adrift in the Mediterranean on a rudderless boat, the intention being that they will meet their deaths. Instead, they are washed up in Marseilles, from where they will convert Provence to Christianity. This is a story from the Golden Legend. The third row begins with St John the Evangelist holding his poisoned chalice, and then two scenes from the legend of St Nicholas. First, he brings three dead boys back to life whose bodies had been hidden in a barrel, and then he calms the sea for a sailing ship.

The fourth row begins with an allegorical subject which may once have been set in a rich man's hall or even an inn. It depicts the Triumph of the World, a man and a woman in harness drawing a sled on which sits a globe surmounted by a queen. Then come two panels which were originally part of a larger sequence of ten. They tell the story of Bel and the Dragon. In the first we see the priests of Bel feasting. In the second, Daniel reveals the fraud of the priests to Cyrus. Both panels have an interloping fragment in the top left corner, pieces of a third scene, the Destruction of Bel. In the last row, a delightful illustration of the story of the Trojan Horse, and then last of all a fragmentary panel, pieces of which may have depicted St Margaret. This composite of fragments is the oldest glass at Ickworth, dating from the 15th and 16th Centuries.

The glass was moved in 1911 when the current east window, a Tree of Jesse by AK Nicholson, was placed there. There was a general tidying up of the chancel at this time, the result of which was that the three-sided altar rails were adapted to run continuously across the church. The sanctuary was furnished with a simple wooden altar and reredos flanked by panelling in 1913, a fine setting for a lovely altar frontal of red brocade and velvet, the symbols of Alpha and Omega (the Beginning and the End) picked out in gold, and surmounted by a chi-rho monogram to represent Christ. It was made by the Guild of Decorative Needlework at Holy Trinity Sloane Street in London, and dedicated in time for Christmas 1914. Part of a large 14th Century Annunciation scene survives on the wall on the south side of the east window above, the angel Gabriel bringing tidings of great joy to Mary. It was revealed when the decalogue boards were removed to the clock chamber in the 19th Century. Unfortunately it was enthusiastically overpainted at the time by Heaton Butler & Bayne. The Blessed Virgin, who would have been on the north side of the window, has completely disappeared.

But turning back west it is the Georgian church that we see. The 17th Century pulpit had been fitted into a three-decker structure in the 1770s with a large box pew to the west. This may well have been the original Hervey pew, but to see what replaced it it is necessary to go up the steps that lead from the chancel into the upper storey of the south aisle. This leads to quite the grandest family pew in Suffolk, a long curving structure set back from the arcade but with views into the nave below. The seats are very comfortable, but it was possible for the family to go and sit away from the action in the withdrawing room. This is the single storey structure at the west end of the aisle, with those large lovely windows facing out to south and west, full of light for much of the day. The nave the family pew looked out on once had a ceiling in the Georgian manner, but this was removed by Arthur Blomfield Jr who oversaw the 1911 restoration and rebuilt the roof that we see today.

Incidentally, it may seem odd that the family pews, both old and new, focus on the pulpit and not on the altar. But until the second half of the 19th Century, Anglican parish churches were essentially preaching houses. Communion was rarely celebrated more than twice a year, and most parishioners did not receive communion. Morning and Evening Prayer were led from the three decker pulpit, with preaching taking place from the top level, the Bible readings from the middle and state and parish notices given out from the bottom by the parish clerk. On a Sunday afternoon there was also the parish sermon, and in East Anglia this was generally a more popular service than that in the morning, although here at Ickworth it is likely that the servants and tenants were expected to attend both. With the coming of the 19th Century Anglican revival, morning worship took its place as the main service, and the tradition of the Sunday afternoon sermon died out.

There are a few older survivals, but all is not quite as it seems. At the time of the 1910 restoration, several of the ledger stones from the nave floor were reset on the north and west walls. The octagonal 15th Century font sits under the gallery surmounted by a 17th Century font cover which is topped by an eye-catching gilded dove hovering. This was put in place in 2012 to replace one stolen or destroyed during the years of neglect. But the great curiosity is a splendid 14th Century double piscina set at an angle in the north nave window. It is curious because it is facing the wrong way. Conventionally, double piscinas have their second opening to the west, but this one is open to the east, into the splay of the window. It has been suggested that it was moved from the south side of the nave when the aisle was built, but it seems more likely that it came from the south side of the chancel. Indeed, given its low sill which might once have held the sedilia, the whole window may have been moved at this time, which would explain why the piscina is now facing the wrong way.

On the north side of the chancel is an arched squint, very like the one at Lindsell in Essex, not so very far off. It has a view of the high altar and was most likely associated with a lost chapel, perhaps even an anchorite's cell as at Lindsell. The idea that these things were for the use of lepers, incidentally, is a wholly discredited myth. Lepers were not allowed to wander the countryside freely in medieval England, and in any case their hospitals had their own chapels. There was a leper hospital a couple of miles off in Bury St Edmunds. Squints and low side windows may have had a number of uses, but that was not one of them.

The Hervey family, Earls and then Marquesses of Bristol, have produced a fair number of interesting and colourful characters in their time, but one thing that they have in common is that they are buried in the vault beneath the south aisle. It is possible to visit the vaults on an organised tour, and details are on the Ickworth church website. It is an interesting and yet rather odd place, for it was built in the 1830s out of brick, which Ranger also used for St John the Baptist in Bury St Edmunds. However, unlike the brick of that church which has been exposed to smoke and pollution for nearly two centuries, the brick of the Hervey vault is as clean as the day it was placed there, creating a sense of something rather newer than it actually is.

down in the Hervey vault down in the Hervey vault
down in the Hervey vault down in the Hervey vault down in the Hervey vault

The coffins are set in the outer wall of the vault behind plaques, in more or less chronological order from the east. The most easterly part of the vault is older, opened up at the time of the 1770s restoration. Among them are the famous Right Honourable and Right Reverend Frederick, Earl of Bristol, Baron Hervey of Ickworth, Bishop of Derry in Ireland, perhaps the best-known of the early Herveys. He instigated the building of Ickworth House, a project so large that it had to be completed by his son. Heading westwards down the dynasty however, we enter troubled waters, for the second half of the 20th Century was not a happy time for Ickworth or for its family. The 5th Marquess was in his eighties when he succeeded to the title in 1951, and much of the short time remaining to him was spent dealing with the financial consequences of the death of his father. In 1956 the House and Park were surrendered in lieu of death duties and handed to the National Trust. However, this did not include the church, which remained in use as a parish church.

The family retained a ninety-nine year lease on the sixty-room east wing of the House. In 1960, his son Victor succeed as the 6th Marquess. Trauma and tragedy followed. The new Marquess had experienced a difficult youth, becoming known as a playboy and a petty criminal, even being imprisoned for three years for theft. Succeeding to the title meant that he became fabulously rich, and rather than living at Ickworth he removed to Monaco as a tax exile. John, the 7th Marquess, was a troubled character who sold the remaining lease on the east wing back to the National Trust, squandered his fortune on drugs, and died as a result in 1999. The heir presumptive to the title, Lord Nicholas, had committed suicide in 1998 before his brother's death, and so the title came down to their brother Frederick, who became the 8th Marquess.

It is the 8th Marquess that we have to thank for the survival of Ickworth church. In 1984 the Church Commissioners declared the church redundant at the request of the Diocese of St Edmundsbury and Ipswich, one of about a dozen churches in Suffolk that met this fate at that time. The plan was to sell them off to private purchasers, usually for conversion into houses. In fact, this was the ultimate fate of fewer than half of them. John, the troubled 7th Marquess, bought Ickworth church, not unreasonably given that it was the last resting place of generations of his family. However, nothing was done with it, and it was soon falling into disrepair. By the 1990s it had been added to the local authority's Buildings at Risk register, and ten years later it was in a considerable state of decay. It was then that Frederick, the current Marquess, stepped in and led a restoration of the church that would cost well over a million pounds.

The result is what we see it today,The church was vested in the care of the Ickworth Church Conservation Trust, a local charity, and by law it can still be used for half a dozen services a year under the auspices of the parish of Horringer into which Ickworth was subsumed. However, as I mentioned at the beginning, although the church and its churchyard are not owned by the National Trust, they form an island within the National Trust's Ickworth Park, access to which requires either National Trust membership or a 7 entrance fee. Frederick, the 8th Marquess, has explained to me that there is a public right of access to Ickworth church and that there is no reason for anyone wanting to visit the church to be charged for the privilege. Obviously, if you are planning to explore the rest of the Park then a visit to the church would be included in your entrance fee, but if not then you might prefer to give your money to the Ickworth Church Conservation Trust instead, for the trust get no outside funding. A good way of contributing would be to go on one of the regular tours, and it is also worth saying that the church guidebook is excellent.

Be that as it may, on two recent visits to the church I have been stopped at the entrance to the Park and asked for payment. It seems that the situation has not been explained to the National Trust volunteers on duty. When I said I had an appointment at the church I was eventually let through, but the person I was meeting thought it unlikely I'd have been allowed to enter the grounds if they hadn't been sure that the church was open that day.. Now, you may be the kind of person who enjoys arguing about your legal rights, but if you are not (and I am certainly not) it might be worth noting that the track which passes the church exits the estate at Chevington, and so if you are walking or on a bike (vehicle access isn't possible) you can reach it from that end. The start of the track begins beside equally lovely Chevington church, and if you come to Ickworth church that way you won't be bothered by people asking you for money.

Simon Knott, July 2022

Follow these journeys as they happen at Last Of England Twitter.

You can also visit the Ickworth Church Conservation Trust website.


looking east chancel
gallery stairs and font looking west triple decker pulpit and original 18c family pew
double piscina and Flemish roundels withdrawing room behind the family pews creed board, now in the clock chamber
double piscina squint from churchyard Lord John Hervey, 1902 Gabriel at the Annunciation (14th Century restored)
font cover finial (2012) family pew ceiling
The Suffolk Regiment nurse and faithful friend in the family of the Marquis of Bristol (1890)
Tree of Jesse: Jesse and his unnamed wife, the parents of David (AK Nicholson, 1911) Blessed Virgin and Christchild with the four Evangelists (AK Nicholson, 1911) Tree of Jesse: Solomon with the Temple and David with a harp (AK Nicholson, 1911)
John Lord Hervey, 'summoned to parliament by writ 1733, he served King George II for many years in the office of vice-chamberlain' Right Honourable John, 1st Earl of Bristol (1751)

down in the Hervey vault: Frederick William John Augustus Harvey down in the Hervey vaults: Victor Frederick Cochrane Hervey down in the Hervey vault: Lord Frederick William Charles Nicholas Wentworth Harvey
down in the Hervey vault: Frederick, Earl of Bristol, Baron Hervey of Ickworth, Bishop of Derry in Ireland


The Churches of East Anglia websites are non-profit-making. But if you enjoy using them and find them useful, a small contribution towards the costs of web space, train fares and the like would be most gratefully received. You can donate via Paypal.